Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter, and has written countless books on military and political history, with a special but not exclusive emphasis on the 18th century.
He is also a senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), an American ‘think tank’. This book seems primarily aimed at FPRI members, as it attempts, somewhat tortuously, to give a global vision of military strategy through the ages. It is a truly Herculean task, fraught with difficulty.
Black’s ‘shotgun’ approach takes us from Thucydides to Vergennes via Clausewitz, Napoleon, and Hitler, as he attempts to blend incisive historical insight with contemporary practice. The result can be confusing, even superficial, and results in an anodyne display of scholarship that leaves the reader baffled.
The central thesis is to explore and legitimise the strategy of the United States by comparative analysis with former Great Powers, such as the UK and France.
Perhaps as an omen of the future, there is also an interesting evaluation of what contemporary options may be open to the Chinese, although the reference to the Kangxi Emperor is an academic conceit that will surely baffled most readers. An explanation that he was not Chinese, but a conquering Manchu (Qin), might have been helpful.
For American audiences, this book offers a panacea, as they struggle with the concept of the Pax Americana – or ‘America First’, as the country’s leader so politely puts it. They will not, however, get any insight into the global strategic dimension of the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the most interesting and potentially devastating strategic military confrontation in history. No mention is made, for example, of the positioning of US nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey at the start of the crisis.
Black also studiously avoids the accepted illegality of the 2003 Iraq War, never referring to legal principles or ethics in his global history of military strategy. This omission is surprising from a British historian, as is his failure to attempt to explain the US strategic policy in its war against Islam (the so-called ‘War on Terror’), or indeed its devotion to Israel. Is this a strategic decision or an emotional one? What US strategic interests, if any, are served here?
For a British audience, Black is correctly scathing about the sheer lack of coherent military strategy shown in our recent military ‘adventures’. Hubris and gross underfunding seem to have been the order of the day, followed up by grotesque self-praise culminating in mawkish self-pity.
What Black conveniently ignores is that Britain has been a virtual, near bankrupt client-state of the US since at least 1917, and all serious strategic choices are made there. Even when it came to a completely internal UK matter, it took the intervention of the US President to bring about the Good Friday Agreement.
This book has only partially addressed its title, unsurprising given the scale of the task. Paradoxically, had it been shorter, and adopted the formula used by OUP in its ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series, it might have lived up to its title.
It comes with excellent notes, a full index, and a comprehensive bibliography, but sadly no maps were included, which is a serious omission. Thus, for example, the triumphs of the long dead Kangxi Emperor at the furthest edge of the known world will remain, as he is, obscure.
Review by Mark Corby
This article was published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.