Book Review: Battlefield: Decisive Conflicts In History

Battlefield:  Decisive Conflicts In History, by Richard Holmes

It is hard to decide whether to praise this book for its ambition or to fault the book for its execution.  Perhaps it is best to do a little bit of both.  This volume, at nearly 400 pages, seeks to provide a definitive look at battles around the world over the entire span of human history.  This is, moreover, not a first edition work.  The author acknowledges in the volume that he paid too much attention to European history and ignored American history outside of the Civil War originally, and so this book represents an attempt to redress those concerns.  It did not succeed.  I am unsure how large a book needs to be to do justice to the important conflicts of history [1], but this book is not nearly long enough.  For all of its attempts to redress known shortcomings, it fails badly to provide coverage of the world at war.  To be sure, a book might have to be 500 or more pages to do the subject justice, as it does not appear like any content here deserves to be removed, but this book is not large enough to do the subject justice.

This book is organized very strangely, with a focus on regional history as well as, to some extent, chronological periods.  The author begins with a look at the military history of the ancient world of the Middle East–no China and India here, unfortunately–looking at the period from ancient history to the rise of the Roman Empire (1).  After that the author looks at the military history of medieval Europe from the late Roman Empire to the Wars of the Roses (2).  This leads to more European history from the Renaissance to the French Revolution (3).  Chapters on 19th century military history (including the Napoleonic Wars) (4), World War I (5), and World War II (6) follow in quick succession, and by the time one is finished with these sections one has read about 2/3 of the book’s material.  In the remainder of the book’s material we look at the history of the Americas–mostly focused on the United States (7), then the history of Asia and the Middle East (8), which is focused on various imperial and post-World War II wars, and closes with a very brief look at the military history of Africa (9).  After that there are suggestions for further reading, an index, and photo acknowledgments.

It is easy to tell where this author goes wrong, but less easy to say why.  It is puzzling that so much information is given about the military history of World War I when what was most notable about it was the lack of decisiveness, and very puzzling and unfortunate that the author includes information about World War II but misses Okinawa and the battle of Manila, for example.  Likewise, the book still largely ignores military history in the Americas that does not involve the United States–there is only one battle included from the Latin American wars of independence, and none from the Paraguayan War or War of the Pacific or Chaco War, for example.  There are no wars or battles in Africa covered that do not deal with European imperialism, nor are there any wars included for the entire continent of Oceania, not the Maori wars or the wars of Hawaiian unification.  Perhaps most shockingly, there are no battles shown for ancient Indian or Chinese history, despite the fact that these wars were well-recorded (especially in China).  One wonders which of the following unacceptable messages were being subtly sent by these serious omissions:  that only Europeans and their settler colonies engage in warfare, and the rest of the world is more peaceful, or that only the wars of Europeans and their settler colonies are worth remembering, unless a war or battle is too obvious to ignore otherwise.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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