Fireside Friday: April 16, 2021

Fireside this week! We are nearing the end of the semester and with it the seasonal crunch to get exams and papers graded and final grades submitted, which may bring somewhat more firesides than usual. That said, I hope to write out at least one addendum on the textile series (on tablet weaving and other labor-intensive methods of adornment and ornamentation for textiles), and begin a look at ‘Teaching Paradox,’ a series on the historically set grand strategy games of Paradox Interactive discussing the value (and pitfalls) the games pose for teaching and thinking about history along with some of the unspoken historical assumptions which underlie their simulations. We’ll probably start with Europa Universalis IV, but I have things to say about Victoria II, Hearts of Iron IV and, of course, Imperator. There are other topics too, a bit further perhaps in the offing (including the long awaited discussion of doctrine).

(I also have something to say about Victoria III, which is “make Victoria III, you cowards!” but that hardly requires a full post.)

Trusty Research Assistant Ollie has claimed my Fireside chair, so I suppose that makes him the Pedant now. Except that for some reason I am still writing this post. I suspect if he was writing this post, it would be about the importance of having more food that he will, at most, eat about 3/4ths of.

On to this week’s musing. Given that just this week a review of mine on a book on Roman military history for the Journal of Military History (henceforth, JMH) appeared in print (of A. Merrow, A. von Hassell and G. Starace, Caesar’s Great Success (2020); I, uh, I did not like it), it seemed like a good moment to talk a bit about the unfortunate state of public-facing ancient warfare publication.

And the JMH (the journal of the Society of Military History, which is issued quarterly and has a large review section) provides a decent barometer of the problem. Taking the last five issues (so a little over a year) of the JMH, I looked through the reviews of ancient warfare books. Now academic book reviews are not given number scores, so I have organized the table by my own subjective reading of the written reviews, dividing them into positive, negative and neutral reviews. These are somewhat fuzzy terms, but a negative review here is one in which the review author either notes significant errors in the volume or suggests that it cannot be recommended for reading to any significant audience. I came up with a breakdown as follows:

IssueDateNumber of ancient warfare books reviewedPositiveNeutralNegative
84.2April 2020211
84.3July 202022
84.4Oct. 202033
85.1Jan. 202122
85.2April 2021312*
Totals:516
*Necessary to note that one of those sadly negative reviews was written by me.

Two things, I think, emerge clearly here. First, the JMH evidently has a soft-quota system for ancient warfare book reviews which seems to cap them at around 2 or 3 (out of typically 50-60 reviews in any given issue), but that is, I think, understandable for a journal which both covers all of military history and also has an audience which may be understandably more focused on military history that is either American, modern, or both.

More striking is the rate of negative reviews, and here it seems important to note the sort of etiquette that pertains to academic book reviews: academic book reviews are generally only rarely so sharply negative. A book which advances questionable interpretations might still be recommended as ‘raising new questions’ in an important academic debate. Or a book that makes no real original contribution to the scholarship might be recommended as at least being useful to the lay-reader unfamiliar with the topic (assuming it is, in fact, readable to a lay-reader). It is precisely that sort of review – which is hardly to be desired by most writers – that puts a work in the ‘neutral’ category above. There is generally a real desire to extend at least some intellectual charity and professional courtesy in book reviews where possible and to try to suggest some potential audience who might make use of the book, should such an audience exist.

So having half of the books on ancient warfare receive decidedly negative reviews is striking. And it isn’t that the JMH is just a tough crowd, or lack civility or what have you. JMH reviewers are perfectly happy giving stellar reviews to academically rigorous or popularly accessible volumes on important topics. Moreover, the negative reviews of ancient warfare volumes are hardly limited to the JMH, see this recent panning on the Ancient Warfare blog. No, the problem is that a lot of books on ancient warfare out now are frankly bad, often based on badly outdated scholarship, written with clear errors and misunderstandings, or simply lacking arguments that go anywhere.

The problem, put simply is an explosion of subpar books aimed at the general public by amateur authors and through presses which do not seem as concerned about quality control. The problems that plague these books fit into a few predictable categories: a lack of familiarity with the ancient world leading to modern assumptions about military activity being imported unthinkingly into the ancient world, a lack of language expertise leading to muddled or even seriously wrong readings of the primary source texts, catchy oversimplifications of things which need their complexity explained to a lay reader and finally (and most common and worst of all) confident positions on points of real uncertainty in the evidence or debate amongst scholars without any indication to the reader of this uncertain ground.

The latter point deserves some degree of clarification. We have discussed already to real limits in the ancient evidence: some things about the ancient world are beyond recall and thus important issues may be subject to debates which can never be resolved with confidence. The question, for instance, of the exact number of mules that a Roman army used to carry supplies or the precise organization of the Roman army of the fourth century or a complete reconstruction of the Roman system of census classes are all issues that are both uncertain with the current evidence and also unlikely to be clarified by future evidence. We may estimate or guess or suppose, but we can never know and so any answer to these questions must be uncertain. That’s what I mean by an issue is ‘real‘ uncertainty (to my students I often express this as the distinction between “I don’t know” and “We don’t know” – the latter meaning no one knows, the answer is presumed unknowable given currently available evidence). Such issues are much rarer in modern history than ancient history and so it seems often catch untrained ancient warfare writers unawares. To offer the reader a confident answer to a question of real uncertainty is historical malpractice, in my mind there must on such issues be – either in the text or in a note – some sense that “we can never know with exactness” even if it is then followed with “but my estimate is…” I know editors like to take these sorts of caveats out, but authors should fight like hell to keep them in. Often I get the sense that they were never there in the first place and books abound with confidence on issues where even the best scholar cannot have confidence.

And, frankly, writing a negative review is a bummer and I’d rather not do it. With academic book reviews, the reviewer’s job, really, is to find the audience for whom the book would be valuable. Maybe it is inaccessible, but good for scholars? Maybe it is not groundbreaking, but accessible for lay-people? Maybe it is a good foundation book for students or for graduate students? Being forced to conclude that the audience is ‘no one’ is a downer. Negative reviews are also, frankly, hard to write; if a book is not going to be a good fit for any audience, chances are it is because of very tendentious arguments or errors. And if you are calling a work out on errors, you had better have your ducks in a row, which means more time verifying your facts and more mental sturm und drang making sure you have it right and worrying about having it wrong. It is much easier and more fun to write rave reviews (which is why this blog features recommended books, but not the inverse). One of these days, if there’s interest, I can talk about the art and science of the academic book review (it is a rigid, formal genre and for good reason), but harsh reviews are tougher to write than very positive reviews.

In any event, the deluge of such books poses a tricky problem to readers, particularly because the presses in question often also publish good ancient military history. Pen&Sword (and its imprints, Frontline and Seaforth) is particularly notable here, but it also publishes very good books, like P. Johstono’s The Army of Ptolemaic Egypt (recommended on this very blog) and D. Hoyos’ Carthage’s Other Wars, making it impossible to just issue a blanket warning of ‘stay away’ as one might do with a purely pulp press. Of course scholars in the field can generally recognize low quality works fairly quickly, spotting errors and oversimplifications because of our familiarity with the material. But what is a lay-reader, who may be encountering a topic for the first time supposed to do, especially when one simply cannot discount whole publishers for fear of missing the good books they also turn out (although I congress, the Frontline imprint in particular, I struggle to think of any of their ancient military history titles that I would recommend, though I cannot say I have read all of them)?

For the lay-student of military history with a bit of means, I would actually recommend becoming a member of the Society of Military History. It is, alas, by no means cheap ($70 yearly in NA, $80 elsewhere), but you do get four volumes of the JMH, with perhaps 50-60 reviews in each volume covering a wide span of military history. An enthusiastic reader is bound to find something well-reviewed that interests them (the JMH also, of course, includes scholarly articles, though they are only infrequently on ancient warfare but often nevertheless insightful and interesting). Both the Ancient World Magazine and Ancient Warfare Magazine make a real effort to be accurate, high-quality and public facing. Nevertheless, the lack of an open-access review-of-record in military history (akin to the role that the Bryn-Mawr Classical Review plays in Classics, though alas the BMCR seems somewhat less interesting in ancient military history than other forms of ancient history sometimes) is, I think, keenly felt and much to be desired for both scholars and the lay-reader alike.

But beyond that, there really aren’t good options for the non-specialist student of ancient warfare, except to beware of non-university presses. But then even telling them apart is hard, since a non-specialist will naturally not know the reputations of individual presses, for instance that Oxbow is very good, while Frontline is typically quite bad and Pen&Sword are often mixed. And then you have issues where good books are republished by bad presses, like Frontline republishing the stalwart and respected P. Connolly, Greece and Rome At War (1981) though that book has gone through several publisher’s hands (originally Macdonald Phoebus, then Stackpole, now apparently Frontline). I offer no good solutions but merely warn of peril.

But of course you can rely on my recommendations, so let’s get on with that!

First off, our heroic reader-narrator marches on in creating audio-format versions of some of this blog’s essay series, with the Helm’s Deep series now available in audio format (it is about nine hours long, so you may well appreciate the dedication and craft that must have gone into recording it). You can find the playlist with each entry here, check it out. Again, audio versions of the posts were an accessibility option I had always wanted to provide, but I lacked both the skill and time to do it properly, so I am very glad that these are available (especially as they include brief descriptions of the images used in addition to my often jokey-joke captions). Some of my unfixed typos are also preserved, which I actually find rather endearing. Anyway, check it out.

Also, it seems like the Classics blog Peopling the Past is likely to become as much of a fixture on these recommended lists as archery tests by Tod’s Workshop, but I do really like what they are doing. Lately, check out this post with Dr. Anja Krieger talking about using archaeological data – particularly shipwrecks – to examine the everyday lives of seafarers in the ancient world. Also, this post with Amanda Gaggioli, who is studying the ways that the ancients lived and coped with the threat and occurrence of earthquakes, including using geoarchaeological to identify earthquakes from the disruptions they leave which may be observed archaeologically. Frankly, just follow the entire blog, it is great and well worth your time.

In the national security discussion, I thought that the last Net Assessment Podcast, “Busting Myths About China” and the War on the Rocks article on which it was based are both quite good reads for folks trying to make sense out of the shifting geopolitical landscape. Though the discussion is about China specifically, I think the main caution is more generally applicable: events rarely meet either our worst fears or greatest expectations. While revolutionary change does happen (for better and for worse), ‘muddling through’ is the far more common response. Many systems have happily churned on for decades or even centuries tolerating ‘intolerable’ contradictions. So on the one hand, fears of endless accelerating growth in economic and military power for the People’s Republic of China are unlikely to come true, both because marginal returns almost always diminish, but also because both external and internal conditions are becoming less favorable to that growth. Here, the authors and the podcast echo many of the concerns that I read in C. Minzner, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise (2018), a book that was recommended to me by James Palmer as a decent primer.

At the same time, confident predictions that at any moment the PRC will collapse or be consumed by its own contradictions are also likely overly enthusiastic. As Adam Smith once noted, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” and that is absolutely true. Countries tend to muddle through, to make slow progress rather than collapsing. The fact that the USSR fell apart from the inside was deeply unusual and it has convinced generations of policy makers that if only the right pressure could be applied, such a feat could be repeated. But such collapses are far rarer than many assume. I am hesitant to make any sort of pronouncement about China beyond a caution to engage epistemic humility, since I lack any real expertise on the subject and must rely on the expertise of others, but it certainly seems to me that in these situations ‘muddle through’ is always a very plausible outcome.

Finally, book recommendations. Though first I want to note, in part because quite a few of you have asked me about it, I have gone ahead and gotten the whole Amazon-affiliate thing set up so that if you do end up buying the recommended book through the link below, it will help support the blog and my research. That said, if you want to buy books through your local bookstore, or just not fund Amazon, you will not hurt my feelings at all. Don’t buy the book on my account, buy the book because you want to read the book. Also, naturally, this won’t impact at all the books I recommend. I haven’t yet, but I suppose I ought to go and update all of the previous recommendation links as well. In any event…

This week’s book recommendation is a bit out of my normal wheelhouse but it was recommended to me and I found it fascinating, it is Tarak Barkawi’s Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II (2017), which is a study of the (British) Indian Army in the Second World War, though Barkawi begins with a chapter on the formation of the army and the ideology of its British officers prior to WWII, noting how British racial ideology (the theory of ‘martial races’ wherein the British, working from the assumptions of ‘scientific’ racism assumed that some Indian peoples were warlike and others not) shaped the Indian Army and also, perhaps paradoxically, served to reinforce some local customs while marginalizing others as British officers enforced a discipline which mandated, in essence, that soldiers conform to their ethnic stereotypes in terms of dress, behavior, food and religious observance, as the British (mis)understood them.

But the meat of the book is looking at how the Indian Army functioned in WWII. Units of the Indian Army fought the Imperial Japanese Army in Southeast Asia, but they also fought in North Africa, in Italy and in the Middle East. And they fought well. The manpower demands caused the army to expand beyond its preferred ethnic groups and sub-regions and exposed how little the British officers really knew or understood their troops. Moreover, Barkawi notes, while the rank-and-file Indian soldiers may have been aware of the broader political currents pushing towards Indian independence at the time, the Indian officers (VCOs) were well aware. But Barkawi argues, the army continued to function despite ethnic, religious, class and caste fractures, and despite the pressures of nationalism, because the comradery within units, reinforced by drill and training – not by ideology or ethnic solidarity – held the army together. This is particularly valuable because Barkawi is effective in getting outside of the European lens on this question and viewing these interactions from the Indian side (his introduction, “Decolonizing the Soldier” on both the use and limits of using European militaries as the ‘standard’ against which other militaries are measured, is valuable in and of itself; note also his comments on drill as not a particularly European thing, but a common military feature, p. 125-6).

The book is, I think, quite accessible. I am by no means an expert on India in any period, nor on the British Empire, but I didn’t have a problem following along. Some readers may need to wiki-walk a few of the languages, places and ethnic groups mentioned in the book, but overall it wasn’t as forbidding as many academic books can be. Importantly, Barkawi writes well and his argument and evidence are always clear and easy to follow, a huge boon for the reader who may be out of their specialty.

I will say, Barkawi makes occasional allusions to the Roman army as a means of comparison with another multi-cultural imperial army. The allusions are generally not wrong, but I worry a bit that he appears to be working mainly from Hans Delbrück’s (d. 1929) Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte (in translation) rather than some of the more recent work which might have provided a bit more depth to the comparisons. I’m left to wish that he had instead read I. Hayes, Blood of the Provinces: The Roman Auxilia and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans (2013), which is due for its own spot in the recommendation list here before too long. Still, it would be silly to fault a book much at all for having a thin bibliography on a subject many centuries and hundreds of miles outside of its scope.

Overall a solid and fairly accessible introduction to topic and also – because it touches on so many questions of war psychology, including ideology, ethnic solidarity, unit cohesion, drill and discipline, etc. – a good book for getting a grasp on both the shape of thinking about these psychological factors and a jumping off point for reading more about them, given Barkawi’s ample bibliography and notes (footnotes, even! be still my heart!).

84 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: April 16, 2021

  1. Hey Brett! Grabbing my inspiration from this line – “the comradery within units, reinforced by drill and training – not by ideology or ethnic solidarity – held the army together” – I’ve always wanted to know your opinion on the reasons where soldiers fought, in particular noting Shils and Janowitz’s ‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’ from 1948.

    I know it’s a bit out of your wheelhouse, being as much about sociology and psychology as history, but a few articles of your thoughts on the matter would be really interesting! It’s been a fascination of mine for a while, and just seeing an essay from you on, say, ‘Combat Motivation in the Early Imperial Roman Legionary’ would be a joy.

    Hope this is actually a decent request!

  2. The historic day is as the experienced day, with the sun arising in the East and progressing steadily Westward in its course about the globe. The Sun of History first shone upon the Euphrates, and the dawning empires of what we now call the Middle East. It then, in its natural passage, traveled to Europe, which rose in science, civilization and power while the Middle East sank into a Byzantine twilight. Passing over the Atlantic, it next graced America, which carried on the torch of human and civil progress as Europe began her own decline. Its light pulled the American civilization ever West until the coast.

    Now, the Sun of History has sojourned across the Pacific, shining upon Japan, which kicked off its arcane feudalism to become an exemplar of the cyber age. At present, the Historic Sun hangs over China, and, as in nature, where the Sun shines, growth abounds. As China rises, America now enters its own twilight. Such is the course of the Historic Day, and such is the course of History.

    1. There have been Chinese Christians who suggested that this was the course of Christianity, which began in Jerusalem and has spread steadily westward, first to Europe, then to the New World, now to East Asia, and eventually through central Asia and the Mideast until it reaches Jerusalem from the east, at which point Christ will return. It’s a thought. As I’ve remarked in other contexts, I don’t put much trust in such overarching historical schemes.

      1. The Sun/Son is indeed a powerful figure in the spiritus mundi. All primeval structures were designed to align with its/His light for a reason. The spiritus mundi arises from the cycles of history, and through the spiritus mundi the Cycle of History is made manifest.

      1. Why study the wind if not to predict how it will blow? The essence of science is prediction, and if history wishes to be regarded as a true science, it must verify itself by prediction as well. Economics, the only one of the humanities to transcend natural philosophy and become truly a social science, already understands the cyclicality of time. Linear time is an artifice/limiter devised by positivist/modernist thinking patterns, and will fall away when subjected to the rigors of predictive science.

        1. Very poetic but very silly. Economics is anything but an exact science. Anyway the ascension of the East has been a bugaboo to westerners since the nineteenth century.
          Anyway the same sun shines on the whole Earth. When it was shining on Mesopotamia it was also shining on the Indus and the Nile.

        2. I think you’re confused about what “prediction” means in connection with “science.”

          “Prediction” in connection with sciences like say astronomy or evolutionary biology means that you can say “if we go looking for phenomenon X we should be able to find it.” It does not mean “we should see such-and-such an organism is evolve into some predicted form.”

      1. Good point: wasn’t the Sun of History shining on the invention of compass, paper, and gunpowder? The Rise of the West is entirely a post-1400 event.

          1. Moot. These were invented in the time you insist that the Sun was shining elsewhere.

    2. Because as we all know, the entire continent of Asia didn’t make any worthwhile accomplishments until the 20th century.
      It feels unfair to call this view of history Eurocentric, because quite frankly Eurocentrism is more nuanced than this idea that only one place does cool historic stuff in any given era.

      1. Events occur in many places, but at any time only one realm can hold the centre of civilization, or rather, the centre of civilization can only occupy one realm. Your decadence blinds you to your inevitable ruin.

        1. So China and Rome wee not simultaneously great empires. Your theory has some blatant holes in it.

          1. Indeed, Khon Zhi, the greatest of Chinese sages, did not receive the enlightenment that would define the Orient until after Rome had crumbled under the barbarian revolts. The Historic Sun/Son draws a broad twilight, but shines only upon a single land.

          2. If you mean Confucius, he was alive when the Roman Republic was founded, over 900 years before the Roman Empire fell.

        2. Am not able to reply to you directly, Mary, but in response to your latest post along this line: the Historic Sun/Son leaves a broad twilight and predawn, but only truly shines upon one land. Khong Zhi did not receive the enlightenment that would define the Orient and give rise to its glory until centuries after Europe fell into its deep and barbaric night.

  3. Viccy 3! Viccy 3!

    Recently I’ve been getting into Victoria 2, and have been playing a lot of the multiplayer. I discovered the ‘NurseReno Economic Guide’, explaining the absolutely bonkers mechanics of the sphere system, and am looking forward to how the economic side of the game is covered in your blog. Things like the importance of natural resources, the… fascinating? mechanics of spheres of influence, and the nature of colonial empires in the nineteenth century seem like a good fit for the blog.

    1. Vicky is such a fascinating game because so many things it gets right and somany things it gets wrong and sometimes they get the right result by bonkers means and sometimes they try to do something “realistic” and the result is bonkers…

  4. I have to say, I must disagree with your comment that Ollie’s seizure of the Fireside chair makes him the Pedant. Everyone knows that when a cat becomes the Pedant, said cat will climb the Pedant-Tree.

    And since you have a lot of work on your desk, let me take the opportunity to dump a request your way. Have you ever heard of the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen Donaldson? I’m reading an academic review of those, and while they’re not really military fantasy, there is an extended portion within the second book that details a major military campaign. I’d be extremely curious on your take on it. Now, I can tell even in my totally amateur way that a lot of said campaign makes no sense, and my current main question on the issue is whether or not this was intentional by Donaldson. (There is reason to suppose that said non-sensicality is deliberate, but explaining why would lead to spoilers which I’m reluctant to reveal). But I mostly thought of this blog because of the cohesive principle within the army that gets focus.

    Due to some blundering early in the campaign, the commander of this army is forced to institute a series of grueling forced marches. These go on for so long and are so vicious that the rigors of said marches wind up killing a bit more than 1/5th of the army. This affects morale. Strangely though, it does not affect trust in the Warmark’s leadership. Most complaints you get are of the internalized sort of “I can’t keep doing this, I’m going to let the Warmark down”. What I’d be enormously curious about is if Donaldson lays out the sort of pressures correctly that could build that degree of fanatic loyalty and ability to stick together in the face of common hardship.

    However, I’ll have to admit this is almost certainly a low priority. The books have never been converted to film or TV and are probably never going to be. (Well, there was this one weird show called Fantasy Bedtime hour, but that doesn’t really count, it’s about a spoof reading of the books, not an actual in print to screen conversion.) I really like the books, but a lot of people don’t, and I don’t think it has the massive appeal and recognition to be a truly popular phenomenon. So I doubt very much it would meet your standards. Still, I can hope.

    Good luck with all the papers and other academic work coming your way!

    1. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that losing 1/5 of a pre-modern army due to attrition* from a march isn’t out of the ordinary. If you look at Minard’s famous visualization of Napoleon’s Russia campaign, you’ll see that the majority of the losses didn’t come in big chunks, like in battles, but through gradual attrition, even before winter set in. Of course, you can’t really say La Grande Armée held together through all of that, but they suffered far greater than 20% casualties. And the survivors were still loyal to Napoleon.

      *could be desertion, being left behind due to injury( which in hostile territory could mean death), being killed by enemies who are there to pick off stragglers, or just literal death from exhaustion

      1. I just want to clarify quickly (I can’t stay long), but this isn’t 20% frictional losses. In The Illearth War, we have 20% losses just from literal death from exhaustion. There are quite a few other losses as well. And the campaign is about a month long in mostly friendly territory as well, so you have several points of divergence from the invasion of Russia.

        1. There’s a similar forced march (to set up an ambush) with significant exhaustion and exposure losses in Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series, which I know is mined pretty directly from Napoleon’s actual campaigns, but I don’t remember what the percentage was. I do remember that it was presented as just barely shy of ruinous. (But also our ersatz Napoleon was even more charismatic than the first one.)

        2. Except for marching in the desert with inadequate water, healthy troops wouldn’t die from exhaustion on the march at least in a month.. Their muscles will become too sore and they may accumulate strains so they can’t keep pace but they won’t die just from exhaustion.although if the enemy or a large predator comes and they are unable to defend themselves that is another matter.

          Concerning the conditions that build and sustain group cohesion you could look to the long march retreat by the Red Army https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_March or the campaign of the 10,000, a Greek mercenary force stranded far from home after their employer was killed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Thousand

          If the enemy is as vicious as Lord Foul that builds cohesion. In WWII German forces more readily surrendered to the Western allies than the Soviets because they could expect better treatment from the Western allies than the Soviets.

  5. The problem with “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation” is that we don’t know how much of that ruin China has used up. The USSR used up a lot of its ruin in secrecy.

  6. So, should I not be so quick in assuming that my one-two punch of H. Delbrueck and C. Oman gives me a passably good baseline for ancient and medieval warfare?

    (Also, Oman is a dick: if you’re not French or English, he’s gonna call you a savage.)

  7. Speaking of it being hard to figure out what’s good as a layman – does anyone have recommendations for something good about the napoleonic wars (prefer podcast/youtube form but book also good)?

    1. That’s an extremely deep and many branched rabbit hole. Take a look at David G. Chandler in Wiki. That entry lists many of his books, possibly all.

      If there is something specific, I might be able to point you in the proper direction. But I am definitely not an expert in this area.

    2. On the general topic of finding good historical books (i.e., reliable recent books that fairly reflect current scholarship), I have had good results by identifying one of the top university scholars in the field and emailing him for advice. To find a top scholar, I first scan the faculty at my alma mater to find one with the desired specialty, on the theory that they will be more responsive than faculty somewhere else. (I write ’81 after my name.) If there doesn’t seem to be anyone, looking through a recent reference book at the New York Public Library and seeing who is cited frequently is a good way to find a lead. Most professors are interested in what they teach and happy to encourage such interest in others.

      1. Another decent idea can be to look at university courses and see what they assign as course literature.

  8. If the Pendant ever really has nothing to publish some Friday pictures of Ollie and Percy will certainly leave the readership purring! 😺

    Ancient History is my thing so I am well aware of just how thin the actual evidence is and how it is sometimes stretched and deformed by data hungry historians. I can understand that. I can mentally read in the necessary maybes and probables. What drives me insane 🤪 is the way old theories refuse to die even in the face of new evidence.
    Take the Amarna Period (please). For decades Tutankhamen’s parentage was a hot topic with almost as many answers as there were specialists. Favorite conjecture was that he was the son of Akhenaten by his secondary wife Kiya, or even Nefertiti. Then the DNA testing happened. It was established that Tut was the biological child of two unidentified mummies known respectively as KV 55 and The Younger Lady. It was further determined that these individuals were full brother and sister both being the children of Amenhotep III and Tiye. Great right? Certainty is beautiful. Of course there’s still the question of who the heck KV 55 and The Younger Lady were in life but it’s pretty certain that they weren’t Akhenaten or Nefertiti. KV 55 is too young to have been Akhenaten who was at a minimum 30 at his death and probably ten years older. Nefertiti, and Kiya for that matter, were almost certainly not daughters of Amenhotep III and Tiye because neither ever uses the title king’s daughter. Yet professional Egyptologists, who should certainly know better refuse to accept this and keep trying to identify KV 55 as Akhenaten and The Younger Lady as Nefertiti!!!

    1. Eh, the DNA study apparently has issues. For example is declared that those two mummies were CERTAINLY siblings when it’s also possible that they were genetically similar through several generations of cousins marrying each other as well as other similar issues. Overall the problem seemed to be a strange desire to publish some ironclad certainties instead of showing which kind of possibilities were likely.

      Same goes with estimates of the ages of mummies, lots of fuzziness when it comes to those kind of estimates.

      1. There is indeed always an element of uncertainty but when the majority of experts plump for a younger age and the ones who don’t are clearly biased and special pleading the conclusion is obvious. Such as the parallel breeding thesis. Occam’s Razor folks!

        1. Right, but apparently the way the paper on the genetics testing was written didn’t acknowledge any uncertainty, it was all just “these two are siblings, end of story!” which really raised a lot of hackles.

  9. The British Indian Army is really interesting. To this day, the modern Indian Army and to a greater extent the Pakistani Army share the colonial institutional worldview of the British towards their own citizenry. It is evident in the Pakistani propensity towards coups or the Indian Army’s behavior during the Sikh insurgency in Punjab or their behavior in Kashmir. Now the Afghan people are probably the best counter-example to your dismissal of the Fremen Mirage, but it is in keeping with the British theory of martial races, so why on Earth did they think it wise to stick their nose in the Graveyard of Empires is anyone’s guess.

    It’s interesting to compare the British Indian Army’s behavior during its war with independence fighter Subhash Chandra Bose’s Japanese-backed Indian National Army. While Bose managed to convince some Indian Army POWs under Japanese custody to join the INA, by and large most didn’t and stayed loyal to their institution, despite being aware of its deeply racist bent.

    However, after the end of the war, when the vengeful British tried Bose’s three commanders, one Hindu, one Muslim and one Sikh, in an incredibly tone-deaf act almost designed to generate universal outrage and sympathy for their cause, this triggered a mutiny in the Indian Navy and Indian Army that force the British to stop the proceedings, and British PM Attlee wrote in his memoirs that this more than decades of Gandhi’s independence activism is what actually convinced the British that their days in India were numbered and they had to actually honor their promise to grant independence. Thus the Indian Army as a group did not betray its own to join the INA, but obviously sympathized with and respected its nationalist adversary. The Indian national anthem Jana Gana Mana was composed by poet Rabindranath Tagore, but set to music by Ram Singh Thakuri, a former British Indian Army NCO who joined with the INA after being taken as POW in Singapore.

    1. Our view of the British in India is coloured by late Victorian racism and arrogance, For the first 200 years they lived there as a quasi-Indian sub-culture, speaking the languages, marrying in, having themselves painted in Mogul court dress, eating the food, allying with local powers..Plassey is a good example – it was won by a well-timed desertion (arranged ahead of time), with the financial backing of the local Hindu merchants, and some high-caste Indian soldiers who had taken service with the British. For that matter, the Mutiny was defeated by Indian troops before any British Army units arrived. Whatever the attitudes of the Viceroy and the press at home, the professionals in India were always aware that their power rested on cooperation.

    2. Worth noting is that the Indian POWs had also witnessed firsthand how the Japanese treated their prisoners, and knew that while the Brits could be massive jerks they didn’t hold a candle to the Japanese for sheer brutality, and the Japanese were also kind of racist themselves.

  10. My bet is that Paradox has some poor bastard trying to figure out the global market from Vicky2. If I recall correctly, the economics got so complicated they couldn’t really figure out what was going on. Once they can create a model of a global economic system, they’ll start Vicky3 right after they get their Nobel Prize.

  11. USSR never really collapsed. It’s more like that on a moment of weakness it lost control over colonies it haven’t succeeded to assimilate completely. All the mentality and system is still very much alive not only in Russia, but to varying degrees in former soviet republics as well.

    PS. I live in former soviet republic and was 24 years old when USSR fell apart.

    1. I read an edition of La Russie en 1839 with a foreword describing how the American embassy staff regarded it as the best guide to the USSR. . . .

      However, Egypt survived, but it still collapsed.

  12. 10/10 recommend the optional padded tops you can get for that scratching post in the background. Our cats love ’em.

  13. I suppose I ought to say something on point. Fine fine fine. I’m currently reading Michael Mallett’s “Mercenaries and Their Masters” (about Italian warfare in the high medieval & renaissance periods), and I’m really enjoying it.

    It’s almost half a century old now, so it’s probably not the first choice for an academic, but it will do well enough for the rest of us. And there’s something to be said for good writing; the out of date book one reads can be better than the up to date book that one doesn’t.

  14. Amazon frequently runs promotions where they’ll mark some military history down to $0.99-2.99. I want to buy some of them (and do, on occasion), but I’m always wary of just the thing our gracious host talks about in this piece. What’s junk from an amateur, and what’s real history? And you often can’t really tell from the reviews.

    I love to pick these up and forward them on to my kids, too, but I don’t want to hand them something that isn’t true.

    Anyone have a good filter for separating the wheat from the chaff?

    (I am subscribed to a thread on the Wargaming forum on boardgamegeek.com, https://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/1129607/military-history-kindle-daily-deal-subscription-th where these deals are publicized.)

    1. It is also hard to tell from the covers of trade books, says this professional historian. I was half way through a book on the Axis-Soviet War when I realized the author was a specialist and did have a PhD in modern history but did not have access to Russian-language sources except through a few standard reference works in English.

  15. With Humankind coming out in a few months (was supposed to be in a week, but got pushed way back) maybe throw in civilization type games as well.

  16. That thread linked on colorized photos makes me sad. Those colorized photos are so great. They really help “humanize” the past. So many people complaining that it gets the colors wrong. Of course it gets the colors wrong! That information is lost. That doesn’t make it useless or even as the thread suggests, counterproductive. Seeing people dismissing it as “stripping away the vibrant colors” or even accusing it of “propagating our own biases [to] define our image of the past” is really disheartening. Not to mention unkind to all the researchers working so hard to bring us this amazing technology.

    1. The information is lost, so any attempt to colorize from scratch can only propagate biases. If a human expert were giving suggestions based on analogy to known colors of similar things, those biases would at least be well-informed. Some AI model, not so much.

      I haven’t heard of AI colorization before, so I don’t know how it’s being presented in the real world, but anything other than “this is what it might look like with some colors, the real colors were likely completely different” would seem dishonest. The AI can’t even get basic hues correct.

    2. Those criticisms might be disheartening, but they’re accurate. Even if the algorithms were right on average, they’d still imbue some wrong guesses with way more certainty than they’ve earned. And there’s reason to think they don’t, that they literally do propagate our biases by stripping vibrant color away from the past, because the input data the algorithms taught themselves with was literally created from that very bias. Yes, there are things in the input data based on informed estimates and actual knowledge, but that doesn’t make the bias go away, any more than adding lemon to a cake makes the eggs go away.

      …I should probably get dinner at some point before I make more bad food metaphors.

    3. Images are by definition images — a representation of a real thing. All representations are flawed. Even if you saw that situation at the time your eyes are flawed. Your perspective is flawed. You pay attention to some details, not to others. In accepting an image you’re accepting it as representation, not reality.

      And it seems to me that once you’ve been a relentless nitpicker and said, ‘all images are flawed’, you can then build back up. If all images are flawed, you are always accepting a certain level of inaccuracy in order to get the image at all. Boom. You can understand the people who like colourised photos. It helps them understand.

      Perhaps it runs the risk of misleading them — sure. But 95% of photographs taken before a certain time are staged. Are those not useful? Videos taken before a certain time present people’s movements very jerkily. Are those not useful?

      Well — accepting staged photographs is accepting the bare minimum available. Colourisation is /adding/ something. So it does run more risk of misleading. We’re choosing to mislead ourselves, as opposed to just running with what people of the time thought an acceptable level of misleadingness.

      But then they knew what colours were there. We struggle to see it as anything other than black and white.

      The people objecting to colourisation aren’t saying ‘don’t try to understand these photographs by adding colour’, they’re saying, ‘you may understand these people in the wrong way by adding colour.’

      But it’s all just an effort to understand one another. We all have to tread carefully. But we shouldn’t be too harsh with one another for attempting to understand. And we should probably understand that different people think, understand, talk, and enter into the conversation at different levels.

      Trying to understand other people only becomes a bad thing when you become locked into a path.

  17. Personally, I’d be interested in a post on writing academic book reviews in (ancient military) history!

  18. One issue I’ve sometimes seen from reviewers is a certain territoriality. There’s a community of people who have gone through “the right process” (e.g. gotten a PhD. from an acceptable school in an acceptable program). Anything produced from people outside that community is met with deep skepticism or even animosity. Have you noticed anything like that in history?

    1. It no doubt happens. It also is the case that people are deeply unwilling to accept that their pet theory is crap. My guess is that the proportion of former to latter is about 1:10.

      My father – a patient man, not given to screaming – would explain the laws of physics to those who brought their perpetual motion machines into his engineering department. I am sure many left muttering about academic jealousy.

  19. Negative reviews are also, frankly, hard to write; if a book is not going to be a good fit for any audience, chances are it is because of very tendentious arguments or errors.

    Negative academic book reviews are only fun if the work is hilariously bad (or if the review is just an excuse to talk about a subject you’re passionate about I guess).

    Random note: While this would have ballooned the number of reviews to analyze from 12 to ~275, it would have been nice to know what the stats for non-ancient-warfare book reviews were like. Though now that I look at that number, even if each analysis only took five minutes it would still take 23 hours to rate all of them. I now see why you didn’t do that.

    1. Sometimes footnotes are fun, though. I remember one in Gibbon (vol. I Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire where I learned I *did not care* about the Persians even though I probably should have) where he said something cutting about some gentleman for his ‘creativity’. It did not seem to be a compliment.

  20. Paradox games! EU IV was the first one I discovered, back in 2014, and it was a revelation in gaming for me. I too hope for the fabled Viccy 3 someday…though for now I will just have to settle for taking over the galaxy with the latest Stellaris update out yesterday.

  21. Regarding Paradox games, do you plan to discuss the earlier games, particularly EU2 and the original Victoria? They came before Paradox moved to their current sandbox game design model, and I much prefer them to the games Paradox has put out since 2007 or so. Crusader Kings 2 being the one exception to that statement. 🙂

    With the early generation of Paradox games, historical events occur and leaders appear at the historical times, regardless of game state. Which is great for learning about events or leaders one hadn’t heard of, but Paradox appears to have decided that the disconnect from what’s happening in a given game was a problem. For example, player creates a strong, stable Russia out of Novgorod, but still gets a really nasty Time of Troubles in the early 1600s. Just something one has to deal with in EU2 (or my preference, For the Glory, basically the ultimate edition of EU2), but not a thing that happens in EU3 or I presume EU4.

    Looking forward to the new series; I’ve been playing Paradox games since EU1 so I’ll be interested to see what you have to say!

    Re: Vicky 3, I kind of want them to make it, but I have zero confidence that they’d do a decent job…

  22. Good point on being able to gauge which things are areas of scholarly consensus and which aren’t. Makes me think of the podcasts I’ve been listening to and which are able to nail that:

    History of Egypt: nails that.

    History of Persia: really gets into the weeds of parsing Herodotus so you see exactly why he’s coming to the conclusions that he is coming to although he doesn’t go over the range of scholarly opinion as often.

    Fall of Rome/Tides of History: does a really good job of saying which of the things he’s saying are consensus and which are controversial among scholars for Fall of Rome (so you have full warning which side of the debate he’s coming in from, even if it leads to annoying things like never mentioning stirrups once) but mostly jettisons that for Tides of History where he’s telling much broader stories in areas he knows much less about so a lot of episodes boil down to “I’m going to summarize one book for a half hour now!”

    History of Rome: have just started, like Revolutions a lot better so far. What I’m mostly getting is “well Livy is probably full of shit but we don’t have any other sources so I’m just going to summarize Livy now while archeology goes and cries in a corner.”

  23. I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I really like it. In a few blog posts I saw you mention paradox games. You mentioned some parts of the games you liked and that you disliked. In particular you mentioned is the validity of world paradox recreates. For example that he biases of the creators (and how they think the world works) is reflected in their work. Or how gameplay concerns sometimes triumph realism. But one thing I did not see mentioned, and one thing I do think is interesting, is how paradox sometimes makes the world function as the people in the era thought the world functioned.
    For example, in EU4 mercantilism is a positive stat that you should get as high as possible. This, in combination with the east-to-west trade flow, is obviously not how economics work as we understand them now. But back then these kinds of preferred trade systems between colonies and their motherland, or hoarding wealth were seen as sound economic strategy based on a zero sum trade theory. And I think paradox tries to recreate a world in which these theories are actual reality. Similar in how in viccy 2 industry, factories and capitalism is rewarded.

    Another thing I’m interested in is how you can make sure your simulation is realistic/good. For example, if you make a CK4 and you let the simulation run, how do you know its realistic? Let’s say you simulate years of the succession crisis of England 100 times, and 80 times WIlliam the conqueror is unable to win the English throne. Is that realistic? Do we will in a timeline where William got lucky and managed to win the English throne when the odds were stacked against him?

  24. I will observe that I randomly picked up The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything by Ruth Goodman this week, and reading it brought to mind the thought that those readers of this blog that liked the discussion of coal, wood, coke, charcoal, and all that might like it. (It also discusses metal working from another angle.)

  25. I would definitely like to see how you do your book reviews. I review papers for journals and conferences and proposals for funding. These are all in STEM areas. It would be interesting to see what is or isn’t similar in the process.

  26. “The allusions are generally not wrong, but I worry a bit that he appears to be working mainly from Hans Delbrück’s (d. 1929) Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte”

    Ooooh, Delbrück! I remember how I had to stop reading him at times, wishing to fling the book at the opposite wall with all my strength… Re-reading it in the electronic format conveyed similar feelings only directed at the electronic devices serving as a media sources.

    Which, btw, makes me ask you, Mr. Deveroux a question, if you have time and inclination. What’s your opinion on Delbrück attitude towards the military books (i.e. books on tactics, strategy, “military manuals”) written by the Classic authors (including here the “Byzantine” tradition as well) regarding their practical utility, usefulness as teaching tools and concrete influence on the military revolution of the Modern period?

    Thanks in advance.

  27. Brett, completely ff topic, but how do you tell Ollie from Percy? They are both gorgeous black cats.

    1. Ollie is a bit fluffier and has a wider face with bigger eyes. Percy has shorter fur, and a narrower face and eyes that give him resting-angry-face. While they grew up together in the shelter we adopted them from, they’re not litter-mates, so in person you can actually notice their differences fairly quickly.

  28. I have had some very bad experiences with alleged electronic ‘entertainment’ products (computer games), some of them laced through with probably accidental bugs and errors, and never mind the obviously intentional ‘pay to get a congratulatory message’ features.
    I am more than happy to leave negative reviews in the hope that other people profit from my experiences and not have to suffer in their turn, whilst enriching the manufacturers.

    I feel I have a lot more sympathy for fanfiction writers though, in comparison. I’m not sure why – maybe it’s the removal of the ‘doing it for financial profit’ angle with regard to fanfiction.

  29. The problem, put simply is an explosion of subpar books aimed at the general public by amateur authors and through presses which do not seem as concerned about quality control.

    I scanned through the comments and did not see anybody talking about this, though I had an immediate reaction to it.

    I suspect that the demographics of “people who buy military history books for nonspecialists” is part of what’s going on here. There is a segment of that population, possibly the majority of it, who are absolutely not interested in “things which need their complexity explained to a lay reader” and who expect to have their prejudices confirmed, not challenged. To these readers, “modern assumptions about military activity being imported unthinkingly into the ancient world” is a feature, not a bug, and they are not interested in problems of uncertainty. They want those “catchy oversimplifications” and for them “arguments that don’t go anywhere” are not really a problem.

    There is a lot of overlap between “people who buy military history books for nonspecialists” and “people who believe that Sparta had an admirable society and we would do well to emulate them,” I believe. Probably a lot of these readers also see the Fremen Mirage and mistake it for something real. To the extent that these bad books repeat “pop-history theories which are flourish, evergreen despite not, perhaps, holding up so well under close examination” they are perhaps just an example of the Market Giving The Customers What They Want.

    1. “I suspect that the demographics of “people who buy military history books for nonspecialists” is part of what’s going on here. There is a segment of that population, possibly the majority of it, who are absolutely not interested in “things which need their complexity explained to a lay reader” and who expect to have their prejudices confirmed, not challenged.”

      Soooo… The Express readership.

      [Which btw is the also an answer to the Osprey question below]

  30. “Barkawi notes, while the rank-and-file Indian soldiers may have been aware of the broader political currents pushing towards Indian independence at the time, the Indian officers (VCOs) were well aware.”

    Ah, so everyone’s ideologically aware. Very cool.

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