One book, 2013

[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

If I had to recommend one military history book I've read this year it would be Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn't happen more than those that didn't. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There's much more in here, reflecting Sabin's years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it's an essential book if you're interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).

So if you had to recommend one military history book you've read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

Note: I've changed the book featured here. I may discuss the reasons for this in a future post.

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8 thoughts on “One book, 2013

  1. One book? OMG. I'm slowly (because I'm lazy) working my way through Rene Facon, L'Armee de l'Air dans la tourmente: Le bataille de France 1939--1940. It won't set the world on fire, or anything, but.... David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, 180--395 wasn't marketed as a military history (and isn't),but stands out for me as a robust return to the argument that the "fall" of the Roman Empire was a military event, the key thesis being that the Roman army wasn't very good. That seems more than astonishing enough for me.

  2. Post author

    wasn't marketed as a military history (and isn't)

    Well, I suppose I'll allow it, but only because I'm a pretty liberal, war-and-society type of guy.

    the key thesis being that the Roman army wasn't very good.

    It certainly was a very different thing in the late Empire to the army Caesar knew. I've got Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire sitting on my bookshelf, must get around to that one day.

  3. Yeah, but that's the crazy thing about Potter. He's saying that that "classic" Roman army, the one with the cohorts and the short swords and the pilums and the castramentation at the end of every march --that's the one that's not very good.

  4. My reading has been a bit curtailed this last year, but my choice would be a book I finally got round to reading: David Stahel's Barbarossa book. To my mind he makes a pretty unassailable case that the whole enterprise was doomed pretty much as soon as the Soviet Union failed to collapse under the initial shock of the assault. Wehrmacht planning simply ignored the realities of geography and logistics; whilst the OKH had been warned about these, they simply assumed that they would be overcome. Given the much-vaunted professionalism of the German General Staff, Stahel is rightfully scathing about the wishful thinking that pervaded the strategic and operational planning of the campaign.

    He focuses on the cutting edge of the German forces, the Panzer and motorised infantry divisions, and shows how quickly attrition blunted this weapon. Mechanical wear and tear alone gutted the Panzers and especially the logistics train. Yet if that refrain is familiar from the German exculpatory memoirs, Stahel also shows that the Soviets more than played their part. Unskilled they may have been at the tactical-operational level, the reckless bravery of the troops meant that they kept on fighting and inflicting casualties even when the situation seemed hopeless.

    Another point he makes which was new to me was the effect of the many thousands of Soviets behind the German lines. The huge numbers of prisoners taken in encirclements masks the fact that there were never enough troops for the Germans to properly seal the ring; given the wooded terrain this meant that there were large numbers of soldiers that broke out and went to ground in the forests. This meant that when the partisan movement got going there were already many troops behind the lines to act as nuclei for groups, but even just bands of soldiers trying to get good wreaked havoc on the extended German logistics chain.

    The historiographical overview chapter is pretty much worth the price of admission on its own, giving a clear and concise picture of the past few decades' scholarship, and the discussion of the actual operations was pitched very well for me; on the few occasions where the narrative got too detailed as to which regiment was doing what, I could skip paragraphs without loss to the broader argument. Highly recommended.

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  7. Robert Nash

    I was quite pleased to finally find the time to read Why Air Forces Fail, edited by Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris. It offers many useful insights into the leadership, organisation, doctrine, building, maintaining and experience of 11 different air forces in the 20th Century. I'm hoping soon to have the time to read The Influence of Air Power upon History, edited this time by Robin Higham in partnership with Mark Parillo. In this compilation, our sights are raised to examine the role and influence of air power in statesmanship, diplomacy and foreign policy.

    My interest in air power runs long and deep. I will be starting a PhD in 2014 that will seek to address the question of the utility of air power to a small state, specifically New Zealand. It is my preliminary contention that air power contributes as much, perhaps more, to diplomatic and economic power as it does to military power, especially for a small nation located deep in the South Pacific and far from the dangers and battlefields of the world. Further, the development of air power in any nation must also be addressed in terms of its political economy: the government of a small nation endowed with limited resources and geographical isolation would necessarily consider both military and non-military aspects of air power in decision making. Anyway, that's where my reading and thinking has taken me so far.

    I just discovered your Blog, and I am intrigued by it. Thank you.

  8. Post author


    You're right. That is crazy.


    Thanks, that does sound excellent. Kind of an important campaign too, on a world-historical level.


    Higham has been around forever -- I found out the other day that he joined the RAFVR in 1943! His earlier work, for example The Military Intellectuals in Britain (1966), is more my thing, but these edited volumes sound interesting. Your PhD does too. I have an occasional interest in New Zealand -- I'm actually just across the Tasman and did some research in Wellington last year -- see here, here, here, and here. There could be something in what you say about the close relationship between civil and military airpower in small states -- I wrote an article about the commercial bomber concept in a large state (Britain), but have since come to realise that it was more popular in small states (including New Zealand). So let me know how your PhD turns out!

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