Review: A War Like No Other

A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson. New York: Random House, 2006.

Summary: An account of the Peloponnesian War tracing the history, the politics, the strategies, key figures, battles, and how the war was fought.

The war went on for twenty-seven years toward the end of the fifth century BC. One of the first great works of history by Thucydides chronicled the battle. Both Athens and Sparta experienced horrendous losses culminating in the near total destruction of the once-great Athenian naval power at Aegospotami in 405.

Victor Davis Hanson, a noted classical scholar, renders an account both of the history of the war but also who fought it and how they fought. The two principle powers were quite different. Sparta was an oligarchy, Athens a democracy. Sparta had a more powerful land army. Athens was a sea power with a protected port and good walls allowing them to endure siege as well as project their power. To begin, Sparta invaded every year or two overland, ravaging the countryside but exhausting itself while the population of Attica sheltered in Athens. Very few Athenians died in battle but the city was eviscerated by plague resulting from crowded and unhygienic conditions. Meanwhile the Athenian navy raided the coastal cities of Sparta. They fought ten years to a draw ending with the temporary Peace of Nicias.

The peace lasted until 415 when Athens decided to mount an attack on Sicily, a Spartan ally, stirred up by charismatic general Alcibiades. A diffident landing followed by an inconclusive siege gave time for Syracuse to arm and be reinforced. In 413 they defeated Athens navy and then chased down the land forces for a crushing defeat. Still Athens rebuilt while Sparta, aided by Alcibiades, who had changed sides, and material help from Persia, finally built a navy to rival what was left of the Athenian navy. They fought a series of battles in Ionia culminating in the utter defeat at Aegospotami in 405, and Athens surrender to Sparta, led by Lysander.

War has always been gruesome. Hanson describes the particular gruesomeness of war in this time, whether it was destruction by fire or the ravages of disease, which took Athens singular leader Pericles. War unravels any war ethic. Hanson chronicles the killing of civilians and captives, especially in later stages of the war. He considers the hoplites and the vulnerabilities of their armor to thrusts to the groin and neck, and lightly armored fighters with spears or armors. Hoplites were mostly fitted to fight other hoplites, and often suffered relatively light losses. They need mounted forces to protect their flanks. The lack of horses was a key factor in the defeat at Syracuse. Siege warfare had not yet been mastered. Siege towers and catapults emerged after these wars. Mostly, they built siege walls, rams, and tried to penetrate walls and gates with rams.

Ultimately the war hinged on the trireme, the three-tiered rowing vessel. The impasse between the two powers ended when Alcibiades, rejected by Athens, persuaded the Spartans that only by becoming a sea power could they defeat Athens. The defeat at Syracuse pointed the way. The trireme depended mostly on slaves, up to 200 per vessel in three banks of rowers. A rammed trireme could quickly sink with the likely death of all. This happened to 170 of 180 triremes of the Athenians at Aegospotami.

The fall of Athens resulted from a variety of unforeseen errors. Pericles was an unparalleled leader, but with no able successor. Alcibiades was brilliant but never trusted, and often absent at key moments. The Sicilian venture spelled the beginning of the end, depleting both manpower and treasury. The Athenians ignored Alicibiades, once again on their side, exposing themselves to surprise attack at Aegospotami.

Hanson traces the errors that arise from both hubris and the “fog of war.” These wars, like many were filled with folly. The protracted conflict inevitably deteriorated to greater and greater brutality. Mediocre leadership cost the lives of thousands. The inadequacies of the technology of war led to innovation and more effective ways of killing. Alliances end up feeding the allies. Eventually both Persia and Thebes become the real threat.

It all began with the decision of Sparta to challenge the growth of Athenian power. A venture intended to last a few months turned into a 27 year conflict. Such are often the illusions of war. Hanson uses the lens of one protracted war to challenge us to ask the same questions about war in our own day.

Review: War in a Time of Peace


War in a Time of PeaceDavid Halberstam. Touchstone: New York, 2002.

Summary: A history of the post-Cold War conflicts of the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, with extensive coverage of the Balkan conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

David Halberstam wrote one of the first major accounts of how the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest, studying the various persons involved in U.S. decision-making. There, Halberstam offered at once a meticulous and riveting account of the succession of events and decisions that both led into the war, and led to the concealing of the full implications of those decisions from the American public.

Halberstam accomplished a similar feat in this work, nominated for a Pulitzer in 2002. He takes us through the succession of events from fall of Communist rule, the brilliantly executed Gulf War, a triumph of American technology, and the simmering “teacup” wars in Somalia and the Balkans, the human rights implications of which could not be ignored by one administration tired of war, and another administration preferring to focus on domestic issues.

Halberstam gives us an account thick with all the personalities — the presidents, the policy makers, the military leaders. We meet Larry Eagleburger, on the ground as Yugoslavia breaks up into its ethnic components, watching the rise of Milosevic and warning of the trouble to come with an administration fighting to meet an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge from Bill Clinton. There is a new administration, not particularly interested in foreign policy with a competent bureaucrat but not visionary Warren Christopher, the aloof Tony Lake, Richard Holbrooke, facing the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime.

The abject failure of leadership in Somalia leaves the Clinton administration all the more reticent to assert itself in the Balkans, hoping for European leadership instead. Meanwhile the situation degenerates into genocide in Bosnia. We see a military conflicted with the memories of Vietnam, and the accomplishments of its forces in the Gulf War, and its rapidly improving aerial technology. Around them are hawks like Al Gore and Madeleine Albright, deeply disturbed by the human rights violations, while others from Christopher to Clinton struggle to define an American interests, and Colin Powell from another Vietnam. Eventually, the use of American airpower brought Milosevic to Dayton and Holbrooke’s shining hour negotiating the Dayton Peace accords.

Halberstam’s account does not paint a favorable picture of Clinton. He identifies a key concern of the military–a president who will remain loyal to them and give them what they need to do what he has asked of them as commander-in-chief. Perhaps nowhere is this so evident as the case of General Wes Clark, who brilliantly led the subsequent conflict against Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo, working with European allies, and cajoling a cautious president into sufficient use of their air and ground forces to give a growing Kosovar resistance a chance. For his successes, he was shunted aside by Defense Secretary Cohen, who never liked him.

The book also raises questions, particularly in its closing epilogue, written after 9/11, of the changes in American society from a resilient and resolute one of the post Depression years to an indulgent society, glutted on entertainment, accustomed to wars without casualties that are over in a matter of weeks. Little did Halberstam envision at the time the conflicts going on two decades in both Afghanistan and Iraq for which the conflicts of the Nineties were just rehearsals. What Halberstam understood is the growing consensus in political circles that these wars are fine as long as the American people could continue to live on an untroubled peacetime footing, apart from the occasionally troubling news of another soldier from one’s local community lost in a distant part of the world in a conflict no one really understood. He also recognizes the short-sightedness of planners who did not see the threat from terrorist in their obsession with great, or even regional power conflicts.

Writing close to the events gave Halberstam access to all the key players. Clinton was one of the few he did not personally interview. Yet closeness to the events did not obscure for Halberstam the big issues. No administration has the luxury to ignore foreign policy–it will seek you out. Political pragmatism without overarching principle will lead to betrayal of loyalties and America’s best interests.

Like every decade, the decisions of the Nineties shaped those that followed. Halberstam gives us a rich and readable account of this important period when some of today’s leaders were coming of age.

Review: The Storm on Our Shores


The Storm on Our ShoresMark Obmascik. New York: Atria Books, 2019.

Summary: The story of a forgotten battle in 1943 on Attu in the Aleutians, and two soldiers, “enemies” to each other, one who died, one who survived, and the after story.

You are living quietly as a Japanese-American on the west coast, caring for an aging widow, whose husband died in the Japanese war effort. An elderly man visits your home who was in the battle in which your father died. As he leaves, he finally blurts out the reason the real reason for his visit: “I’m the one who killed your father.”

Mark Obmascik tells the story of the battle that the devoted pacifist Japanese husband and father, Dr. Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, died in, and the story of Dick Laird, the scrappy, courageous soldier at whose hand he died. He fleshes out the life story of each that brought them to this moment, the moments that followed, and the healing Laird finally found as he and Laura Tatsuguchi Davis eventually talked.

Paul Tatsuguchi had emigrated from Hiroshima to California in the 1920’s, was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist home, and eventually enrolled in medical school, where he excelled as a surgeon. While there he met, and married Taeko Miyake, who he had known from childhood in Japan. Family needs brought them back to Japan where Paul served as a doctor in an Adventist tuberculosis sanitarium. As the clouds of war gathered, their first daughter Joy was born. Then Paul, who was a pacifist, was drafted into the Japanese war effort. Fortunately the need for doctors meant he would not be called on to kill the enemy. But he could still encounter those who once had been his American friends.

Dick Laird grew up in a southeast Ohio coal town. Enlisting in the army seemed the one thing that promised a better life. He met Rose in Columbus while going through training. They had a tumultuous relationship until the army finally grew him up. Laird was the guy you wanted on your side in a fight and he became a leader among men, rising to sergeant. He could have risen further except for his doubts about his education, offered the opportunity to go to Officers Candidate School.

In June of 1942, Japan invaded a lonely island at the western end of the Aleutians named Attu, about as far west as the U.S. goes. They thought they were getting a stepping stone, but the storms, the spongy soil, the cold and the fogs made it more or less useless as a base. They eventually took Kiska to the east. None of this afforded them much strategic advantage but they did not relinquish it.

American pride could not let this invasion of even these insignificant islands go unchallenged and so in May of 1943, Dick Laird was part of an invasion force sent to retake Attu. Much of the book chronicles this effort and the horrors to which this led. There was the Japanese no-surrender policy of fighting to the death, either in battle or in bushido (ritual suicide). There was the fog in war, in this case the literal fog that led to Laird accidentally killing one of his own runners, mistaking him for the enemy, and nearly taking innocent lives at another point. There were the gruesome deaths all around him of friends and others he fought alongside.

Meanwhile, there was the diary kept by Paul Tatsuguchi chronicling the deteriorating conditions that led to the giving of grenades to his patients so they could take their lives rather than be captured. There is also his faith, and his love for his daughters, including Laura, born during the war. The end came when the remaining Japanese defenders mounted a banzai attack. Tatsuguchi was among a group of soldiers charging Laird and his men. Laird had no choice but to throw a hand grenade, followed by his and his men’s rifle fire that wiped out the group.

When they searched the dead, Laird found Tatsuguchi’s diary, later widely copied and circulated by others. Someone else found his Bible. Laird struggled after the war with what we now know as PTSD, the memories of gruesome deaths, the runner, the innocent he almost killed, and the death of Tatsuguchi, a pacifist doctor mixed up in a fatal charge. He had nightmares for years, even as he tried to leave the war behind in the daylight.

The most moving part of the book is the encounters he has with Laura, including the incredible letter she wrote him that finally enabled him to sleep at night. The book also raises the questions war so often raises about soldiers each doing their duties honorably, mixed up in what was a needless battle because of the decisions of others and bearing the consequences in their deaths, or their lives. Laird is the embodiment of the tension of doing what he must do, deeply regretting what he had done and yet seeing no way out of this tragic dilemma. All the decorations he received could not unravel this. Only the aggrieved mother and daughter could do so. The wonder of this book is how they did.

Review: Indianapolis


Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent ManLynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A narrative of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine at the end of World War Two, the five day struggle for survival that took the lives of nearly two-thirds of those who made it into the water, and the fifty-year effort to exonerate her court-martialed captain.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis was a storied ship. For a time, it was the ship of state for Franklin Roosevelt. Subsequently, it was the flagship of the naval fleet in the Pacific theater, winning ten battle stars. After refitting due to a kamikaze strike, it is sent on a super-secret mission to deliver the components of one of the atomic bombs that ended the war. Then, just after midnight on July 30, 1945, a Japanese submarine surfaced within striking distance as Indianapolis, under command of decorated Captain Charles McVay III, was steaming unescorted to the Philippine Island for crew training. Two torpedos sink the ship in twelve minutes. Nine hundred of the twelve hundred men, including McVay make it off the ship due to his abandon ship orders. SOS messages had been sent, although whether the radio equipment was working at that point was in doubt.

Days and nights elapse in the oil-slicked waters where survivors board rafts, nets, or simply hold onto each other, staying afloat with their slowly water-logging life jackets. Somehow, no one realizes the ship is missing and no search is mounted. Men succumb to injuries, or the consequences of drinking salt water when desperately thirsty, or to sharks. After five nights and four days, only a little over 300 are still alive. Only then are they spotted by a patrol plane and a rescue operation mounted, some dying even as they attempt to swim to rescue. Only 316 survive.

While the men’s physical ordeal has come to an end, that of Captain McVay is only beginning. Before leaving for the Philippines, he was assured there was no enemy activity along his route, despite intelligence to the contrary never communicated him. Because of overcast conditions, he had secured the ship from zig-zagging, a defensive measure, which was normal practice given what he knew. Nevertheless, he faced a rushed court martial for negligence that resulted in the ship’s sinking, on which he was found guilty, even while exculpatory evidence was either being covered up or developed. The failures of others were covered up, only he was held to account.

The last part of the story is about the efforts of a group of the survivors, the captain of the modern namesake submarine, William J. Toti, and a precocious eighth grade boy. Hunter Scott’s history project turns into a crusade that takes him to the halls of Congress and an appearance as witness in a Senate hearing, and is the most inspiring and heartening part of the book. Sadly, Captain McVay did not live to see this, only one of his sons.

This is a wonderfully told story that manages to fuse human and technical elements into a page-turning narrative. We experience the moments of fear, panic, and the shipboard disciplines of those last twelve minutes of Indianapolis. We sense the growing despair and struggles to sustain hope and sanity as hours stretch into days, and good friends succumb to injuries or sharks. We share the growing awareness of all who look into the court martial of McVay that a cover up has taken place, and an injustice done. All of this propels us to keep reading to see how this will resolve, and whether there will be survivors to celebrate. Whether you are a naval history buff, or simply enjoy a good story, this one has all the elements to be your next great read.

Veterans Day in Books


In Flanders Fields, Robert Vonnoh (Public Domain)

Today is Veterans Day in the United States. The day traces back to Armistice Day when fighting ceased at the end of World War I, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. It was re-named Veterans Day in 1954 and is intended to honor the service of all military veterans, whereas Memorial Day honors particularly those who died in the service of their country. The day is special to me as I think of my father, who served in the Army in World War II. He was so proud of his service to the country, and we shared this in the military salute he was given when he was laid to rest a few years back. Thank you, Dad, and so many others who have answered the country’s call and honorably served.

I was fortunate to come of age just at the end of the Vietnam War and did not serve. But over the years, I’ve read the history of many of our country’s wars. The truth is, as Sherman said, “War is hell.” The accounts of war are always a mixture of strategic brilliance and failure, bravery and sacrifice and the horror of mangled bodies, the tragic ends of the lives of young men with loves, families, and future hopes, and sometimes the numbing tedium of life between battles. Most of the time, it isn’t the happiest of reading, yet I think important both to more fully honor those who served and to think carefully about what is involved in committing the lives of our young men and women to battle, something never to be done rashly.

Here are some of my favorites, one for each of our major wars up through Vietnam. I have to confess that I haven’t read accounts of some of our more recent conflicts, particularly in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I would love it if those reading this post who have recommendations would share these to add to my list.


  1. 1776, by David McCullough. A great, readable overview of our War of Independence by one of the great history writers of our time.1812
  2. 1812: The War that Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman. Again, an overview of this early conflict that nearly wiped out our young nation but served to launch the careers of Winfield Scott and Andrew Jackson, among others.a-country-of-vast-designs
  3. A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry. An account of President James K. Polk, our involvement in the Mexican War, and how Polk expanded the boundaries of the nation through this war.battle-cry-of-freedom
  4. Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson. There are so many great Civil War books but this is my favorite one volume account of the war.wwi
  5. The First World War by John Keegan. He shows the breakdowns of diplomacy that led to this war, the terrible bloodshed amidst the stalemate and how the end of the war shaped the world as we know it today.49250
  6. D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Stephen Ambrose. This is just one battle but Ambrose gives a compelling account of the bravery of American and British troops attempting to gain a beachhead on the shores of Normandy.korea
  7. The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam chronicles what is often called our “forgotten war” in Korea. Halberstam brings the journalistic brilliance of all his other books to this account of a war that never has really ended.vietnam
  8. Vietnam by Stanley Karnow. One of the best and most balanced histories of the conflict. Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest was also good in showing how the elite brain trust of the Kennedy’s wasn’t smart enough to avoid getting us deeply involved in the conflict.

Again, my apologies to those who served in more recent conflicts. I deeply value your service–just haven’t read any books about these conflicts and would love to get recommendations so that by next Veterans Day or the one after, I can recommend books that acknowledge your service as well.

Our nation’s armed forces have fought in a number of conflicts in our 240 year history. Many have died. Others have returned, some with wounds on their bodies, some with wounds on their psyches, few unchanged. I’ll leave to the historians to debate whether all these wars should have been fought. What cannot be debated is that those who have served and those who are actively serving even now are worthy of honor. To say “thank you” is one way of honoring. To listen to their stories is another. To advocate for their care is vital. To read the history of their service is fitting. Perhaps today would be a good day to begin.

We remember.

Review: The Father of Us All

Father of Us All

The Father of Us All, Victor Davis Hanson. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Summary: A collection of essays arguing from history that war is a tragic but persistent feature of human existence that explores some of the particular challenges that democracies from Athens to the present day United States face as we are faced with the prospect or reality of war.

It seems that, along with the poor, we will always have war. Victor Davis Hanson would say that this is in fact one of the lessons of history. Hanson, in this collection of essays draws upon both ancient history going back to the wars between Athens and Sparta, and the wars of a post-9/11 age to make this point.

In his opening essay he sounds themes that recur throughout this collection. Military history is an oft-neglected but useful discipline of study. It shows us that war is indeed a persistent feature of human nature. Efforts of appeasement to avert war often only make the situation worse. The idea of war as a miscommunication is mistaken–the fact is there are adversaries who are only too clear concerning their malevolent intent. Asymmetrical methods, such as IED’s versus Humvees are hardly a new invention, but rather the inevitable resort of an inferior but determined foe. Those who make war must always be aware of political considerations. At the conclusion of this essay, Hanson introduces the unfamiliar reader to the riches of military history writing, from the ancients to contemporary.

The essays, originally articles or presentations, are grouped under four headings. The first part, as already alluded to, explores the “orphaned” discipline of military history. The second considers war writing from Thucydides through the battle of Lepanto in 1571, a critical example of conflict of east versus west. Part three then looks at the contemporary phenomenon of war–how we as a nation like to fight battles, and the result in a post 9/11 war of asymmetrical conflicts between the west and radical terror organizations. The last section explores the unique challenges of democracies in war-making, and that often we are our own worst enemies, and yet also, that a democracy aroused, mobilizing the full resources of free peoples is a fearsome foe.

As you may be able to tell, Hanson speaks against a prevailing progressive notion that if only we communicated better, understood our enemies better, and so forth, we would not fight wars. He would contend we engage in far too much self-criticism, and far to little moral assessment of the evil of the ideologies of radical elements in the world. Paradoxically, he observes that often, Democratic presidents such as Roosevelt have often done a better job of leading in war, explaining both their reluctance to make war, and its necessity rather than engaging in sabre-rattling. What this should reveal to us is the persistent character of war in the world, and like it as little as we do, that if we are confronted with war, the worst thing that can be done is to shrink from it, but rather meet it with resolve.

I do think that Hanson’s essays challenge progressive notions cogently. But I wonder if he insufficiently wrestles with what Barbara Tuchman once called “the march of folly.” Perhaps it is also part of human nature that we often pursue foolhardy courses of bellicosity that make war inevitable, but must we? Is not war often a failure of political leadership, as in our own Civil War, or the bellicosity and incredible build-up of arms that led to World War I? Likewise, the argument that war must be fought such that foes are utterly defeated and humiliated seems to be the argument at the end of World War I that gave us World War II out of the grievances of the German people, played upon skillfully by Hitler.

In the end, Hanson has history on his side in arguing war’s persistence, and that this is a reflection on human nature. What he doesn’t explore here, which I think perhaps is more curious is why we are this mixture of noble ideals as well as malevolent motives? If this is indeed the human condition, then what hope is there for us?