Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2009.
In most books that are collections of important military engagements, the attention is on the winners — key battles almost always have a clear winner — and how they got there. This one is different; the focus is on not only the losers, but on those armies and commanders whose loss of a fight was so dramatic and all-encompassing, it changed things completely for the losing side.
Some of these, the reader with an interest in military history will have heard of before, like Cannae, where the outnumbered Hannibal completely destroyed the Roman Republic’s war machine. And Adrianople, where the underrated Gothic army creamed Emperor Valen’s legions, setting the stage firmly for the (eventually) complete replacement of the Roman world by the Germanic one. And Nördlingen, where the Catholic forces crushed the Protestant armies, putting the Church back in control of Europe for several more generations and establishing France as the preeminent power on the Continent. But there are several others among Bahmanyar’s selections that seem badly out of place. Neither the Alamo nor Little Big Horn was really a “battle,” in the sense that in neither case was the outcome ever in doubt in the slightest degree. Both were massacres of a tiny group of defenders by overwhelming forces. And neither really had any significant effect on larger events, their propaganda value notwithstanding. Moreover, Qala-i-Jangi, which took place in Afghanistan late in 2001, and which most people haven’t even heard of (or have completely forgotten), was essentially a riot among foreign POWs against a small number of arrogantly misguided U.S. Special Forces. (I suspect that one is in here because the author, an Iranian educated in Germany and at Berkeley, himself served in a U.S. Ranger regiment.) Even with these misgivings, I have to say that his treatment of at least the earlier engagements is generally well done. When he gets to the modern period, however, some of his own biases begin to show. In his treatment of Operation Dingo during the war of independence in Zimbabwe in 1976, for instance, the European colonial forces are always described as “Rhodesians” and their mercenary allies are regarded as heroic, while all African troops — especially those under Mugabe — are labeled “terrorists.” A similar tendency to take sides for the Europeans and against the non-Whites appears throughout the articles on Isandlwana (in the Zulu wars), and the one on Qala-i-Jangi. If he could have controlled his apparent prejudices, this could have been a far better book.