The Nature of War: A 10-Best List from Leo Braudy
By Leo BraudyMay 26, 2014
IN 2005, Leo Braudy published From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity — a masterwork of scholarship that took us through literature, history, sociology, and warfare itself to examine the complex and always changing relationship between battle and ideals of manhood. We asked Braudy, a Los Angeles Review of Books board member and author of numerous other books (including the classic The Frenzy of Renown), to assemble a list of 10 seminal works on the subject of warfare. This is his response:
Of the tens of thousands of books about war, who can pick 10 with any expectation that there would be no argument? Here is an idiosyncratic and no doubt inadequate selection from history, literature, and the visual arts. Ask me next week and I’d probably choose 10 different ones.
Homer, The Iliad
The epic forerunner of the pervasive Western ambivalence toward war as the test of manhood: the arena of honor and the occasion of loss, unflinching about the horrors even while celebrating the warrior grandeur.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The classic Chinese effort to approach war as both physical force and mind game, as relevant to the boardroom as to the battlefield.
Shakespeare, Henry V
Shakespeare’s paean to the intersection of war with the growing idea of the nation-state, yet with enough ambiguity that it could spawn Laurence Olivier’s hyper-patriotic adaptation made during World War II as well as Kenneth Branagh’s more jaundiced Thatcher-era version.
Goya, The Disasters of War
In the era before photography and film, Goya’s suite of prints depicting the invasion of Spain by France bears comparison as shocking images of wartime atrocities only with Jacques Callot’s of the French invasion of Lorraine (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) during the Thirty Years War.
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom
This highly readable one-volume account of the Civil War not only details important battles and sketches significant figures, but also gives a full account of the politics of the war as well as the clash of cultures between North and South.
Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel
One of the first memoirs to be published after the war, Jünger’s account of being a German soldier on the front in World War I is less well known than, say, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That or Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, but deserves equal attention as an unsentimental effort to convey the horrors of war while maintaining a belief in the integrity of the individual frontline soldier and war as a crucible of male self-definition.
Paul Fussell, Wartime
Unlike his great book on World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, which depends on retrospect and literary analysis, Wartime combines Fussell’s personal experience as a soldier during World War II with his literary and cultural overview for a potent blend of immediacy and detachment.
Bill Mauldin, Up Front
Mauldin’s cartoons of Willie and Joe, the archetypal “dogface” American infantrymen, appeared during World War II in Stars and Stripes, the US Army newspaper, thus giving soldiers everywhere the opportunity to stand outside themselves for a moment and laugh at the harshness, fears, and boredom of their daily lives.
John Keegan, The Face of Battle
Focusing on Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Keegan, one of the greatest contemporary historians of war, synoptically analyzes battle from the point of view of technology, tactics, and the experience of the soldier.
Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam
Coming full circle back to the Iliad, Shay, a doctor and psychiatrist, fascinatingly links the wartime experience of characters in the Greek epic with the analysis of post-traumatic stress syndrome in contemporary soldiers. Despite the changes in politics, technology, and a host of other factors, the devastating impact on individuals seems not to have changed much at all.
Leo Braudy is a Professor of English and History at the University of Southern California.
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