Reviewed by Ricardo Herrera (Department of History, Mount Union College)
Published on H-War (November, 2003)
The Universal Soldier Reconsidered
The Universal Soldier Reconsidered
John Lynn's Battle: A History of Combat and Culture is an ambitious, provocative, and eclectic look at the discourse and conduct of warfare that argues against a universal conceptualization or reality of war. Indeed, as Lynn puts it in his preface, he has "come to bury the universal soldier, not praise him" (p. xv). In the act of burying the universal soldier, Lynn hopes to rescue the individuality and humanity of soldiers, their cultures, and their ways of understanding, shaping, reacting to, and making war. As Lynn examines combat and culture, he takes particular issue with Victor Davis Hanson's assertion of a shared, continuous, superior, indeed hegemonic Western way of war; one that Hanson argues is coterminous with the course of Western civilization, dating to the rise of the Greek city-states. Lynn challenges Hanson's thesis with formidable scholarship and denies the claim that a Western way of war, continuous or not, exists. Moreover, Lynn denies Hanson's view of a long-lived Western military superiority. In the process Lynn takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey from ancient Greece to the present, with stops in ancient China and India, the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason, British India, Napoleonic Europe, the American war in the Pacific, Egypt's wars against Israel, and finally, to terrorism.
Lynn's approach borrows from cultural history's methodology, however, as he makes plain, "without being guilty of its excesses" (p. xix). Rather than trying the reader's patience or obfuscating the obvious through babble or jargon-laden prose "inaccessible to all but the cognoscenti," Lynn engages the reader directly, thoughtfully, and often combatively (p. xix). He argues for the primacy of concept and worldview over technological determinism in the shaping and waging of war. While Lynn emphasizes, and to good effect, the determinative role of ideology and belief systems in driving, reacting to, and reshaping the conduct and understanding of war, he makes it clear that Battle is neither an exercise in post-structuralism nor a postmodernist contention of concrete reality as little more than one's own perception. "In the realm of military history," he argues, "such airy discussions become foolish" games; exercises that are more than obviated by the hard reality of war-victory, loss, death, and wounding (p. xx).
Battle's organization and approach is such that it can be read as a whole or by its individual chapters, with each able to stand on its own as an essay. Lynn's expertise as a scholar of war in the Age of Reason shines through in "Linear Warfare: Images and Ideas of Combat in the Age of the Enlightenment," where aesthetics, function, and outlook determined the practice of war. The final chapter in Battle, "Terrorism and 'Evil': Framing a New Discourse on War at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century," is, perhaps, the most provocative. Lynn ponders the nature of terrorism and responses to it, asking whether it is a criminal act, an act of war by the weak, or something deserving of a new conceptualization.
Battle is neither the first, nor the final word on war as a cultural phenomenon. It is a significant work, and one that is worthy of consideration and engagement by historians. It is a most welcome addition to the literature of war.
. Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Doubleday, 2001), and The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (New York: Knopf, 1989).
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Ricardo Herrera. Review of Lynn, John A., Battle: A History of Combat and Culture.
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