Book Review — The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost

The Allure of Battle by Cathal Nolan

The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost by Cathal Nolan is the study of the history of warfare an attempt to determine what is the cause the final outcome. Nolan is Associate Professor of History and Executive Director of the International History Institute, Boston University. He is an award-winning teacher and scholar of military and international history. He earned his MA (History) and Ph.D. (International History and International Relations) from the University of Toronto.

The history of man is a history of wars. History is punctuated wars of all kinds from the beginning of recorded history to the present. Nolan takes the reader from Greek and Roman times through WWII. Empires fought wars from Greek times to the fall of Constantinople. The Middle Ages was also filled with wars between property holders and those wanting their “stuff”. The Middle Ages saw a change in warfare as empires were scarce and nation states have not yet risen. It was a time of mercenaries, whose loyalty was bought and sold for gold. Your mercenaries today might be your enemy’s mercenaries tomorrow.

Mercenary warfare was not the best choice to conduct wars. Wars in the Italian states fought with mercenaries brought serious concerns in the politically unstable region. Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli was one of the first to support the idea of citizen militias. Not only was loyalty assured, but citizens were willing to fight in their interests which might not be the same an ambitious ruler. Loyalty and moderation would go a long way in creating stability.

Technology seems to play the biggest roles in battles. Late medieval fortification design worked to end the supremacy of gunpowder cannons while at the same time creating overlapping fields of fire for the defenders. There was a growth in defensive warfare. Fortifications and overlapping fields of fire could hold off a very powerful adversary. What offensive nations aspired for was a quick victory. No nation intends to enter a long war. Even in modern times, the US invasion of Iraq was going to be a quick war with little resistance. As the years dragged on the popularity for the war declined rapidly.

WWI was intended to be a very quick war by both sides. The nations involved did not think they could survive a long war. It would be a disruption in the (growing) economy and trade. The war that started in August 1914 was expected to be over by that Christmas. Nations did not know how to adapt to the new technologies especially the machine gun. The war turned defensive quickly with a line of trenches from the Channel to the Swiss borders. Generals looking for that decisive battle that would turn the war in their favor sent wave after wave of men to their deaths without any results. Unwilling to learn from their mistakes the generals kept at the same tactics. Hitler, a participant in the defensive war, decided not to make that mistake when he launched his initially successful invasions.

Nolan looks at the history of mostly Western warfare and examines famous battles and examines if these battles were turning points in wars and why some highly successful battles had little effect on the outcome of the war. We tend to think of battles as turning points in wars from Saratoga to raising the flag at Iwo Jima. But for every turning point battle, there are plenty of battles of the Marne or Operation Barbarossa where Germany captured 600,000 prisoners and advanced 200 miles in one week only to go down in defeat. Nolan’s examination of battles shows the failure of a major battlefield success to clinch an overall victory in the war. An outstanding history and examination of war.


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2 responses to “Book Review — The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost

  1. “The history of man is a history of wars. ” I believe this explains it all.

  2. Very interesting subject!! Interesting review as well. If I was to write a book on the subject I would try to tell the tale of the vainquished as well… We all always see History from the point of view of the winners. It’s quite a normal thing in fact because nobody cares much for the losers who disapeared even though some of those victories were won despite a highly advanced civilisation, they just didn’t had fighting high on their priority list, very unfortunetaly for them, so much knowledge was lost in favor of some civilasation who didn’t have much else to offer than being the perfect mass murder machine. It would be time to value something else than power and money. In the light of th recent years, it’s not about to happen unfortunately, it would rather be the contrary… We’re so fucked… Sorry.. I just got really sad..

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