Military History Today

Jeremy Black calls for a more wide-ranging, inclusive approach to the history of warfare.

‘Drums and trumpets’ history, offering a narrative account of battles and campaigns, much of it written for a general readership, is flourishing. While much of this popular work – Andrew Gordon on Jutland, for example, or Rory Muir on Salamanca – is thoughtful and first-rate, all too often it has a narrow focus and is somewhat familiar. Thus, in the Reader’s Guide to Military History , one of the most commercially successful of recent works, Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad (1998), is described as offering ‘nothing in the way of new insights or analysis’.

Popular work also tends to concentrate on the famous campaigns of Western military history. To  range further afield, we are forced to turn to a less extensive literature that often looks at long-term trends rather than individual campaigns. Many historians writing in this mode, however, tend to deal in metanarratives, paradigms and mono-causal explanations, offering a whole explanatory culture of long-term military history, as in W.H. McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power (1983). Instead, I believe it is important to emphasise diversity and be cautious of explanations that adduce characteristics supposedly inherent in particular military cultures and systems.

We should be wary of the idea of a single Western way of war, such as that recently offered by Victor Hanson. There was always a variety of military cultures and practices within the West, from conflict with external forces to counter-insurrectionary and policing operations. Rather than downplaying the latter, we should appreciate the pluralistic nature of warfare and the way in which this can undermine what we thought were clear rankings of  military capability and prowess.

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