In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, the world is now paying closer attention to airport security and the unique threat posed by ISIS. But what exactly is going on and how are countries responding?
Join Sea Control: North America for an interview with Max Leitschuh, an Aviation Security Analyst at iJet International, to discuss the ins and outs of ISIS’ recent attacks. During the course of the discussion, we examine ISIS’ capabilities against civil aviation, the specifics of their attacks in Brussels and Sharm el-Sheikh, and what governments can do to counter them.
Comics and Conflict is not for the casual comic book fan. So if you are curious about Namor’s superpowers, or when the Hulk first appeared, well, look elsewhere. What it does do, and does well, is tell us how wars have influenced comic books, and how comic book heroes have reflected our culture – for better or for worse. Recently I had the chance to ask Professor Scott a few questions about his book and comic book culture today.
Professor Scott, thanks for joining us. Congratulations on writing an interesting book on the history of comics and war from WWII to post-9/11. It’s encyclopedic in scope, truly. How did this project come about?
This project started from two different areas. I remember reading a lot of comics as a kid when I was at a friend’s house, specifically the old DC war titles: Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat and Unknown Soldier.My brother also started collecting the little GI Joes in 1982, and I started reading the comic book from Marvel that went with it – that in and of itself was a genius marketing move – so there has been an interest in comics for a while. However when I was in college my collecting days halted for a bit. More specifically, I was teaching at a design college in downtown Chicago when 9/11 occurred. I had been teaching a class in the history of propaganda, and was always looking for extra material, especially from a cultural perspective.Captain America was one of the first characters to tie into US military doctrine, while being part of a cultural medium, comic books.Anyway, I was reading a newspaper article not long after the event and had read about the creators at Marvel who were writing a specific issue that dealt with the attack.This was the now famous “all black cover”Amazing Spiderman 136.I was at a comic book shop picking that one up, and had noticed a Captain America graphic novel with a Nazi logo and the shop owner noted that Captain America was being brought back to fight terrorism.So I picked up these issues when they were published and used them in the class.Later on I was taking a graduate class in Cultural history at Loyola and the comics became the basis for the paper.
I noticed in your book that a lot – if not all– of the pictures of comic books are from your personal collection. How many comics do you have in your collection? Which one is your most valuable comic?
I have about eight long boxes worth, plus a couple dozen of trade paperbacks (reprints into one volume) and graphic novels (stand alone stories) as well. It’s pretty extensive and a pain in the butt to move! I have a lot of older ones (actual comics from WWII entitled True Comics, another entitled War Heroes, America Is Ready and Boys and Girls can Help Uncle Sam Win the War) but most were purchased for the stories and are not great as far as collectability is concerned. I would say that the most expensive comic item I own is most likely Remember Pearl Harbor, which was published right after Pearl Harbor. I also have a comic-related lithograph of Captain America which was done by Jim Steranko to raise money for 9/11 victims which was a bit expensive to me. I don’t buy a lot of them for their value and I certainly don’t own anything worth Sotheby’s interest. I also have a few items done by comic book artists for the military. I have a restricted comic training book for the UMUC entitled Tokyo Straight Ahead, and a couple of Joe Dope posters and some Army Motors journals, all done by Will Eisner.
In your opinion, who were the comic book heroes (or anti-heroes) that represented major conflicts in U.S. history? Why?
While many were incorporated into the US war effort early on, Captain America is still the oldest and biggest one directly tied to military conflict.While a lot of famous characters were brought into the war effort in WWII, Cap was really the most successful one that endured.There have been some great ones that are gone now.My personal favorite was Mr. Liberty, later Major Liberty, a mild mannered history professor who is turned into a superhero by the spirits of America.Cap was used briefly in the Red Scare of the 1950s.The Hulk was a take on nuclear testing.Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, was an arms manufacturer that dealt with the Vietnam War prior to official US involvement.The Punisher was formed by his experiences in Vietnam – he was introduced in 1974 and was an anti-hero.There are more but these would be the most direct.
As for characters that have been icons, Sgt. Rock was the big one.He was introduced in ’58, and was around for 30 years as a continual character.As a side note, the late Joe Kubert not only did work on Sgt Rock from the beginning but also worked on PS Magazine which features comics to show periodic maintenance in the US army.Sgt Fury is still around but has morphed over the years from war hero to spy.
What was the Golden Age of comics? For someone who follows comics closely, do you see a resurgence in comics that might portend a second Golden Age in comics? I mean, for example, Comic-Con attendance is growing yearly. And Marvel and DC comic movies will be, in all likelihood, some of the highest grossing films in the future.
I see a continued interest in comics but I personally don’t think that there will be a second Golden Age.There are too many competing forms of entertainment.However, I do think that comics continue to thrive as they bridge the literary aspect and the visual realm.Think of them as storyboards for the movie creation.They also provide ideas for video games, action figures and the like.Let’s be honest, who hasn’t thought about what powers they would like to have?There is escapism involved.
I enjoyed your discussion about the resurgence of comic books after the Cold War. In particular, you discuss Captain America v. the Punisher. How do these two characters embody different parts of American culture, and how were they used in comics to do so?
Cap and the Punisher have been the two aspects of US policy.One, Cap, abides by the moral rules and strives to instill patriotism in others.The Punisher is a man who is driven by the same morality, but doesn’t want the niceties of “civilized war.”Cap never seems to be vicious with his enemies, at least not in the modern sense.Punisher is often frustrated by those limitations.To put it into a very contemporary context, think of it as the discussion of enhanced interrogation techniques.We pride ourselves as Americans as not stooping to the level of our enemies by torturing others for information.Our enemies are not bound by such restrictions.The Punisher is the embodiment of the “ends justify the means.”That said, both characters have had their conversions of sorts, especially when it comes to storylines like Civil War.
If my count is correct, I believe we are somewhere around the 43rd Marvel movie following the release of Deadpool. And really, the majority of movies were made after 2000. Now Marvel is getting ready to release Civil War. But what movie would you want to see them make out of a comic book character that they haven’t yet, and what story line would you want to see?
This is a hard one, as most of the comic book characters I like have been done, although not always well.I would like to see a good adaptation of the Punisher.I recently worked on a book Marvel Comics into Film (McFarland Publishing, 2016) and wrote on the Punisher films.The last film with Ray Stephenson as Punisher came close but still failed in some regards.As for overall characters, I would like to see the Unknown Soldier or Sgt. Rock in a movie version, but only if the writing is good.
As I mentioned, Civil War is getting ready to hit theaters soon. And you talk about Civil War in your book. What made this “maxi-series,” as you call it, so fascinating to comic book fans?
The maxi-series was several comic books that were tied in to an overall arc.The story line was on the overall abuse of power (and superpowers) after a terrorist attack.The plot eventually put Cap and Iron Man on opposite sides of the freedom versus security debate.The creators of the series often noted that this was a way to deal with the real aspects of the fight over the PATRIOT ACT and its intrusion on American society.No one is ever right or wrong on these things but clearly when emotions are riled a lot of decisions can be made that seem good at first, but are dangerous in the cold light of day.Marvel eventually combined the various comics into TPB (trade paperbacks) that allowed everyone like me to read them without having to read each comic individually.
The story also had former villains fighting on the side of right and wrong.A variation of the old adage “an enemy of an enemy is my friend.”So that further complicated issues.Punisher could never see how anyone could work with criminals. In the story lines, the most interesting story is that of Spiderman who goes from one side to the other as he starts to realize that things at first glance are not all that wonderful under the new system of control.Since Spidey is a teenager, it also played into the fact that there is a bit more emotion and less rationality in the decision making process.
Recently, as you probably know, Marvel released a new Black Panther graphic novel. It was written by National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and drawn by artist Brian Stelfreeze. It sold big. Something like 300,000 copies. How important is the author to artist relationship in the quality of a book? What writer/artist teams in your opinion are the perfect team in the history of comic books and conflict?
I think that there is a very important correlation between the writers and artists.Black Panther is another important character to Marvel.To be honest I have not seen the new GN.The right combination has great impact.One take on Captain America which I found really interesting in idea but lacking in execution was Kyle Bakers take, Captain America: Red White and Black (2003).It noted that the Super-soldier program that created Cap was originally part of the Tuskegee Experiment, and that the first test cases were black.Unfortunately the artistic style was a detriment to me.Some folks hated it as it was too political or too much of a variation of the theme.For war comics, I would say Garth Ennis and Carlos Esquerra have done some outstanding work on several serious and satirical series.War Stories is what comes immediately to mind.Joe Kubert and Bob Kannigher were good for the old Sgt. Rock, GI Combat and Enemy Ace comics from DC.Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were great not only for Cap, but also the Boy Commandos, and even Front Line.I would say that the best overall teams were from EC when they did the Frontline Combat, Two Fisted Tales and related series in the 1950s.Archie Goodwin did some memorable stuff for Blazing Combat in the 1960s but overall currently it centers most on Garth Ennis as a writer.
Here’s a hypothetical. Let’s say I’m interested in reading comics but I haven’t picked one up in a long time. I’m in the military. And let’s say I haven’t been in a comic book store in ages. Once I enter a comic book store I realize I’m surrounded by cardboard boxes and lots of plastic. So…if I want to buy a few comics that deal with serious themes – like loss, leadership, justice, sacrifice, history – where do I begin? What questions should I ask?
Man, that’s an interesting question.I suppose it would depend on what genre one is looking for.If one wants pure war stories, I would go with War Stories.Living here currently in Seoul (I teach for UMUC to military personnel) there are TPBs of War Stories on sale in the BX.The military has embraced certain aspects of the role of comics.Marvel does an AAFES (Army-Air Force exchange system) comic book give away every year at PXs.The Navy did a graphic novel that dealt with the role of medics and corpsman in The Docs.Ernie Colon and Sid Jacobson did a comic for Military OneSource on the readjustment to life in the States and on PTSD, entitled Coming Home.I would say ask the clerks if they have any suggestions.There is such an industry behind it now that there is also the monthly trade catalog that features upcoming titles.Mostly I just look and try to find what looks interesting to me.If one gets an interest in war or military comics, then they could peruse the back issues but this can get pricey, especially if one wants to start getting into the series.I would also suggest looking first at the libraries.The Graphic Novels section in any library has a lot of titles that are TPB, GN or other bound compilations.It was how I started some of my work on Civil War.Then finally one could purchase Comics and Conflict, and then harangue the author for suggestions (HAHAHA).
The Atlantic magazine recently published an interesting piece about comic books and “The Canon.” Simply, people get really grouchy when directors and writers start messing with the facts about comic book characters’ backgrounds, their history. As the author says, this frustration, this sense of ownership by fans, it’s born out of love. Which I believe. But what are your thoughts on this? From your study, have comic book characters simply, in many instances, been reinvented, that they do change over time? That there is really no one way to see a character?
This is always a source of contention for purists.For example, I personally loved the take on Nick Fury as portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson.But because he was originally white (started out as a Kirby and Simon creation – Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos), some hated this version.I can understand some fans wanting to stick with the original formula but if it’s done well, it can be interesting.If it’s not done well, then I get mad like everyone else.I have read some interesting takes on characters.I loved the re-envisioning of Superman inSuperman: Red Son, written by Mark Millar for example.The premise was that Superman landed not in Kansas in 1938, but hit in the Ukraine.The new Superman had a hammer and sickle in lieu of the “S”.Now I’m not a communist but I thought that the story line was interesting.However, some fans wrote in and were furious that he could take an American icon (he’s Scottish, by the way) and bastardize it.I actually remembered reading the original Superman #300 storyline that Millar premised the newer update on.Cap’s reinvention, Iron Man’s transformation to War Machine or Iron Patriot were also takes on this.Comic books, like the movies often have different writers and artists over the years.Everyone wants their own take on the character.Then again, I don’t always agree with how things turn out.
Why do you think so many people buy tickets to see a blockbuster film starring a comic book character, yet they wouldn’t be caught dead in a line at Barnes and Noble with a new copy of Doctor Strange? There seems to be, still, a cloud that hangs over comics, that these are children’s books. Is this true? Has this always been the case?
This has been an issue for a lot of folks.Comic books were born in a time in American history when there were not as many outlets for folks.As the original comics were simply re-published Sunday cartoon sections, they were seen primarily for kids.This didn’t mean that adults didn’t read comics as well.During WWII, the average age of a reader was pre-teens, 12 I think.But by the 1960s the readership went up a bit, and so some enterprising companies started to write stories to appeal to teen readers. This was why Spiderman was such a hit: he was a teen like his reader base.
By the early 2000s the average age of a comic book reader is in its early 20s.More money to burn on comics, but in return they expect more: more violence more language and even more of aspects towards sex.So some folks who walk into a comic book store and expect to read simple wholesome comics may be surprised or shocked.The creators and companies have evolved.The idea that the comic book collection will be the next gold mine is also a bit of a bust.Yes you may see a mint condition Amazing Fantasy #16 (first appearance of Spiderman) go for $600,000 or an Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) go for $1.5 million but for those rarities, most are not worth the vast amount of money that people thought at one time. For me, it was simply using the material to look at aspects of history from a cultural base.I find the stuff incredible and adapted to other fields, like military training.
In your book, you talk a lot about how comics take sides – many were pro-war and many were anti-war. Do you think comics tend to be pro-war or anti-war? Or have they reached a point where they really can tackle the nuances of conflict?
Overall I think that war comics, especially the more recent ones, tend to be anti-war at their core.There have been some that were all heroics, and fantasy (Charleton was a great example of war fantasy) but overall, most of the stories have tried to say that there is always a cost of combat.Even though Sgt. Rock was seen as a fantasy of combat, and some Vietnam troops said that they wanted to enact heroics like those they had read a few years before, even Kubert tried to address the real nature of war and its stresses and violence.Again, I think that the best examples of war comics with a message were those from EC comics in the 1950s.This is the company that made MAD Magazine.Frontline Combat and Two Fisted Tales were written by WWII vets, and many of the stories had a cynicism to it. Some of the stories even tried to dispel the image of combat in film.I am reminded of one story from Two-Fisted Tales entitled “Corpse on the Imjin.”The story is told in a second person format, and describes in detail the concept of a soldier engaged in hand to hand combat.The book is shocking in an era when the comics were still VERY patriotic.This story had the reader (“You feel the breath go out of him as you hold him underwater”) active in the story.It also dealt with the very topical issue of the Korean War, not the exploits of WWII, where the “enemy” was more clear-cut.As I was by the Imjin River last weekend, I couldn’t help but think of that storyline.There are a lot of current comics that deal with the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.There are even graphic novels in other languages that tell of their experiences.I have one in German called Smile and Wave.But the confusion, the frustration and the war experience are not simply good guy wins, bad guy gets his, but it’s one of more layers.I think that comics like that are the best, the most real.
Professor Scott, thank you so much for your time.
Cord A. Scott has a Doctorate in American History from Loyola University Chicago and currently serves as a Traveling Collegiate Faculty for the UMUC-Asia.He is the author of Comics and Conflict: Patriotism and Propaganda from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom, published by the US Naval Institute Press.He has written for several encyclopedias, academic journals such as the International Journal of Comic Art, the Journal of Popular Culture, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and in several books on aspects of cultural history.
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a regular contributor to the Center for International Maritime Security. He is currently stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The comments and opinions above are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
Tom Ricks is no stranger. If you follow the US military, then you’ve probably stopped by his blog“The Best Defense”over at Foreign Policymagazine on more than one occasion.
Sometimes provocative, always interesting, Ricks has provided a voice for civilians, officers, and enlisted, to raise issues, debate defense policies, or often recommend a good book. In fact, Ricks’ comments on books and reading listshave fed my intellectual curiosity these past few years.
Tom Ricks joined me to talk about everything from the craft of writing, the size of his library, to one of his favorite books at the moment, a book on military innovation.
What got you started in journalism and why cover the military?
What got me started in journalism was I was living in Hong Kong and teaching English and English literature. I always expected to be a teacher. And I saw, when I was about twenty-two years old in Hong Kong, the people that were enjoying themselves were journalists — the young American, British, and Chinese journalists. I couldn’t believe that some adult would give them a credit card and just allow them to go around and ask people questions. It seemed like a good gig to me. Also, once I began in journalism, I found that the military really interested me. It was a interesting institution in of itself. You could write about everything from politics to international relations to technology — the basic human stories. And then I found in about 1995 when I was working on what became Making the Corps, it was also a very good way of looking at America; and looking at where our country is by talking to young recruits and so on. So I found out that I really enjoyed covering the military as well.
What were your favorite books of 2015? Your top three? And why?
It’s funny, I don’t really read books as they come out. I read books as they happen to provoke my interest. I think my favorite nonfiction book that I read last year was about the Comanches. It’s called The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen. In fiction, I really like Elizabeth Strout. I’d read her book Olive Kitteridge, so recently I went back and read an earlier novel of hers called Abide With Me. I read it in particular because it is about winter in Maine, which is six months long, and which I am living through, so her bringing a novelist’s eye to it really intrigued me. So those are sort of the two books that really struck me lately.
One other: I also finally got around to reading The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. It’s just a wonderfully written memoir about growing up in Southeast Texas near Port Arthur, near Houston in the 1960s. Her style reminds me of Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors.
Professionally, oddly enough, the book that has struck me is one that I read twenty years ago and I picked it up again recently. I liked it then—and re-reading it, I loved it. I wrote about it in the blog, it is by Stephen Peter Rosen, and its called Winning the Next War. It’s about military innovation, what works and what doesn’t. A lot of it is counter intuitive. Money is not important to innovation, in fact it may hurt it; technology is not that important to innovation; what is really important to innovation is organizational change during peacetime. It really is a very different take, and I find it intriguing because I think it is a crucial issue.
I worry that we have a big late Industrial Age military, which is a problem because we are on the cusp of Information Age. We confuse the ability to throw firepower with the ability to subdue an enemy. In that way today’s US military reminds me of the Royal Navy of 1939. The Royal Navy then was the biggest in the world, it had the most battleships and the ability to throw more firepower, but was almost entirely irrelevant in World War II. They neglected changes; they didn’t understand the submarine; they didn’t understand how to use the aircraft carrier; and they didn’t have enough destroyers. They won the Battle of the Atlantic but that was with us giving them a lot of destroyers and other help, like providing submarine support.
Is there a book that is coming out that you are looking forward to?
The new book that struck me most recently was a graphic novel — and I am not a big fan of those. It is by the guy who does Terminal Lance. It’s called TheWhite Donkey. It is a graphic novel about his time in Iraq. It was self-published but now it is coming out by Little Brown, the big publisher, in April. I am looking forward to see how well it does when it comes out.
What is your daily routine? As a writer, do you block off time each day to write?
I’m definitely a morning writer. I like to get up, make a cup of coffee, and sit down and start writing. I get the blog out pretty quickly, and then I turn to whatever book I am writing at the time. I usually try to do about four hours a day, stopping around lunchtime. I’ll have lunch with my wife, and then in the afternoon do some errands, maybe take a walk, and then sit down to read or do some research. I find that when I am too tired to write I like turn to research. And for me, the lesson in book writing is to stop when you start feeling tired. It really takes your full energy and full attention the way research doesn’t.
That sounds like pretty good advice to anyone who wants to write.
My advice is to establish a routine—that is, do not wait for inspiration. Writing is a lot more like carpentry than it is like poetry. It’s a craft. You have to get up and saw and sand and screw things together, and then stand back and look at it. Sometimes you’ll say, “OK, that didn’t quite work, let me rework it.” Sometimes it does work. But the people who tell me, “I’m writing a book on the weekends”—when they say that, well, I think to myself, no, you’re enjoying yourself and pretending to write a book on the weekends. The only way a book gets written if you really work on it every day. Every morning, for me.
Do you read with a pencil in hand? Is a notebook close by? Do you do a lot of marginalia when reading?
Totally. To me that is intellectual capital — the marginalia in any book. I remember a professor of mine in college who said, “If you are not reading with a pen in your hand then you are not reading.” I find that is especially true for nonfiction. I’m constantly taking notes. In fact, one measure for me is that how much I’ve learned from a book is the number of pages I’ve marked up. In Winning the Next War by Peter Rosen, which I just re-read, I probably took ten pages of notes the second time I read it — even more notes than I did the first time. Filling up the front and the back of the book with notes and thoughts and connections. And for me that will often become the grist for a blog item or even for something that I’m writing about in a book.
If you had the chance to invite three authors over to your house for dinner — living or dead — who is coming to your house, and why?
My favorite historian is David Hackett Fisher. I think I’ve read all his books. I love Washington’s Crossing. I read his Albion’s Seedtwice, and Paul Revere’s Ride, also by him, which is just lovely. I’ve never met him. I would enjoy meeting him and asking him what he thinks about books. I would love to see him write about the Civil War. He’s written about almost every other aspect of American History. I think he is my favorite American historian, and it seems to me that the Civil War is the essential event of our history. I would love to see him tackle that.
Another favorite writer of mine is actually a friend of mine, Eliot Cohen, who has written several terrific books. My favorite book by him is called Supreme Command. It’s how really good civilian leaders lead their militaries. One of the themes of this book is that they are not hands off, and they are not looking for consensus. Instead, they are constantly probing and asking questions, pushing their military leaders. They are especially looking to surface differences. To say, “now you guys disagreed on this, now tell me about this disagreement.” You see this in leaders like Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, and actually Dwight Eisenhower as well.
For a third one, let’s see, I’ve read almost all the novels by Jonathan Franzen. I think he is a lovely writer. But I also think he is a crank and curmudgeon. I’m not sure I would enjoy dinner with him, but it would sure be interesting to have dinner with him.
How many books do you have in your library?
It’s funny you should ask, because where we live in Maine, we finally have a really good basement, big and dry. So for the first time in my life I have been able to get all of my books in one spot, and I really like that. They’re on long boards and cinderblocks.
I measure it by the foot. I actuallywrote about this in the blog once. The biggest section is World War II, which I think is thirty-two feet. And there probably are seven and a bit shelves of Iraq, which going by the boards I used makes about 31 feet. And then there is 27 feet of Vietnam, 9 of the Korean War. Unfortunately the basement is filling up fast.
So you’ve been covering the US military for over twenty years. I’m curious about your readers. You’ve been blogging over at Foreign Policy for some time. Yet you don’t talk about your readers much. I’m curious about how many people stop by “Best Defense”? What types of readers are reading ‘Best Defense’?
I don’t know on the numbers, partly because Foreign Policy’s editors keep the numbers close hold. When I ask them about the numbers I get gobbledygook about unique hits, and you know, “push only visitors” and “unique visitors,” and all that stuff. It doesn’t tell me anything.
A few years ago, I believe I was told I was getting 30,000 to 40,000 readers a month. But that could be wildly wrong. I never really pushed the issue with my editors. Maybe they are afraid that if they tell me how many visitors I have, that I’ll ask for a raise.
Now, the types of readers I have, I’m better on. Start with a big military audience. I’d have to say concentrated on middle NCO’s and junior and middle officers with a smattering of younger enlisted and a smattering of O6 and above. That’s in the military.
The second big group is academics. And military history is a pretty lonely field, so academics seem to like a place that welcomes military historians.
The third group is defense journalists, think tank people, guys at corporations in northern Virginia, things like that. It kind of amuses my wife—she says that within three miles of the Pentagon, I’m a minor celebrity. Beyond that I’m totally anonymous and very happy with that.
You’ve probably been to more than a few archives. What is the most interesting thing you’ve read or discovered?
There are a lot of exciting things in the archives. It just amazes me that you can sit there and if you ask for the right files and explain what you are looking for, and the people in the archives that work there tend to be very helpful, you can sit and hold maps that guys held on the beaches on D-Day. The original maps that have their markings on them, the markings they are making in pencil as they figure out where a German machine gun nest is, or where the lines of communications are.
But I gotta say, the single most moving thing I ever found were some letters by a general, Terry de la Mesa Allen, who was commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Sicily in August, 1943; a very good division commander, a very tough fighter. Terry Allen was relived of division command by Omar Bradley. It was very public and he didn’t know why. He had just won the key battle of the campaign in central Sicily and then he got fired, along with his assistant division commander, who was Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., the son of the President. He writes back to his wife a series of letters in pencil on blue lined school notebook paper. And one day he writes to his wife, “Patton dropped by, Patton thinks I’m being promoted to something.” Which is totally BS. And I think Patton knew it. Eventually Allen gets sent back to America without a job. George Marshall, the Army chief, admired Allen even though Allen was a very heavy drinker. When Marshall found out that Allen had been fired by Bradley, I found in the archives a note Marshall wrote to an aide that said: “Give Allen another division that is going overseas. Give him the 82nd if that is next to go over.” And when Marshall was told the 82nd was not the next, Marshall said: “Give him the next division that comes up.” So a year later Marshall has Terry Allen back in Europe commanding the 104th Infantry Division.
To hold that series of letters where Allen is trying to figure out what is going on, in the midst of just having played a central role in the first American campaign against the Germans on European soil, is just amazing to me. That really was a heart stopping thing for me when doing research.
Still, I have to mention that one of the hazards I didn’t know about when doing research, is that I’ll be sitting there in the Army archives, reading these things in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and frequently I’ll go back to my hotel room and at night I’d begin hacking, and I’d realize that I’d ingested a lot of dust looking at files that people that hadn’t looked at for years and years. If I go again I think I will wear a mask next time.
What books would you recommend to the next US President? The next Secretary of Defense? The next Joint Chiefs of Staff?
I would recommend to all of them Cohen’s Supreme Command. For my money it is the best book about how the civilian leadership should run his military, and how military leaders should deal with their civilian overseers. It’s also about strategy. Strategy is not easy. If you are not crying than you are not making strategy. If you are not asking hard questions you are not making strategy. If you are not prioritizing between the important and the essential, you are not making strategy. Eliot Cohen’s book brings those points home and does it very well by examining a series of leaders and their decisions.
You are very good about not pushing your favorite articles on your blog. And at the end of the year you often run a top 20 most read articles. But I’m curious what are some of your favorite articles from guest authors?
You’re right, I try not push things, because I often run things I disagree with. Frequently an article will come out and I will make a comment, and then somebody reads it and writes me and says: “Sir, I am a big fan of your blog, but let me tell you why you are dead wrong.”And frequently I will write back and say, “that sounds interesting, why don’t you write it up into an article.” So a lot of articles come out of disagreements with me, or perhaps email exchanges.
As to favorite, I have two types. There is a special place in my heart for the pieces by the enlisted military personnel. I think officers have too large a voice in policy formulation, and that the enlisted have too small a voice, especially given their numbers. We have a very well educated, professional enlisted military these days. I don’t think we take sufficient notice of that or make sufficient use of it. So one of the things I try to do in the blog is I have this group called the “Council of Former Enlisted.” These are people who have been in the military but are now out, so they can speak freely. They are thinking about their experience. Many of them are in college, some of them are in grad school. And that council of the former enlisted I have really enjoyed. One of them in particular, Sebastian Bae, a former Marine sergeant has written a bunch of really good articles that I like.
I also want to mention another guy, Ryan Blum, who wrote a good article about living in Paris the past year. He said he went to Paris to get away from the war, but he found out with the terror attacks there in November that it followed him there.
Another article that is a favorite of mine is one that was published recently. It’s by a ninety-one-year-old Marine veteran of World War II. He writes about the country he knew as a child, the country he fought for during World War II. He ends up with a very gloomy conclusion. He says because of the income inequalities in this country these days, he thinks this country is not living up to the sacrifices he and his buddies made in World War II. We were fighting for a country of fairness and sharing, relative equality and income, he says, and now we don’t have that. The rich are much too rich in this country nowadays. A lot of people are struggling to get by, even with two incomes. He said that’s not the country I knew, that’s not the country I fought for. By having that country now, he concludes, we are not honoring the sacrifice of people who fought in World War II.
I understand you are working on a book on Orwell and Churchill? Can you tell us about your next project? What fascinates you about Orwell and Churchill?
Orwell and Churchill came to me oddly. The commonality is that in their youth they were both war correspondents. And so I came to them as a war correspondent myself. I actually did a staff ride in Spain with Eliot Cohen which I played the character of George Orwell.
And I’ve always enjoyed reading Churchill. So the interesting thing about these two are that they are so different, but they played such a key role in our understanding of totalitarianism, of fascism, of Communism — through Churchill’s speeches and Orwell’s essays and novels. It’s kind of parallel appreciation of the two. They never met each other, they admired each other, in fact, the hero in Orwell’s novel 1984 is named “Winston.”
At times you’ve been critical about military periodicals, and at other times you’ve praised some of the pieces in these periodicals. What would you do if you were the editor to make some of these periodicals better?
I look back to certain periodicals have good spells — times they should emulate. They shouldn’t do what Tom Ricks says, they should just do their best to be at their best. For example, Army Magazine I think is going through a very good spell and has for the last couple of years, and that’s changed—I mean, it used to be the dullest of military periodicals. Marine Corps Gazette in the 1980s and early 1990s was very powerful — it stood head and shoulders above the other military publications. And then I think it has been whipped around by the Commandants too much and kind of lost a lot of its bite that it used to have; it used to have really serious intellectual discussions — you just don’t really see that so much anymore. Likewise, Proceedings used to be very strong but really seems to me to be too focused on what’s going through Admirals’ minds these days. It’s run some absolutely fatuous pieces by admirals that just do not do it credit. So I think Proceedings has fallen down in recent years. And the Air Force, well, I see very little good writing coming out of it.
Decision time. Would you rather have Orwell’s Why I Write or Zinsser’s On Writing Well on your desk?
Here are the two things I recommend to anybody trying to write: One is Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It’s one of the best things written about the writing and about thinking.
The other is E.B. White’s book The Elements of Style. I actually tried to propose a rule policy at think tanks that I have worked at, which is that every intern must read this book and take a quiz on it before they start working here. I spent a lot of time working at think tanks, editing interns and translating their writing into English. And it’s not just interns, it’s also a lot of officers. Everybody who is trying to write for other people should read E.B. White’s Elements of Style. It’s short enough that you can read it in one night.
Tom Ricks, thank you so much for you joining us. All the best to you.
You are welcome. I enjoyed it.
Thomas Ricksis senior advisor for national security at the New America Foundation. He also is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the blog “The Best Defense,” which was named the best blog of the year by the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2010, as well as the best military blog by Military Reporters & Editors. He is currently writing a study of the roles Winston Churchill and George Orwell played in shaping politics and culture of the 20th century.
Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for 17 years. He reported on U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was part of a Wall Street Journal team that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2000 for a series of articles on how the U.S. military might change to meet the new demands of the 21st century. The series is posted at:
Ricks also was part of a Washington Post team that won the 2002 Pulitzer prize for reporting about the beginning of the U.S. counteroffensive against terrorism. Those articles are posted at:
He is the author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-05, which was a no. 1 New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. His second book on that war, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08, was published in 2009. He also wrote Making the Corps, which won the Washington Monthly’s “Political Book of the Year” award. His first novel, A Soldier’s Duty, about the U.S. military intervening in Afghanistan, was published by Random House in June 2001–some four months before the U.S. actually did intervene there. He also has written on defense matters for the Atlantic Monthly and other publications. His most recent book is The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.
Born in Massachusetts in 1955, he grew up in New York and Afghanistan and graduated from Yale in 1977. He is married to Mary Catherine Ricks, author of Escape on the Pearl, a history of one of the biggest slave escapes in American history. They have two grown children. For recreation he enjoys sailing, hiking, sea kayaking, downhill skiing and reading military history.
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the US Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii. Lieutenant Commander Nelson is a graduate of the US Naval War College and the navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The comments and questions above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.