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eXile Classic / The War Nerd / May 20, 2008
By Gary Brecher

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.

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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.

When he’s not being an asshole, Barbero tells a good story. It was cool to hear that for the Romans, the Goths’ looks—tall, white skin, red or yellow hair—was just another sign that they were uncivilized and dirty and poor. Of course when a Euro professor says that you have to wonder, is he really channeling the ancient Romans or just showboating to sound PC? I hope the fucker’s telling the truth, because it’s cool to think of these short thick oily Caesars sneering at the genetic traits that that fool Hitler was going to make into signs of superiority 1600 years later.

The battle developed when the word came from Constantinople, from the hated emperor Valens, that local forces should admit the Goths, ferry them across the river and put them in camps to be resettled somewhere else. They were ferried across by Roman boats and then, after starving in camps for months while the local officials siphoned off all the food relief they were supposed to be getting, they realized that they were dealing with inferior garrison troops and rioted. The Romans tried to deal with it Mafia style, by killing the leaders at a banquet (why did anybody in the ancient world ever go to a banquet? It was like signing your death warrant!)—messed up, killed the bodyguards but not the tribal leaders, and that was that.

I don’t have the space to tell the story of the battle itself, and Barbero does a pretty good job of that anyway. I’ll just say that no emperor ever deserved to die on the battlefield more than this idiot. They couldn’t even identify his body, the Goths had hacked it up so efficiently. He had it coming, every bit of it.

The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur

By Daoud Hari

First of all, this is one of those “as told to” books, so I have no idea how much of it is really by this Darfur refugee Daoud Hari. Some of the jokes—and there really are a lot of great jokes—sound African to me, meaning they’re brave enough to joke about serious bloody stuff. But then the “co-authors” are these two Irish people and the Irish used to have the same thing going, like the line, “A man can get used to anything, even being hanged.” That joke would fit right in in this book. At one point Hari laughs when the correspondent he’s escorting through Darfur falls on a 500-pound bomb. Hari laughs, and later explains over a beer that, “If I had fallen on it, you would have laughed.” The correspondent, a Brit and therefore not all dull and serious, says, “If YOU had fallen on the bomb it WOULD have been funny!” It’s that kind of book, way funnier and cheerfuller than you’d ever expect. See, Africans live with so much misery and blood that it’s boring to them. They want to laugh, they want a little variety.

Hari had plenty of the boring stuff, the blood and tears, because he’s a Zaghawa, from Northern Darfur. He left home early to go to school, learning English and Arabic, then migrating to Libya, Egypt and Israel to find work. He was only in Israel for one night; they found him after he snuck in and deported him to Egypt where he ended up in one of those prisons you hope you’ll never see except in Midnight Express type movies.

He gets out by pure luck—or so he says. I have the feeling there are a few details he left out of his big adventure. Africans are great with stories and they try to spare you the painful bits, so I kind of think ol’ Hari is fudging just a little bit about what went on in his youth. Like his father says in that great, dry African way when he comes home, “We have learned much of the world’s prisons from following your travels.” By the time he gets back to Darfur, he’s 30 years old and he’s just in time for the Sudanese Army attack helicopters to start strafing his village, by way of warm-up act for the Janjaweed militia to follow.

There’s a great chapter describing the exact sequence of a Sudanese attack on a Darfur village, starting with the attack choppers flushing out the defenders, who run to prearranged ambush sites, then the Land Rovers stopping to fire their heavy Soviet machine guns at extreme range, “…from far enough away that attackers could only spray the area and hope to kill people without seeing them.” What amazed me was the traditional Zaghawa defense system, organized in a simple top-down structure: Sultan, Omda, Shiekh, Elders. They actually seem like decent people, but they just don’t have the heavy weaponry to fight the army. (Although they do have the good ol’ RPG, and Hari describes an RPG attack on an army jeep he and other local kids were forced to guide. When the locals hit the convoy with RPGs, body-pieces fly through the air and he goes deaf for a week.)

When Hari’s village is sacked, he flees to Chad, starts hiring himself out as translator to correspondents heading into Darfur, and meets my old pal Nicholas Kristof, the man who stole my line about Cheney being an Iranian agent. Watch out, Daoud! That fucker’ll steal all your best material and leave you to the Arab militias!

Well, Hari survives his Nicking only to guide a National Geographic reporter into Sudan and get captured by a rebel group that’s sold out. It’s back to prison, torture and mock executions for Hari, the Hawalya (white) reporter, and their driver Ali.

I have to say, Ali is the best character in the book. He’s hilarious: a cowardly, sullen, totally un-heroic chauffeur who got into this mess Gilligan’s Island style, convinced he’d make two days’ pay for taking the crazy foreigners into Sudan for a three hour tour. Ali only cheers up when the Sudanese helicopter carrying them to prison comes under rebel fire. Seriously, Ali is delighted that they’re all going to die–but they live, and he’s totally bummed out. Hari describes Ali’s time in prison in his usual great deadpan style: “Ali was very certain that we would be taken away and hung or shot at every minute, and he looked at each new day as an opportunity for this.” Even when Bill Richardson finally flies in to get them released, Ali is convinced that Richardson’s Learjet will only take them back to prison for more interrogation sessions with the whips, jumper cables and such. I love the way Hari describes Ali’s reaction: “He threw up several times near Governor Richardson, who was fine with it.”

OK, I’m running out of space, so that should do it. I’ve been reading this Herodotus guy also, and he’s way better than I thought he’d be, but I’ll save it. Vacation time’s too short anyway. So many wars, so few billionaires willing to pay me to sit around reading about them all day.

Speaking of summer books, Gary Brecher’s first book The War Nerd is now available.

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