Saturday, September 03, 2005

Great War Writing

Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, 575pages, Viking Publishing

Collapse is the much-anticipated new book from the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller Guns, Germs and Steel. In his new work Jared Diamond asks and answers the question “What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse to ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?” This is a lengthy book, enriched by the immense depth and breadth of Diamond’s scholarship and experience in detailing the collapse of past civilizations, in particular the Greenland Norse, the Maya, the people of Easter Island and the Anasazi people of Arizona.

In his description, Diamond identifies what lead to the collapse of seemingly healthy and prosperous societies. As juxtaposition, he compares the collapses of several ancient societies with the situation in his home in present-day, water-starved Montana. Diamond sees Montana as a society which on the surface appears healthy and prosperous, but which has signs of deterioration that could lead to a collapse like those which fell before. He presents it not as a society which will collapse, but as one which, while healthy and prosperous on the surface, appears to be deteriorating to a point where it could suffer collapse.

Guns, Germs and Steel
was an incredible work of non-fiction. Unfortunately, Collapse does not live up to the standard set by that earlier work. While the ideas presented in Collapse are sound and the arguments backed up with solid scholarship, the book is far from engrossing. It is frequently bogged down with details that don’t have much to do with advancing its main thesis of how societies collapse. After reading it you will probably agree that you know much more than enough about Norse animal husbandry and shipbuilding techniques, among other items elaborated on ad nauseum. Worse yet is Diamond’s habit of interjecting himself into the storyline.

is neither entertaining nor original.


Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War, by Evan Wright, 354 pages, Putnam.

We live in an era of truly great on-the-spot war reporting. One reason is the decision of the American military to embed thousands of journalists with its troops during the invasion of Iraq. Another is the commitment of great writers to bring authentic and gritty war writing to the field, injecting new life to this non-fiction genre. A high water mark for combat writing had already been set by Mark Bowen in Black Hawk Down and Anthony Swofford in Jarhead - a first person account from a Marine in the first Gulf War.

Now Evan Wright steps up. He was reporter for Rolling Stone, embedded with the U.S. Marines elite recon unit, nicknamed the “First Suicide Battalion,” as they invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003. The unit performed ‘reconnaissance’ during the war, which usually means acting as the tip of the spear. These men would lead the Marine advance by driving their unarmoured Humvees directly into ambushes at high speed and causing as much disorder as possible. Wright was with them to document this gripping and true story with authentic accounts of life and death, fear and chaos.

Far from being a classic shoot-em-up, rah-rah cheerleading account, Wright drills down into the personalities of Marines who both plunged him into mortal danger and protected him from it. What emerges are individual portraits of Marines that show them as human and irritating as 19-year-old American males can be, though never losing sight that they have been trained as stone cold killers.

This book’s crude title may turn some readers away, which is unfortunate, since Wright has produced a delicate and nuanced portrayal of a highly emotional event in our recent history. Generation Kill is immensely readable and is a welcome addition to modern war journalism.

Highly Recommended.