“The Bullet’s Song,” by distinguished political columnist and writer William Pfaff, is a long argumentative essay on the causes of war in the 20th century. The book also features profiles on several prominent figures involved in wars over the past 100 years. With simple observations and lighter analysis than a true academic work, Pfaff’s book is hampered by several flaws that prevent it from being truly compelling.

“The Bullet’s Song” is hopelessly marred by Pfaff’s argument, which asserts that World Wars I and II were started and sustained by devotion to utopian visions of man. While emotionally moving, the argument is not rationally compelling, Pfaff would have been better off pleading ignorance about the origins of war than presenting his argument. With this overly encompassing claim, he underestimates the intelligence and perceptiveness of his reader, thereby weakening his position.

Pfaff’s book spans over 300 pages and, except for the first two chapters, rarely seems padded with unnecessary material and language. “The Bullet’s Song” is not an easy bedtime read; additionally, Pfaff is fond of arcane adjectives and little-known words. A major flaw of the author’s work is the lax style of the first two chapters, which concern utopian ideas and man’s progress. Instead of the seriousness and specificity expected from these heavy ideas, one finds tiresome and unnecessary shifts into first person and reiterated topics on art and chivalry.

Readers that get through the initial chapters (or skip them) are rewarded with impressive biographical representations of historically important men. The lives of T.E. Lawrence, revolutionary Andre Malraux, scientific journalist Arthur Koestler and several others are masterfully presented. Pfaff displays them as men who lived their lives dedicated to the romantic idea that violence has a place in an ideal world. Personal loss and the deaths of people close to them mark each man’s life, and in the end they all share either disenchantment, apathy or an ironic death.

Pfaff’s best writing is found in these biographies, which (thankfully) make up the majority of the book. The extensive research is nimbly blended to produce a coherent and enjoyable account of each subject’s life.

Pfaff’s writing is simultaneously detached and intimate. He avoids sentiment and is able to maintain his objective position. Surprisingly, his digressions in the biographies are borderline brilliant. Though these diversions are unnecessary to describe the life of each man, they play an important role in the overall quality of the book.

Despite its flaws, “The Bullet’s Song” will appeal to history buffs and the politically savvy. The biographical depictions are fantastic and are good second-hand references. They alone, however, cannot save the book from a sloppily planned argument and poor stylistic choice in the opening chapters. Thoughtful restructuring or truncation would greatly improve Pfaff’s writing.


Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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