Year after year, publishers of war and military history books must breathe new life into moments fixed in history. It’s a challenge that takes innovative thinking, careful strategy, and flexibility—the same qualities, perhaps, summoned by generals who charge the same enemy again and again, each time from a different battlefield. This year, as in years past, the most popular topics are perennial; to engage their readership, publishers are employing a variety of surprising tactics.
The wars covered most thoroughly—and often—are still the “usual suspects,” says Crown senior editor Kevin Doughten, citing World War II, the Civil War, and the American Revolution. “Readers seem to enjoy an increasingly diverse range of approaches to these conflicts, from battlefield narratives like Rick Atkinson’s and Nat Philbrick’s, to stories of spies and intrigue like Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross,” he says. And while the most tried-and-true subtopics and battle stories, like D-Day, remain popular, “underexposed locales and theatres, like the battle for Crete discussed in Wes Davis’s forthcoming The Ariadne Objective, will offer readers new ways of looking at a familiar war.”
Many other editors and publishers echoed Doughton’s sentiments, a number underscoring the fact that Americans’ fascination with the events of World War II continues to grow, even as those involved directly in the war fade into history. “While once there were veteran memoirs on every hand—perhaps taken for granted—we’re now painfully regretting that they’ll become almost extinct,” says Steve Smith, editorial director of Casemate Publishers, which will, in September, publish Unsung Eagles: The Stories of American Airmen in the Skies of WWII. “The author, Jay Stout, told me he worked on it for over 10 years,” says Smith; the title has already been chosen as a selection of the Military Book Club. “Now he regrets taking so long because most of the men he interviewed have since died.”
Their narratives resurface in writing that explores new facets of those long-studied six years. “Customers are looking for well-written books with new perspectives on important military battles, campaigns, and issues,” says University Press of Kansas editor-in-chief Michael Briggs, citing the final volume of Pulitzer Prize–winner Rick Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy, The Guns at Last Light (published by Henry Holt this past May) as one of the best commercial examples. War is often depicted as tactics and “moves on a chessboard,” wrote reviewer Ben Macintyre in the New York Times upon the book’s publication, adding, “War is also about character and personality, individuals making choices and decisions in the heat of battle, inspired, calamitous, unfortunate, and plain lucky.”
General Wladyslaw Sikorski, commander-in-chief of Poland’s armed forces in France and, briefly, the prime minter of the country’s government-in-exile, is one such individual. He is profiled this year in a December book from Aquila Polonica called Sikorski: No Simple Soldier: World War II’s Unsung Allied Leader. “During the most desperate year of World War II—from the French surrender in June 1940 until Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941—Poland remained Great Britain’s largest ally, due to Sikorski’s tireless efforts,” says Aquila Polonica cofounder and president Terry Tegnazian.
Before Sikorski died suddenly in a plane crash, in 1943, he earned the respect of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a World War II icon who is seen anew this fall, beginning in November, when his unique relationship with George VI is illuminated in Viking’s Churchill and the King, written by historian Kenneth Weisbrode. That book comes just one month after Basic Books’ October title Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race—a look at the role the U.K. had, early on, as a leader of the Allies’ nuclear arms program, and Churchill’s often-overlooked relationships with some of the key scientists.“Lesser-known wartime events never fail to capture people’s attention,” says Lissa Warren, vice-president and senior director of publicity for Da Capo Press. The publisher’s November book, A Death in San Pietro, penned by History Channel Magazine writer Tim Brady, concerns the struggle of Captain Henry Waskow and his company. “Brady reveals the untold story of the men of ‘Purple Heart Valley’ and how they successfully drove off the Germans in December 1943,” says Warren, “but not before 80% of the company was lost in combat.”
The University Press of Kentucky’s biggest area of growth has been in international perspectives on military studies, says Mack McCormick, publicity and rights manager. Their series, Foreign Military Studies, a partnership with the Association of the United States Army, offers classics outside the American canon. Last year’s bestselling title was Ruckzug: The German Retreat from France, 1944; translated from the German, it presents a new view of the Allied troops after the initial D-Day invasion.
The Great War Turns 100
This coming July marks the centennial of the start of World War I, and in preparation, publishers are readying a slew of books on the subject: “Anniversaries are absurdly important for publicity,” says Matt Weiland, a senior editor at Norton. “It can sometimes feel that no book will be covered unless its subject matter abides by a strict anniversary algorithm, i.e., it must be X years old, where X ends in the digit 5 or 0.” Although in the end, he says, the best books transcend those types of news pegs, the march of new titles suggests a major shift since last year, when Da Capo’s executive editor Robert Pigeon said, “I’m hoping that Downton Abbey and War Horse might spark American interest in that most significant war.”
Now, those two hits seem like just a preview. “Like other editors, I have World War I in full view, right out there on the horizon,” says Oxford University Press’s executive editor, Tim Bent. This year OUP reissues Paul Fussell’s 1975 classic, The Great War and Modern Memory, which earned Fussell, a World War II veteran, both a National Book Award and an NBCC award. “He made you feel, through his use of letters and diaries and especially poetry, perhaps a fraction of what it was like in the trenches,” says Bent, “and with the very opposite of any intention to glorify.”
In honor of the anniversary, Random House will reissue five trade paperbacks by Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front (which is one of the five). It’ll also offer, in hardcover, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, in which author Margaret MacMillan (Paris 1919) traces Europe’s road to war and the personalities involved in the progression, including Kaiser Wilhelm and Nicholas II.
Illustrated books are providing a new window into those long-ago battles. In October, Norton will publish The Great War: July 1, 1916, the First Day of the Battle of the Somme, by writer and cartoonist Joe Sacco. The scale and devastation of the battle is not news, says Weiland, who began discussing the book with Sacco—a former roommate—15 years ago, but the visual sense of it is difficult to grasp: “Despite vital representations in literature,” he says, citing Fussell as well as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, “it is particularly hard to imagine given the paucity of photographs. To me, the genius of Joe’s book is that he makes us see it anew—and thereby feel it, to sense what it must have been like for an ordinary English soldier to step out of the trenches and realize, as so many must have done, that they were in a very dark, very deep circle of Hell indeed.”
Black Dog & Leventhal in November publishes The Great War in 3D, a book of firsthand accounts from the soldiers’ perspective; it also includes a stereoscopic views and 25 3-D photos of men in battle. “I’m still haunted by the scourge of rats and descriptions of standing waist-deep in mud for days on end,” says executive editor Dinah Dunn. “Plus, the stereographs provide an uncommon view of the front, which was not as well-photographed as in later wars.”
New Angles on the Civil War
The Civil War has provided seemingly endless fodder for military history publishers, but this year, the success of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is reflected in titles that explore the iconic president’s legacy. Crown’s Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power, looks beyond the president’s role in saving the Union to his relationship with foreign powers before, during, and after the Civil War. The book is penned by Kevin Peraino, whose most recent gig was as senior writer and Mideast bureau chief for Newsweek, and who signed a two-book deal with Crown. (This is the first.)
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on November 19, History Publishing Company shines a light on what many consider to be Lincoln’s defining moment: The Greatest Speech Ever, the Remarkable Story of Abraham Lincoln and His Gettysburg Address is written by Tennessee judge James H. Cotton and includes a foreword by former Senator Howard Baker. “Those 272 words certainly entered a very special place into the heart of America,” says publisher Don Bracken. “With them, he triangulated the past, present, and future of the United States.”
The New York Times: Disunion, released this past May by Black Dog & Leventhal, uses Lincoln’s election as a starting point to examine what the newspaper called “America’s most perilous period.” Edited by historian Ted Widmer, the book is a compilation of 106 articles from the newspaper’s online journal of the same name; it begins with the 1860 election and ends with the Emancipation Proclamation, three years later.
Tomorrow marks the debut of another anthology, Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri, which will be published by University of Kansas Press to coincide with another Civil War sesquicentennial: Confederate General William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kans. The book includes 15 scholars’ takes on the bitter division between those two states and the resultant outbreak of violence along the border. Then, on September 30, reference book publisher ABC-CLIO releases the multivolume American Civil War: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection, which covers the war’s catalysts, including the Mexican-American War, and follows its events all the way to its aftermath—and beyond.
In January, Bloomsbury Press will publish The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. In it, historian Douglas R. Egerton examines the transformational postwar period by looking at the experiences of the new African-American politicians elected at the state and local levels—and the violent persecution they faced that ultimately rolled back the effort. “Doug makes the point that there were targeted assassinations of black officeholders and candidates for office,” says Peter Ginna, Bloomsbury Press publisher and editorial director, who reflects on the book’s release at a time when, after President Obama’s election, “we still can’t pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘It’s all post-racial.’ That part fuels some impulse to look back at how we got here and why we’re still addressing issues that they were fighting about in 1861.”
Remembering Vietnam: A New Generation Comes of Age
Another, quieter anniversary this year suggests that a new war could someday supplant World War II in the area of personal narrative: 40 years since the American troops’ withdrawal from Vietnam, stories from that time are arising in greater numbers. “Those veterans are retiring now, and they have the time to read more and the money to spend on books,” says University Press of Kentucky’s McCormick. One of its November titles, Team 19 in Vietnam, is the memoir of an Australian soldier. “[It] presents a fresh, foreign perspective on a war that accumulated more baggage than any other in our history,” says McCormick. Also in November, University Press of Kansas offers a book that reflects on the impact the war had closer to home: The Morenci Marines: A Tale of Small Town America and the Vietnam War traces the journeys of nine Marines from the same Arizona town.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why the storytelling around a given war becomes popular, says Richard Sullivan, managing director of Osprey Publishing: “In the case of Vietnam, you could argue that only with the passage of time are people able to reflect on what happened—both heroic and horrific—with dispassion.” In April, Osprey published Vietnam: A View from the Front Lines, an oral history from combat soldiers involved in the conflict that Sullivan says targets a large group of the press’s audience: “enthusiastic readers who are increasingly looking for narrative, engaging histories and great stories.”
Today’s Wars: Where History and Current Events Collide
First declared in September 2001, the War on Terror has now stretched on so long, and has spread to so many corners of the world, that writing on the subject is often a blend of history and current affairs. “There is still a market for narrative books that talk about a given battle or war,” says Donald Jacobs, acquisitions editor at Georgetown University Press, “but because of the way that the world has gone—especially since the end of the Cold War, where you have the phenomenon of failed and failing states on the edge of collapse and civil war—there is a lack of definition or a clear battlefield.”
Instead of focusing on specific wars, Jacobs says, more books provide insight into areas of the world that are in turmoil. In December, Georgetown University Press will publish Vying for Allah’s Vote: Understanding Islamic Parties, Political Violence, and Extremism in Pakistan, which illustrates the variety of parties in the country—some moderate and democratically elected, others militant and extremist. “Understanding the pragmatic sides of these parties would serve the U.S. well,” says Jacobs, suggesting that the book could also provide lessons about other Muslim countries, like Tunisia and Libya, which have a similar breadth of political perspectives.
“My current perception of Iraq War titles—and perhaps soon Afghanistan War ones—is that they haven’t quite yet learned to endure as history,” says Casemate’s Steve Smith. “Publishers can catch the wave of an event or so, like the killing of bin Laden, but I can’t escape the perception that most of the public just wishes to forget these conflicts the second they’re done with.”
Indeed, as the complicated maneuvers continue, the tales of epic, almost unbelievable interventions by American Navy SEALs and other Special Operations Forces have emerged as contemporary tales of wartime heroism. “We’ve been successful for years with books on special operations techniques—Navy SEALs, British SAS, Army Rangers, and others,” says Bill Wolfsthal, associate publisher at Skyhorse. “Since the SEALs have gotten so much attention after the killing of Osama bin Laden, sales are even better.” This fall, Skyhorse will publish Soldier of Fortune Magazine Guide to Super Snipers, edited by Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown and Vann Spencer (October) and How to Become a Navy SEAL by Jeffrey London (November).
Also coming in November, Da Capo’s Honor and Betrayal concerns a September 2009 raid in which a team of SEALs captured Iraq’s Ahmed Hashim Abed, thought to be behind the deaths of four U.S. contractors in Fallujah five years earlier. “Bestselling author Patrick Robinson, a recognized authority on Navy SEALs and Special Forces, reveals how they captured the ‘Butcher of Fallujah,’ ” says Da Capo’s Warren, “then goes behind the scenes of the false accusation of prisoner abuse that led to the court-martial of three of the heroic SEALs.”
Code Name: Johnny Walker, forthcoming in January from Morrow, is a Navy SEAL tale told through the eyes of an Iraqi translator. The story also has an intriguing postscript: “Recognizing the danger faced by Iraqis who worked with Americans, the SEALs thought so highly of Johnny that they took the extraordinary step of bringing him and his family over to the U.S.,” says Morrow executive editor Peter Hubbard. “He now lives in San Diego, where he works for the Navy providing language and cultural training.”
Another view of war is through the tales of military doctors and medics who see its casualties; in October, Canadian publisher Dundurn Press publishes Combat Doctor: Life and Death Stories from Kandahar’s Military Hospital, written by Mark Dauphin, the last Canadian officer commanding the city’s Role 3 Multinational Hospital. “War is a place where you learn the most about trauma,” says Dauphin, “and I was trying to get across here the horrible cost of war—to civilians, soldiers, and the people taking care of them.” Despite the imminent drawdown of troops in the region, Dauphin says, the struggle continues for the wounded and those who tend to them: “The shooting has died down,” he says, “but not the shooting in people’s hearts, souls, and minds.”
This fall, a highly anticipated memoir from Portfolio closely examines a side of the war long shrouded in secrecy. Up until now, the world of the private military contractor Blackwater has been explored by writers like Jeremy Scahill, author of the 2007 bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Mercenary Army; in November, the company’s founder, Erik Prince, tells his side of the story in Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story on Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror. “I was completely unprepared for what he had to say and what he chose to say,” says Adrian Zackheim, president and publisher of Portfolio. While he would not reveal any specifics about the book’s contents, which are under embargo until its publication, he does call it “a book that looks back to look forward.”
“There is no question that what Erik Prince is talking about is the future of world conflict,” he continues. “The reason the book is important is not only because it clears up controversies that have been simmering about the U.S. military and the use of contract professionals, [but also because of] the implications of the controversies moving forward, as conflicts around the world continue to evolve.”
The evolution of warfare is vividly portrayed in next month’s War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Author Cory Mead explores training sessions in which soldiers use 3-D technology to simulate battle and reveals how these lifelike video games are also serving as learning and recruitment tools.
Meanwhile, as China’s rise challenges the authority that the U.S. military has long had in the Indo-Pacific region, Naval Institute Press is expanding its coverage of the area. “There is a lot of interest in China right now, as we have Marines going into Australia and Singapore, and recon flights over the disputed islands in the Philippines,” says press director Richard Russell. In October, Naval Institute Press will publish Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters—a survey of the strategies being used in the region right now, and a consideration of their effectiveness.
The changing nature of war will also be explored in a new, yet-to-be-titled Crown book by New York Times reporter Scott Shane centered on the hunt for U.S.–born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was assassinated by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. “The story pits Obama’s increasing distaste for war and troops on the ground and his need to find a technological solution that will spare him public scrutiny against the mounting threat of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula as represented by al-Awlaki,” says Crown executive editor Vanessa Mobley. “The drone looked like the solution to this problem, and Shane’s book will explore the development of the drone as a weapon and the controversy its use has inspired.”
But before we get too caught up in virtual battle, we must remember that in publishing, as in life, history repeats itself. “It is important that military publishers remember to tell the whole story of warfare,” says Jo de Vries, head of general history publishing at the History Press. “With the forthcoming bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015, there will be a move to focus away, perhaps, from the 20th-century conflicts to earlier periods, like the Napoleonic Wars, and find new ways of approaching the historiography of this subject area.”
Perhaps in preparation, Rowman & Littlefield releases a new edition of its Concise History of the Crusades, by Thomas McFadden, next month. After all, by this time next year, the distant past may be prologue once again.
Same Wars, New Protagonists
A war story can be told from virtually any angle, whether it’s a specific region—as is the case with S.U.N.Y. Press’s Key to the Northern Country, which looks at the Hudson River Valley as backdrop to the American Revolution over the course of 40 years—or a “theater” of war covering more than 70% of the earth’s surface, as addressed by DK’s new series, Conquest of the Ocean. The same logic applies to the perspectives of the people involved with the war.
“There are certain myths that continue to be reproduced that the author disproves and debunks over the course of Jews in the Military,” says Fred Appel, executive editor at Princeton University Press, which will publish the book this October. “One of the standard narratives was that historically, ever since the crumbling of the ancient Jewish state by the Roman Empire, Jews have been pushed around an awful lot, developing a scholarly rabbinical culture that shunned all involvement with the military.” The book, which the publisher calls “the first comprehensive and comparative look at Jews’ involvement in the military,” traces their role in war from the 1600s until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948—including World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II.
The role of women during wartime has evolved significantly in modern history, from Rosie the Riveter–style work during World War II to the Pentagon’s removal of the ban on women serving in U.S. combat units earlier this year. “With books such as The Girls of Atomic City and The Astronaut Wives Club, we’ve seen the growing interest in the stories of women’s experiences of periods of American history that previously have been seen from a largely male point of view,” says Peter Joseph, senior editor at Thomas Dunne Books, which in February will publish Alvin Townley’s Defiant, about the wives of a group of Vietnam POWs who spoke out on behalf of their husbands and went on to found the National League of POW/MIA Families. “They made a place for themselves at the table with Nixon, Kissinger, and the North Vietnamese diplomats in Paris, all while their husbands remained POW or MIA for years,” says Joseph. “These women were exceptionally strong, activist, and heroic… unlike any other band of sisters I’ve read about before.”