By Michael Goldman
Part one of my list of best reads for the year ahead is loaded with books from the past as well as books published just this year.
For example, the best single volume examining the entire American Revolutionary remains The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 by Robert Middlekauff, which was first published in 1985. If you've never read it, and are interested in this era of American history, you should.
That said, there was a great addition to the history of that extraordinary period just this year.
The Return of George Washington 1783 to 1789 by Edward Larson shatters the myth that the hero of the Revolutionary War went home and waited quietly for his country to call him back to public service. It seems old George was just as clever in peace as he was in war, beating out his chief rival Ben Franklin for the honor of leading the nation as its first president while appearing all the while like a disinterested third party.
Similarly, the greatest single volume of the Civil War remains The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson published in 1983. Yet, this year McPherson added to his treasure trove of Civil War history by giving us Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief.
The Jefferson Davis who McPherson describes, while clearly on the wrong side of history, was nonetheless a clever and tenacious foe who did an awful lot with far less than President Abraham Lincoln had at his disposal with the Union.
Sadly, there were no great Vietnam era books to come out this year. That said, the dearth of new literature gives readers who care about this era the chance to read for the first time, or reread once again, three very different books on this seminal event in U.S. history.
The great A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan was written in 1988 and remains one of the great reads regarding that awful war. Still in print more than two decades after publication, it has the power to remind us of how American hubris lead us to the wrong part of the world for all the wrong reasons.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien was published in 1990 and remains not just a great book on the men who lived the war in the rice fields, but a spectacularly written book that just happens to be about Vietnam.
Finally, there is the newest of the trio, a novel I recommended in 2011, and recommend again if you never got the chance to read it. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes ranks up there with Fields of Fire by James Webb as a great fictional re-telling of the hell that was Vietnam.
We read none of the aforementioned books to be sad. We read all so that we hopefully will never repeat previous mistakes.
Sadly, this year's great read on the folly that has trapped two presidents in the quagmire that is Afghanistan and Iraq, shows that for those administrations the lessons from Vietnam and other wars neither were learned nor were understood. That lesson: Don't go into a conflict without an exit strategy.
James Risen's Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War is a book every member of Congress and every candidate for president in both political parties should be forced to read. The main premise: War corrupts and endless war corrupts absolutely!
The books own preface says it all: (Pay Any Price) reveals an extraordinary litany of the hidden costs of the (current) war: squandered and stolen dollars and outrageous abuses of power. In the name of fighting terrorism, our government has done things ... and has worked very hard to cover them up.
And since I'm giving advice as to what every presidential candidate should read before being allowed to run, let me add the updated version of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall by the legendary Elizabeth Drew.
Together, those two books should be sobering to whomever we choose as our next chief executive.
Next week: The best of the rest.
Michael Goldman is a paid political consultant for Democratic candidates and president of Goldman Associates in Boston.