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October 05, 2002

Literary Pleasures of Military History


I don’t know if I ever mentioned to you that I spent several years reading a lot of military history, possibly being a sucker for the intellectual pugnacity that seems a dominant characteristic of writers in this field. I also found their literary qualities to be highly underrated. I mean, who ever wrote a better piece of really smart yet hard ass reportage than von Clausewitz' "The Campaign of 1812 in Russia"?--to say nothing of coming up with the best 'high serious' book title of all time: "On War"? (It sounds even better in German: "Vom Kriege".)

Generals Clausewitz and Fuller: Military Intelligence

Among my other literary discoveries was the British general J. F. C. Fuller (1876-1966). Although in military circles he is mostly famous for being an early theorist of armored warfare (whose ideas were, unfortunately, appreciated chiefly by the Germans between the wars), I read his books with glee because of the absolute directness with which he expressed his almost aphoristic opinions. Possibly as a result of having a military, rather than a literary, background, Fuller never wrote his way to his subject: having previously thought his material through to a conclusion, he generally starts right there: bang!

Perhaps a few scattered quotes describing leading figures in the American Civil War, all derived from his 1932 book “Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship,” will convey the pungency of his prose:

Lincoln…was a strategical visionary, that is to say he could often see what should be done without possessing an idea of how to do it…

From the military point of view both men [Lincoln and Davis] were incapable in the extreme. Davis thought he understood war, Lincoln acted as if no one could understand it.

…General Henry Wagner Halleck, a bookish type of man, stupid and jealous by nature, nicknamed “Old Brains,” and rightly called by W. E. Woodward “a large emptiness surrounded by an education.”

“An army,” so said Napoleon, “marches upon its belly”; but Lee, though a saint, and because he was a saint, was no quartermaster.

Jackson possessed that brutality essential in war; Lee did not. [Lee] could clasp the hand of a wounded enemy, whilst Jackson ground his teeth and murmured: “No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides,” and when someone deplored the necessity of destroying so many brave men, he exclaimed, “No, shoot them all, I do not wish them to be brave.” With all his ability there was something repellent about Jackson…

Throughout life Grant’s enemy was his inner self, an enigma he could not solve, something which always held him back…As long as he was conscious of himself he remained a child; but directly a turmoil arose which drowned this consciousness he became a Titan.

If you’re interested, you can see a list of Fuller's works here.



posted by Friedrich at October 5, 2002


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