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Rethinking Military History [Paperback]

Jeremy Black

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Book Description

Oct. 28 2004 0415275342 978-0415275347 1

Rethinking Military History is a bold new 'thought book' that reconsiders military history at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The chapters provide a valuable and concise survey of the main themes in the study of military history from 1500 to the present day as Jeremy Black reveals the main trends in the practice and approach to military history and proposes a new manifesto for the subject to move forward.

This must-read study demonstrates the limitations of current approaches, including common generalizations, omissions, and over-simplications. Engaging theoretical discussions, with reference to specific conflicts, suggest how these limitations can be remedied and adapted, whilst incorporating contributions from other disciplines.

Rethinking Military History is essential reading for all those with an interest in military history, and all who wish to take part in moving the discipline forward.


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Review

' [this book] is stimulating and thought-provoking. It will be of particular value to serious students of military history, and to those who aspire to write it.' - British Army Review

'...essential reading for all those with an interest in military history, and all those who wish to take part in moving the discipline forward.' - USI Journal

About the Author

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is editor of the Routledge series Warfare and History.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Popular work in military history, discussed in the next chapter, tends to concentrate on an established list of topics, rather than ranging further afield; and, for such an account, it is necessary to turn to a far less extensive literature, much, but by no means all, of which is more academic in its tone and origin. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Military Historiography update March 19 2006
By R. W. Levesque - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Bottom line: this book fills a much needed gap in reviewing the state of military historiography and its themes. This alone makes it worthwhile for military historians to read this book.

If you're familiar with Black's work, you're already familiar with many of the themes in the book. However, the book captures all of them and then some. He basically addresses six "problems" he sees in "the state of military history as generally consumed by the public at large:" too much of a Eurocentric (and American) focus; a technological bias in explaining military capability; a focus on leading powers and dominant military systems; a separation of land and sea conflict; a focus on traditional state vs. state conflict; and a lack of focus on "political tasking" in the setting of force structure, doctrines and goals, and in the judging of military success. His argument isn't necessarily that these aspects of military history are wrong, only that they ignore other aspects that lead to a fuller understanding of the world -- it skews the perspective.

Black also reviews how military historians have treated warfare since the beginning of the early modern period with chapters on 1500-1815, 1775-1918, and 1914 to today. Although I've read his opinions on many of these themes, there's enough new in the book to make it interesting, and he pulls it together in a more thoughtful manner. In fact, Black refers to it as a "thought book" with a global perspective.

The book is not an easy read and it's not because of differences between American and British writing styles. Black is always a difficult read, as anyone who has read his other books can attest. As an American who has lived in the UK for seven years, and who earned his Masters in War Studies at King's College London, I can tell you there are plenty of other British military historians who are easier to read (Such as Michael Howard, Brian Holden-Reid, Max Hastings, and Colin S. Grey.) Having said that, he may be tough to read, but he's worth it...especially with this book.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a professional's professional-level book. Jan. 10 2007
By Paladin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Jeremy Black accomplishes exactly what he intends to do - he helps the reader to reframe & rethink many long-standing, taken-for-granted, assumptions and myths about military history. This book is a true innovative gem about military history that sparkles in a droll sea of otherwise banal commonality. This book should be on the shelf of every professional military careerist - especially those who believe that good military policy, theory, strategy, operations, and tactics begin with a solid grasp of good military history. This is a book for those who actually understand the essence of good military history - or those who want to learn about it. Afterwards, you will think about new concepts and perspectives regarding military history in ways you never dreamed of.

This book captures a variety of salient issues that all affect how we assess military effectiveness: an over-reliance upon 'junk' history, heavy technology bias in military thinking, Eurocentricness & American-centricity, a dysfunctional separation of land-vs-sea combat, preoccupation with nation-state conflicts -vs- the general continuum of conflict, a generally unfocused "political" guidance for a very wide range of highly important military issues, and our all-too-often cultural 'myopicness' in military understanding and approach.

You should disregard any myopic 'scholarly' critique that falsely purports to know exactly what the vast majority of military history readers want. Instead, you should focus on what you know you want. You should disregard any myopic 'scholarly' critique that would falsely degrade a book simply because it is written in a culturally different style of English than one is normally use to. For without doubt, there are numerous foreign writers whom average Americans as well as highly regarded academics find their foreign style of writing a bit rough in reading. ( And "Herr Clausewitz" is surely at the top of that long list.) Instead, you should focus on the content of new concepts and perspectives - not miniscule nuances in writing style.

If anything, this book may overwhelm the average (or below average) reader only because it is heavily laden, page-to-page, with a plethora of new concepts and perspectives by a master military historian - who has looked at military history from every side of a military Rubik's Cube - and knows exactly what he is talking about.

You cannot read this book only once - for if you love military history, this book WILL captivate you.
26 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Poorly written study of major problems in military history March 24 2005
By Historian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Black sees some major problems in military history today:

1. Eurocentricity-especially in western Europe and the USA.

2. Technology bias in explaining military cabability and fascination with technology.

3. A focus on leading powers and dominant military systems.

4. A separation of land from sea conflict in most analysis.

5. A focus on state to state conflict rather that use of force within states (except for major civil wars).

6. A lack of focus on political tasking in the setting of force structures, doctrines and goals, and in judging military success.

He also identifies several trends, noting that the emphasis on technology is too great; there has been a primitivization of non-western combatants, and that military history has a very battle centered approach. Black calls for lowering barriers between history and social sciences work on war and violence. Why? There has been too much emphasis on operational accounts.

Military history now is the "last stronghold of the Whig interpretation." He urges us to beware of any one "western way of war" (as does John Lynne), meta-narratives, paradigms and mono-causal explantations. He emphasizes diversity of military practice: there is no single western way of war...War is pluralistsic in its character.

There has also been a trend to simplify the non-western military history.

He also calls for a debate on how to explain military change: we can't just assume that it's a mechanisitic or an automatic search for efficiency to maximize force. Traditional military histories avoid using cultural approach, which is related to war and society. With regard to assessing operational capabilities, Black says that care should be taken to avoid focusing too much on resources and technology, especially weapons systems and in the history of asymmetrical warfare.

He also seems to reject Keegan's work to some degree, especially the "Face of battle approach": it shows a timeless quality of men facing combat which may not take into account that battle is much more culturally conditioned and varied.

All of this is important to the current state of military history, and should be the subject of great debate. The problem is this: the vast majority of people who read military history (and thus buy the books on the shelves) want books about battles and leaders, especially with a dramatic, fast paced narrative OR they are military/defense professionals either in uniform or civilians, who want professional development/"lessons learned" type books. The reading audience does not want cultural history overlays to their "trumpets and drums" books, nor do they want to see race, class and gender as the focus of this subject. Black covers this fairly well in the first chapter of the book.

The problem with THIS book though is that Black's prose is truly dreadful. An editor with some backbone should have turned it back to him and said "make it readable." The book is so poorly written, with severely awkward syntax, etc. that its impact will be limited because so few people will be able to tread the whole thing.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful work on the study of military history Nov. 29 2009
By Stage 3 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Professor Black has written an interesting and useful survey of military history. It is not a book for the casual reader but it will make those people with an interest in the study of military history think about that subject. He has a constant theme throughout the book about the Europe-centric nature of military history. This is not the only line of argument that he writes about, although it did seem to be the major recurring point. Professor Black founded his argument on a very good understanding of non-western military history. He did not just use the common examples like the Mongolians or Samurais but looked further afield to back up his arguments.

He started the book with a comprehensive survey of works about military history. I found this chapter to be very critical of a number of other prominent military historians, such as Sir John Keegan. Maybe other readers would view it differently to me but that was the feeling that I finished the chapter with. He is also critical of non-academics who write military history in that they can not devote the resources nor understanding that academics can to research. He examines popular military history and notes the way that sensationalism is used in packaging military history.

He made some very good points about the technology focus of military history where some historians become obsessed with the technology used in conflicts and look no further. The problem with that approach can be that different cultures use technology differently or that the technology was not key to the issue but a focus on technology is blind to those criticisms.

I was a little lost in his chapter that discussed using the theme of military objectives as a way to view and understand military history. I am not sure what this chapter was trying to say as a whole but that may have been me missing the point.

The final three chapters appear to return to a conventional chronological approach to military history but even here Professor Black is making a point. There are few easy and clear chronological lines out there to divide history along. This absence is even clearer when military history is viewed globally and not just from a Western Europe or USA aspect.

The book was often not the easiest book to read but it was full of ideas and views that made me think about the study of military history. It would be hard to write a book about military history and not cause controversy but Professor Black is one writer who can stand behind the impressive amount of work that he has produced on military history to prove that he is no light weight on the subject. I thoroughly recommend the book to anybody who is serious about military history and wants to consider how it should be approached.
11 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't believe every critique that you read! Feb. 26 2006
By i-Palikar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Some critiques are NOT culturally sensitive, intelligent, or insightful - nor are they competent, "scholarly" critiques.

In defense of this fine book versus misguided `unscholarly' critiques {especially by the arrogance of those who might openly beg the moniker of "scholar"}, one should be aware of several fundamental nuances that are highly important:

1) The true merit/worth of any book is embedded deep within the intellectually salient, insightful, timely and prescient concepts that a book presents for review and discussion. It is actually quite irrelevant whether or not a book is "perceived" as containing dreadful prose with awkward syntax by some personal standard. There are many highly intelligent and insightful people who don't speak, write, or read the King's English - and most Americans fall under that category. Yet, this small flaw in writing does not and should not detract from recognizing true intelligence and insightfulness - at least not to those who are truly intelligent and insightful and deserving of the title "scholar".

2) The concepts presented in Jeremy Black's book "Rethinking Military History" are indeed intellectually salient, insightful, timely, prescient, and, without doubt, highly irreverent to those who are hopelessly doomed as only be able to think in the drudgery of old, obsolete, paradigms that no longer work. It is only because some folks are hopelessly doomed to think inside the trap of flawed obsolete thought patterns that they cannot understand true intellectual insightfulness when they see it - which is precisely why they can't "see" anything that doesn't coincide with their stodgy mentality. This book is for those who want intellectual stimulation with fresh new insights on the vast and convoluted subject of military history - it is NOT a book that is for those who are intellectually challenged on the subject of military history. However, it is a book that requires the reader to actually think and reflect - something that many self-professed `scholars' have forgotten how to do. It is NOT a book about battles and leaders, nor is it a "lessons learned" type book. It is a book for the kind of professional development that can only be accomplished through reading and reflecting upon unusual concepts and new ideas.

3) Jeremy Black is a "British" military historian - and the British culture versus the American culture are often noted for being separated by a common language. This small insignificant fact may help account for the misperception that Black's prose is dreadfully laden with faulty syntax and other unpardonable faux pas. Of course, the true cognoscenti can see beyond such small issues, and they automatically ask the question " Awkward syntax by what standard - the British cultural standard or the American cultural standard?

If you seriously purport yourself to be a `scholar' of military history - a true scholar who craves intellectual stimulation with fresh new insights - then read, think and reflect upon Jeremy Black's book "Rethinking Military History" !

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