Can’t Recommend: Weighing Lives in War

As is to be expected, some books aren’t going to be well-suited for everyone. That’s not to say that these kinds of book are bad—they’re just meant for a particular audience (and sometimes I’m not that audience). Weighing Lives in War is one such book. Edited by three law professors, the book reads like something that was edited by three law professors. By that I mean that the language is very dense, there’s a reliance on philosophical traditions I’m not familiar with, there’s a variety of Latin terms that mean nothing to me, and I found it to be unapproachable. To be honest, I wasn’t even able to get through much of the book. From what I was able to deduce, the content is based on theories of international law and just war theory (and I only have some exposure to the latter).

If you are a student or practitioner of international law (or may law in general?), this book may be far more interesting to you. This book may also be worth a read for someone really into philosophy. If you’re into neither law nor philosophy, you may want to pass on this particular piece.

9780198796176.jpg

Memoir Monday: Soft Spots

Soft Spots

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a while, and I’m glad I was finally able to read it. I can’t speak to how well this book sums up other veterans’ experiences with PTSD, but I think I’m at least better able to understand this particular Marine’s experiences.

The memoir starts in the States with a rum and Coke and ends in in the States with a computer. In between is a gripping and revealing exploration of Van Winkle’s deployment to Iraq in 2003 and struggles with PTSD upon his return. We’re able to see his seemingly endless frustrations at the VA (and these are painful scenes to observe as reader), as well as the events he witnessed in Iraq that landed him in those waiting rooms. This was a fascinating read for me and is a memoir I would recommend.

If anyone is curious about the state of the VA, this memoir also serves as a scathing condemnation of the inefficiencies associated with that agency. Damn.

Van Winkle’s memoir is easily accessible to non-military readers—he defines acronyms, explains how things work, and describes the equipment he mentions.  That information doesn’t bog down the reading.

This book was a quick read once I got about a third of the way through the book. I was bothered by several editing errors within the first 20 pages, and the writing in that first third felt very cliche to me. I found the excessive use of simile to be distracting, but I can see their function in the work.  After the book got going, though, it found a steady rhythm, and I appreciated the journey that Van Winkle took me on.

 

Discussion of Soft Spots:

  1. How can a civilian reader to do more than just read a memoir to support or understand veterans with PTSD?
  2. If you’re a veteran reading this, what kind of support would you want from civilians? Does this particular memoir perpetuate any particular stereotype that you can’t stand?
  3. Are memoirs like this meant to be understood by a civilian audience? Is “being understood” the main goal of these kinds of works?

Throwback Third Thursday: Warriors & Citizens

Warriors & Citizens_ American Views of our Military

What a fascinating collection of essays! This is the first book in a long time where I just couldn’t put it down (yes, I know that’s typically reserved for gripping tales of fiction, but this book is more along the lines of what I find gripping). I found most of the essays to include very interesting analyses and arguments regarding the civil-military gap.

The essays in the book are based on a discussion of findings from the Triangle Institute for Security Studies’ 1998 project on civil-military relations and a recent YouGov survey established by the editors to follow up on more recent opinions. These surveys elicited the thoughts of “elites,” the “masses,” and the military. The book centers around how the military and the American public interact (or don’t), where they agree and disagree, and what this means for policy and society.

A lot of the essays in this collection are setting forth interesting, new arguments. My favorites are: “Thanks for Your Service: Civilian and Veteran Attitudes after Fifteen Years of War” by Golby, Cohn, and Feaver, “Public Opinion and the Making of Wartime Strategies” by Schadlow, and “The ‘Very Liberal’ View of the US Military” by Lindberg.

I will be honest—I did skip over a lot of the sections that heavily featured charts and discussions of percentages. I generally don’t find charts and graphs helpful to my understanding of this kind of information; I prefer to have the author’s interpretation of what the data mean with simple access to the raw numbers. Despite that, I don’t think that the presentation of data took away from the overall argument of those particular essays. I was still able to understand the conclusions that the authors were making regarding the data. If you are a charts person, then you may be happy to know that this book contains several.

The language is this book is easily accessible to a wide audience and doesn’t require any sort of academic or military background to understand. In fact, I think this book (or at least a few of the chapters) would be an excellent read for all Americans to better understand both the outlook of their fellow Americans as well as the military. I think we all tend to live in such a secure bubble that we don’t see any outside evidence of what other people think and believe—we only hear the anecdotal evidence of those already in our social sphere or the sensational headlines of the news organizations we choose to listen to. I enjoyed reading the back and forth that this commentary provides regarding whether or not there is a gap, where that gap might lie, what role that gap might play, and what all of this could mean for the US as a whole. This is certainly a recommended read.

 

First Friday Favorites: Why America Fights

Blog banner1

We’re kicking off First Friday Favorites with a book I read recently for a seminar course. Why America Fights was such a fascinating read for me. Even though most of the book is focused on conflicts outside of my area of interest, I still found the discussion that Brewer provides about propaganda throughout those other wars to be pertinent to more recent conflicts. Brewer uses the War in the Philippines, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the War in Iraq to study how the American government has manipulated its citizens in the pursuit of war. She highlights how public consent for war has been achieved (or perhaps coerced) through propaganda, slogans, deception, and public relations campaigns, among other things. As readers, we are challenged to heed the warning that “officials in recent decades have turned to more misleading manipulation to preserve their freedom of action” (283).

Personally, I learned a lot from this book. Brewer provides sufficient background for each conflict to make the discussion of propaganda fruitful. Even if you’re not steeped in the historical context of any of the wars featuresd in this book, I think you will still be able to follow along with Brewer’s discussion and probably learn a lot about how the American government has dealt publicly with going to war.  I haven’t read much about the War in the Philippines, WWI, or the Korean War, but I was able to followerBrewer’s arguments and connect some similarities and patterns to the conflicts that I am familiar with.

The ease with which I could read this book is perhaps what I liked most. The argument made sense to me, the evidence seemed sound, I was able to draw my own connections to other wars and current events, and the writing was quite good. While this book was published in 2009, it certainly resonates in today’s political environment. The overwhelming efforts to make something look good rather than be good is something an informed citizenry needs to be aware of. I also think it is important for the citizens of a country to be able to see through a government’s attempts to manipulate and coerce. In addition, I was reminded how often propaganda is used to quell dissent and silence opposition.  With Brewer’s book, we may get the chance to “look behind the curtain” and understand the motivations and tactics behind those calls to rally around the flag;  maybe we’ll rally a little more cautiously.

 

Discussions with this book…
1. Where is the line between necessary propaganda and harmful propaganda? Most Americans resisted involvement in WWII, but it is remembered as “The Good War.” Some may say that removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision, but is it still “right” when a deceitful campaign was used to garner public support for the war?

2. Is it possible for a society to resist overtly emotional and nationalist sentiments when war is on the horizon? What can be done to ensure that dissent and opposition is heard?

 

Introduction

Welcome to A Civilan’s Take, a blog of book reviews focusing on war and military literature from a civilian’s perspective. My reviews address ease of understanding, any interesting arguments posed in the books, how much I enjoyed each book, quality of writing, whether or not I recommend purchasing that book, and anything else of note. I hope to foster intelligent and helpful discussions among civilians, active service members, and veterans, as literature is one way that civilians attempt to understand the complex world of the military and the politics that often surround it. It can be dangerous for a society to rely solely on one source of information for how its military and government works, so I attempt to review a variety of books, welcome an open discussion, and work to narrow the civil-military divide at least a little bit.

As my background is in the study of rhetoric and literature of war from the Vietnam, Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars, most of the books I review will be from those particular conflicts. I plan to publish the following types of reviews:

  • First Friday Favorites: The first Friday of every month will feature a review of one of my favorite books of war literature. These are often not recent releases, but they are books that I enjoy and often recommend to folks.
  • Throwback Third Thursday: The third Thursday of the month will feature a review of an older book that I have yet to read. There are a lot of books out there–and I certainly haven’t read them all–but just because they’re older doesn’t mean they’re less important.
  • Monday Memoir: On a random Monday of every month, I’ll post a review of a memoir. Recent conflicts have produced a number of memoir, so this kind of review will include both newer and older releases.
  • Recent Releases: At least once per month I will review a book that was recently released (within the last three months or so).

I am currently a graduate student and have a job, so there will likely be schedule changes at some point.

So, welcome to the blog and welcome to the discussion!