War and Military History

A battle scene
In his famous book On War, Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian veteran of the Napoleonic Wars posed the question: was war a continuation of politics by other means, or was it nothing more than a wrestling match on a larger scale? In other words, was there some kind of rational plan behind it, or was it just some guys slugging it out using deadly force? His conclusion was yes, all of the above and a lot of chance and uncertainty as well. The phrase “the fog of war” is derived from his image of fog or moonlight obscuring the view of the participants as a way of portraying the confusion and uncertainty of soldiers during combat.

Historians have the advantage over soldiers. They have an advantage of time. The war that they are recording has past and the fog has dissipated. They have the opportunity to look at the battle from both sides, and without risk to life and limb. But from this vantage point they are able to document both the plans of the governments scrambling for advantage and the combatants in kill or be killed confrontations. Here are three histories that succeed on both counts:

The War That Made America      The War That Made America: a Short History of the French and Indian War / Fred Anderson

In the middle of the eighteenth century three great powers contested for control of North America: England, who wanted land to settle for colonization, France, who wanted to protect its lucrative trade and trading routes with the native inhabitants, and the American Indians, most notably the powerful Iroquois Confederacy who feared that the Europeans with their foreign diseases, rum, and animals would overrun their homeland.

Things came to a head in 1754 when the governor of the English Virginia Colony sent an armed patrol commanded by a naïve and ambitious twenty-two year old Major named George Washington to the strategic headwaters of the Ohio River to warn the French to leave. After a clash with a French Patrol in which a French official was unexpectedly murdered, Washington and his defeated troops were forced to retreat to Virginia. But the seeds of war and been sown, and the next year English troops captured Fort Beauséjour in Nova Scotia and began deporting French settlers to Louisiana.

The Guns of August     The Guns of August / by Barbara W. Tuchman
Germany came close to winning the First World War in the first month of fighting. German commanders confidently expected to march their exhausted troops into Paris in the first week of September. The French Government has already fled the capital. It was to be the crowning glory of a month of victories. Germany had a forty-day plan for winning the war and their armies were right on schedule. In four days they expected to be in Paris. What they did not expect was for the retreating French forces to turn and attack.

Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning history stops on the eve of the first Battle of the Marne. It critiques the persistence of generals on both sides for their unwavering adherence to their war plan even in the face of contrary evidence that the enemy was not behaving as expected. Her portraits of officers and heads of state are vivid and witty, and her narrative style is superb.

Six Days of War      Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East / Michael B. Oren

Although Oren's masterful narrative concentrates on the 1967 war between Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria he is careful to put the war in the context of conflicts that erupted in 1948, 1956 and continued after the June 1967, conflicts that continue to this day. In addition to the actual fighting he gives a comprehensive diplomatic history on the events that led up to the war. He includes all of the participants: Arab, Israeli, Soviet, American, the United Nations and their leaders, the internal political conflicts within each, how the involvement of the American military in Vietnam and the Egyptian military in Yemen constrained their governments. Of nerve-wracking concern for Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was how the outbreak of hostilities would be perceived by the United Nations, the Cold War superpowers, and their allies. There were also tensions between each head of state and his generals who, on both sides, were pleading to be allowed to launch the first preemptive strike against the enemy. Oren, an Israeli army veteran, did extensive research for his book using now declassified documents from the major participants and the personal reminisces of participants on both sides to produce his comprehensive and fascinating history.