Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How You Fool Yourself Daily

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 41
Duncan J. Watts, Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer): How Common Sense Fails Us


Consider the last national election, your employer’s last annual report, or your favorite sports team’s last away-game victory. What made the particular outcome happen? Looking backward, conclusions seem foregone; we construct retrospective explanations that justify how what happened had to happen, because, well, it did. But Duncan J. Wells explains that what seems inevitable once it’s already happened, is actually deeply contingent and controversial. Exactly why is both bizarre and revealing.

Trained as an engineer but functioning as a sociologist, Wells has conducted intensive research for America’s largest corporations, including Yahoo and Microsoft. In that capacity, backed with massive corporate capital and utilizing technocratic research techniques that didn’t exist fifteen years ago, he’s investigated questions about how humans make decisions. Not only has this included individual decisions, but how uncountable group decisions form a consensus. That is, he investigates how individuals make a society.

Watts’ answers prove many and various, and deserve careful reading. Their common thread, however, devolves to common sense. A system useful for negotiating everyday interactions, common sense proves more fraught when confronted with the hidden inner dynamics of large groups. Human interactions prove founded on myriad rules, mostly unspoken—as anybody who has ever traveled abroad and unknowingly transgressed serious taboos already knows. These rules are not only unquestioned, but largely unacknowledged.

In this, Watts relies heavily on research avenues first utilized by Stanley Milgram. Though mostly famous for his “Obedience to Authority” experiments, Milgram also pioneered research, like the famous Six Degrees experiment, demonstrating how intensively connected society is. We cannot explain who influences us, and by whom we’re influenced, because we cannot comprehend our cultural links. Watts actually replicates some Milgram experiments digitally, proving reality is more linked than Milgram could’ve realized.

Duncan J. Watts
Society proves difficult to explain. In one experiment, Watts, using double-blind research methods and sophisticated online social networks, manages to recreate the digital music marketplace. By segmenting populations into mutually unaware groups, he manages to simulate several different marketplaces, resulting in completely different bestseller lists. This proves that just because certain circumstances occurred doesn’t mean they had to occur; reality is deeply provisional. We cannot prove or understand why what happened, happened.

This goes double for situations which, unlike music markets, cannot be segmented and rerun analytically. We cannot, for example, have multiple trial Presidential elections or overseas wars. Explanations for outcomes therefore lack scientific rigor. When Nate Silver gives probabilities for certain electoral outcomes, his numerical assignments mean something very different from Vegas betting pools. The differences are opaque to people who can’t access Silver’s original math. Therefore we construct explanations retrospectively.

This comes across in popular self-help books which examine successful people to unlock their secrets. Authors believe we’ll replicate somebody else’s miracle if we simply find whichever magic choice or simple connection made their success possible. However, Watts asserts, we cannot see every influence that steered so-and-so to seemingly inevitable success. Essentially we assume somebody had to succeed because they did succeed; Watts calls this creeping determinism.

(Watts specifically name-checks Malcolm Gladwell for this tendency, though in fairness, Gladwell did write Outliers, which examines successful individuals’ cultural contexts, to counter this very tendency.)

Essentially, according to Watts, we don’t explain the past, we describe it. Therefore, attempts to construct actually useful predictions prove frustrating. And because most professional soothsayers’ predictions go largely unexamined, we must step over corpses of numberless stupid secular prophecies to reach contemporary reality. Certainly, many people my age lament their missing flying car. But most high-profile attempts to apply past observations to future choices remain equally fruitless, and we often don’t realize it’s happened.

Can we then even make meaningful predictions? Watts says yes, though exactly how defies brief restatement. We must eschew many common prejudices, like expecting meaningful predictions to be particularly precise. We must also limit our horizons: decades-long predictions prove as useless as long-term weather forecasts. And our reliance on either credentialed experts or gifted rookies limits our options. Processes for making actually useful predictions are surprisingly simple, yet because of learned biases, applying them is shockingly difficult.

Watts’ explanation of human reasoning, and its limits, sheds powerful light on how important decisions fail. Watts explicitly describes several implications for business, government, entertainment, and other fields, while constructive readers can imagine other fields which suffer exactly the field blindness Watts describes. If you’ve ever wondered how politicians, CEOs, and media pundits can be so spectacularly wrong, this book’s explanations will chill your blood. As science for the masses, Watts is a master.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Is Hank Junior an Actual Menace?

Hank Williams, Jr. (Bocephus)
Blake Shelton’s massively disingenuous crossover hit Boys 'Round Here, a paean to putative down-home authenticity and refusal to embrace urban influence (larded with hip-hop studio effects), opens with this naked invocation to Hank Williams, Jr.:
Well the boys ’round here
Don’t listen to the Beatles
Run Old Bocephus
Through the jukebox needle
At the honky-tonk
Where they boot stomp
All night
(That’s right)
My dislike for where this half-assed rhyme situates contemporary country music is already well documented. Less obvious, this hymn to yesteryear elevates Bocephus (a nickname Hank Senior bequeathed his son) into a stratosphere occupied mostly by deceased artists like Elvis, Sinatra, and… well… Hank Williams. That is, hearing Hank Junior, or anyway talking about hearing Hank Junior, lets individuals appropriate his legitimacy unto themselves.

Several recent country songs have used Hank Junior, especially his song “A Country Boy Can Survive,” to bespeak down-home genuineness. You’ll know somebody is fer real, according to today’s hit country if somebody knows Bocephus’ lyrics by heart. Admittedly, Young Hank hasn’t had a significant chart hit in over twenty years. But this revival of interest has pushed several singles back into prominence, and raised his interest on sites like Pandora and Spotify.

Some of what’s returned to prominence isn’t pretty.

At work recently, a coworker attached his iPhone to the company stereo and began playing his Hank Junior channel from some web service. Only three songs in, it played “If the South Woulda Won,” a top-ten hit from 1988 praising the Great Lost Cause from the American Civil War. It arguably starts off innocently enough:
If the South woulda won, we woulda had it made
I'd probably run for President of the Southern States
The day Elvis passed away would be our national holiday
If the South woulda won, we woulda had it made
Okay, Bocephus as major world leader might curl some listeners’ toes, and not without good reason. But that’s ordinary folksy boastfulness, nothing to lose sleep over. I got much more worried by the very next line:
I'd make my Supreme Court down in Texas
And we wouldn't have no killers getting off free
If they were proven guilty, then they would swing quickly
Instead of writin' books and smilin' on TV
Hank Junior actually sold this at his concert merch tables for several years


Hank Junior has repeatedly, in his lyrics, complained that killers get off easy. “A Country Boy Can Survive” spotlights a Country Mouse/City Mouse friendship that ended when “a man with a switchblade knife” murdered his friend: “I’d love to spit some beech-nut in that dude’s eye, and shoot him with my old .45.” Similarly, his 1984 non-single “Mr. Lincoln” says of a murderer: “When they caught the man he did 23 months of time; he pled insanity like they do now all the time.”

I’m forced to ask two questions: Who hurt Hank Junior? And: Where did he learn such bullshit about American justice? Despite TV crime drama narratives, insanity pleas are very difficult to sell, and usually result in lifelong involuntary committal. And frontier justice, despite its romantic appeal, always puts “right” in the hands of the most violent. Since that works well in Somalia and the areas controlled by Mexican drug cartels.

That says nothing about one fact regarding the south: slavery. Pro-South historians perform backflips to make the Civil War about anything, anything, other than slavery. But Georgia attorney Loren Collins, a self-proclaimed conservative libertarian, notes that slavery was the only unifying link in Southern secession. Multiple states, particularly South Carolina, cited slavery specifically in their declarations of secession. Jefferson Davis proposed a constitutional amendment making slavery legally unchallengeable.

Young Hank doesn’t mention slavery in his song. He does, however, sing this undying gem:
We'd put Florida on the right track, 'cause we'd take Miami back
And throw all them pushers in the slammer
Hank Junior ain't half the artist his father was
Clearly Bocephus watched Scarface while writing this unlistenable travesty. Take Miami back? From whom? He says “pushers,” but considering the late-Reaganite cultural context, he clearly means Cubans. Remember, this is a guy who said Barack Obama golfing with John Boehner “would be like Hitler playing golf with Benjamin Netanyahu.” Hank Junior’s history of race-baiting is both long, and unsubtle.

My problem isn’t that such bigotry exists. It’s that Bocephus, and others like him, actively market their bigotry to others. Currently, mainstream country avoids racial language, and country acts cut duets with hip-hop stars. They even let the blandly numbing Darius Rucker join the Opry. But stars like Blake Shelton giving Young Hank facetime keep his odious opinions shamefully alive.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Every Mother's Nightmare

Steve Jackson, Bogeyman

In the middle 1980s, four little girls in two states vanished. Ranging from three to ten years old, they disappeared utterly, leaving behind scanty clues—one dropped lunchbox, a sweatshirt. Only one girl narrowly escaped, witnessing her attacker’s face, but lost her friend to the anonymous monster. Bodies appeared months or even years later, across jurisdictional lines. Before networked investigation databases, police never noticed the connection between various crimes. Without evidence, cases languished for decades.

Veteran true crime author Steve Jackson channels the well-established In Cold Blood tradition of absenting himself from the plot, like a journalist, while constructing a narrative, driven by action and dialog, influenced by novel-writing technique. Jackson’s gradually unfolding story feels familiar to anybody accustomed to reading police procedurals and crime thrillers. The horrifying aspects of Jackson’s narrative, of the very killer every parent dreads their children encountering, become only more eerie because they really happened.

Garland, Texas, police detective Gary Sweet became interested in the unsolved murders one decade later, shortly after earning his detective’s badge, when he discovered the case documents buried inside the building. One decade already cold, the Roxanne Reyes murder had gone cold, lacking evidence. Sweet, a seasoned lawman and Christian convert who considered police work a religious calling, adopted the Reyes murder as personal campaign. But he had no clue how connected this case was.

The killer who murdered Roxanne Reyes proved crafty. He stalked victims assiduously, abducting only those whose absence wouldn’t be missed during those critical hours. He deposited bodies in secluded places, inside somebody else’s jurisdiction, ensuring they wouldn’t be discovered until critical evidence decayed. Everybody assumed his victims, all girls, were sexually assaulted, but evidence rotted away. Some bodies were so deteriorated, families could only identify their daughters by their clothing. No adult ever saw him.

David Penton: literally the man
your mother warned you about
Jackson describes Detective Sweet’s apprenticeship in crime’s most repellent side. Though outsiders often consider Garland just another Dallas suburb, it’s actually a fairly large, self-contained city, with big city crime problems. Sweet, with the dedication common to people who consider themselves on a mission, learned to befriend the most reprehensible criminals, unlock their secrets, and coax confessions from people who have committed acts so heinous, even dedicated crime fans couldn’t tolerate ten minutes beside them.

TV police make crime-solving look like lots of fieldwork, high-tech databases, and combing evidence to build incontrovertible cases. In Jackson’s telling, Detective Sweet actually spends hours, even days, running paperwork, engaging in jurisdictional politics, and finagling advantage wherever he can. Sweet needed to unpack this case gradually, working part-time over a decade while carrying a full load of active cases. Neither glamorous nor exciting, Jackson makes Sweet’s dedicated investigation look remarkably like hard, thankless work.

But humans’ natural tendency to talk proved Robert Penton’s undoing. Imprisoned elsewhere for a murder uncomfortably similar to Roxanne Reyes, Penton began building jailhouse credentials by boasting to fellow inmates of various crimes he purportedly committed, outwitting police and skating scot-free. He managed to offend and disgust even hardened sex offenders, until one finally turned informant. If even a fraction of Penton’s boasts proved true, he surely counts among America’s most prolific child killers ever.

Prodigiously smart but violently damaged, Penton represents every parent’s nightmare, the sexual predator smart enough to outwit police, game the system, and remain perennially undetected. Personally unassuming, Penton travelled widely, following work beneath his intellect. Bosses remember him as an industrious but undistinguished employee. But jobs, for Penton, mattered little. The travelling offered him opportunity to stalk new victims, prolong their torture, and amble away with absolute impunity. Life-altering trauma lingered everywhere in his wake.

Just because he had Penton’s jailhouse braggadocio, however, didn’t mean Sweet had his killer. Lacking physical evidence, and building only from the hearsay testimony of another convicted sex offender, Sweet had an unusually difficult case to construct, connecting Penton to not just Reyes, but four other cases Sweet could identify (others certainly went unidentified). The sketchy evidence, two-decade time lag between crime and conviction, and Penton’s tendency to fabricate, made this Sweet’s hardest case ever.

As police procedurals often do, Jackson starts with an acknowledgement of who committed the real crime, an acknowledgement shocking in both its nature and its specific detail. The only question remains: will Sweet get his man? We know, because we’re reading, that he already did, but Jackson’s telling emphasizes just how tenuous, just how contingent, any criminal case actually is. Even knowing the outcome, the tension leaves us sweating, because Sweet could be us, too.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Restoring Danger to Classic Verse

Henry Walters, Field Guide A Tempo: Poems

Susan Sontag, in her 1966 article “Against Interpretation,” inveighed against the tendency, common in schoolroom reading and high-minded academic criticism, of using interpretive heuristics to reduce art to comprehensibility, de-fanging the wolf. Art, she said, should be dangerous; interpretation simply buttresses existing power structures. Or, as Billy Collins writes, “Would anyone care to join me/ in flicking a few pebbles in the direction/ of teachers who are fond of asking the question/ ‘What is the poet trying to say?’”

New Hampshire poet Henry Walters writes poems that resist interpretation. Not that engaged readers can’t recognize more literal meaning in his enigmatic lines. However, there isn’t that essayistic timbre beloved by critics. Walters doesn’t write crossword puzzle clues to solve; he writes Zen koans readers must contemplate. His verses occupy that liminal space just outside knowledge, where we know something has happened, but we must think about it. Poems like “Black Swan Pas de Deux” invite us, not to know, but to contemplate:
Both yes & no,
   I play me & you
play you. A little
  dance-duet. Strange:
wherever you move
  the sound is broken
glass—where I follow
  it’s the running
of blood. To someone
  else I’d say, Keep that
heart shut! Don’t lend that
  song a body! No
chance of staging whole-
  ness without a
whole house of gore
  to answer it.
Henry Walters: poet, classicist, falconer
Not that we couldn’t interpret this poem. Like Bob Dylan lyrics and Hans Holbein paintings, given enough time and motivation we could reduce them to positivist statements of one-to-one absolutes. Yet reading them, we don’t want to neuter Walters’ verses this way. Walters uses quirky phrases, sudden reversals, and metaphors so subtle, you almost miss they’ve happened, to guide readers outside themselves. He invites readers on journeys, where positivist poets (and the critics who love them) expound points.

Throughout, Walters arranges poems into triplets. A brief prose poem leads into a sonnet, usually structured somehow unconventionally—long lines, or visually specific line breaks, or the rhyme only oblique. The third may be free verse, a nonce form, or something different. But Walters never lets readers rest comfy on his patterns. He’ll suddenly flip sequences, or replace the sonnet with quatrains, or drop something. Structure, even self-imposed structure, is for Walters a leaping-off point, never a justification.

A trained classicist, naturalist, and schoolteacher, Walters’ poetry spotlights a perpetual outsider’s feel, a spectator observing humanity from outside its highly constructed boundaries. Perhaps that’s why Walters’ language, even when consistent enough to be controlled, never loses its spontaneity. He watches us watching him watching us. Nowhere does this scrutiny come across more plainly than his centerpiece, the protean long-form “Field Guide”, which combines three voices, a sociological observer, an observed struggling with self-awareness, and “the wind”:
Born of a straightedge & a grafted braid,
I come loping, limping, hungry, humble, looking
For origin & answer. My pied tongue licking
Bootsole, shoeblack, long since hybridized.

Dumpster-eyed, one of the half-breed scavenger brood
With fingered wings & no call, flocking
To a dying animal, I on Pelican
Earth arrive to find, expiring, breeze…
Walters utilizes traditional forms like sonnet, quatrain, and blank verse, situating himself within long-established poetic stanzas. His forms aren’t always obvious, and it’s fun, eight or nine lines in, to realize we’re reading a sonnet. Like fellow classicists A.E. Stallings and Aaron Poochigian, Walters knows ancient forms with intimacy which modern MFA workshops cannot convey. Yet like them, because he knows forms closely, he feels free to disregard imposed rules. He doesn’t serve traditional forms, they serve his vision, as in “Lookout”:
You think of those Roman soldiers standing guard
Somewhere at the edge of their language, a sentry-post
With commanding views of the valley north and west
Out past the nearest hills, horizonward.

No longer colonizing with the sword,
A lighter touch now, running the eyes across
Toothed ridges, muffled in the manifold blues of distance,
Named in the tangled tongues of uncivilized hordes.

And then, September, hawks lift off from those hills,
All aimed in one direction, passing through
Without password, without permission, their fanned tails
Flying colors you’ve never paid attention to
Till now, beautiful, barbarian syllables,
A whole sky, unopposed, invading you.
That’s what Walters does, invade your preconceptions. He includes allusions to Shakespear, the blues, Christian saints; but always, he subverts his allusions’ comfy premises, making the familiar dangerous. As good poetry should, and MFA workshops seldom do, Walters’ verses challenge readers. You emerge from reading somehow changed, often in ways not obvious. He’s still working on me.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Parallel Reality and the Human Heart

Claudia Gray, A Thousand Pieces of You (The Firebird Trilogy, Part One)

Marguerite Caine is caught between worlds. Literally. Thanks to her parents’ invention, the Firebird, she can leap into parallel dimensions: a technologically advanced London, Russia where the Revolution never happened, a research colony on the ocean floor. But she isn’t leaping just for fun. Marguerite is seeking the man who killed her father, stole his trailblazing research, and not incidentally broke her heart. Along the way, she’ll uncover dimension-spanning conspiracies that undermine everything she knows.

On one level, journeyman YA author Claudia Gray compiles elements familiar from her genre. For instance, on Page One, she declares unambiguously which character Marguerite believes killed her father. If you’ve read more than one YA novel—well, more than one any-age novel—you realize that, by page 350, circumstances will reverse everything she believes, every obvious judgment. We know where Marguerite’s journey ends; we only read to discover what circuitous route brings her there.

However, that route remains gripping. Gray constructs an elaborate superstructure based on secrets and revelations. Every unveiled event opens a cascade of further secrets, as what begins in an apparent crime proves far larger. Details dropped before page fifty suddenly prove consequential after page 300. Marguerite’s life is massively interconnected; it’s impossible to tell, at any moment, which flippant detail might prove massively important. The complexity of Gray’s story keeps readers eager for another discovery.

Reading Marguerite's story as a straightforward chase narrative with romantic overtones offers a plainly fun story. But that’s like reading The Hunger Games and eliding Collins’ political subtext. Marguerite’s physicist parents believe they’re pursuing “pure science,” knowledge for knowledge’s sake. When their graduate assistant murders her father, leaving not even a body to examine (lampshade!), she discovers all knowledge has moral implications. Continuing revelations push this further, questioning boundaries between pure science and marketable technology.

Claudia Gray
Gray also invites speculation on themes of identity. Her premise forbids Marguerite to leap, Scott Bakula-style, into just anybody; she only visits dimensions where she somehow already exists. Yet in various realities, she’s a hedonistic orphan, a tzarina, a submarine pilot, and more. Gray forces Marguerite to question the circumstances that created her identity. Had reality unfolded differently, would we make choices similar to those we’ve already made? Are we mere products of our environment?

Marguerite’s story proves further intricately connected. Only looking backward can we comprehend just how beautifully Gray has constructed Marguerite’s reality. Seemingly insignificant revelations dropped fleetingly before page fifty prove crucial to explosive climaxes nearly 400 pages later. Once we recognize her elaborate, Jenga-like lattice, we naturally attempt inferences. But Gray constantly frustrates our attempts to predict her narrative: in her tightly woven narrative, the difference between playful scene-setting and dropping serious clues becomes increasingly indistinguishable.

This novel succeeds on so many levels. Despite my paragraphs of literary disquisition, Gray markets a high-tension yarn that sweeps readers along briskly, pace never flagging, characters never growing repetitive. Unlike many eat-your-spinach novels I remember from my teens, Gray wastes little time directly expounding morals; her points arise from characters whose tense situations force them to act. Gray remains a storyteller first, but her story, like life, forces characters and audience into deeper reflection.

Viewpoint narrator Marguerite serves the same basic role as human companions on Doctor Who: somebody needs to translate massively rococo science concepts into small words for the audience. Also, somebody needs to justify science that doesn’t actually make sense (quick scans of Brian Greene dismantle both Marguerite’s Firebird and the TARDIS). Though telling her own story, Marguerite is essentially us, facilitating our vicarious adventures through realities too sleek, romantic, dangerous, or marvelous to ever exist.

Saying “this book isn’t for everybody” seems almost redundant with YA literature. Despite her prudent adolescent narrator and early-twenties core ensemble, Gray drops occasional language and violence—less than typical cable dramas—and brief sex. Though Gray’s telling remains tasteful, parents should realize this ain’t no TBN after-school special. Her characters have sex to express deep devotion, not momentary thrill, and nobody imagines murder plots without violence. Just don’t mistake this for something it ain’t.

Today’s sweeping popularity of YA fiction with adults sometimes drives literary purists into a tizzy. Grown-ups, they say, should read books for grown-ups. Yet reading novels like this, I understand why audiences remain loyal to writing aimed at teenagers. Wise to life’s nuances, but unencumbered by adulthood’s baggage, teens see reality their own way. We adults, glazed in learned cynicism and hip gloom, would recapture that clarity. For one moment, between two covers, we can.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cry "Havoc!" and Let Slip

Richard Overy, A History of War in 100 Battles

Whatever you think of war and its social implications, one cannot deny its evolving social structures and lasting consequences. From Greeks with spears, to archers and lancers, to today’s digitally coded, technologically intense battlefield, war continues to hold prominence among forces shaping human society. British historian Richard Overy crafts a far-reaching, lavishly illustrated history of how war evolves with human society, and vice versa, utilizing one hundred dramatic examples of direct conflict and close combat.

Some of Overy’s choices are obvious: no thoroughgoing history of war could conscionably overlook the Spanish Armada, Gettysburg, or Guadalcanal. But Overy also describes obscure conflicts. Non-historians may consider MaipĂ», Solferino, or Omdurman esoteric, but Overy persuasively contends they embody war’s ever-evolving trends, and influence everything coming after. And though we may not easily recall the Milvian Bridge, Agincourt, and Dien Bien Phu, in Overy’s telling, their historical significance demands equal treatment and careful consideration.

Overy divides his list into six distinguishing categories: Leadership, Against the Odds, Innovation, Deception, Courage in the Face of Fire, and In the Nick of Time. The category titles are pretty self-explanatory: Nelson at Trafalgar was a superior leader, while the Athenians at Marathon beat superior forces by loud displays of courage. Within each category, Overy lists the battles sequentially, allowing patterns to develop across centuries and geography. Overy paints sweeping themes with poetic panache.

The Battle of Adwa, 1895 newspaper illustration
Click to enlarge
Particularly in battles before the Nineteenth Century, Overy admits, anything like modern record-keeping doesn’t exist. Not only in semi-mythical battles like Thermopylae or Troy, but ostensibly historical campaigns like Bannockburn or the Fall of Tenochtitlan, we must reconstruct events from legend and partial evidence. Battles like Roncesvalles, where Charlemagne’s champion Roland fell, or Lake Peipus, where Alexander Nevsky preserved Russia, emerge from  oral tradition. Ever the careful historian, Overy’s favorite expression is “open to conjecture.”

These battle descriptions aren’t meant to be either exhaustive or definitive. Overy dedicates three to four pages to each battle, regardless of exact circumstances. Gaugamela, which lasted an afternoon, and Austerlitz, which took a day, get equal coverage to Verdun and the Battle of Britain, which lasted months, and Desert Storm and the Six Day War, which were actually single military actions. Overy doesn’t pretend to comprehensive history; overarching patterns matter more than individual events.

But this mix of historical caution and synoptic storytelling defines Overy’s edge. Writing for generalists, Overy describes not only troop movements and map markers, but actual fighting conditions in adverse circumstances. Some armies, for instance, folded for want of drinking water. Entire wars turned on generals’ ability to communicate along geographically dispersed fronts. War, for Overy, isn’t a theoretical command structure (though he cites famed theoreticians like Frederick the Great); it’s dirty on the ground.

Reading Overy’s table of contents, his selected battles seem awfully Eurocentric. Even many non-European battles involve colonial armies suppressing native populations. But his introduction specifies that, while war transcends individual culture, what we call “battle” is distinctively Indo-European in culture. Indian tribal skirmishes and Mogol cattle raids aren’t battles; true battle, with customs of engagement and tactics of conquest, moves out globally with European colonial expansion; without empire, other peoples might’ve never discovered battle’s horrors.

But they did. The Japanese at Sekigahara, the Ethiopians at Adwa, or the combined tribes at Little Big Horn [sic] quickly adopted Western confrontational techniques, sometimes outplaying Western forces at their own game. This adoption of Western techniques to preserve non-Western cultural identity says something about history’s trends— something not everyone will like. (America’s long-running Indian Wars, which only latterly escalated to anything we’d call “battle,” get short shrift here. But that’s my personal issue.)

To his credit, Overy avoids philosophical rumination. The morality of conflicts like Rorke’s Drift or Hiroshima don’t concern him here, only the conduct of competing forces. This fact-based history, reserving analysis for audiences’ imaginations, permits Overy to maintain focus on particular circumstances. He needn’t comment on European colonialism, or racism, or national identity, because this book isn’t about that. It’s about how people fight and die. And sometimes, history doesn’t reward the players we favor.

Besides Overy’s historical arc, this book is visually gripping too. Oxford UP has a history of publishing lavishly illustrated histories for non-specialists, books which audiences can read privately or display, coffee table-style. With at least one illustration per battle (mostly paintings done later, though some photographs of more recent conflicts), this book rewards both casual browsing and thorough reading. I finished this book feeling informed, enlightened, and ready to learn more about history’s open secrets.