Military History Matters

By Burke, Michael | Army, August 2013 | Go to article overview

Military History Matters


Burke, Michael, Army


Military History Matters Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World. James Lacey and Williamson Murray. Bantam Books. 496 pages; black-and-white photographs; index; maps; notes. $30. Publisher's website: www.bantamdell.com.

History is a vexing issue for Americans, since so much of our sense of ourselves as a nation relies heavily on how we see our own history. Glenn Beck on the right and Oliver Stone on the left are only recent examples in a complex struggle over who controls the narrative in our heads. Even Clio, the muse of history, has a Facebook page.

Williamson Murray, one of our finest military historians, and James Lacey, a prolific author and defense scholar, avoid such reductive popularizing as they argue for the importance of military history in Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World. They contend that contemporary academic history deprecates both great men and great battles, and they focus on broad social and political currents instead. Modeling their study after Sir Edward S. Creasy's 1851 book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World From Marathon to Waterloo, the authors make this explicit in their preface: "Like Creasy, we have selected our battles on the basis of their long-term impact on the course of history, not on the basis of their importance to the study of military art."

The battles range from antiquity to the present, from Marathon in 490 B.C. to the 2003 battle for Baghdad. Six of Creasy's choices are examined-Marathon, Gaugamela, Teutoburger Wald, Hastings, the Spanish Armada and Saratoga. Their other choices differ because of the 150-year period between Creasy's book and theirs, one that saw the American Civil War, the two world wars and the decline of European colonial empires.

Lacey and Murray have, however, a bias similar to Creasy's: one that is humanist, Protestant and British. Their treatment of the early battles-Marathon (Athens defeats Sparta), Gaugamela (Greeks defeat Persians) and Zama (Rome defeats Carthage)-essentially contrasts a humanist or Western culture with an Eastern or African one. These three battles permit the ereation and spread of the Greco-Roman world-its knowledge, values and politics, from which so much of our contemporary Western culture comes.

The Battle of Teutoburger Wald (Germans defeat Romans) makes their case in reverse. They claim it set the stage for both world wars in that Germany was never brought into the ambit of that same culture. They even go so far as to conclude that "there is little chance Germany will become culturally indistinguishable from the rest of the West in any foreseeable time frame."

Their discussion of the Thirty Years' War's Battle of Breitenfeld (Sweden defeats the Holy Roman Empire) is similarly confusing. They chose this battle mainly because the Swedish army was very much one we would recognize today, with standardized weaponry, intense training, flexible organization and distributed leadership. It was radically different from the Spanish-inspired standard European tercio organization of massed pikemen and musketeers that achieved cohesion through mass alone. The battle meets the authors' criteria in the sense that the Swedish model became the model for industrial-power armies through our own time.

Breitenfeld, however, was not truly decisive-the Thirty Years' War dragged on for another 17 years, ending with a negotiated peace that radically changed political boundaries but left the basic religious contours of Europe more or less intact. In this same chapter, the authors speculate about what would have happened had the Catholic Hapsburgs prevailed over the Protestant Germans, arguing that the great burst of scientific knowledge that began in that century would have been crushed by the official opposition of the Catholic Church. …

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