J.P. Clark reads. Some items that you might find of interest, too.
George W. Goethals and the Army: Change and Continuity in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Surprisingly, there has been no scholarly biography of this fascinating figure until now. Fortunately, Rory McGovern has filled that lacuna in masterful fashion. This brisk biography not only tells the story of Goethals, but McGovern uses his life to explore the nature of military professionalism at the time. Contrary to what one might expect of one of the foremost engineers of the Progressive Era, Goethals clung stubbornly to Gilded Age notions of "experience is the best school.” In the process we see the extent to which we are all products of our time, holding ideas seemingly contrary to self-interest and certainly not universal in their scope.
The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. Robert Gerwarth’s chilling account of the aftermath of World War I in the lands formerly encompassed by the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires offers many of the same lessons as Keith Lowe’s account of post-World War II upheavals (see below). This book could easily have been three times as long. The coverage of Central Europe and 1917-1919 is far stronger than other regions and periods, which can, at times, seem somewhat cursory. Nonetheless, this and Lowe’s book are must reads for military strategists and planners with an interest in eastern Europe but who are ignorant of its complicated history.
The Problem with Pilots: How Physicians, Engineers, and Airpower Enthusiasts Redefined Flight. With a pilot's insight, a scientist's objectivity, and his own understated wit, Tim Schultz goes beyond the myth of dashing white-scarf pilots mastering flying machines through the "Right Stuff." Rather the history of aviation is one in which the pilot has often been regarded by engineers and doctors as just one more—and sometimes the least reliable—component in a complex technical system. The two most surprising aspects of this excellent book are how early engineers dreamed of doing away with pilots altogether and the willingness of Army Air Corps and early Air Force senior leaders (all pilots themselves) were to minimize the role of pilots in favor of greater endurance, performance, and reliability for air power.
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. David Walker Howe's sweeping history skillfully weaves together the political, economic, technological, intellectual, and spiritual developments into a compelling portrait of a young country still trying to define what it was and hoped to become. Among the many insights in this wonderful volume, two seemed particularly pertinent to understanding our own time: the extraordinary extent to which slavery influenced so many aspects of national life and the aptness of President Donald Trump's likening his administration to that of Andrew Jackson. Furthermore, all Americans would benefit from knowing more about the stresses and strains leading to the creation of our two-party system.
Elvis's Army: Cold War GIs and the Atomic Battlefield. Brian Linn offers a masterful overview of all aspects—doctrinal, technical, social—of the U.S. Army's wrenching and ultimately disappointing effort to adjust to the domestic politics and strategic challenges of the period from the end of World War II through the beginning of Vietnam. A sobering account of smart, dedicated soldiers who could not find a way to satisfy institutional aspirations within the constraints of their time. Linn particularly shines when highlighting the difference between the intentions of headquarters and what was happening out "in the field." Though a first-rate history, there is plenty of cautionary material of use to present defense and military practitioners who hope to adjust today's institutions. For a more extrensive look see my review in the British Journal of Military History.
Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II. Keith Lowe provides an exceptional service to both history and security studies with his detailed, nuanced tour around post-war Europe: France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Ukraine. Peace did not immediately descend on Europe on VE Day. Instead, for years afterward, it truly was the savage continent of the title, as local enmities and hatreds—some new and created by the war, some older and merely uncovered by it—continued to manifest themselves in violence even after the Allies' policy objective of destroying the Fascist regimes was achieved. A sobering thought when one contemplates the future of Syria and other conflicts, where political settlement will only be the beginning of an extended process of peacemaking.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Read Charles Mann's book with a patient loved one or friend nearby because it is brimming with facts, anecdotes, and insights that you will want to share. For instance, contrary to popular belief that eastern North America was an unbroken forested mass, it was under such intensive cultivation that its return to wilderness as disease decimated native populations contributed to a global drop in temperature. The global and temporal scope of such insights make the title misleading. The book goes beyond 1493 and the New World in exploring the political, economic, social, and cultural ramifications of the sudden interchange between largely isolated hempispheric ecosystems. Mann does so in such an engaging manner that even after 720 pages, this reader wished for more.
Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945. There are few things more dangerous in institutional strategy than reductionist mythology about the lessons of the past. The period between the world wars is an era particularly prone to the caricatures of the “lessons of the past.” For the U.S. Army, the comforting myth is that dedicated officers foresaw many aspects of modern warfare but were stifled in their preparation for war by short-sighted politicians who refused to allocate the necessary resources. Dave Johnson persuasively documents a more complex truth: projections for the future of mechanized and aerial warfare were largely influenced by the past as manifested in organizational culture. Thus, the eponymous fast tanks and heavy bombers developed by the army owed more to the legacy of the cavalry ethos and the ideology of independent airpower than an objective (or accurate) examination of the future. In the process, Johnson provides countless insights into how personalities, bureaucratic imperatives, and ideas intersect in messy reality as opposed to the simple theoretical world that informs much of the literature on military adaptation.