Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Tom reviews ‘The Cambridge History of War, Vol. IV: War and the Modern World,’ and learns a whole bunch of new stuff

This is a pretty amazing book. If it were priced reasonably, rather than insanely, I’d recommend getting it just for the table of contents, the footnotes, and the bibliographies.   And there is lots to like in the book’s 26 essays, which cover from the mid-19th century to today. The speed of this ambitious romp through ...

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This is a pretty amazing book. If it were priced reasonably, rather than insanely, I'd recommend getting it just for the table of contents, the footnotes, and the bibliographies.  

And there is lots to like in the book's 26 essays, which cover from the mid-19th century to today. The speed of this ambitious romp through history is sometimes breathtaking. The American Civil War, for example, gets three pages. The Spanish Civil War gets a page or two in one essay, five more in another. (Btw, I didn't know that roughly half the Spanish army, and 70 percent of its generals, sided with the Republic against Franco's rebellion.)

And this book isn't just about wars -- it is about doctrine, PoWs, culture, military occupations, the effects of decolonization, and so on. Even Hogan's Heroes gets a shout-out. To cover all that, you need to move through history fast, distilling a lot of information and so sometimes launching some pretty big assertions. Geoffrey Wawro, discussing technology in the pre-World War I era, writes that, "The great, blinding conceit of modern armies was that they could win by pluck and morale." 

This is a pretty amazing book. If it were priced reasonably, rather than insanely, I’d recommend getting it just for the table of contents, the footnotes, and the bibliographies.  

And there is lots to like in the book’s 26 essays, which cover from the mid-19th century to today. The speed of this ambitious romp through history is sometimes breathtaking. The American Civil War, for example, gets three pages. The Spanish Civil War gets a page or two in one essay, five more in another. (Btw, I didn’t know that roughly half the Spanish army, and 70 percent of its generals, sided with the Republic against Franco’s rebellion.)

And this book isn’t just about wars — it is about doctrine, PoWs, culture, military occupations, the effects of decolonization, and so on. Even Hogan’s Heroes gets a shout-out. To cover all that, you need to move through history fast, distilling a lot of information and so sometimes launching some pretty big assertions. Geoffrey Wawro, discussing technology in the pre-World War I era, writes that, "The great, blinding conceit of modern armies was that they could win by pluck and morale." 

I didn’t like the occasional bouts of academic jargon in Eugenia Kiesling’s essay on "Military doctrine and planning in the interwar era," but I was taken by some of her observations on military culture in that time. She detects in the Japanese army before World War II "A culture that justified insubordination, if it was committed in the name of Japan’s warrior spirit," which "led junior officers from the army to murder a prime minister in 1932 and to attempt to overthrow the government in 1936." Likewise, she sees in the U.S. Army of that time "additional evidence that in shaping technological choices, institutional culture tends to trump both strategic vision and operational planning."

It also is amazing to me that there is always more to learn. For example, I’ve read hundreds of books on World War II, but I did not know that as "late as 1938, about half of U.S. light artillery was horse-drawn." Nor did I know that the climactic battle of the Chinese civil war, in late 1948, was the biggest battle between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.

Gerhard Weinberg also does a masterful job of summarizing all of World War II, Europe and Asia both, in 32 pages. How? In part by summarizing entire campaigns in just a few succinct lines. Here is how, in three sentences, he explains why the Pearl Harbor attack was a failure on three levels — strategic, operational, and tactical:

First, by ensuring the Americans would insist on a crushing victory, it destroyed the Japanese concept of making extensive conquests and then arriving at a new settlement. Second, the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, of which the Japanese were aware, meant that most of the warships that Yamamoto imagined sunk were instead set into the mud, raised, repaired and returned to service. Third, the attack on ships in harbor on a peacetime Sunday failed to eliminate the crews of most of the ships.

Tom again: One downside to the book is that these are academics writing, so sometimes you get sentences such as, "This chapter looks beyond this narrative and telos of World War II in three contexts." (In academia, "narrative" seems to be a bad thing, a snide putdown like "conventional," and almost as contemptible as "popular history." I don’t understand why, as narrative is the most human of traits — it is how we make sense of the world. Anyway, I’ll see you a telos and raise you a conatus.) 

Footnote for those who believe the British generals of World War I have been cleared of the donkey charge by recent research: Michael Niberg, in his overview of World War I, concluded that the British were "unimaginative" at Passchendaele and risk-averse after Cambrai. He also makes the interesting observation that "casualty rates were higher during periods of greatest mobility."  

Still, a lot of fun, if you can persuade your library to buy it.

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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