Decisive Battles: Over 20 Key Naval and Military Encounters from 479 BC to the Present by John Colvin (Headline Book Publishing, 2003), 352 pages
John Colvin is not well known to American readers, and more’s the pity, because he’s one of my favorite writers as well as one of my favorite characters. John went from naval officer to diplomat to investment banker to writer, so there’s very little he doesn’t know about, and his diplomatic postings would make any adventurous person jealous, including Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi (at the height of the Vietnam War), Ulan Bator (where he served as ambassador, much of the time on horseback with the Mongol tribal leaders), and finally Washington, where he did much the same.
So John’s full and fascinating life fully prepared him to write history the way it should be: attentive, always, to the big picture, but delighted at the telling detail and particularly the fun and games. Thus, in telling us about the great Polish general and king, Jan Sobieski (the hero of the battle of Vienna in 1683), and his stormy marriage to Marie-Casimir Sobieska, a.k.a. “Marysienka,” he tosses in a marvelous parenthetical remark amidst the necessary data:
During their marriage, Marysienka only once caught her husband in an act of infidelity. She instantly ‘took most unsavoury vengeance on the offender’. (Waliszewski, maddeningly, claimed that further detail was unfit for English ears.)
Decisive Battles recounts 21 major military turning points in world history, with wit and verve and unusual affection for the participants, along with the vision of a first-class historian. Many of the battles are known, or at least were before the latest savaging of historical instruction, to all educated people. Some are less known, like the battle of Tannenberg in 1914, at which the czar’s armies were shattered by Germany. In Colvin’s words, “Revolution may anyway have been inevitable, but the blow struck by defeat at an establishment, feeble, incompetent, even tottering, led directly under Lenin and Stalin to anarchy, starvation, the massacre of innocent millions, the corruption of entire populations, and to the waste and longeurs of the Cold War.” You can’t do much better than that.
My favorite chapter is on Midway, as you might expect from a former naval officer in Her Majesty’s service. Colvin lingers admiringly over the principals, from Yamamoto’s fundamentally sound understanding of American national character (and thus the urgency of securing the Pacific against the inevitable American response, bolstered by the amazing industrial might of the United States) to Spruance and Nimitz on the American side, to wonderful insights into the tools of the battle: “The initial American attack was mounted entirely by a class of torpedo-bombers called, unjustifiably, ‘Devastator.’” All of which made the performance of the American fighting men so extraordinary: “however unavailing the practical efforts had been of those brave, innocent and extraordinary young men, in a sacrifice unimaginable today, their continual nagging assaults, with those from the Midway garrison, had unsettled their triumphant opponents for the first time.”
As you see, it’s hard to stop reading Decisive Battles, and it now occupies a space on my shelf reserved for really wonderful books.
Just two more little treats before taking my leave. First, the battle of the Metaurus, in 207 B.C., at which Hannibal’s Carthaginians were slaughtered by the Roman legions. As the outcome of the battle became clear, one of Hannibal’s commanders, Hasdrubal, “witnessing inevitable defeat, drove his horse into a Roman cohort and died, sword in hand, in a gesture of extreme uselessness.”
And finally, Plassey, “the supreme example of British duplicity and cunning: it was won by a trick.” It was also the British response to their defeat in Calcutta, following which British prisoners were thrown into the legendary “Black Hole,” from which they were dragged after an unbearable night and paraded naked, “caked in vomit, excrement and blood,” through the streets. As Colvin dryly remarks, “Siraj had created a massive stick with which the British would beat the Indians for 200 years, the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’, that atrocity which could provide the justification for an empire.”
As Sidney Greenstreet once said to Humphrey Bogart in a fine scene in The Maltese Falcon, that is the stuff history is made of. Real history, not that junk we get in the texts.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.