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6 books about military disasters
British journalist James Fergusson recommends histories of Napoleon's retreat, trench warfare, and war crimes in Iraq
British journalist James Fergusson shares the best of wartime writing.
British journalist James Fergusson shares the best of wartime writing.
Courtesy of James Fergusson
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emoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne by Adrien Jean Baptiste François Bourgogne (Frederiksen, $31). Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812 led to tragedy on an epic scale. Imperial Guardsman Bourgogne survived the crossing of the Berezina River, where the French suffered heavy losses. His bald description still shocks.

Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography by Robert Graves (Anchor, $16). The most moving account of trench warfare that I know. Before he became a successful poet and novelist, Graves survived the Battle of Loos during World War I, which saw the first mass deployment of British Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener’s army of civilian volunteers. Some 50,000 Britons were killed or wounded, for no territorial gain.

Signal Catastrophe by Patrick Macrory (out of print). This definitive retelling of the British Army’s ruinous retreat from Kabul in 1842, during the First Anglo-Afghan War, inspired George MacDonald Fraser to create his fictional cowardly soldier Sir Harry Paget Flashman.

Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (Penguin, $17). A helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Mason was made to fly more than 1,000 assault missions in 11 months — a redefinition of “military overstretch.” His tale of courage and frontline folly recalls both Apocalypse Now and Catch-22.

Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy by Norman Lewis (Da Capo, $15). This lyrical, erudite diary of the chaos that followed the liberation of Italy contains one of my favorite lines of war reporting: “This afternoon, distraught American ack-ack gunners brought down their third Spitfire.” Graham Greene judged Lewis one of the 20th century’s best writers.

Black Hearts by Jim Frederick (Broadway, $16). A horrifying study of how, five years ago in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, south of Baghdad, members of a platoon from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division ended up raping a girl and murdering her family — the very type of people that the Americans had been sent to liberate. Frederick’s book is a classic in the mold of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down.

James Fergusson's latest book, Taliban: The Unknown Enemy, is a history of the militant group's role in Afghanistan

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