How Wars Are Won: Book review

Because a good portion of my commute is by bus, I read many books. I try picking books on topics in which I have little interest in the hope of learning something new and interesting.

A while ago I though I’d learn something about military history, so I randomly chose A History of Warfare by military historian John Keegan. History was written by Keegan to debunk Carl von Clausewitz‘s famous theory that “war is merely a continuation of politics.” I’m sure that’s fascinating, but the book assumes in-depth knowledge of Clausewitz’s writings, which I don’t have.

Later, I tried again with a different book: Bevin Alexander’s How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War from Ancient Greece to the War on Terror, which is much more accessible. It helps to know something about European and Asian history, but Alexander covers each of the “13 rules of war” in separate chapters by describing the rule and giving examples from history where the rule was used effectively and other examples where the rule failed and why. The author then completes each chapter with discussion on how the rule can be applied in modern warfare and in the current “war on terror.”

I couldn’t help notice that each chapter is formulaic. After the opening paragraphs describing the rule, there’s a historical example that begins with “[ Alexander the Great | Napoleon | Hannibal | Rommel | Genghis Khan | Stonewall Jackson | Mao ] applied this rule in one of the most brilliant battles recorded in history.” In the following section, Alexander then describes a battle that was lost because the rule was not used, or because it was not applied or executed correctly. “This rule would have guaranteed victory, and it’s inconceivable why [ Grant | Hitler | Lee | Napoleon ] failed to apply this rule to the battle, which resulted in major strategic losses that affected the outcome of the entire war.” Finally, the closing paragraph applies the rule to the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, obviously to make this book “relevant” and make it more marketable (the book was published in 2002). Invariably, this final paragraph includes the sentence, “This rule of war was how the Taliban in Afghanistan were destroyed by American special forces in the fall of 2001.”

In spite of the formula and obvious last-minute additions on 9/11 and Afghanistan, How Wars is a very readable and interesting book. Alexander’s writing as an armchair general gets a little annoying at times — he often states his incomprehension of why battlefield commanders fail to comprehend the battlefield environment, and hence losing the battle. Anybody who has had to make quick decisions in a stressful situation, however, understands the “fog of war” and the tunnel vision that occurs.

What are the 13 rules of war?

  1. Striking at enemy weakness.
  2. Defend, then attack.
  3. Holding one place, striking another.
  4. Feigned retreat.
  5. The central position.
  6. Employing a superior weapon.
  7. Driving a stake in the enemy’s heart.
  8. Blocking the enemy’s retreat.
  9. Landing an overwhelming blow.
  10. Stroke at a weak spot.
  11. Caldron battles.
  12. Uproar east, attack west.
  13. Maneuvers on the rear.

6 Comments

  • Ed W
    September 23, 2007 - 7:47 am | Permalink

    Those 13 rules sound like a distillation of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" and Myamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings."

    http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/132
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miyamoto_Musashi

    Sun Tzu wrote of strategy. Musashi wrote about tactics.

  • Ed W
    September 23, 2007 - 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Those 13 rules sound like a distillation of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" and Myamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings." http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/132http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miyamoto_MusashiSun Tzu wrote of strategy. Musashi wrote about tactics.

  • Dingbat
    September 24, 2007 - 7:51 am | Permalink

    Keegan's History of Warfare is good, but it does get to be boggy going at times. All you need to know about Clausewitz:
    War, on the one hand, is "a continuation of politics by other means." Governments choose to go to war to accomplish specific political ends. However, war is unpredictable, not merely in its outcome, but also in the fact that it tends to get out of control. In Clausewitz's formulation, war tends toward total war. It's hard to have a small war, in short, because the stakes for the loser are so high.
    Clausewitz's observations on total war are a little less apropos now that superpowers are able to extend power over seas so that a defeat or pullout doesn't directly harm the superpower, the nations on which they're exerting their power still fight back with everything they've got.

  • Dingbat
    September 24, 2007 - 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Keegan's History of Warfare is good, but it does get to be boggy going at times. All you need to know about Clausewitz: War, on the one hand, is "a continuation of politics by other means." Governments choose to go to war to accomplish specific political ends. However, war is unpredictable, not merely in its outcome, but also in the fact that it tends to get out of control. In Clausewitz's formulation, war tends toward total war. It's hard to have a small war, in short, because the stakes for the loser are so high.Clausewitz's observations on total war are a little less apropos now that superpowers are able to extend power over seas so that a defeat or pullout doesn't directly harm the superpower, the nations on which they're exerting their power still fight back with everything they've got.

  • Yokota Fritz
    September 24, 2007 - 9:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments. Your comments have encouraged me to look further into Clausewitz's On War, which turns out to be some fascinating stuff.

  • Yokota Fritz
    September 24, 2007 - 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments. Your comments have encouraged me to look further into Clausewitz's On War, which turns out to be some fascinating stuff.

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