Best Military History of 2019: Spearhead, by Adam Makos

Honorable mention:

Guest House for Young Widows, by Azadeh Moaveni**

Those of us in the United States don’t have much of a window on the women of ISIS, and I thought this title might help me understand them better. In some ways this proves true, but in the end, I couldn’t finish this book and I can’t recommend it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for letting me read it free and early.

Here’s a quote that provides a thesis:

Many of these women were trying, in a twisted way, to achieve dignity and freedom through an embrace of a politics that ended up violating both…The political fractures from which [ISIS] arose have not been fixed. History has shown that unless conditions genuinely change, a new insurgency always arises from the ashes of an old one.

Moaveni shares the case studies of individual women that have been drawn to the Islamic State. Although the organization provides its women with a measure of security and protection, promoting higher education—in the service of the organization, of course—and sometimes furnishing jobs, it draws not only women that are desperate for food and shelter, but also women from comfortable middle class backgrounds. Once they are in, they find it difficult to leave. Moaveni demonstrates myriad ways in which women provide essential support for ISIS.

There are three things that I liked about this book. The research is well done; the women discussed here provide the reader with individual stories and therefore humanize them; and she acknowledges the disparity between mainstream Islamic belief and ISIS.

On the other hand, despite disclaimers within the narrative, I was overcome by a crawly sensation when I realized that the author’s overall purpose is to rationalize the choices made by women within Islamic State. She says they are relatable; I am appalled and unpersuaded.

Those that dislike a dictatorial regime should indeed advocate for a better system. How great a risk each person is willing to assume is of course an individual decision. But there is nothing that justifies or mitigates the atrocities visited on innocent people by this dreadful pseudo-religion. 

When push comes to shove, the only real dilemma for me is whether to provide one star or two in review. The second star is reluctantly assigned on the basis of the writer’s solid research; yet the ideas within it are entirely abhorrent.

Never, never, and never.

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Marque *****

This has been labeled the best anti-war novel ever written. I agree. We see the first world war (“The Big One”) through the eyes of a young German soldier.

Some have held “Johnny Got His Gun” to be the best anti-war novel; I disagree, because that novel holds out no hope. When all is lost at the beginning and never gets better, it fails to draw the reader’s emotion. Marque is singularly skilled at reaching right down into the reader’s chest and wrapping his scholarly fingers right around our heartstrings. (Don’t look for this term in a physiology text.)

AQWF, on the other hand, develops character and setting sufficient to take us there, to nearly climb inside the skin of someone going through the experience.

Is there such a thing as a war worth fighting and dying in? I think so…but very rarely so, and this novel helps us understand the need for restraint and caution.

Note to teachers: though this is outstanding literature and many students enjoy it, it requires a very strong reader in terms of ability and vocabulary.