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Rethinking Military History Paperback – Aug 26 2004
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' [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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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