Gods of War: History's Greatest Military Rivals, by James Lacey and Williamson Murray, is the best book I've read in a very long time, and I recommend it highly. If you do seek it out, however, you might benefit from my experience and read the Conclusion first, because I've just now realized that I missed the point of the book. It mostly pairs two military geniuses -- Hannibal v. Scipio, Napoleon v. Wellington, Lee v. Grant -- and explores how each succeeded or not, often with one man winning the battles while the other won the war. (The Second World War merits three generals: Rommel, Patton, and Montgomery.) But it seems that strategic vision isn't what interests Messrs Lacey and Williamson. Rather, they're arguing that, over the centuries, battles have become more complex and wars even more so, so that now it's impossible to imagine a "god of war" with the qualities of Ulysses Grant, who could not only comprehend and win battles and campaigns, but could wage and win a war that stretched across the thousand miles separating Vicksburg from Gettysburg.
The Union Army gave the world its first "industrial" war, prefiguring the great bloodlettings of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. And Grant, the authors argue, was the last man able to cope with war's growing complexity. There were few outstanding generals in the First World War, and though there were some in the Second, it was actually the politicians -- Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt -- who won it. (And the politician Hitler who lost it, largely because he thought he knew better than his generals.)
Vicious as Russia seems in the Age of Putin, it permits a few dissenting voices to be heard. (Though not all. In recent weeks, three Russian dissenters have been found dead on the ground, possible suicides but more likely defenestrated.) Yet Sergei Medvedev gets published, and somehow he survives, at least so far. He's a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow -- perhaps that protects him? The Return of the Russian Leviathan was published in 2017, republished two years later, and is here published in English by the British publisher Polity. It's a breathtaking flight into Putin's Russia that reminded me continually of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago -- except that it's funny! And short! (250 pages instead of a thousand, and most chapters are three or four pages in length.) But the passion is the same, and the way the sentences roll on, one after another, like the pealing of a summertime thunderstorm. Whether it's Russia's "pirate republics" in eastern Ukraine, or a new capital outside Moscow, or the Sochi Olympics, everything is grist for Sergei Medvedev's humor mill:
"Victory at Sochi had been one of the main international achievements, a personal triumph
for Vladimir Putin, who stood, emperor-like, ... and reviewed the parade of the victors.
"... And now there are no medals.... It turns out that the 2014 Olympic Games were just a
sham, a cover for doping, a special operation by the Federal Security Service, the FSB,
all part of the hybrid war with the West."
"... And now there are no medals.... It turns out that the 2014 Olympic Games were just a sham, a cover for doping, a special operation by the Federal Security Service, the FSB, all part of the hybrid war with the West."
Everybody seems to love Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World, including the editors for whom I wrote a skeptical review last month. By the time it saw print, however, most of the skepticism was leached out of it. Mr Rose has indeed written a good story, with splendid illustrations. But the premise is silly. Who are these two men who are supposed to have had an epic duel? They're Hugo Eckener and Juan Trippe. Perhaps you've heard of Mr Trippe, who founded and ran Pan American World Airways -- but Herr Eckener? I'll wager not. The competition in fact was between the inflatable airships built by a German count named Zeppelin and the heavier-than-air contraption first built and flown by the Wright Brothers. Each team may have heard of the other, but there was no duel between them, because Wilbur Wright died in 1912, Orville sold the company soon after, and von Zeppelin himself died in 1917. It wasn't until 1936 that a gigantic airship, held aloft by hydrogen, first voyaged to the United States over the North Atlantic Ocean, a journey that took more than three days in the air. The Hindenberg made ten successful if money-losing passages that year, but only a single, horrific, one-way journey in 1937, when it burst into a fireball over Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew.
In 1939, Pan Am's magnificent Boeing seaplane Yankee Clipper inaugurated passenger service to England, with refueling stops in Canada and Ireland, in less than half the time required by the Hindenberg. There was in fact no duel, but only the inevitable triumph of the shorter-ranged but much faster airplane.... Still, this is an interesting book and a good read, no matter how foolish its central argument. Blue skies! -- Daniel Ford
Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
Posted June 2020. Websites © 1997-2020 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved. This site sets no cookies, but the Mailchimp sign-up service does, and so does Amazon if you click through to their store.