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Cathal J. Nolan, The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 670 pp.

Reviewed by: Siddharth Tripathi (Postdoctoral Fellow at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt and Visiting Fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) Berlin)

Game of Thrones is one of the most watched shows on television with as many as 16 million people tuning in for the final episode of the last season. It is based on an astounding work of literature, but what lies underneath is a depiction of real military history. Game of Thrones is fiction, but The Allure of Battle covers a strenuous reality that history has witnessed in the previous centuries. Nolan’s encyclopedic book, situated at the intersection of military history, statecraft, and international relations, presents a nuanced understanding of battles and wars. It provides a detailed explanation of the military history and at the same time offers a critique of war. This makes it exciting and an engrossing read.

War Devastates City of Warsaw (1939). photo credit: UN Photo

The core argument made in the book is that intellectuals and theorists have been preoccupied with Clausewitz’s idea of the decisive battle, which would change the course of history, and thus have been trapped in ‘the allure of battle’. History has witnessed such construction of war, eulogising offence or “framing it in divine gold” (p. 574), even though it leads to destruction or even loss. Works of Jomini, Clausewitz, Napier, Mahan and few others have immortalised the ‘generals of genius’ Maurits, Gustavus, Marlborough, Frederick and Napoleon. For them, battles were considered to be a heroic ideal. At the same time, this framework erased positional warfare and defensive military positions from the public memory; even though, a defensive strategy often led to a victory and saved more lives and material. The raw, aggressive side of war was emphasized over “creative genius, moral forces, and the factors of uncertainty and chance” (p. 257). The book examines this clash between idealized (or idolized) generalship, which features iconic views of battle, and the dominant reality of moral and material attrition, that are the primary determinants of outcomes in wars among the great powers (p. 11).

Nolan discusses how ‘the allure of battle’ is like a rolling wheel that is impossible to stop; not even in the case of victory. The nature of war keeps changing and new patterns of warfare have emerged differentiating New and Old Wars (Mary Kaldor 1999). War evolves and hence can never be as short as one imagines (even if circumstances and events work out as planned) (p. 581). It always consumes time, life, and material and only stops until the next one starts. It is a vicious cycle which is obviously more psychological, as discussed by Bertrand Russell in Why Men Fight (1917) (originally published as Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916) at the height of the First World War).

The Allure of Battle is organized into 16 chapters discussing the image of battles in history from Renaissance to Enlightenment and from industrial to modern times. It examines changes in the instruments (for example gunpowder weapons or infantry) used in the battle, illustrates different phases of the evolution of warfare, and discusses the concept of battle-seeking and battle worship (p. 12). In this 670-page volume, Nolan walks us through classical sources of military wisdom from ‘de Re Militari’ of Publius Vegetius Renatus 5th century (whose main advice was to consider battle as the last resort) (p. 59) to Machiavelli’s Art of war and Clausewitz’s On War. The author showcases how these works contributed to the conceptualization of battle. Herodotus in the 5th century BCE set a powerful precedent claiming that battles were the soul of war. The idea was supported by the military history of Greece and Rome. Nolan highlights the continuation of this idea from the Hundred Years’ War between France and Britain (1337-1453) to the World Wars. The “Revolution in Military Affairs” (p. 78) supported development of new technology ranging from gunpowder, artillery to mobile field armies (p. 57), contracted infantrymen and new engineering, including innovative fortification to elaborate bunkers and trenches (p. 365). With the tectonic shift in the cultural order as well as in the military and political balance of power, the purpose of war and the scale changed too (p. 77). From wars of religion to wars of kings and empires or mètier du roi, (i.e. the measure and business of kings) (p. 117). These transitions made “wars better” (p. 106) with the cost of wars rising exponentially (p. 57).

Global conquest gave rise to global contest in the form of colonial battles in the 17th and the 18th centuries, specifically the Anglo-French rivalry but also engulfed other powers from the Atlantic and Central Europe to Russia (p. 189). Not only did things change militarily, but also ideationally in the discourse on political and social legitimacy. The concept of the absolute right of kings and traditional rights of nobles and the church gave way to natural rights of citizens leading to “popular sovereignty” (p. 190). There has also been a debate if wars that occurred in the 17th and 18th-century could be considered modern since others regard the rifle revolution of the mid-19th century to mark the beginning. However, most of the 19th and 20th century historians consider Napoleon as the leader who reconceived war and reinstated the allure of the decisive battle, which made him the Emperor of the French and a de facto emperor of Europe (p. 219). Napoleon, however, failed to appreciate the change in the basic character of war in the “age of battles” as instead of consolidation, he kept on planning new invasions (p. 229). But even the ‘God of War’, as Clausewitz called him in admiration, could not transmute battles into lasting decisions as Napoleon’s invasive tactics against Russia proved to be his undoing.

Napoleonic battles of annihilation shifted to annihilation of battles giving way to wars instead of peace. H. G. Wells sensed The War in the Air (1908), while Jean de Bloch and Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion (1910) argued that wars could not happen again since the economies were intertwined and war would not be a profitable enterprise. Was war a tragic mistake, a miscalculation, or a grave misunderstanding? Nolan argues that it was not a “sleepwalkers” stumble or a faultless mistake, as Christopher Clark would argue in The Sleepwalkers (2012). War was the result of the hard choices made by specific leaders to further the interests of their state. These leaders were fully aware that each move carried a huge risk of war. As Nolan argues, the five powers (Germany, Austria, Russia, Britain and France) involved in World War I “either chose war or accepted war” (p. 328). The trajectory of trends regarding the “climactic war-winning battle” spanned from Alexander the Great to the World Wars and resulted in catastrophic and innovative ways extending beyond territories or resources and leading to extermination and physical elimination (p. 425). These wars eventually led to “annihilation of nations” (p. 404). “Civilization stopped to let brutality and barbarism do its necessary work” (p. 489), millions murdered, cities disappeared, and skeletal men fought mercilessly following the orders of their officials.

Napoleon at the Battle of Friedland. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Horace Vernet.

The Allure of Battle provides a detailed and illustrative analysis of war and military history woven together masterfully. Transmission of such texts is essential for scholars across disciplines and for non-scholars, who will be able to relate to military history and to comprehend the enormity and complexity of war. However, the entire discourse tends to be Eurocentric as it has been focused on wars in Europe, except for some references to Sino-Japanese Wars in 1894 and the last days of World War II (p. 148); something which Nolan himself outlines. He argues that the “European wars drew in people and resources across the world” and proposes that “the appeal of short wars was strongest in Western warfare” (9). This ignores the entire history of Asian military thought and statecraft discussed in the works of Sun Tzu The Art of War and Kautilya’s Arthashastra to mention a few. The main lesson that Nolan wants the readers to learn is to be cautious of the “vanity of nation” and the “hubris of leaders” to be led into war and to correct the distorted public memory of battles. His second goal is to create awareness about the pseudoscientific dogma or superstitious belief that wars can be short and victory will be easy (p. 575). Nolan’s meticulous contribution remains unmatched as it provides an in-depth survey picking up the right threads and nuances of history and relating it to contemporary events.

This authoritative account will be important for students of war and defense studies, international relations, and history. Its relevance lies in the historical underpinnings about the (often forgotten) conduct of war in the contemporary world. The book is pertinent today as nuclear war might just be ‘a touch of a button away’. The question whether ‘the allure of battle’ is just an illusion or can be a reality in the future does not have a decisive answer. We can be optimistic and hope that threats about pressing the nuclear button will remain in the realm of a war of words rather than a reality as ‘the allure of battle’ envisions.