War: A Short History

July 30, 2009

Jeremy Black is a realist. He foresees no Utopian end to human history. In this brief book, he aims to re-examine war, a dominant and continuing force in the modern world, "by providing a short thematic history, with references forward to past and future". The book seeks to redefine war in a more inclusive manner than most traditional military histories, which largely explain war as a conflict between states. Black expands the definition to include wars within states and between states and non-traditional opponents, eg, terrorists. Aware of the perils of expanding the term "war" to include individual acts of violence or metaphorical expressions - the "war on drugs", on crime, on cancer - he settles on a workable definition: "war should be seen in functional terms as organised large-scale violence, and in cultural or ideological terms as the consequence of bellicosity". Bellicosity fuses both the rational and irrational motives that spark and perpetuate conflict. Black draws attention to the often determining cultural factors that shape the nature of war.

In six chapters, the author gallops through military history. His first chapter covers war from primitive times to the barbarian invasions that destroyed the Western Roman Empire. Subsequent chapters cover the following chronological periods: 630-1490 (from the rise of Islam to the beginning of European overseas expansion), 1490-1630 (the age of the gunpowder revolution), 1630-1800 (from the final wars of religion to revolutionary wars), 1800-1950 (the age of empire and world wars) and finally 1950 to the present (the Cold War to the War on Terror). Black demonstrates breathtaking erudition, switching from one field of battle to another and occasionally providing the reader with sandwiched essays on such topics as, in chapter 3, a critique of the concept, popularised by Michael Roberts and Geoffrey Parker, of the early modern age's "military revolution". Throughout history, change and continuity accompany one another as well as alternate. Black's coverage of military history contains extensive analyses (eg, the Napoleonic Wars and the First and Second World Wars) that stand out from the more fleeting coverage of other conflicts, and demonstrate what Black could have done with a longer book.

This book will be most useful to students in war studies programmes, as well as readers reflecting on the fascinating history of human conflict. For the average non-academic reader, however, it is probably a bit bewildering. To follow the historical shifts requires previous knowledge of military and political history, and Black's frequent shifts leave the average reader in need of a bromide. Perhaps War: A Short History would have been more accessible if he had organised his chapters around themes, eschewing the chronological approach and using particular battles and wars to exemplify his insights.

In concentrating on the violence inherent in war, Black omits another aspect of human conflict: restraints of "the laws of war". No matter how violent conflicts become, certain norms are usually observed. In the Second World War, excepting the Japanese, the taboo against the use of chemical and biological weapons was observed. A comprehensive accounting of war needs to incorporate why certain norms of conduct survive within the eruption of extreme violence.

War: A Short History is an interesting and challenging book, but it would have been even better if it had been longer or organised in a more accessible manner.

War: A Short History

By Jeremy Black. Continuum UK, 192pp, £16.99. ISBN 97808264267. Published 23 April 2009

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