Posts Tagged ‘military history’
Yesterday I advanced the idea of new form of military history – of following a battle or campaign through the eyes of an individual or a group of men as events unfolded, rather than studying it from an omnipotent vantage point. I want to expand on that idea. It’s what I call the “first person shooter” approach to the writing of military history.
The problem with most books on military history – whether written from the perspective of generals or privates – is that we (the readers) know the outcome in advance, even if we don’t know the detail of how the outcome came about. If we pick up Adam Zamoyski’s 1812, for instance, most of us know when we start reading that Napoleon and his army suffered a calamitous defeat in Russia. We read the book to understand how that defeat came about.
But what if we could follow a battle, a campaign, a war, as a participant actually lived it? Without knowing in advance what the outcome would be, without knowing what lay beyond the next hill, without knowing what the next 24 hours might hold, without knowing where the enemy was and what he was planning? That would be gripping – more like reading a novel or playing a first person shooter game than the traditional approach to military history.
Clausewitz wrote that war is the province of danger and uncertainty. With its omnipotent vantage point, military history strips away those elements. The ‘first person shooter’ approach might give us a greater appreciation of the dilemmas that commanders encounter in battle – having to make quick decisions of great consequence in a climate of danger, uncertainty, surprise, fluidity, fear, unreliable intelligence and conflicting information.
Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist.
As a teenager I cut my teeth reading military history. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976) came as a revelation. Keegan wrote of three great battles (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme) at the level of ordinary soldiers – Shakespeare’s ‘warriors for the working-day’ – rather than that of generals and staff officers, as had been the case.
“I do not intend to write about generals or generalship….I do not intend to say anything of logistics or strategy and very little of tactics in the formal sense.”
More recently the pendulum has swung back, with historians writing very good books that balance the perspective of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ with the operational, strategic and political levels of war. Casting an eye across my book shelves (not my anti-library, I hasten to add), I spotted Adam Zamoyski’s 1812 and Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, both of which exemplify this approach to military approach.
A few days ago I was dipping into Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and came across an interesting discussion about approaches to the study of military history (chapter 5, Book 2). Clausewitz considered whether military history (and by this he meant the actions of the great generals) should be studied from an omnipotent vantage point (the eye in the sky perspective that the gods enjoy in The Iliad). Or whether it should be studied “as nearly as possible” from the point of view of the general, watching the battle unfold through his eyes – with all the noise, confusion, uncertainty and danger that entailed.
When you think about it, most military history is written as though we are Olympian gods. Beevor’s Stalingrad, for example, takes you from front line combat to the Russian and German formation headquarters and on to the war councils of Hitler and Stalin. This makes for great comprehensive coverage. But it strikes me that a variation on Clausewitz’s idea (and Keegan’s approach), of following a battle or campaign through the eyes of an individual or a group of men – ‘warriors for the working-day’ – would be something fascinating and different.
This has been done in fiction, war memoirs, such as Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, and film (‘Band of Brothers’ springs to mind). But I haven’t come across any military histories like this. Have you?
Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist