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.)
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:
|Issue||Date||Number of ancient warfare books reviewed||Positive||Neutral||Negative|
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!).