Air University Review, March-April 1985
A BOOKISH AGE:
OF ANT LIONS AND
In our own society most knowledge depends, in the last resort, on observation. But the Middle Ages depended predominantly on books.
C. S. Lewis
Discarded Image, p. 5
HAVE you ever wandered into a bookstore and begun to wonder who reads all this stuff? Each year in America, something like 45,000 new books are published. In addition to this large number of books there are thousands of journals being printed . About 400 of these journals deal at least in part with national defense issues.
Several factors fuel this modern paper blizzard. For one thing, academics are caught in the publish-or-perish syndrome. In their efforts to earn promotions or academic tenure, they produce vast quantities of publications, "not because they feel they have something to say, but because they feel they had better say something." (Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 December 1984, p. 96) Think tanks and consultants also produce a seemingly endless stream of publications in their efforts to establish a reputation that can win lucrative government contracts.
Furthermore, spurred on by the insatiable appetite of America's publishing industry, scholars and consultants alike resort to practices that are questionable from a scholarly standpoint. One such practice is publishing variations of the same basic idea in several different articles in multiple publications. Another is publishing several articles and then combining the articles into a "book," even when the articles are at best uncomfortable inhabitants of the same volume. There is also the practice of collecting the writings of various authors into an anthology, which gives all concerned, editors and authors, another vita line. While some anthologies are needed as college course materials, far too often we find ourselves lured to a volume by an enticing title that promises a new synthesis or a new insight, only to find that the book is nothing more than a salad made from the same stale vegetables.
A major problem with the medieval bookishness described by C. S. Lewis in Discarded Image (opening quotation) is that it gave rise to inaccurate pictures of the world, a world that was populated with ant lions (creatures that were literally half ant and half lion) and barnacle geese (geese that hatched from barnacles on trees). Our bookish age throws up its share of ant lions and barnacle geese, such as "existential" deterrence, Soviet officers who will not deviate from orders, a Soviet military that is so full of alcoholics that it cannot fight its way out of a paper bag, and Vietnams in Central America and Afghanistan. But a far greater problem posed by the modern bookish age is that the sheer volume of publications threatens to destroy the value of intellectual activity by making it nearly impossible to find the worthwhile ideas that are buried in the huge quantities of banal, inane writing that deal with virtually every imaginable aspect of our world, including defense issues.
How can we deal with this problem? To start with, academics, military professionals, and consultants who wish to write must recommit themselves to the traditionally high standards demanded of scholars. Genuine, high-caliber scholars adhere to the principle that you don't seek to publish something unless it is an original contribution to the body of knowledge about a given subject. Similarly, intellectuals serving as critics must quit scratching each other's backs and get back to writing serious, critical book reviews based on the principle that the reviewer's primary obligation is to tell his colleagues and other interested parties whether they should spend some of their limited, valuable reading time on a particular book.
Two articles in this edition of the Review are aimed at helping our readers sort out some important professional issues. In the lead article, Professor Dennis Showalter, an accomplished military historian with a thorough grasp of German sources, shows us how our myths about the Soviet military man came to usthrough German eyes that viewed the Russians and later the Soviets through their own particular set of cultural and political lenses. The other article of particular note is by Lieutenant Colonel Barry Watts, one of our leading blue-suit thinkers, and Professor Williamson Murray, an eminent military historian with a detailed knowledge of German military history. Their critical review essay raises serious questions about a recent book on Operation Barbarossa and may have killed a modern barnacle goose aborning.
Unfortunately, these two articles do not mean that an intellectual millenium is at hand. Reforms that might lead to critical, enlightening book reviews and improvements in the quality of publications are not likely to occur anytime soon. Thus, we must continue to skim a great deal and digest very little, all the while exercising our intellects and maintaining a healthy skepticism about what we are reading. This is the only way we can find the useful ideas hidden among the barnacle geese and ant lions.
D. R. B.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor