Thursday, February 20, 2014

Moment of Battle - James Lacey & Williamson Murray

Moment of Battle is subtitled "The Twenty Clashes that Changed the World", so it is, as you might expect about the 20 battles Lacey and Murray think were most important in setting the course of history. They take a chronological approach, starting with Marathon and ending with Objective Peach from the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

I feel the book might benefit from a counterpoint approach, because I'd appreciate some perspectives on why perhaps Saratoga shouldn't be included, or why Lepanto maybe should be. Murray and Lacey do end each chapter with an explanation of why they think the battle is significant, but it's usually only one page, versus the 20 or so devoted to describing the battle. Which is the inverse of what I was looking for. I guess I was almost looking for a counterfactual book, where they would demonstrate the relevance of their selections by describing how different the world would be if the battle had turned out differently.

There were a few points I found either curious or intriguing:

In the chapter on Teutoburger Wald, they discuss how the ability of the Germanies to resist conquest by the Romans lead to a different culture from most of the other European nations, and that this create a divide in Europe that has been the source of much conflict, up to and including World War 2 (since apparently the Nazis blathered on about the significance of their separate Teutonic culture). They wonder if we'd have even had two World Wars if the Romans had succeeded in their conquest. Which sounds a bit like the authors are blaming those ancient Germanic peoples for refusing to be subjugated by the Romans. How awful they didn't want to be ruled by the people who decide they have to exterminate everyone opposing them in a war, as Murray and Lacey themselves highlighted in the chapter on the Battle of Zama from the Second Punic War. Apparently Hannibal's failing as a commander was that he either wasn't willing or able to fight at the Roman level of total annihilation for everyone. Which doesn't sound like such a bad character trait to me.

They also raised the that Europe never gets as spooked by the idea of a British Empire as they do by the idea of an empire ruled by one of the countries they share the continent with. Like Napoleon, or the Germans later on. They attribute it to Britain being on an island, rather than the mainland, which makes them safer. This seems a little curious to me, because the British certainly faced challenges as they rose in prominence. Spain, the Netherlands, France, Germany (repeatedly). But I suppose it's true that they rarely faced a coalition of multiple nations aimed solely at stopping them. Then again, the British haven't spent much time trying to actively conquer the European mainland. They seemed content to grab as much as they could everywhere else in the world. Is that why the Continent didn't rise up as one to try and smash them? If Britain and France are fighting over who controls North America, it might be difficult to rally other countries to help France defend its imperial holdings. But if Britain invades France itself, it's perhaps easier to convince the rest of Europe to pay attention to how close that puts England to all of their borders.

I feel cause and effect might be confused there. England being an island nation feels less significant than the fact they weren't constantly invading their neighbors on the mainland. But were they choosing to not invade because they were an island nation? They have much easier access to the rest of the world, because they aren't landlocked, aren't restricted to ports in only a small portion of their borders, so they don't have to struggle for trails to other lands. Compare that with Russia's seemingly endless quest for the warm water ports.

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