Some events leave you at a loss for words. Luckily, images can step in. Some of the most eloquent these days come from the pen and ink of Joe Sacco. After graphically documenting the tensions and fraught conditions of Palestine and Safe Area Gorzade, he’s turned to the Battle of the Somme. Long fascinated by a conflict so extreme that it could be considered the last of its kind—“the war to end all wars”—Sacco chose July 1, 1916 for his subject, “because that is the point where the common man could have no more illusions about the nature of modern warfare.” While Sacco’s editors suggested Matteo Pericoli’s graceful Manhattan Unfurled as a model, Sacco himself looked to the Bayeux Tapestry (which chronicled events leading to the 1066 Battle of Hastings) and adapted medieval art’s nonrealistic proportion and perspective to give his twentieth-century battle scenes a fittingly timeless and surreal tone. But the details of each scene are historically accurate, and Sacco has included six pages of annotations identifying equipment, landmarks, and activities. The Great War (W.W. Norton, $35) is a slip-cased package pairing Sacco’s stunning sixteen-page, twenty-four-foot long stream of battle with an essay by Adam Hochschild, drawn from his award-winning history, To End All Wars.
Begun more than half-a-dozen years ago, the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System is a program unknown to most people, although it isn’t secret or classified. Its mission is to send civilian social scientists into combat with soldiers to help the fighters understand local cultures. In The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice (Simon & Schuster, $25), journalist Vanessa M. Gezari focuses on one particular team that sought to affect the course of the war in Afghanistan but ended up suffering a tragic, heartbreaking loss of one of its members through a senseless act of anti-American violence. Reading this powerful tale about a group that tried to transform the U.S. military from the inside and bring social science to the battlefield, we’re reminded of how great the challenge has been but also how important it remains.
With the centennial of the start of World War I nearly upon us, historian Max Hastings offers a lively and opinionated answer to the haunting question of how the conflict began, then provides a richly detailed description of the first months of war, covering all fronts, from the fields of France to the mountains of Serbia to the plains of Russia. In Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Knopf, $35), Hastings disputes the idea that a series of mistakes caused the conflict, instead planting the blame squarely on Germany. He recounts how, from the beginning, all the powers suffered from a mismatch of ambition and fighting capability. And in depicting the results, he broadens the focus beyond generals and statesmen to include grunts, ambulance drivers, and the wives left behind.