Book Reviews: The Greatest Battles Of Our Time And Training For War: An Essay

The Greatest Battles Of Our Time, by Matthew Harper

Training For War: An Essay, by Tom Kratman

Both of these books deal with warfare from very different perspectives, and provide very different feelings upon reading. Although the title of Harper’s work, “The Greatest Battles Of Our Time,” may seem ominous, it is a light book full of trivia and links that include a trivia quiz at the end. Just what is meant by “our time” is a fairly broad concept, considering the book includes references to the Charge of the Light Brigade (which happened in the 1850’s Crimean War, and not the 2014 one) and a picture of the Battle of Zama and even trivia about the Battle of Granicus, which was fought over 2300 years ago. Clearly, what is meant by “our time” is a very broad meaning indeed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as a reference to only the battles of our time (by which we may define times that someone might actually have been alive to remember) would not have left that much material to work with, as WWII is fading into historical memory and few of the wars since then have been all that glorious, as they are too recent and too-well recorded with video to see any glory in bombings and counterinsurgency.

One thing this trivia book does exceedingly well, though, is to make someone feel good for having a good memory. The book considers those who answer the ten trivia questions right (only a couple of them were even remotely challenging to me) a “battle master,” at least in the sense of being a master at memorizing facts and trivia about battle, at least. The approach of this book is tidy, full of interesting tidbits, but clearly a work of modest importance, if still considerable pleasure. This is not something to be rejected out of hand, but rather something to be appreciated. We should all wish to be considered masters of a field as noble as military history, even if the standard of this book is perhaps a little bit too kind in terms of evaluating one’s performance.

No one can say that the next book has too generous of standards for its performance evaluations. Although Tom Kratman modestly calls his work on “Training For War” an essay, the work is a serious examination of issues that would be faced by a junior grade officer in motivating and training soldiers. Kratman reflects seriously on the few areas where drills are useful (particularly in mundane tasks like ensuring that food and ammunition are dealt with in a speedy fashion that avoids wasting time) and other areas where development of intuition and independent thinking on the part of soldiers and non-commissioned officers is to be greatly sought. This particular book is written for those who do not seek a mastery of trivia, but an appreciation of the chaos and confusion that are inherent in war, and have the resourcefulness to deal with it.

This book is a mixture of axioms and illustrations, many of them taken from a fellow named Hamilton, who is a no-nonsense officer gifted with creative thinking as well as a desire for the well-being of the men under his command. Although the accounts are fictionalized, they are clearly taken from real life, and there are probably some real-life officers of the US military who are not very happy about the way they are portrayed in these pages. The novel looks at the importance of dealing with morale, the need to honestly reflect upon massive cultural differences (with the surprising, and politically incorrect, admission that much of what a soldier needs to be effective cannot be trained by the military but comes as raw material from the family and cultural background of the soldier). Indeed, this book is politically incorrect, but a small work that easily ranks with works like Company Commander as a practical and American outgrowth of the thinking of Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu and Vegetius [1] in emphasizing the chaos and confusion of warfare and the need to be prepared for it not through mindless drilling, even less through phony preparations that fail to provide a test, but through developing the moral and intellectual courage to deal with the intense but intermittent demands of combat leadership.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-military-historian-and-the-fog-of-war-a-case-study/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/book-review-the-four-books-of-martial-policy-english-translation-of-the-de-re-militari/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/a-musing-on-the-biblical-way-of-war/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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