(Click here for a web-exclusive listing of forthcoming military history titles.)
Talk about troops on the ground! A search of Amazon lists more than 16,000 titles in the military history category. And that's akin to a U.N. peacekeeping force when compared to Barnes & Noble's astonishing standing army of 75,366 books.
Big indie Powell's in Portland, Ore., stands 8,667, while Broadside, this writer's favorite Northampton, Mass., redoubt, lists more than 1,000 military titles among a total inventory of 30,000. When we asked publishers last month to give us news about forthcoming military titles, four dozen houses submitted 237 new military books. We heard from stalwart publishers with longstanding military ties—Arcadia, Presidio, MBI, Tor, Forge, Trafalgar Square, Hampton Roads and Da Capo. From university presses like North Texas State, Kansas, Indiana (with a new military imprint), NYU, Citadel, LSU, Texas A&M, Columbia, Harvard and Oxford. And from frontlist-oriented New York houses as well—Farrar, Straus & Giroux, S&S, Random House, Houghton Mifflin and Scribner.
What to make of all this activity? It's a question that has vexed many a military officer. All that noise beyond the tree line. What is it? How are publishers approaching a category that has not always been so robust? And aside from serving the needs of the ever-devoted military history buffs, who will buy books on topics as narrow as k-rations and sidearm design? How do publishers find those breakout books that crossover and become bestsellers? But first, a little history.
When a war is over, in many respects it belongs to the culture. There are winners and losers, victims and survivors, but it is the broader culture that will forget a war or bring it back to life in books, films, television. In the immediate post-Vietnam years, military publishing almost expired for lack of cultural cachet. Military books had the look of the bedraggled, PTSD-stricken vets that the culture was reluctant to hear about. While combat boiled in Vietnam, the nation's interest in military matters gradually eroded. "The Ballad of the Green Berets" fought it out with "The Eve of Destruction," and lost. The culture went to Haight; William Calley and William Westmoreland became the poster boys for a rotten war. Respect for the U.S. military slid into a dank foxhole throughout the '70s.
Fittingly, the big war book at the close of the decade—Tim O'Brien's NBA-winning Going After Cacciato—starred a deserting Army private who walked from Vietnam to the Paris peace talks. An antiwar war book; a classic Catch-22. But by the 1980s, the military publishing roller coaster was making a fresh ascent. Whereas a decade earlier, bookish interest in military matters had seemed both inhumane and unprofitable; Americans had come to realize that one could admire a warrior even while loathing war. Moviegoers and critics lavished praise on two patriotic late '70s films, Coming Home and The Deer Hunter (while the hallucinatory Apocalypse Now was viewed by many critics as self-indulgent).
By the end of the decade—very much a Reagan decade—just as military publishing had apparently righted itself, the Soviet Union went pfffft. That 1989 collapse was good news for the world, but in the short run it was more bad news for military publishers. The Soviet Bear was dead. Conventional wisdom said that big bad wars were now unimaginable. Big books about new mega-wars were unlikely. More than four decades of Cold War had ended with neither a nuke nor a blitzkrieg, but with the clang of sledgehammers at the Berlin Wall.
So military books were back in intensive care. Other than two notable Civil War—era titles (James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom and Geoffrey Ward's The Civil War), things military didn't invade the bestseller charts. The category was basically MIA.
In 1990, military historian Dennis Showalter surveyed the scene for PW. He found a few chipper military publishers soldiering on. They predicted that there would still be lots of small wars, guerrilla actions, brush fires with Islamists or North Koreans, plus African squabbles. Saddam Hussein was rumbling around and Kim Jung Il was loose. So there were plenty of despots to keep our generals busy.
Careful what you wish for.
Today, evidence abounds that people are as interested as ever in military affairs (for many of the reasons envisioned by Showalter's correspondents). The nightly news and daily newspapers are crammed with reports of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Israel and Sri Lanka. War coverage is TV's ultimate reality show. On cable, military history is all over the place. At any moment, you can watch WWII, Vietnam, the Civil War and Soviets battling Mujahideen. You have at hand any of the more than 40 military history magazines to flip through.
Modes of Attack
In such a climate, there is plenty of room for a variety of approaches. Oxford University Press publicity director Sara Leopold says the market remains healthy for traditional nuts-and-bolts military history—what happened on the battlefield—and how that affects civilians, the society, the environment, economics and technology. Senior editor Ron Doering of Presidio Press doesn't quite agree. He says that books that are still selling well are still likely to be about conventional military actions or are about elite forces (e.g., SEALs). At Stackpole Books, history editor Chris Evans offers a synthesis of those views: "Military history has swallowed the paradox and become all but synonymous with current events.... It's blurring the line between the traditional scholarly approach and a form of reportage that focuses on the immediate and close."
Ask readers, however, and what they seem to want in the greatest numbers is 1) very good writing, and 2) delivered from a personal perspective.
The standard-bearer in that regard is Mark Bowden's bestselling, widely praised Blackhawk Down, published in 1999 in hardcover by Grove and which has sold more than two million copies as a Penguin paperback. Penguin publisher Kathryn Court bought paperback rights to Blackhawkat nearly the same time that Morgan Entrekin bought the hardback for Grove Atlantic. The double-purchase created a buzzstorm around the book. Nearly everyone we talked to cited Blackhawk as a publishing turning point—it mixed narrative, news, history and journalism. Court thinks this combination came together beautifully in Bowden's book, and points to other recent hits as exemplifying the same virtues: James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers, David Maraniss's They Marched into Sunlight, Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides and John Dower's Embracing Defeat.
"We just look for someone who can really write, who gives us something wonderful to read," says Court. She thinks John Glusman's new book, Conduct Under Fire, is such a title (see sidebar, p 28). It's about a compelling quartet of doctors who survive Corregidor's siege, Japanese prison and American bombs. Da Capo senior editor Bob Pigeon says that it was Steven Ambrose who pioneered the big change by collecting oral histories of common soldiers in Band of Brothersand other books, telling "compelling stories with a human dimension" from the ground up.
This season, among the hundreds of books that address issues of war and conflict, there are a few from seasoned writers with personal stories to tell. For Philip Caputo, author of the classic Vietnam book A Rumor of War, struggle is a central theme. He's been a correspondent, a memoirist and a novelist. A few years after returning to the states from Vietnam, Caputo visited Africa. He crossed the Sudanese and Eritrean deserts, a journey that inspired his first novel, Horn of Africa. His new book, Acts of Faith(Knopf), is also set in Africa. Pilots, aid workers, missionaries and renegades work to relieve the miseries caused by the Sudanese civil war. Caputo's editor at Knopf, Ashbel Green, says Caputo writes memoirs with a narrative thrust and novels with a journalistic base. Acts of Faith, Green says, is a memoir written in a fictive way that grew from National Geographic assignments. (According to Michiko Kakutani in the May 3 New York Times, Caputo's "devastating" work "possesses all the suspense and momentum of a Hollywood thriller and all the gravitas of a 19th-century novel." The book, she claimed, "will be to the Iraq War what Graham Greene's The Quiet American became to the Vietnam era.")
Acts isn't a war story, per se, Caputo says. It's a drama set against the backdrop of war. Caputo contends that "a decade must pass before we can see a war clearly. In my case, after Vietnam, it took 10 years for me to put my shattered self back together again."
Tracy Kidder, whose sharp authorial eye is usually—and successfully—trained on everyday, peacetime concerns (House, Among Schoolchildren), has been working on My Detachment, his new memoir, since 1968. "That's when I arrived for my year in Vietnam. I wrote a novel after I got home. Some of it was based on my life. A lot of people in my social class don't understand the '60s," he says. "They didn't go into the Army and they didn't go to Vietnam. They look back on the '60s as a time of youthful rebellion. Not me!"
Asked if he sees military history movement synthesizing fiction, nonfiction and journalism, Kidder says no. "I see three categories," he says, "fiction, nonfiction and memoir, which falls between them." Memory, he says, "is notoriously unreliable." Not quite fiction, but not history as we know it. "Even a work of nonfiction isn't immune to unintended synthesis. Fiction and memoir can get at things that nonfiction can't reach. All three are interesting and useful."
The literary license granted the novelist—or, as Kidder would have it, even the memoirist—is crucial to an understanding of war. "I loved The Things They Carried," he says, about Tim O'Brien's collection of often surreal stories. "I recognized its truth even though I was never in combat myself, except in my imagination."
Imagination is perhaps the only place war should be experienced. Alas, it cannot be so. Still, we do the true combatants honor by traveling there with the best of guides.
Click here for a web-exclusive listing of forthcoming military history titles.
| PW Talks with John Glusman |
John Glusman is editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Conduct Under Fire (click here to read the review) is his first book.
Your father was one of four doctors in a Philippine POW camp. Along with those of the others, how did you decide to tell his story?
I was approaching the age of 30 and my father had a mild heart attack, and I remember accompanying him to the hospital thinking, I don't know this man very well. He was nearly 30 when he returned from the war, so I began to think about him as a young man and realized that he rarely spoke about his POW experiences at all. I published an essay about it then, around 1990. I was encouraged to develop it into a book; I said I had no interest in that whatsoever. But in the fall of 2000, my father was invited back to the Philippines, back to Corregidor, and I asked if I could accompany him.
Did the book change your relationship?
It did. My father died this past January at the age of 90, but he had read the book in its entirety. We developed a very, very close relationship as a result of it because I was uncovering stories in some cases that he hadn't thought about, addressed or recalled in decades. In some cases it involved tracking down people whom he hadn't known in 60 years. He was a very tough reader. He initially didn't think I should write the book at all—he said, "We did nothing extraordinary; we lived in extraordinary times."
So do you think that Conduct raises issues that apply to conflicts generally?
I absolutely do. How we behave in wartime. How one treats, for example, prisoners of war. Conduct under fire in terms of a clash of cultures. The Pacific War was very much a clash of cultures, very much a race war. These men were not just prisoners of war; they were doctors who were caring for other people, so their conduct had to be exemplary. Was it always? No. But they worked extremely well together and were extremely competent—they did the best they could under horrific conditions. They were very lucky to survive, and in fact one of them didn't.
You're a veteran editor, but this is your first book. How do you feel?
As anxious as any first-time novelist, which amuses me vastly—but it doesn't help me get over it.
|In addition to John Glusman's Conduct Under Fire, which Glusman says he wrote in part to make the relationship closer (see above), two other men this season have sought their dads through their fathers' wartime experiences and put the results into print. |
After spending more than 30 years at Newsweek, Tom Mathews decided to sort through, as he says, "steamer trunks" worth of baggage in order to approach his father, a man from whom he'd been estranged for years, by asking him about his war experiences. In Our Fathers' War: Growing Up in the Shadow of the Greatest Generation (just out from Broadway), the focus is mostly on anecdotes, but unlike most books of its kind, emotional motivations and repercussions play a major role. In the process of reconnecting, Mathews entreated friends to start collecting their fathers' stories, and the result is a kind of group therapy for the multiply-traumatized. Grown men edge warily toward their often emotionally stunted dads as if they were Oliver Twist asking for "more." And while most of the encounters resolve positively, a few don't. For Mathews, it's a process that allows him to hear his father, finally and startlingly, utter the word "us": "Not him, not me, but us."
The author of 22 novels and 17 works of nonfiction, the indefatigable Paul West follows up his well-received memoir, My Mother's Music, with an intimate account of his WWI-scarred father, My Father's War, coming in June from McPherson & Co. West focuses on his early teenage years in Britain during WWII, when his father's experience as a WWI machine-gunner loomed large in his imagination. Half blind and sporadically employed because of a war wound, the father is at first a somewhat detached, "weightless" figure, his ordeal in the trenches instilling in him a "Buddhist repose" and a "gift for always underestimating a situation because he could always think of one worse." West approaches this enigmatic figure obliquely, through a rambling accretion of mundane but vividly rendered scenes of his father smoking, eating breakfast, watching a soccer match or playing war with his son underneath the kitchen table. Eventually, he comes to appreciate his father's quiet heroism, his ability to "say thank you for being alive... restored to the status of a thistle, an ant, a cow, that had no ambitious destiny on the planet and existed merely to serve." —Michael Scharf and Bill Boisvert
| Once the domain mostly of academics, military history is now fair game for journalists and others in the mainstream of civilian life. When a manuscript comes in now, "You see all kinds of breakout potential," says senior editor Natalee Rosenstein at Penguin Caliber. Caliber is one of three recently launched imprints, along with Twentieth Century Battles at Indiana University Press and MBI's Zenith Press, dedicated solely to military history. Here's what their editors say about the new ventures. |
"It seemed to us," says Robert J. Sloan, editorial director at Indiana University Press, which last July launched its Twentieth Century Battles, "that the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Gulf War, the Balkan War and the so-called war on terrorism has renewed American readers' interest in military history." Civil War titles, he reports, continue to outsell most other history books on the Indiana list, "so we hope that titles such as those in the Battles series will find new readers for our books." Sloan says the new series will help shed light on the conduct of war during a time of rapid and radical military change.
With last fall's launch of the Zenith Press imprint dedicated to narrative military history, military memoirs, battle histories, military science and philosophy, and professionally oriented how-tos, Minnesota-based MBI Publishing has rounded out its military books program, which was previously devoted chiefly to illustrated books. "By bringing titles together under an imprint, we are creating a certain coherence," says Zenith's publishing director, Richard Kane. "It gives us an umbrella when we present our program to bookstore buyers." Kane notes that, though military history titles have always found a ready audience, today's market is stronger than ever. "The category seems nowadays to be more accepted by everyone in the book business," he says, comparing it to the post-Vietnam '70s, when there was what he calls a "certain shrinking back" from things military.
The third new imprint, Caliber, launched last fall. Says Rosenstein, "We've always been strong in this area, but we wanted to raise the profile of our books. It's not so much a niche subject anymore." She also cites one of the hot concepts of publishing today: branding. "We want readers to know, if they pick up a Caliber book, they can trust it. —Suzanne Mantell
|Some current and forthcoming military history titles that should draw attention, if not fire. |
Atlantic Monthly:1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls by Winston Groom (Apr.). Forrest Gump's creator turns his hand to nonfiction and provides fresh renderings of the familiar Battle of Midway and Guadalcanal incidents.
Broadway:The Gift of Valor: A War Story (May). Michael Phillips writes about Corp. Jason Dunham, the first American to win a Congressional Medal of Honor in Iraq. Dunham, from a tiny upstate New York town, died when he threw his helmet over a live grenade. Phillips, brother of novelist Arthur Phillips, first reported Dunham's story in the Wall Street Journal.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux:Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (June). Jean Hatzfeld interviewed 10 Rwandan men, now imprisoned, who carried out orders in 1994 to slaughter their Tutsi neighbors; with a preface by Susan Sontag.
The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer (Oct.). After two-plus years covering the War in Iraq, the New Yorker staff writer weighs in with all-new material and full-blown analysis. The Iraq book to watch this season.
Presidio Press:First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan by Gary Schroen (June). The author commanded the first team of CIA operatives on the ground in Afghanistan in search of bin Laden.
Random House:A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson (Oct.). Hanson, who has been compared to John Keegan as a war historian, is both a classics professor and a National Reviewcontributor.
Scribner:Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters and One Man's Search to Find Them by Andrew Carroll (May). More than 200 letters about the experience of war are rendered just as they were written.
Texas A&M University:Journey into Darkness by Thomas P. Odom (July). The story of Rwandan genocide by a former field officer with the State Department.
University of Kansas:Launch the Intruders: Naval Attack Squadron in the Vietnam War, 1972 by Carol Reardon (May). High-risk bombing runs in high seas off the USS Saratoga were recalled to Reardon by surviving flight crew members.
University of North Texas Press:Warriors and Scholars: A Modern War Reader, edited by Peter Lane and Ronald Marcello (Aug.). Modern warfare is put in context by two eminent historians who are both veterans.
Zenith Press:Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot by Starr Smith (Apr.). Smith, who served with the actor in the Eighth Air Force during WWII, tells of Stewart's 20 missions over enemy territory and his inimitable "aw, shucks" style, even in combat.
|Though James D. Hornfischer never served in the armed forces, he has had a hand in publishing some of the bestselling military books in recent years—first as an editor at Harper Collins; then as an agent, for books such as Flags of Our Fathers; and most recently as author of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award-winning naval history, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (Bantam, 2004). With the paperback edition of Last Standarriving in stores this week and the deadline for his second book, Ship of Ghosts,looming, he spoke with PW from his office in Austin, Tex., about the writing and publishing of military history. |
According to Hornfischer, "the most successful military history always enables readers to see the person behind the uniform—to look into the heart behind that chest full of medals." He identifies four basic types of today's military history books. First are the highly professionalized books, by authors for whom tactics and strategy are topics of debate and discussion. The next group takes the form of fiction—Phillip Caputo, Tim O'Brien or, more recently, Anthony Swofford.The third might be termed celebrity military history, written by such notables as Tommy Franks or Oliver North. The last and, according to Hornfischer, most enduring form is narrative history, which chronicles major events from the viewpoint of small groups of soldiers or sailors.
Hornfischer also observes that books about a specific war tend to come in four waves. The first is comprised of journalists who were sent to write about the war for newspapers or magazines. The second wave often comes from those officers attempting to justify decisions that came into question by the first-wave group. The third phase is written by those suffering from PTSD due to the incompetence of those officers who wrote in the second phase; these books typically deal with war's aftermath and pain. The last phase, says Hornfischer, is written by the historians, who generally wait until military documents are declassified and filed with the National Archives.
These books, Hornfischer explains, usually happen about 20 years later. "A lot of guys I interviewed for Ship of Ghosts," he says, "didn't talk about it themselves for 20 years. By that time they had high-school age daughters who said over Thanksgiving dinner, 'Daddy, tell me about WWII.' Then they had to package it in such a way that said enough, but not so much that it caused the family pain. When those people start talking, that's when you can really begin to understand a war."—Ed Nawotka