BATTLE: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America

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BATTLE: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America, John A. Lynn, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 2003, 352 pages, $27.50.

In the preface to his new book, John A. Lynn writes, "This volume has come to bury the universal soldier, not to praise him." There can be no universal soldier, Lynn says, no archetypal military, no globally consistent method of warfare, because every soldier, army, and form of warfare is a reflection of the unique culture from which it is drawn. In Lynn's view, culture is an essential tool for appreciating the diversity within warfare over the ages. In particular, a cultural analysis of war helps us study the chasm between the way societies think about war (in Lynn's words, "the discourse of war") and the way they actually conduct war (war's reality).

Lynn's approach, which is anecdotal rather than comprehensive, focuses on periods and locales where research best indicates culture's effect on warfare. Starting with ancient Greece, he moves to ancient China and India, considers medieval Europe, then moves on to the armies of the Enlightenment and the sepoys of India. After considering the Napoleonic period and the Pacific War of 1941-1945, he concludes by investigating how the Egyptian army adapted an operational plan to its military culture to gain a brief but important victory over the Israelis in 1973.

Lynn acknowledges the help of many of military history's most noted figures. Yet, one is not surprised to find Lynn most persuasive when dealing with the areas he knows best. With books like Bayonets of Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94 (University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 1984) and The Giant of the Grand Siecle: The French Army, 1610-1715 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1997), Lynn has earned a reputation as a first-rate historian of the early modern and Napoleonic periods in Western Europe, and the chapters on European warfare are the strongest in the book. The chapter on medieval warfare is especially persuasive in demonstrating the contrast between the nobility's chivalric concept of war with the pillage, rape, and destruction that accompanied the campaigns of the Hundred Years War.

Inevitably, Lynn's approach will draw comparisons with that of Victor Davis Hanson, who has generated a storm of praise and opprobrium for his argument that Western culture, since the time of the Greek hoplite, has developed a consistent style of warfare based on "civic militarism," free inquiry, and "heavy infantry that fights face-to-face." This pattern of warmaking has made Western warfare uniquely lethal and, in the long term, unbeatable. More than economic or political dynamism, Hanson believes, the Western style of war has led to the dominance of Western civilization. …