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Lapham's Quarterly - States of War: Volume I, Number 1, Winter 2008

by Lewis H. Lapham

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Well, it's hard to read about war for long, so I took a couple of months to read this collection, dipping in for a few bits at time. A particular interest in the subject is not necessary to enjoy this collection - just an interest in history and human affairs. This is Vol. 1 No. 1 of this quarterly journal of history, and the first I've read. If the rest are of this quality (selection, variety, presentation), I'll be very happy indeed.

Read first-hand what has been written about war since the earliest writers to right now. One, two, sometimes three pages each, these essays, poems, memoirs, and accounts are interspersed with marvelous images and sidebars looking at war and the effects of war from sometimes surprising angles.

Highly recommended for anyone with a general interest in history.

Os. ( )
  Osbaldistone | Aug 1, 2010 |
"States of War" is the inaugural issue of a new quarterly journal Lapham's Quarterly edited by Lewis Lapham, former Harper's Magazine editor. Although packaged as a journal/magazine about current issues, it's really a collection of "primary sources" - roughly defined as material contemporary to the time, such as memoirs, speeches, transcripts and poems. These kinds of "readers" are not big sellers outside of academia, so the idea of a dressed up history reader in the newsstand alongside GQ and Time seems at first fiscally foolish and intellectually audacious. Some critics, such as Sara Irvy in The New York Times (December 31, 2007), are skeptical that dead voices applied to current events will find a popular audience, and that Lapham (now in his 70s) is associating himself with great names as a sort of self-published career epitaph. Forget the critics, he is on to something surprisingly good, Lapham's Quarterly turns out to be one of the best things I've read in years. Given the luminary contributors, perhaps it is only surprising no one did it sooner. I'll examine those authors in more detail below, but first some thoughts on the work as a whole.

What a delight to read primary sources with a common theme from all periods of history in bite-size easily digestible pieces, vetted and organized by professionals for a non-professional audience. Reading primary sources is studying history at the cellular level, most of us learn about history through more holistic but less immediate secondary sources, such as the latest history book by Simon Schama or a History Channel documentary. Primary sources are often left to the professionals or serious history obsessive to decipher, quote and explain the raw material. We also naturally feel a sense of superiority about our own "modern" times - we perceive ourselves at the height of progress, the evidence is all around from the cars we drive to the nightly theater on TV - consequently we tend to distance ourselves from past voices when it comes to problems of the day. Lapham's Quarterly succeeds in breaking through this barrier by presenting sources in non-chronological order along thematic lines - it doesn't matter when something was written, it can have universal and immortal value when it speaks to the greater truth of common human experience.

"States of War" examines the universal human experience of war. The 220 page journal is composed of three main sections: a seven-page introduction by Lapham, 174 pages of primary source excerpts, and 30-pages of four essays by contemporary historians. The heart of the journal is the middle section, the source excerpts, which is further segmented into four sections: "Calls to Arms", "Rules of Engagement", "Field Reports" and "Postmortems". I will deal with each of these separately below - each source document is anywhere from half a page to 3 pages in length, easily digestible within 5 minutes or less in most cases. Each page has at least one color picture (many full-page) and/or a boxed quote.

"Calls to Arms" is about the build-up up to war. Samples include the speech given by Pope Urban II at Clermont preaching the First Crusade; George Patton rallying his troops with an expletive-filled speech in 1944; an exchange of letters between Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II days before the start of the Great War. In total there are 24 source in this section in about 55 pages.

"Rules of Engagement" is I believe the most insightful section. The theme is how to fight war. It doesn't seem obvious at first, but in every war there are "rules" and very often warriors are faced with the contradiction of fighting to win and fighting honorably according to the precepts of the age. It is fascinating to listen in on an exchange of letters between William Sherman (Union) and John Hood (Confederate) just before Sherman decides to burn Atlanta and go on a scorched earth campaign, with Hood appealing to humanity and God. There is a devastating story of Israeli soldiers deciding what to do about a 10 year old girl who has wondered into the front lines. An excerpt from Nixon's Whitehouse Tapes as he decides if he should bomb North Vietnam and kill 100,00s of thousands of civilians, Kissinger says in effect "I don't care about the civilians, I don't the world to think of you as a butcher." Churchill musing over the use of mustard gas in WWII. In total there are 23 sources in 35 pages.

"Field Reports" are about actual combat. These are some of the most difficult documents to read because they are so violent. George Orwell describes in detail what it was like to be shot through the neck by a sniper; a Marine describes day to day life in the trenches of Peleliu, a Pacific island in WWII, where worse than the fear of death was the smell of it, and the millions of flies it produced; there is an excerpt from All Quiet on the Western Front; an excellent reconstruction of the Battle of Agincourt by modern historian John Keegan. In total there are 23 sources in 57 pages.

"Postmortem" is reflections on war. These are the most cerebral and least titillating of the bunch, a philosophically reflective quiet after the storm. Jessica Lynch tells her story to Congress, saying she was not the hero the press made her out to be. Kurt Vonnegut sees war as an addiction. Eisenhower cautions against the military industrial complex and Wilfred Owen warns "Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!" This section has 18 sources in about 40 pages.

Perhaps what makes this collection so good is its ambiguity, there are pro-war and anti-war pieces, optimistic and pessimistic pieces - war is a complex and multi-faceted part of the human experience. In summary, I can not overstate my enthusiasm for this inaugural issue - many of the sources are unforgettable and will live with me forever. Although costly for a "magazine", if the same content had been published as a book, I would have paid $30 for it - it's a bargain at $15 and will happily find a home on my bookshelf (dog-eared and marked up).

--Review by Stephen Balbach, via CoolReading (c) 2008 cc-by-nd ( )
4 vote Stbalbach | Feb 3, 2008 |
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