Monday, December 20, 2010

Long wars, short versions

In Why Some Wars Never End: The Stories of the Longest Conflicts in History, Joseph Cummins provides elegant case studies of grisly conflicts

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

This is a clever book by a clever writer, produced by a clever publisher. To work backwards: Fairwinds Press is an imprint of the Quayside Group, a house with roots in instructional materials. The evident ability to produce lavishly illustrated books at a surprisingly inexpensive $20 list price (a strategy that in part appears to be derived from shrewdly chosen photographs, art and maps in the public domain) has resulted in a series of oversized trade paperbacks that are nevertheless easy to tote and browse. Many of these books are authored by Cummins, a former editor for Book of the Month Club -- yes, it's still in business -- who has become a one-man cottage industry of books on military history. Why Some Wars Never End is the latest in a string of works that range across time in a case study approach (three of which were contributed by other writers).

These particular case studies stretch from the failed Persian attempts to subdue Greece in the fifth century BCE to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Cummins divides them into five sections consisting of 2-4 chapters. These are: wars of empire, religious wars, guerrilla wars, nationalist struggles, and wars of chaos. This taxonomy isn't airtight; one wonders, for example, why the Ottoman wars of 1354-1529 are considered wars of empire rather than religion, given that the struggle was largely between Muslims and Christians. One possible reason is balance: a virtual sequel, the Balkan struggles from 1912-2001, also included, are classified under a nationalism rubric. Some of these conflicts have what may be regarded as arguable periodization; indeed, the chapter on civil wars in Guatemala (1944-1996), for example, makes the subject a virtual theme of the chapter in its own right.

In any case, the taxonomy here is less the point than in brief chapters that consist of an opening anecdote followed by a regional overview and then a series of military encounters. Recurring themes include the likelihood that installing a puppet regime in any conflict tends to prolong it, as well as the role of technology and geography in determining the cast and length of wars. Cummins' sources are almost entirely secondary, but the best kind -- from John Keegan to Stanley Karnow, with a sprinkling of quality journalism from Thomas Friedman to Robert Kaplan.

You're not going to get a whole lot of original interpretation here, but that's not the point. What you do get is editorial versatility: this is a handy reference guide, a source of brief readings -- any of these chapters is readily imaginable as a night's reading to accompany some larger pedagogical objective -- or a book that can be read in its entirety (as I did) with satisfaction. These are not the kind of books that tend to be honored in a profession that prizes original research and interpretive novelty. But when done well, they deserve recognition. Kudos to Cummins and Co.