From 1789 to today
Here are new or upcoming titles that deal with the charter for America's government, the most famous battle of the Civil War, a fresh viewpoint that sees a particular year in recent times as pivotal, the life of a Cold War spymaster, and a 19th-century conflict in Afghanistan that prefigured today's.
“The Constitution: Understanding America's Founding Document” by Michael S. Greve (AEI Press) — The author is a George Mason School of Law professor who from 2000 to 2012 was the John G. Searle Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he remains a visiting scholar and does research on federalism, courts, constitutional law and business regulation. The book is part of AEI's “Values and Capitalism” series of 13 titles aimed primarily at college students, but is well-suited to serve most any reader as a concise primer — 130 pages — on constitutions in general and America's in particular. It explains constitutions' two-fold purpose — making orderly politics possible by setting up institutions with specific powers and rules governing how decisions are made and by whom, and limiting government power. Greve points out that while the U.S. Constitution's list of rights is rather limited in comparison to such lists in newer constitutions, it's more effective at curbing government's reach and leaves more room for democracy to work. And he reminds today's hyperpartisan, divided America that constitutional debate has been part of every major debate in U.S. history and is healthy, “not a sign of collapse or disintegration” but of the nation remaining “true to its principles” as it undertakes “grand new experiments,” according to the publisher.
“Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” by Allen C. Guelzo (Knopf, available Tuesday) — As media pay more attention to the biggest Civil War battle in advance of its July 1-3 sesquicentennial, this book stands out. One reason is its author: The Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of Civil War studies at Gettysburg College, he has won the Lincoln Prize twice for previous books. Another reason is that the book — with its title alluding to the fact that the Battle of Gettysburg marked the last time that Confederate forces would carry their fight onto Union territory — challenges conventional wisdom and enlivens history. It does so by vividly portraying the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that individual soldiers and townspeople experienced at Gettysburg, including the fact that the battling armies “were so filthy they could be smelled before they could be seen,” as the publisher puts it. Guelzo also covers the difficulties of directing so many troops without modern communications technology, politics' role in military decisions related to Gettysburg and the 19th-century military practices reflected in the battle. He thus finds new information and insights to offer about a battle that's already been the subject of near-countless books — another way in which “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” stands out.
“Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century” by Christian Caryl (Basic Books) — This book is an example of how perspective can change as time passes — of how, if one waits long enough, patterns and commonalities emerge that weren't apparent during or immediately after historic events' occurrence. Here, a Legatum Institute and MIT Center for International Studies senior fellow, Foreign Policy magazine contributing editor and former Newsweek correspondent presents just such a take. He argues that 1979 brought to the fore — via counterrevolutions against the status quo — fundamentally transformative forces that have shaped the world of 2013: radical Islam (seen in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, and fueled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), globalized free markets' ascendancy over socialist and communist systems (seen in Margaret Thatcher becoming Great Britain's prime minister, and in China's first economic reforms), and resistance to totalitarianism (seen in Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland, which revived Catholic faith there and moved Eastern Europe closer to the Soviet Union's downfall). Readers old enough to recall 1979 will come away from this book viewing that year as much more than just a miserable one for America; those too young to remember 1979 will gain new understanding of the only world they've known — and of why history matters.
“Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA” by Randall B. Woods (Basic Books) — After serving with distinction as a World War II commando in France and Norway, Colby got in on the ground floor when America set up its first peacetime intelligence agency, becoming a Cold War spy who'd rise to CIA director under presidents Nixon and Ford. Staunchly anti-communist and fond of guerrilla tactics, he was involved in many operations that remain controversial today, including assassination attempts, coups, secret wars in Laos and Cambodia and the Vietnam era's so-called “Phoenix Program” that killed some 20,000 civilian Viet Cong supporters. Equally controversially, he turned over to Watergate-era congressional investigators a 693-page document, known as the “family jewels,” that detailed such CIA operations — and dubbed it “surprisingly mild.” This biography by the John F. Cooper Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Arkansas recounts all that and also aims to provide insight into Colby the man — something of a loner, who never really fit with the Beltway crowd but prided himself on being able to blend in anywhere. Colby's life is one that raises hard questions, including at what point adopting an enemy's tactics drags one down to that enemy's level; this book illuminates that life but doesn't pretend there are easy answers.
“Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan: 1839-42” by William Dalrymple (Knopf) — This book retells in exhaustive detail a cautionary historical lesson seemingly ignored at great cost to America: Great Britain's 19th-century defeat in Afghanistan, which has numerous eerie parallels to today's quagmire there. Invading from India with 20,000 troops to restore Shah Shuja ul-Mulk to the Afghan throne as their puppet, the British faced little initial resistance. But after about two years, calls for jihad sparked an Afghan rebellion that destroyed the occupying forces in a mountain ambush that just one Brit survived. Drawing on newly available primary sources from Afghan, Pakistani, Russian and Indian archives, including Afghan materials not previously translated, the author — an award-winning journalist, historian and travel writer — finds that this First Anglo-Afghan War has many striking points of comparison with the current situation: tribal heritages shared by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Shah, and by most of today's Taliban fighters and the Shah's opponents; tribal dominance of Afghan politics; British and Western troop garrisons in the same cities, attacked from the same hills and passes in much the same way, then and now. It's enough to leave any reader wondering how today's West has allowed itself to repeat so much of Britain's bitter Afghanistan experience.