The Cold War and Other Wars That Weren't
Oh, for a year without war: As 2013 cranks into full gear, it is sadly true that this year will be no doubt be like so many others. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria and elsewhere continue to cause loss and hardship, and there's probably some new, as-yet unforeseen disagreement about to devolve into full-scale war . . .
But not everything described as war is actually what we think of as a real, honest-to-goodness military conflict fought during a discrete set of years. We throw the word "war" around almost too easily, as evidenced by these "wars" that somehow weren't, or weren't really.
The Hundred Years War
Even the mere name sounds like hell. The 100-Year War was not one war, however--instead, it was a series of battles fought from 1337-1453 between the kingdoms of France and England for control of the French throne. We could bore you with the three phases (Edwardian, Caroline, Lancastrian) and the individual battles (including the wonderfully-named War of the Two Peters), but all you really need to know is that France's population basically halved during the Wars, and that no one really won. Key figures covered by Desmond Seward in "The Hundred Years War" include Henry V (probably not the heroic Shakespearian figure we've come to admire--more like a rape-pillager kinda guy) and Joan of Arc, who helped fight off the English during the Siege of Orléans before being put to the stake at just 19 years of age.
The Phoney War
World War II was declared by the Allies on September 3, 1939, after the Germans invaded Poland. But from that time to around May 1940, the war entered a "phoney" phase in which preparations were made and skirmishes occurred, but actual worldwide conflict was still in the dark future. Churchill called this time the "Twilight War," and John Lukacs' book "Five Days in London: May 1940," details the five-day politicking, led by Churchill, which finally turned the phoney war into an actual conflict.
The Cold War
Though the Cold War is sometimes thought of more as a state of mind than an actual set of conflicts, like the Hundred Years War, it served to define a large sweep of history (most historians date the Cold War from the cessation of World War II to the demise of Soviet power in 1991). The fight between U.S.-led western states and Soviet-allied communist countries for world dominance encompassed not only espionage, nuclear standoffs and lots of saber-rattling, but also real wars such as those in Korea and Vietnam. Michael Dobbs chronicles the establishment of the chilliest of historical periods in "Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War."
World War III
Just how close did the world come to a Third World War? Depends on who you ask, but most agree that the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, constitute as near as you can get to a war to end all wars. The U.S. had tried to overturn Castro's Cuba and failed; the Soviets proposed housing a nuclear arsenal on the island in response; and by October 15, the nominal start of the crisis, the world teetered on the edge of annihilation. By October 28, the U.S. had agreed to leave Cuba alone, and the Soviets had pulled back too--but in "The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis," we get to hear firsthand just how close we came.
The War on Drugs
It's only in recent years that politicians, academics, law enforcement and cultural commentators have started to have deep misgivings about the War on Drugs. Dating back to Nixon, this fervent effort to use both domestic legislation and foreign military force to stanch the flow of drugs on to American streets has had mixed results--and as thousands languish in jail, legislators have looked at ways to mitigate what has been, to many, a failed initiative. Judge James Gray--himself on the front lines as a prosecutor then on the bench--makes the judicial case for how to move away from the Draconian legal approach in his book, "Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed: A Judicial Indictment Of War On Drugs."
The War on Terrorism
Waging war against terrorism is an incredibly difficult undertaking: Terrorists do what they do as a kind of deadly theater, a bloody spectacle to scare their political opponents into panic measures or capitulation, and then they disappear (if they survive at all). But merely finding the enemy--not a massed rank of soldiers, but individuals hiding out in mountain caves or even amongst their potential victims--is often an impossible task. After 9/11, the War on Terror grew to dominate the minds of countless U.S. civilians, and the 18 months in that war that followed September 11 are chronicled by Kurt Eichenwald in "500 Days."
World War Z
War--and non-war--is just as prevalent in fiction as in life: Max Brooks, son of legendary funny man Mel, and author of "The Zombie Survival Guide," has managed to turn the specter of the undead into the thing that stands in for all our fears, be they terrorism, or pandemics, or viruses. In his novel "World War Z," (soon to be a movie starring Brad Pitt), he does for a fictional zombie war what Studs Terkel did for real wars--he "travels the world," interviewing "survivors," and in doing so shows that wars of all kind can be real, even ones that exist only in our imaginations.