Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

My Christmas break reading: the Jews, baseball, gnostics, the great Abigail Adams–and her wanker great-grandson

I have been deep into a rewrite of the manuscript of my book about American generalship since 1939, and am finding it exhausting, with lots of heavy mental lifting. I have been writing as long as I can every day, and sleeping an extra hour or two every night. So instead of my usual evening ...

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I have been deep into a rewrite of the manuscript of my book about American generalship since 1939, and am finding it exhausting, with lots of heavy mental lifting. I have been writing as long as I can every day, and sleeping an extra hour or two every night.

So instead of my usual evening fare of military history, I've been trying to read further afield. I whipped through Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews, which though almost 600 pages, was a fast and enjoyable read. Even here I found an interesting military tidbit, that Alexander the Great had on his staff an interpreter of dreams (at least, according to Freud).  It made me imagine the chairman of the Joint Chiefs shouting one morning, "Hey, get me the J-55 -- I need my dream last night interpreted." Then for some reason I picked up Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels but it left me cold. I skimmed it, which I rarely do. 

At my wife's recommendation, I also read an enjoyable, Franzen-like novel, The Art of Fielding.

I have been deep into a rewrite of the manuscript of my book about American generalship since 1939, and am finding it exhausting, with lots of heavy mental lifting. I have been writing as long as I can every day, and sleeping an extra hour or two every night.

So instead of my usual evening fare of military history, I’ve been trying to read further afield. I whipped through Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews, which though almost 600 pages, was a fast and enjoyable read. Even here I found an interesting military tidbit, that Alexander the Great had on his staff an interpreter of dreams (at least, according to Freud).  It made me imagine the chairman of the Joint Chiefs shouting one morning, "Hey, get me the J-55 — I need my dream last night interpreted." Then for some reason I picked up Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels but it left me cold. I skimmed it, which I rarely do. 

At my wife’s recommendation, I also read an enjoyable, Franzen-like novel, The Art of Fielding.

My favorite book of the break was The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, which a historian recommended to me back in November. It was terrific. He’s kind of a stodgy whiner, but she is a lively personality-and a better writer than he. She’s a perceptive observer: "Burgoyne is a better poet than soldier." She also was well ahead of her husband on the rights of women and blacks. This book also turned out to have a military connection: The introduction says that John Adams was effectively the first American secretary of defense, in his capacity as chairman of the Board of War.

I liked the Adams book so much that I finally picked up The Education of Henry Adams, which I have had sitting around for decades. All I can say is: What a big wanker. His grandfather and great-grandfather were both presidents. Henry must have been the Fredo of the Adams family. Still, I enjoyed the first half of the book for its portrayal of life in Boston and Washington before the Civil War. Henry Adams comes off like a minor league version of Oscar Wilde: "The Secretary of State exists only to recognize the existence of a world which Congress would rather ignore." He is especially good in describing the pomposity of U.S. Senators, and the political effects of the Grant presidency. I hated the second half — if you pick it up, I’d recommend stopping after Chapter 20, which covers 1871.

I came away thinking The Education of Henry Adams is actually a huge, circular self defense for his sitting out the Civil War, the event of his era, and indeed so far the most important event in American history. (He was in his twenties during the war, but spent it in London as an aide to his father, a diplomat.) Mostly he ignores the Civil War. Sometimes he seems to mock those who fought, as in a reference to looking out his window in Washington decades after the war and seeing an doddering, half-forgotten officer: "There is old Dash who broke the rebel lines at Blankburg! Think of his having been a thunderbolt of war!" Yet by the end of the book, oddly enough, he seems to give himself the mantle of a veteran, referring to himself at one point as, "an old Civil War private soldier in diplomacy." That’s quite a construction.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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