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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Conquering Sword of Conan

The Conquering Sword of Conan (Conan of Cimmeria, Book 3) (Paperback)

by Robert E. Howard

Publisher: Del Rey (November 29, 2005)

ISBN-10: 0345461533

This book is the final in a series of three collections from Del Ray (the other two being Coming of Conan the Cimmerian and Bloody Crown of Conan) that collect the entire corpus of Robert E. Howard’s writings about his now well-known, if often misunderstood, barbarian hero. This volume contains the last stories written by REH about Conan, including Beyond the Black River and Red Nails, which are apparently (and deservedly) two of the more famous of the Conan stories.

As a recent, but avid, fan of Howard’s writing, it was almost inevitable that I would like these stories, but I have to say that this really is Howard at his finest. The stories are beautiful in their writing, intricate and interesting in their structure, and really dive deeply into some of Howard’s themes about civilization versus barbarism in a very interesting way. Beyond the Black River brings Conan into a Howardian version of the French and Indian war, and the Black Stranger follows up the tale, after a fashion. Red Nails takes a somewhat different turn, trapping Conan and Valeria inside a walled city that borrows a great deal from Mesoamerican culture and trappings. The Servants of Bit-Yakin and the Man Eaters of Zamboula are more traditional Conan tales, and while not quite as strong or as interesting as the other stories, are still decent, fun, and well-written reads.

As part of a generation whose first impressions of Conan were formed by a future California Governator (which, I admit, does lead to some great jokes about him becoming a king by his own hand), it’s been very revealing to get to know the real Conan. While I still have a soft spot in my heart for Conan the Austrian, he really is nothing like the original character that is far more interesting, thoughtful, and moving than that movie would lead one to believe.

Anyone with the most remote interest in fantasy literature should be reading these collections; so should anyone interested in a good story. Howard is amazing. That’s all I’ve got to say for now.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda

by John Keegan

Publisher: Knopf (October 21, 2003)

ISBN-10: 0375400532

Of all of the clichés of the information age, “knowledge is power” might be one of the biggest and most prevalent. Living in a world where we have daily access to more information than we can possibly process or comprehend, we’ve become conditioned to think that knowing more is in of itself a means of being able to do more. This particular cliché extends to most people’s vision of military operations, where it is assumed that “intelligence”, which is the collection of information about enemy plans and movements, is somehow key in defeating an enemy. More knowledge and more intelligence, we believe, equal a greater chance of victory.

In Intelligence in War, John Keegan sets out to challenge that particular belief; he does so through a series of case studies throughout history, beginning with Admiral Nelson’s pursuit of Napoleon in the Mediterranean Sea, and continuing up into the second world war, where he looks at the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of the Atlantic, specifically at the submarine warfare conducted there. After working through his case studies, Keegan works through a summary overview of intelligence operations between the Second World War and the present day, before wrapping things up with an overview of his original thesis, and working towards his own conclusions.

For the most part, I enjoyed this one; Keegan writes history well, and has a gift for being able to deliver an historical narrative in an engaging and thoughtful way, without either becoming so mired in the details that he bores, or being so superficial as to miss the point. In a few of the chapters, particular the ones on Stonewall Jackson and Midway, I felt as though he was sometimes rambling a bit from the topic of intelligence in favor of a more narrative story of the battle(s) in question, but overall, it was a rather readable book. I found Face of Battle a bit more engaging, but this one was still interesting.

Looking at the Amazon page, I can see that this book generated a fair amount of flack and criticism, which isn’t really surprising to me. Keegan’s assertion that intelligence is less important than other factors in warfare doubtless ruffles some feathers, particular among those in or connected to the intelligence community. For my own part, I think Keegan’s point is at least somewhat valid when he says that “Decision in war is always the result of a fight, and in combat willpower always counts for more than foreknowledge.” While intelligence clearly has its own value leading up to an engagement, at the end of the day, it’s the actual fight that determines the result of a military engagement, not the knowledge. Of course, the knowledge can help, but alone, it isn’t enough. I have the impression that several of Keegan’s critics are taking Keegan’s arguments to mean that he believes intelligence ahs little, if any value, which I think is misinterpreting him a bit—he seems to be speaking primarily about the actual military engagements, and not the overall course of warfare and the effects of intelligence upon it.

In any case, for people interested in military history, and the role intelligence operations plays in that history, this book is certainly worth a look.