War: From Ancient Egypt to Iraq.

London: Dorling Kindersley, 2009.

DK has become noted for its graphics-heavy reference works and this one is a prime example. It runs nearly 500 pages of text and covers all aspects of warfare from the Bronze Age to the current decade. The emphasis, naturally, is on the more modern period (the mid-point of the book is roughly the Seven Years War), where there are more details known and more images available. Geographical coverage is heavily Western, but at least there’s rather more than the usual light coverage of internal wars in India, the Middle East, China, and Japan. I’ve read most of the text and it seems quite accurate (within the bounds of reasonable interpretation), but you could similar coverage and similar detail at Wikipedia. It’s the imagery that holds the attention — paintings, sculpture, monuments, maps, artifacts, reconstructions, modern weapons, and combat photography.

The final 150 pages — thirty percent of the whole volume is given over to a “comprehensive directory of wars, battles, and military statistics,” the entries in which are very brief — which is the main reason this book isn’t five times as big as it is (and which it certainly could have been, had the same level of detail been maintained throughout). Interspersed among the chronologically arranged articles on campaigns and key battles are a number of pictorial “galleries” (muskets and rifles, helmets, swords, machine guns) and topical pieces on “aspects of war,” including propaganda, ethics in war, POWs, engineering, mercenaries, and so on. Reading sidebar items as you browse is a great time-sink, which the book uses to cover such things as political context, relevant social developments, dynastic rivalries, and brief biographical sketches. But they rather overdo the USA Today-style numerical factoids, e.g., “228,000 — the number of coins found buried in Viking hordes,” and “88 — number of towers in the walls encircling Avila.”

There are (naturally) scattered errors. The last ruler of the western Roman empire was Romulus Augustulus, not “Augustus.” And there are odd omissions. The sections on post-WWII guerilla warfare and weapons makes no mention of the ubiquitous AK-47, though it appears in a number of combat photos. You have to go back to a “Gallery” spread on rifles much earlier in the book to find that — which will only happen by accident since it isn’t indexed, either. In addition to my career as a librarian, I’ve also been a freelance copyeditor and book-indexer since the late 1970s, and I’ve noticed that one effect of the computer revolution in publishing has been that the bean-counters are willing to spend less and less money on actual skilled people. If this weren’t the case, they might not have translated part of a Roman soldier’s letter from home as “Greet all your messmates.” And this is a featured pull-quote, which ought to be especially embarrassing. And in the article on the 12th-century Gempei wars in Japan, Prince Mochihito’s name is spelled two different ways in the same short paragraph. Somebody wasn’t paying attention.

Published in: on 15 April 2010 at 3:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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