Traditionally, much literature on war details battles and campaigns. Quality varies from compilations of précis to full-length books on “decisive battles.” Much of this work is overly heroic and largely uncritical, but some is deeply scholarly. Accurate battle and operational history is extremely hard to write, especially about wars distant in time. It is also hard to read and understand, and it requires intimate knowledge of topography, not to mention an appreciation of logistics, leadership, command and control, and tactics that frequently change depending on the time and place and what army is involved. Traditional histories were often overly reliant on a few eyewitnesses or took the “top-down” approach dictated by heavy reliance on commanders’ memoirs. Thus, they too often were concerned primarily with military reputations, critical tactical decisions made or not made by commanders which putatively turned the tides of whole campaigns and even wars. From the 19th century, war diaries and letters home by more educated men sprinkled among a generally and more commonly illiterate soldiery enriched battle and campaign reconstructions, but still emphasized command decisions in battle reconstructions. Indeed, they amplified that bias by leaving out the common soldiers’ experiences, recollections, and perspectives. Modern accounts often benefit from the necessary collaborative writing by teams of historians or military professionals working from a multitude of sources on enormous battles of the 20th century, or extending this methodology back to earlier times. Eyewitness oral histories, interviews, and detailed after-action reports have become key sources in writing battle and campaign history, in addition to “official histories” and ever-wider publication of battle memoirs by even very low-level participants in modern wars. Battle study today nearly always includes “bottom-up” social and cultural issues, better reflecting the “face of battle” as it has been and continues to be experienced by ordinary soldiers.
The main tradition in battle study is narrative recreation, or reconstruction, usually of what are judged to have been “decisive battles.” Paving the way for many imitators was Creasy 1992, first published in the mid–19th century yet still read today. A more detached and scholarly operational work is Heller and Stofft 1986. Its unique feature is to assess the “first battle” of each war and what was learned from the experience. Altering the landscape of writing about battle was Ardant du Picq 1978, first published after the Franco-Prussian War. Written by a French officer once gravely wounded, it is full of empathy for the human experience of combat. Keegan 1976 changed the way much contemporary military history is written by recreating in remarkable detail and outstanding prose the experience of three key British battles. Keegan 1999, a collection of firsthand accounts of battle, is a useful compendium of primary readings. Although couched in a questionable theoretical framework, the power of the originals shines through the editorial fog. Richard Holmes went farther than any other military historian in Acts of War, exploring the age-old question of why men fight by following recruits across time and cultures into different armies and multiple wars (Holmes 1986). He lets the men describe for themselves acculturation into military life, training, battle experience, suffering, and wounds of body and mind. A third type of study assesses the experience of battle across time in search of cultural patterns. Hanson 2001 argues for a peculiarly lethal “Western way of war” in his widely read, and equally widely criticized, study of “carnage and culture.” More scholarly, error-free, and persuasive is Lynn 2003, which presents the culture of battle as shifting, impermanent and nonlinear, but always centrally important to the larger understanding of war.
Ardant du Picq, Charles J. J. Études sur le combat: Combat antique et combat moderne. Paris: Champ Libre, 1978.
French officer examined ancient war to mid-19th-century wars; emphasized role of morale as key to success; notable for insight into battle psychology, physical and mental strains of combat.
Creasy, Edward. Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: Marathon to Waterloo. Wayne, PA: Landpost, 1992.
Traditionalist treatment of selected battles; each conflict narrated, assessed for putative decisive effects on world history. First of a whole genre of “decisive battle” literature. First published in 1851 (London: R. Bentley).
Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
The West has a uniquely lethal, linear military culture, rooted in social organization and ideas about a citizen’s relationship to state. Illustrates with accounts of nine battles, classical to modern. Often criticized for its cherry-picked historical record; major errors of fact or interpretation; presumption of linear Western tradition leaps over the Middle Ages and rediscoveries and “military revolutions” of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Heller, Charles E., and William A. Stofft. America’s First Battles, 1776–1965. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.
Rich operational study of ten American “first battles” by historians and professional military. Includes Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, American Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War.
Holmes, Richard. Acts of War: Behavior of Men in Battle. New York: Free Press, 1986.
Medical layman’s informed, psychological study of why men fight and how they react to the experience of military life and war. Historical accounts and contemporary oral histories interwoven with secondary sources. Detached, objective, keen insights abound.
Keegan, John. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. New York: Viking, 1976.
Pathbreaking, close study of three famous battles; highlights the ground-level, personal experience of combat; effectively demonstrates expanding scale of modern warfare. Heavy and oddly theoretical prologue may be usefully skipped.
Keegan, John, ed. The Book of War: 25 Centuries of Great War Writing. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Eclectic but valuable collection of one hundred short, primary source readings. Imposition of overly artful editing and Western “theoretical” bias in commentary rarely detracts from core utility of original sources. Each excerpt preceded by short introduction. Useful companion to any main course text.
Lynn, John A. Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003.
Insightful cross-cultural study; evolution of experience of combat; argues against special cultural patterns; history of warfare more varied. Argues against determinative role of technology, revives cultural beliefs and ideology as key explanations of multiple causes of war and styles of combat. Notable for rare essays on military culture of India.
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