A scholarly spine props up first draft of history

October 24, 2003

An instant history of the Iraq war does not mean university presses put cash before scholarship, says Walter Ellis.

Academic publishers in the US have entered the market. Realising that there is a world of readers out there with little interest in the obscure and arcane, they have broadened their appeal in recent years and now compete with mainstream publishers in many areas.

One example of this appetite for success is Harvard University Press' The Iraq War . This instant military analysis of the recent conflict by Williamson Murray, senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington DC, and retired US Army General Robert H. Scales Jr, will be published next month.

Some eyebrows are said to have been raised at the appearance of such a volume so soon after the war was officially declared won and when some argue that it still clearly continues. It is normally journalists who produce "instant" books on timely topics - academics are supposed to hold their fire until the research is completed and judgements have been tested against all available evidence.

But The Iraq War does not pretend to be a complete history of the reasons for the US invasion and the rights and wrongs of it. The book is what it says it is: a military history, attempting the sort of analysis that usually hits the shelves only after years of study but in a tight timescale.

Does this mean it is in some sense facile? Not according to Robert Kaplan, an eminent commentator and analyst of contemporary geopolitics. In November's issue of Atlantic Monthly , he argues that journalists, in their coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom, provided vertical depth but little horizontal scope. Murray and Scales, he says, redress that balance: "Rarely is a quickie book this finely written and subtly thought through. There will be better, fuller descriptions of last spring's war, but none will frame the debate in a way that's so timely and so economical."

He deems Murray and Scales "prescient" for having foreseen the success of the postwar guerrilla resistance. Given that the manuscript must have been under way even as President George W. Bush was being lowered to the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to announce the war's end, this is probably a fair point.

Murray, who is best known for his scholarly works on the second world war, says the present book grew out of a conversation he and Scales had soon after the US and UK troops went in. "Both of us had been involved in major projects dealing with Desert Storm. We had watched in 1991 and 1992 the vast amount of floundering in DC, the media and in academic communities about what had actually happened in the war - most of it nonsense. It was nearly two years before some first-rate books came out.

"We thought we could do much better, in terms of time, given our sources in the army, air force and marine corps - and in the British army. Our aim was not to write a definitive history of the war, but rather to write a piece of informed journalism that would inform the general public - unlike most academic historians, we believe that the general public matters - and to set the debate about the war. And because we are historians who know a great deal about the present as well, we believed we had some interesting comments to make about what this war has to say about war in coming decades."

This embrace of the general public by academic presses has sparked accusations that scholarly endeavour is being undermined. Earlier this year, Stephen Greenblatt, professor of humanities at Harvard, complained to the US Modern Language Association that financial pressures had led university presses to publish fewer papers in the literary and linguistic fields, to the extent that scholars had arrived at a point of "grave difficulty". Publishers said this was partly due to academics no longer reading (or buying) each other's work like they used to and not putting them on reading lists. "Somewhere over the past decade, our interest in each other's work - or in owning each other's work - seems to have declined," Greenblatt said.

But does he protest too much? To judge from the scale and variety of books coming out this autumn from the major US university presses, the problem does not seem especially acute.

True, there are works with clear popular appeal: Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't - Jazz and the Making of the Sixties , by Scott Saul (Harvard); The Encyclopaedia of Ireland , edited by Brian Lalor, with a foreword by Frank McCourt (Yale University Press); Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid , by Robert J. Sternberg, (Yale); fashion italian style , by Valerie Steele (Yale) and so on.

New York University Press capitalises on unrest via its Hot Topics section, from "tinderbox regions", such as The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War , by Stephen Ellis; and Behind the Invasion of Iraq , from the Research Unit for Political Economy, which, the publisher's blurb says, "strips away the illusions of imperialist power".

But arcane tastes are also catered for. Consider the following, selected randomly from a list of hundreds of titles: The Accidental Republic: Crippled Workingmen, Destitute Widows and the Remaking of American Law , by John Fabian Witt (Harvard); Between Kant and Hegel: Lectures on German Idealism , by Dieter Henrich (Harvard); Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Volume 101 , by Charles Segal; The American Horseshoe Crabs , by Carl Shuster (Harvard); Social Class, Politics and Urban Markets: The Makings of Bias in Policy Outcomes , by Herman L. Boschken (Stanford University Press); T he Papers of United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali , edited by Charles Hill (a $500 three-volume set from Yale); and The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy (Cultural Memory in the Present) by Ian Balfour (Stanford).

In other words (in millions of other words, in fact), US university presses are continuing to perform their basic function of providing an outlet for academic scholarship while at the same time broadening their appeal to the general reader.

Mary Kate Maco of Harvard University Press insists that the same publishing values and quality controls went into The Iraq War - produced in four months flat while guerrilla violence built in Baghdad -Jas went into all Harvard's new titles, including, one must assume, Early Tamil Epigraphy from the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century AD , by Iravatham Mahadevan.

Her point is that academic does not have to mean dull or inaccessible. The big university presses live in the same economic climate as their more obviously commercial rivals, and, as Greenblatt has observed, this is bound to have consequences. But the response has been measured and, in almost every case, positive. If anyone has made a drama out of the crisis in Iraq, it is the White House and Downing Street, not Harvard University Press.

The Iraq War: A Military History by Williamson Murray and Major General Robert H. Scales Jr is published by Harvard University Press on November 1, £16.95.

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