FRESNO, CA – It’s summer, you’ve got a little more time off, so you can read up on war instead of trying to live in whatever boring suburb you live in. Lawns, neighbors, dogs, kids—it all sucks and the best thing you can do is get as far out of it as you can. A lot of war fans do it by logging into the game world, where we’re all seven feet tall and bulletproof. But I’m old school. I still actually read those book things, about actual wars where people die and stay dead, magic amulets just get you killed, and elf princesses are few and far between. The only way to stay on top of this game is to keep inhaling a lot of info, so after a while you get a taste for B.S. That means you have to study up. You know when the Bible says, “They shall study war no more”? Well, I’m not one of the they’s they were talking about. Here are some of the war books I’ve been chowing down on lately. Hopefully they’ll help you get through your hot dull summer too:
Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare
By Philip Sidnell
First the bad news: this book promises more than it delivers. “Ancient Warfare” happened in a lot of places, but this British writer Philip Sidnell just takes it for granted that “Ancient” means Greece and Rome. I was hoping for something about the Scythians, the coolest irregular cavalry in ancient history, but they’re in here only when they encounter Alexander’s army.
Now the good news: what this Sidnell guy does, he does pretty well. Take that little story about Alexander’s encounter with Scythian cavalry, which used bows from horseback. To me, the most pressing question about Western armies in ancient warfare is how they coped with mounted archers using compound bows, the basic method of the Scythians, Huns, and Mongols—the steppe armies that terrified and usually routed Mediterranean forces. Sidnell does a good job of explaining how Alexander’s genius allowed him to figure out a perfect response to steppe tactics on the spot, in the middle of a godforsaken Central Asian wasteland. What he did, basically, was let them do a classic Little-Big-Horn move, designed to draw his forces into a trap, feinting an advance while holding his own heavy cavalry in reserve and sending it right down on the lightly-armed Scythians’ backs as soon as they committed to an attack on his infantry. They never messed with Alexander again, it was all, “How y’all Hellenes doin’? Nippy, ain’t it? Guess I’ll be moseying,” from those leather-pants stoner freaks from then on. (It’s true, the Scythians were total heavy-metal stoners, wore leather pants and smoked pot all the time. Only difference is they could fight. Anybody ever meet a metalhead who could fight? Sell him to the circus.)
Beats me why these Brits think “Ancient World” stops where people stop speaking Greek or Latin. Actually just writing that down I can guess why: because that’s all they study at Oxford, so they just fill in the non-Classical regions of the map with “Orcs, Buncha Orcs, not worth discussing.” Which is barely OK if you’re talking infantry, but cavalry? Hell no. One of Sidnell’s points is that Greek and Roman cavalry is underrated, and he may be right, but it’s hard to tell when he won’t take the non-Greek/Roman cavalry forces seriously enough to talk about them in their own right. And for that matter, if time machines were available, I would gladly make a bet with Mister Sidnell that any 100 Huns could annihilate any 300 Greco-Roman cavalry of any era (unless I could get Belisarius for commander of the Mediterranean horse soldiers).
And speaking of maps, where the hell are they? What is this thing of military history books with no maps? If I was in charge that would be a capital offense, and I’m not talking quick, easy death either. No maps in this book, no pictures, no diagrams. The biggest reason I got this book is I’ve been getting interested in the cataphracts, but there’s not one illustration in the book. Of course part of that is that the Cataphract was an Asian design, which means it’s all Orcs to Sidnell, but even one lousy picture would’ve helped. But nooooo it was back to Google, where you get the usual mix of great stuff and war-gamer fantasy. Too cheap to put in the illustrations, the best part of any book?