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?
p.s. Somebody just pointed out there are no illustrations in my new book, The War Nerd. Well, that’s totally different. Never mind why. America doesn’t want to hear about that! Let’s move on!
The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle that Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire
By Alessandro Barbero
The battle this book talks about is Adrianople, as most ancient-war fans would have guessed. I’ve always been interested in this battle, for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, out of sheer orneriness I always preferred the Byzantines to the Western Romans. Something about that Classical crap, the kind that books like the one I just discussed come out, just sticks in my craw and always has. Makes me think of Kim Philby, Oxford boys betraying us and buggering each other while they eat scones. Besides, the Byzantines faced east, where the real threats always came from. Europe was a fucking forest; how hard did the Romans have it? Even so they fucked up massively, got a classic ambush, Monagahela-style, in Teutoburger Wald, let a bunch of German irregulars with javelins pick off three whole legions.
But never mind that, my point here is to talk about this Italian’s book about Adrianople. Another reason I always liked Adrianople is that it was a very 20th-c. style battle. It was what they call a “humanitarian crisis,” and in case you think that’s a totally modern invention, you’re wrong. The Eastern Romans in 378 AD were rich and dumb enough not to massacre every stranger who crossed their borders. They were in the market for cheap labor and mercenaries, so they usually tried to do a deal when some terrified tribe came knocking on the wall looking for escape from some even scarier tribe back east.
That’s what happened at Adrianople: the Goths, an updated Scythian gang straight outta Ukraine, fled west to escape the Huns. See, the Goths were great riders but they didn’t use the compound bow from horseback. Mistake! You’ve got to incorporate both pony and compound bow if you want to win on the steppes. The Goths, who fought with swords and spears, were so terrified of the Huns that, as this book explains, they made up a story that the Huns were born when Goth witch women who’d been cast out of the tribe mated with demons in the wasteland. It wasn’t far from the truth.
The Goths showed up at the Danube, the frontier of the Empire, begging the Romans to take them in. The Danube is a serious river by Euro-standards, and the Goths were no sailors, so they just piled up there in huge refugee camps while the local bureaucrats waited for word from Constantinople on what to do.
The situation is so familiar to anybody who watches the news these days that you just know no writer can help making cheap cracks about some current event. And there are a lot of good parallels you might make. Unfortunately this Alessandro Barbero is an Italian leftie and the only one he can think of is Iraq. Dumb. This has got nothing to do with Iraq. Iraq is plenty bad enough on its own, and I’ve said so till the death threats rained down like…uh, rain, I guess…but you’ve got to be smart about it. Dumb anti-American Iraq jokes like the one this guy keeps cracking—well, if there’s anything that could turn me into a Cheney fan, that’s it.
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