by Jeremy Black
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. Pp. x, 258.
Biblio., index. $25.00. ISBN: 0300256515
A Survey of Warfare Down the Ages
Odds are that sometime, somewhere, any serious student of military matters has picked up a book by Professor Black, likely the most prolific historical writer in English, who can boast over a hundred volumes bearing his name.
This work is one of his latest. (Although, apparently, it is not one of his most original. In 2010, he published the 192-page War: A Short History, which sounds rather similar.) In this compact, revisited text, the author nevertheless applies his undeniable erudition to a rapid survey of human bellicosity from the Stone Age to around the end of 2020.
(Sigh. If he had only waited a bit longer to publish, he would have had reams of fresh material…although he does present an astute speculation on the future of conflict, which he believes will be increasingly urbanized.)
Black arranges his consolidation of warfare into 40 – of necessity, brief – chapters. He sets a fierce pace, which he can only sustain by jettisoning footnotes, maps, tables, charts, appendices, or any graphics at all. There is, however, an index at the end, along with a rudimentary bibliography.
Dates and empires and battles and leaders whiz by as fast as skipped stations on a downtown express. The need for compression certainly explains why the Roman Republic and Empire go up and down in about 12 pages, as well as why such a learned scholar makes an occasional howler.
This one, referring to the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C.E., rankled me because I’d just finished a book on ancient warfare: “Alexander’s force was seven thousand strong, and the Persian forty thousand….” (p. 32) Excuse me, Jeremy, but most historians concur that the Macedonian had about forty to forty-seven thousand; Darius’ numbers were apparently hazier, but many sources suggest multiples of his opponent’s.
Okay, no point in excessive nitpicking on figures, given the vast span of time and subjects the writer covers.
Read On. Gradually, however, his writing gets smoother, and his analysis sharpens during the chronological march of chapters, especially after the introduction of gunpowder and advancing weapons technology. By the eighteenth century – one of Black’s comfort zones – common-sense assertions are much more frequently outnumbered by keen insights.
For instance, I quickly nodded in agreement when he emphasizes that the developing range of new technologies -- beyond that of weaponry alone -- greatly influenced the application of nineteenth-century warfare.
Among broader examples of industrial progress, the writer identifies those enhancing military prowess:
(a) faster, more reliable transportation, supplied by trains and steamships;
(b) better victualling, thanks to canned meat and powdered milk; and
(c) communication advances, like the telegraph.
All of these, of course, helped Europeans expand their power during their famous age of imperialism. Yet, the author perceptively notes that non-Westerners also displayed nasty imperialistic urges during this period. Professor Black underlines this underappreciated fact:
“The list of expanding powers in the nineteenth century included, in Africa, Egypt, Lunda, Abyssinia, Sudan under the Mahdi, and the Zulus . . . . In Asia, China was still able to intervene effectively in Nepal in 1792, and the list of expanding states there would include Burma, Punjab under the Sikhs, Siam (Thailand), and Japan.” (p. 173 )
As can be seen from the former paragraph, Professor Black does not ignore other cultures’ modes of conflict. Twelve of his 30 chapters prior to World War I review the military histories of China, Japan, India, Persia, Arabia, Egypt, and Africa, as well as those of Native American, Mongolian, and Australasian/Oceanic societies.
Military-History Pundits. In his excellent penultimate chapter, “Theorists of Military History,” the author identifies several of the problems he finds with such authorities, one of which is the dominance of the European experience – a reality that occupies disproportionate space and distorts analysis. “The sense here,” he concludes, “is that it is non-Western military that requires more attention.” (p. 241)
Black believes that the standard theoretical approach overfocuses on traditional Western “great commanders, on major wars, and on supposedly decisive battles” -- many of which might be regarded differently by military savants based in Beijing, Delhi, Lagos, or Lima.
Another criticism he offers is that “many of the same old thinkers” get trotted out, often with “a repetition of past arguments and established problems.” (Clausewitz, Jomini, Hart, Fuller, Corbett, et. al., -- he’s looking at you, guys.)
Black adds that the spotlight on struggles between (or among) states is too bright, while it is rather dim on conflicts within them, which diminishes attention to revolutions and civil wars. Moreover, conventional battles are frequently stressed, while other subjects tend to be sorely neglected: e.g., sieges, blockades, raids, culture, and the influences of social changes and religious ideologies.
In addition, Professor Black is quite insightful about the poor treatment most theorists give to some of the world’s most successful militaries – that is, those of the steppes, like the Huns and Mongols.
Too often, he finds, their evaluations become teleology; in other words, “we know where we are going, and it is both inevitable and good.” That is based on the foregone conclusion that these horseback warriors will -- without a doubt – one day lose out to the settled peoples.
Of course, their ultimate defeat was not really a given for much of recorded history, as we know it.
This means that the steppe societies’ actual military achievements – which are many-- are not fully regarded or analyzed.
In his final chapter, the author clearly lays out the challenges faced when he tackled his huge subject in a compressed format.
Dangers of a Short Book. Before undertaking this assignment (for the second time), he realized that “A short book, however, risks both simplifying the nature of war in order to provide a clear account and using a causal narrative. . . All then falls into a pat analysis, with technological proficiency in weaponry generally the means of proficiency.” (p.240)
Well, it looks like Professor Black has pretty much succeeded in sidestepping those risks.
So, I recommend that you carefully place this compact, erudite little volume on that long Jeremy Black bookshelf in your personal library.
By now, you already realize that you will always find out fascinating stuff from this emeritus scholar – facts that you simply hadn’t known before you read him.
For instance, I discovered that the last bear in Germany was shot in 1797. And, later, I also found out that the Sinicized Manchu dynasty, formerly steppe warriors, were strategically nimble enough to develop a naval capacity that allowed them to capture Taiwan in 1683.
Warfare never repeats itself . . . right? Always something to learn.
Note: A Short History of War is also available in several e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium
www.nymas.org and https://www.nymas2.org/