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Military History

In the current issue of TNR, I argue that military history is being neglected by major U.S. universities, and that we can't understand the war on terrorism--nor any violent conflict--without a better grasp of the wars and strategies of the past. To that end, here are some books that help illuminate the history of war.

    • Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2006). An enormously ambitious, detailed, and thought-provoking attempt to tell the history of warfare from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies to the twenty-first century, written by an Israeli specialist in the history of military thought. It combines perspectives from history, biology, anthropology, and political science.
    • Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Cornell University Press, 2006). An outstanding example of how to bring cultural and military history together. Hull, a Cornell historian, shows how a distinct military culture arose in nineteenth-century Germany, and how the Germans used colonial conflicts in Africa as laboratories for new, brutal forms of military aggression. She then explores the consequences of these "experiments" for later German behavior--especially toward civilian populations in World War I--and the genesis of Nazism.
    • Hans Joas, War and Modernity, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Polity Press, 2003). In a series of essays, a German sociologist reflects trenchantly upon the ways that the modern social sciences have studied--and failed to study--warfare. In particular, Joas focuses on what he calls "the dream of modernity without violence": the assumption that history is moving in the direction of perpetual peace, with war a condition properly associated with "primitive" societies. Most social scientists, he argues, have taken this assumption as a license to avoid treating modern warfare with the sort of analytic rigor they have brought to the study of economics and social relations.
    • John Keegan, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (Random House, 1976). A classic study by the renowned British military historian, showing in graphic, horrifying detail the experience of ordinary soldiers in three great British battles. In the process, Keegan reflects both on the enormous changes wrought by advances in military technology and logistics, and also on the psychological factors that have remained relatively constant over the centuries.
    • Carl Schmitt, The Theory of the Partisan: A Commentary/Remark on the Theory of the Political (in CR: New Centennial Review, vol. IV, no. 3, 2004). The brilliant, reactionary German jurist and social thinker reflects here on the history of insurgency from Napoleonic Spain to France and Algeria in the early 1960s. Schmitt takes as his starting point the idea that "partisans" are key figures in modern history, defining the very nature of war and "enmity."

Readers might also be interested in my own recent attempt to write a cultural history of European warfare on the threshold of modernity: The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It.

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