Book Review: Military History for the Modern Strategist: America's Major Wars Since 1861


by Michael O'Hanlon

Washington: Brookings Institution Press / Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023. Pp. xiv, 402. Maps, notes, index. $39.95 / £31.00. ISBN: 0815739834

America's Wars Since 1861

This interesting, thoughtful, and well-written work follows the pattern of all-too-many books today in not actually matching its title. Military History for the Modern Strategist? Definitely not. Much of the world is not really covered, and most of it only if it relates to America. Instead, the subtitle is far more germane, although there are extensions on offer at some points. Does this matter? Well, yes, unfortunately. This is not so much a case of equity, although that would be a reasonable goal. After all, a work titled Military History for the Modern Strategist should offer something for those of such major states as Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkey, which either do not feature in the book at all or apparently deserve much mention.

More significantly, even if the book is restricted to an American utilitarian perspective, as it frequently verges on doing, it is appropriate to have a forensic understanding of what military history and strategy means to other powers in order best to engage with them, as enemies, allies or whatever. Indeed, when modern strategy in the West is referred to as in disarray, which has been a frequent complaint over the last 15 years (and should have been since the Cold War ended), the focus should not be, as in O’Hanlon’s book, on going back to some supposed fundamental state of American Grand Strategy, or strategy as a whole, but, rather, to understand the range, variety and multi-contextualism of strategies. This then helps bring to the fore the multivalent nature of the sphere and, as a linked question, the complexity in a context of many actors of trying to achieve an appropriate (or any) prioritisation in order to pursue goals and implement policies. The belief that a player can address this by going back to its first principles is attractive, but flawed, because it downplays the role of other participants. Moreover, there is the conceptual and methodological problem of assuming clearcut national interests, and therefore optimal policies, rather than accepting that these are inherently debatable and political.

O’Hanlon’s book has much to offer those who are new to the subject and will benefit from an essentially clear read. The specialist may not be surprised by O’Hanlon’s three lessons: ‘Outcomes in war are not preordained’; ‘War is usually harder and bloodier than expected’; and ‘America’s grand strategy is strong enough to absorb some setbacks.’ Nor would it amaze the specialist to see that caution and restraint are endorsed for America alongside resoluteness, and that there is scepticism about any focus on supposedly transformative weapons technology.

Military History for the Modern Strategist is fairly up to date on detail, and its operational focus on strategy will please many readers. Others might prefer a military history for the modern strategist.


Our Reviewer: Jeremy Black, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Exeter, is also a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of an impressive number of works in history, international affairs, and world culture, frequently demonstrating unique interactions and trends among events, including The Great War and the Making of the Modern World, Combined Operations: A Global History of Amphibious and Airborne Warfare, and The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon. He has previously reviewed The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, King of the World, Stalin’s War, Underground Asia, The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps, The Atlas of Boston History, Time in Maps, Bitter Peleliu, The Boundless Sea, On a Knife Edge. How Germany Lost the First World War, Meat Grinder. The Battles for the Rzhev Salient, Hitler’s Fatal Miscalculation, and Hitler’s Fatal Miscalculation.





Note: Military History for the Modern Strategist is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Jeremy Black   

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