Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Rise and Fall of a Really Long Book

Well, I just closed up Book No. 2, written by military history writer Paul “I wish I was Gibbon” Kennedy. Paul Kennedy wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” and “The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery”, among others. (1)

Described as “a work of almost Toynbeean sweep,” the Great Powers book purports to describe economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000. Well, jolly. Apparently just reading a military history book isn’t tough enough, Let’s throw in some economics for fun. (2)

Kennedy is definitely an economist -- never met a list he didn’t like. When discussing 15th-century China, a lesser historian would refer to “the formidable Ming navy.” Not Kennedy – he’ll list how many combat vessels, how many floating fortresses, how many cruisers, how many private ships, etc., along with a list of the countries the private ships traded with. Bleah. Remember Clause’s “dreary pedantry?”

Kennedy lists the world’s most “broad and fertile river zones,” to no real purpose (his point was that Europe didn’t have any), just to show off. He lists North America’s biggest exports, Europe’s busiest ports and types of missile-throwing instruments. (What the hell is a trebuchet? Who cares?) (3)

Then he goes on to the Hapsburgs and turns slightly less boring, happily listing the reasons the empire failed. (sounded a little smug, too; after all, the empire survived in some form for 400 years. The U.S. should be so lucky.)

I liked some of the economic backdrop, how sheep grazing willy-nilly all over 16th-century Spain hurt that country’s ability to fight in the Netherlands. (4) He made a nice point that Wellington’s army in 1815 wasn’t much different than Lord Marlborough’s a century before. Nelson’s fleet wasn’t much more advanced technologically than Louis XIV’s. It was the military organization that changed.

But Kennedy would constantly undermine his own writing. He wanted to be both Good Cop and Bad Cop whenever he analyzed a country. Which is fine, you want to know both the positives and negatives.

However, it’s pretty discouraging to sit through tiny-type pages filled with long lists, praising the Power to the skies (such wonderful diplomacy, arms production, railroads, military development!), only to read that actually, the country has no money and a crazy leader and won’t amount to anything.

This isn’t Good Cop/Bad Cop, it’s Good Cop/Bad Sargeant, where a cop lists 43 reasons why you aren’t really in trouble and then Sarge strides in and barks, “Lock ‘im up!”

After a while, you conclude that nobody’s any good, everyone’s riddled with tragic weaknesses, and we should all go back to pounding rocks with sticks. Kennedy turned much more confident and readable with World War II, but after that I kind of gave up and watched “Hot Properties” on ABC.



1) Gibbon wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.” I know, it was a cheap history joke. Sue me.

2) And no, I don’t know who Toynbee was. The line’s funnier if you don’t know. I see great possibilities for intellectual references. “How was that parenting article on the dangers of stickers?” a playgroup mother might ask me. “Ah,” I’ll say in awed tones, “It was a work of almost Toynbeean sweep.”

And yes, I really did read an article last week warning parents about stickers. We are a nation at risk, surely.

3) It’s some sort of medieval catapult. You can buy a desktop model at for 30 bucks. Yawn. God, footnotes are boring.

4) Don’t ask me how. Read it yourself. I’m not going back in there.


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