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 Maipû, 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.

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