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Intelligent guide, but limited by its vast scope
on 28 November 2004
The Times History of War proves that this is a complex subject, influenced by and intimately bound up with politics, economics, social change, religion, culture, technology ... and even meteorology. Warfare is also an evolving art, science and discipline - it's often said that general always re-fight the last war, only to be caught on the hop because a new enemy emerges, or an old enemy does something new and unexpected, or a new weapon suddenly appears. The machinegun and the tank were shocking newcomers in their day ... but anyone reading this review will vividly remember 9/11!
There is an immediate pitfall in any work of this scope - the reader quickly begins to spot what has been missed rather than appreciate what is there. This is a taster, an introduction to history, so it must inevitably leave you feeling dissatisfied, in need of a more substantial meal. It does, however, put warfare into perspective: it has to be understood not as simply a series of different battles, but as an expression of social and historical change.
The Times History notes that the boundaries between periods of history have always proved contentious. Trying to pigeonhole warfare can be fraught with imprecision and abstraction. Mechanisation and tank warfare seems to create a clear historical division ... yet urban warfare and guerrilla warfare hark back to more primitive ways of killing one another.
Lavishly illustrated, full colour, with an abundance of maps and battle diagrams, this is a concise and analytical volume. It asks what worked, what went wrong, what were the outcomes. It is akin to a guidebook or roadmap, identifying the main points of interest in the history of warfare. It is up to the traveller to stop and explore at greater length and depth.
Enthusiasts will not find uniform detail, weapon facts, or organisational information here. This is a vast subject, so all that can reasonably be expected is that the authors offer an intelligent overview. They do this by looking at the evolution of tactics and strategies, following the major personalities and great war leaders, major battles, and changing technology. It is Western European in its outlook - there's no room for the Zulus, Incas, Aztecs, no Conquistadores, no General Giap ... even Scotland warrants only one passing mention!
Overall, an engaging and enlightening analysis, but its major failing - given the breadth of the subject matter it attempts to cover - is the absence of a decent bibliography to point you on the road to further exploration. A good coffee table book for those with limited knowledge of the history of warfare, but perhaps of little use for the enthusiast or historian.