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The best books on War and Intellect

recommended by Peter Paret

Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study views art, literature, politics and war as intimately interconnected and says cultural attitudes directly affect military doctrine. He chooses five books on war & intellect

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Tell me about your first choice, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach.

For many of us Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis still stands as a monumental achievement in literary criticism. In the book he explores how great European writers from Homer to Virginia Woolf depicted reality and by doing so he has taught generations how to read Western literature.

I mention the book here because it has had a broad impact on my work in general. In 1946, when I was discharged from the US army, and after three years returned as an undergraduate to the University of California at Berkeley, a copy of Auerbach’s just published German text came into my hands. I was moved by his searching and yet empathetic discussion of very diverse texts, his daring comparisons, which generated new questions and insights – for example, his confrontation of Petronius and Tacitus with the account of Peter’s denial in the Gospel according to Mark – and also by the unobtrusive but powerful manner in which the work was shaped by Auerbach’s personal situation, writing as a refugee in Turkey during the Second World War.

Together with others at the time, I welcomed his book as a confirmation of high culture emerging from years of barbarism. I disregarded signs of subjectivity in Auerbach’s discussion, and if I noticed the inconsistencies and even contradictions in his approach that have since been pointed out, they did not bother me. Above all, I was impressed by his ability to understand the varieties of realism in works of the imagination, while distinguishing the intent and execution of depictions of reality from their conventional or ideological accompaniment or context.

From there it was only a further step for me to learn to pay attention to the documentary potential – its strengths and limitations – of fictional works of all kinds, as I do in The Cognitive Challenge of War, in which I use works of literature as well as works of art to trace changes in attitude that directly effected change in military institutions and doctrine.

Your next book is Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape by Joseph Leo Koerner.

Of the German painters at the end of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, the best known outside Germany is probably Caspar David Friedrich. His landscape paintings – craggy mountains, beaches along endless seas, ancient forests, often with one or two figures of men and women who observe this world, are part of it, but also threatened by it – are metaphors not only for the human condition in general, but often also for life in Central Europe after the French Revolution, torn by war and conquest, the destruction of old loyalties, and the emergence of a new nationalism. In 1813 Friedrich began a prophetic painting of a French cuirassier, his horse run off or dead, slowly walking into a deep forest, a symbol of Germany since the time of the Roman Empire, from which he will not emerge. In 1813 German opposition to Napoleon was expanding from the relatively limited wars of the ancien régime into something more encompassing.

In The Cognitive Challenge of War I analyse this painting as an indication of one of the decisive military changes of the time, a new participation of broad segments of the population in wars that in the preceding centuries had been fought mainly by professionals. In his monograph on Friedrich, Joseph Leo Koerner does not discuss the painting of the cuirassier at length, but he gives a comprehensive, thoughtful analysis of Friedrich’s life and work, and places him in Western art of the early 19th century, in which gradually Friedrich’s work, its uniqueness notwithstanding, comes to blend more closely with that of the British and French Romantic painters.

Tell me about your next choice, History: Politics or Culture? Reflections on Ranke and Burckhardt by Felix Gilbert.

In this brief work, written at the end of a very distinguished scholarly career, Gilbert considers decisive phases in the developments of two kinds of history, and behind their differences points to similarities and forces that bring them together. He begins with the new awareness among historians, originating in the late Enlightenment and brought to the fore by the French Revolution and reactions to it, of the uniqueness of particular societies and their cultures, and of a new sense of the interaction of ideas, social forces, policy, and the personality of individual leaders. The systematic study of documents and other primary sources, such as architecture and works of art and literature, gains new importance – as does the manner of their interpretation. Even as Ranke, by applying the critical method of philology to the study of the past, turns history into an autonomous discipline, removed from philosophy, theology, and law, he insists that history is also an art. He seeks to ‘tell a story that is full of tension’. Aesthetic considerations affect not only his narrative, but also the structure of his works. His History of the Popes, for example, is not strictly chronological, but shaped around one great theme: the relationship between state and church in Europe. His conception of history makes it inevitable that Ranke includes discussions of art, literature and culture in his political interpretations.

This interaction is also basic to Burckhardt’s work. His Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy opens with political history: the waning power of the empire and the achievement of control by the absolute monarchies of France and Spain. A further central element of the work is the significance of the individual, not only in art and literature, but also in politics. Despite their differences in opinion and purpose, the two historians are linked by strong bonds. And as Gilbert notes in this little book, rich with ideas briefly discussed, in the earlier 19th century ‘there was no real contrast or rivalry between political and cultural history’. He does not add, but the message is implied, that in the study and writing of history today specialisation and breadth of interpretation need not be antagonistic. At times they can be combined in conception and execution. When that is not possible, each may at least acknowledge and convey to the reader the importance of the other.

What kind of impact has this approach to history had on you?

I see myself as a remote descendant and follower of the intellectual tradition Gilbert summarises. Of course, while we have forgotten much since Ranke and Burckhardt wrote, we have also learnt something, but their generosity of spirit and their intellectual sweep remain an inspiration.

Your next choice is Carl von Clausewitz, Historical and Political Writings, which you co-edited.

Among Clausewitz’s writings, history and contemporary history outnumber theory. Most though not all of his histories have war as their subject, but even when his theme is a campaign or an entire war, he often addresses matters that go beyond the strictly military and beyond such issues closely associated with war as diplomacy and politics. One of his most original works, a study of the war of 1806 in which Napoleon smashed the Prussian army, devotes much space to such topics as the history of the Prussian state, its political traditions and mythology, the strengths and weaknesses of its governmental structure and bureaucracy, the personalities of its leading political and military figures, and the political attitudes of various segments of the population. It was self-evident to Clausewitz that these non-military factors had a direct or indirect bearing on military institutions and policy, and that no history of the war should marginalise them. Since every war has a political purpose, and the opposing armies and their actions are the products of social and political forces, it is risky to exclude these elements from strategic and operational history. Their study may have something to contribute even on the tactical level.

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Not only was a broad perspective necessary to the historical understanding of the larger characteristics of a conflict, history gave Clausewitz the basis for his theoretical understanding of war: his recognition of its timeless elements, which could not be converted to eternal strategic and operational rules because history also revealed the changes over time in social, intellectual, and psychic realities and in technological development. In his youth it was his recognition of the difference between conditions before and after the French Revolution that started Clausewitz on the path toward a theoretical analysis of war, and he continued studying and writing history until almost the end of his life. This edition of his historical and political writings contains some of his shorter pieces and chapters from longer works on a variety of subjects, which document the close connection in his thought between the study of the past and the understanding of war.

Your final book is, Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns, by Owen Connelly.

The literature on Napoleonic war is vast, and, as might be expected with a subject of such colourful drama, of very mixed quality. Together with invaluable documentary publications, particularly by the military historians of the French, Prussian, and Austrian ministries of war or general staffs before the First World War, and path-breaking studies since, the subject has attracted masses of shoddy if often opulently illustrated works. That after two centuries even such basic information as the strengths of the contending forces continues to be treated unreliably indicates not only the difficulty of the subject, but also the lack of serious scholarship that is evidently more acceptable here than in many other areas in history and the history of war.

Owen Connelly, in contrast, has written an unpretentious but comprehensive study of Napoleon’s generalship that combines an original thesis with broad, critical knowledge of the sources. He, too, is not always on firm ground and at times must speculate, but his are informed guesses. He concentrates on strategy and operations; and his book might be categorised as pure military history. But it gains greatly from his earlier publications on Napoleonic politics, administration, and ways of governing: he understands how French methods of financing, raising troops, or selecting officers affected strategic policy and operational performance.

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Connelly’s central argument that Napoleon’s long succession of victories came from his initial advantage of superior human and economic resources, which made possible large and efficient military forces, the effectiveness of which he raised by refusing to allow his opponents to impress him and by his ability to improvise – reflecting a potent self-image – has much to be said for it. It is the kind of interpretation that, even if it needs to be tweaked in particular instances, offers opportunities for further development and brings us closer to the historical truth than do the commonplace legends of superman among the pygmies.

Why do you think it is so important to take a multidisciplinary approach to history?

It is only one approach to history, and what matters is not what kind of history one writes but how well one writes it. Specialisation is necessary, but it can also be limiting, and some of us are particularly impressed by the interconnectedness and interaction of seemingly remote phenomena.

August 4, 2010

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Peter Paret

Peter Paret

Peter Paret is an Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study, with a special interest in the intellectual and political challenges of war, and the relationship of art and literature to ideology and politics. His latest book, The Cognitive Challenge of War, examines the problem of how societies respond to innovation in the military practices of an opponent or potential opponent.

Peter Paret

Peter Paret

Peter Paret is an Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study, with a special interest in the intellectual and political challenges of war, and the relationship of art and literature to ideology and politics. His latest book, The Cognitive Challenge of War, examines the problem of how societies respond to innovation in the military practices of an opponent or potential opponent.