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Failure of Analysis: Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles

I’ve been fascinated with the small European wars of the eighteenth century for years, and writing my post from earlier this week on the continuity of total war (found here) gave me an occasion to brush up on that material. Accordingly, I dove into Philip Bobbitt's formidable work The Shield of Achilles. Integrating the studies of state formation and warfare in early modern and modern Europe, Bobbitt demonstrates the ways in which states’ constitutions (here the general manner in which a state is constituted and governed, not the formal documents) and strategies (loosely, the manner in which states wage war, rather than specific war plans) are intertwined, influencing each other and driving to different forms and heights. In so doing, Bobbitt attempts to argue for a certain dialectical view of history that, incidentally, results in his own prognostications on where the modern world is headed and the ways in which we should respond. I have never simultaneously loved and despised a book more in my life.... Read More
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Towards a More Total War: ‘Gentlemanly Warfare’ and the Rise of the Nation-State

One of the most controversial figures in the history of the United States is William Tecumseh Sherman. For his direction of a single campaign in the fall and early winter of 1864, Sherman has been reviled by nigh-half the country while providing military historians endless fodder for debating the origins of the philosophy of ‘total war.’ Even and perhaps especially for his detractors, Sherman’s strategy of destroying (supposedly) non-military and civilian resources is seen as somehow original, a new and innovative way of waging war that would come to dominate the twentieth century. There’s only one problem with that conventional wisdom: it’s patently ridiculous.... Read More
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A Persistent Fiction: Myths of British Martial Prowess and Their Appeal

A few weeks ago, as I was reading Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire (which shall be reviewed on this very blog in four days), I came across a puzzling statement. In her prologue, Millard described the British army as “one of the most admired and feared fighting forces in the world.” Anyone familiar with the ersatz history of the British army in Europe or Britain’s imperial holdings might look askance at such a dubious claim, but I thought little of it at the time save to raise an intellectual (and physical) eyebrow. As is so often the case, however, this inciting incident opened my eyes to more and more use of this or a similarly-worded error. I have since encountered it in material covering a diverse range of subject matter concerning Britain in the period of its empire, authored by historians spanning a wide array of training and background. Rather than composing a direct rebuttal of these claims of a superlative British army, I instead became preoccupied with determining the reasons one might buy into such an easily-refuted detail. What follows below is an account of my efforts and, incidentally, a fair amount of refutation in its writing.... Read More