War: A Short History

Roger Moorhouse reviews a concise study of warfare through the ages

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Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Jeremy Black
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £9.99

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Jeremy Black sets himself an almost impossible task in his War: A Short History. He seeks to tell the story of mankind’s wars – from the Stone Age to Al-Qaeda – in barely 150 pages.

Aside from this gargantuan task of simplification, organisation and concision, Black’s wider context is to correct two perceived flaws that he claims traditionally hamper the field of military history: the first being an apparent lack of intellectual refinement in the genre, while the second is an in-built western-centrism.

He does well to combine so many strands into his narrative, and works hard to present a more complex, holistic approach, which not only incorporates the many non-western theatres, but also takes all contributory factors – technological, economic, strategic, cultural – into account.

His text is dense but it is crammed with erudition and surprisingly, given its enormous scope, makes very few sacrifices in its readability. 

Yet, for all that, it is hard to see the doyens of popular military history being troubled by this book. War will scarcely be stealing any readers from Antony Beevor or Max Hastings. It is a very different animal. In essence, it is a text book, designed and written for students of the rather more arid discipline of war studies.

Indeed, one might almost describe it as a military history book in which most of the aspects that appeal to readers of military history have been removed. 

Nonetheless, War is still to be welcomed. Black is one of Britain’s foremost historians and probably its most prolific non-fiction author, so his insights are certainly of value.

But one suspects that there will be more than a few military historians in the UK who will feel aggrieved to read him describing their chosen field as one short on “intellectual sophistication”.

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Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (The Bodley Head, 2010)