Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘Moment of Battle’: An old school approach to military history, but still fun

Lately I’ve been dipping into parts of Moment of Battle: The 20 Clashes that Changed the World, by James Lacey and Williamson Murray, who is co-author of one of my favorite books about World War II. It’s an old school approach — decisive battles and great men. But it is even more anachronistic than that, ...

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Wikimedia

Lately I've been dipping into parts of Moment of Battle: The 20 Clashes that Changed the World, by James Lacey and Williamson Murray, who is co-author of one of my favorite books about World War II.

It's an old school approach -- decisive battles and great men. But it is even more anachronistic than that, because it really is about the battles that shaped the modern West. Of the 20 globe-molding clashes, eight involve the English, and five involve the Americans. Apparently, China, South America, and Africa never had a decisive battle worth including (except for Romans fighting in Mediterranean Africa). South Asia, too, except for Dien Bien Phu.

That aside, it is fun to read, partly for battles about which I know nothing (Yarmuk, Zama), and partly for new takes on familiar fights. Things I didn't know about the Battle of Britain include that pilots flying for the U.K. did up to five combat sorties a day. Also, the leading ace of the battle was not British, but a Czech named Josef Frantisek. He shot down a total of 40 German aircraft before being killed on Oct. 8, 1940. Other foreigners flying for the RAF included 141 Poles, 129 New Zealanders, 90 Canadians, 87 other Czechs, and 7 Americans, only one of whom survived World War II.

Lately I’ve been dipping into parts of Moment of Battle: The 20 Clashes that Changed the World, by James Lacey and Williamson Murray, who is co-author of one of my favorite books about World War II.

It’s an old school approach — decisive battles and great men. But it is even more anachronistic than that, because it really is about the battles that shaped the modern West. Of the 20 globe-molding clashes, eight involve the English, and five involve the Americans. Apparently, China, South America, and Africa never had a decisive battle worth including (except for Romans fighting in Mediterranean Africa). South Asia, too, except for Dien Bien Phu.

That aside, it is fun to read, partly for battles about which I know nothing (Yarmuk, Zama), and partly for new takes on familiar fights. Things I didn’t know about the Battle of Britain include that pilots flying for the U.K. did up to five combat sorties a day. Also, the leading ace of the battle was not British, but a Czech named Josef Frantisek. He shot down a total of 40 German aircraft before being killed on Oct. 8, 1940. Other foreigners flying for the RAF included 141 Poles, 129 New Zealanders, 90 Canadians, 87 other Czechs, and 7 Americans, only one of whom survived World War II.

Still, this book makes me think there is a good follow-up book to be done: Twenty Non-Western Battles that Helped Shape the World. What battles would such a book cover? Bonus points for clashes that don’t include Western powers.

Bonus oddity: The jacket cover was designed by one Carlos Beltran. Busy guy!

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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