Monday, September 17, 2012

Five top books on the history of war

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter, UK. He is an authority on early modern British and continental European history, with special interest in international relations, military history, the press, and historical atlases.

Black discussed five top books on the history of war with Daisy Banks at The Browser, including:
The Echo of Battle, the Army’s Way of War
by Brian McAllister Linn

Your final book is The Echo of Battle, the Army’s Way of War by Brian McAllister Linn.

I think The Echo of Battle takes us to the world’s leading military power. It is looking at the United States and it reminds us that institutional cultures play a role and it reminds us that America is not, as it were, set in stone. There are actually complex issues within the United Sates – regulars against the militia, and expansionists against people who are much more cautious.

The book covers a few hundred years so it gives us a range and specificity, which is what, in my view, one should try to offer.

But the two values are in a way opposed and I find this when I try to write. You try to write clearly but that is hard because you are also trying to write in a qualificatory fashion. You are trying to give a balance between the two halves and to show people there are different views, which sometimes makes for clumsy prose. The longer you work on a subject, the harder it is to explain exactly what happened and why.

I think this is a general problem with books. It tends to be the case with history that the weakest books are often the easiest ones to read. They are like television history – sit quietly and Simon or David will tell you the answers. This kind of approach, which gives you one answer, is the one which is terribly popular. Books that tell you the answers sell very well, but they are, although not invariably, conceptually unsophisticated and intellectually suspect. In practical terms history is something where we cannot recover the experiment. We cannot know exactly what happened. The one thing we do know is that whatever we are writing now other historians, who hopefully will be of equal merit, will come along and do just as much research but will reach completely different conclusions! And that is good because people should not be writing in the sense that they know the answer.

Whenever I see a book that says on the cover that this is the definitive answer to this question I think this isn’t a good history book. Instead, what one needs to do is to embrace a humane scepticism, which is both valuable to the subject but also a culturally important point, and not just for our culture but on a global scale.
Read about the other books Black tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue