Gift Guide 2012: Military History

Wall Street Journal

November 16, 2012

Every year brings a fresh batch of memoirs from the new “Greatest Generation”—the veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of the most notable entries this year were produced by enlisted men. “No Easy Day” (Dutton, 336 pages, $26.95) was written by Matt Bissonnette (under the nom de plume Mark Owen). As you no doubt know by now, Mr. Bissonnette was one of the SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden, and the book both begins and ends with this high-profile mission. But in between there is a good deal of interesting material about the training and mind-set of an “operator” who did 13 consecutive combat deployments as a member of the storied SEAL Team Six.

Like “No Easy Day,” Dakota Meyer’s“Into the Fire” (Random House, 239 pages, $27) is gripping reading and provides important insights into the mentality of today’s warriors. The author is a young corporal who became the first living Marine to earn the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. In 2009, Mr. Meyer was part of an advisory team that was ambushed by a substantial Taliban contingent in eastern Afghanistan. Four separate times Mr. Meyer advanced to rescue personnel pinned down under heavy fire. As his medal citation notes: “He killed at least eight Taliban, personally evacuated 12 friendly wounded, and provided cover for another 24 Marines and soldiers to escape likely death.”

In “The Endgame” (Pantheon, 779 pages, $35), Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor provide a fast-paced, big-picture view of the war in Iraq. The authors begin at the beginning, with the decision to invade in 2003, but their narrative is most valuable in chronicling developments from 2007 onward. They show how the surge worked and go on to discuss its unexpected side effects—for instance, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s impetuous decision to stage a major offensive in Basra in 2008. The book concludes with an account of President Barack Obama’s ambivalent and halfhearted efforts to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011.

In “Freedom’s Forge” (Random House, 413 pages, $28), the historian Arthur Herman looks, with great zest and insight, at America’s production of massive amounts of war materiel for itself and its allies during World War II. As he notes, U.S. factories churned out “86,000 tanks, 2.5 million trucks and a half million jeeps, 286,000 warplanes, 8,800 naval vessels, 5,600 merchant ships.” This achievement owed a great deal to the efforts of two men, auto maker William S. Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry Kaiser. The former was a pugnacious Danish immigrant who, as Mr. Herman notes, “worked his way up from the shop floor to become president of General Motors.” In 1940, FDR charged him with ramping up military manufacturing. Kaiser was a daring entrepreneur who undertook massive projects like the Hoover Dam before building the merchant vessels known as Liberty Ships. Mr. Herman shows that businessmen like Knudsen and Kaiser were more responsible for creating the Arsenal of Democracy than the New Deal bureaucrats who usually get the credit.

Yale law professor John Fabian Witt also looks at a less-examined aspect of military history: the development of the laws of war. In “Lincoln’s Code” (Free Press, 498 pages, $32), he chronicles how various American leaders, from the 1700s to the early 1900s, struggled with the competing demands of justice and humanitarianism. Justice requires waging war as aggressively as possible to defeat our enemies, but the dictates of humanitarianism led presidents and generals to put in place protections for civilians and prisoners of war. The bulk of Mr. Witt’s book focuses on the Civil War and how guidelines were developed for dealing with Confederate bushwhackers, freed slaves and other thorny subjects. By showing how past presidents have struggled with the legal issues of war-making, Mr. Witt warns against those who simplistically denounced George W. Bush for supposedly violating “a long American tradition of respect for and participation in the international laws of war.” The reality was more complex and interesting.