One book, 2013

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

If I had to recommend one military history book I’ve read this year it would be Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn’t happen more than those that didn’t. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There’s much more in here, reflecting Sabin’s years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it’s an essential book if you’re interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).

So if you had to recommend one military history book you’ve read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

6 thoughts on “One book, 2013

  1. I really enjoyed the book Carnivore: A Memoir by One of the Deadliest American Soldiers of All Time. With the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan I found this to be a very real and candid look at one man’s journey as a soldier in the modern era of warfare.

  2. Brett,

    Am a little peeved with you for bringing Philip Sabin’s “Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games” to my attention, as I now feel compelled to add it to my “must read” list. Seriously, the book sounds very interesting, and I look forward to reading it.

    My favorite book of 2013 is Jim Lacey’s “Keep From All Thoughtful Men: How U.S. Economists Won World War II.” Lacey does a masterful job in destroying the well-established mythology surrounding Gen. Albert Wedemeyer’s numerous claims that he created the Victory Program which became the basis for the USA’s mobilization and production programs.

    In a detailed, well-sourced work Lacey introduces the reader to Stacy May, Robert Nathan, and Simon Kuznets, three all but forgotten economists who were actually responsible for the creation and development of the Victory Program. Killing established, codified historical myths like Wedemeyer’s creation story is a difficult, unpopular, almost impossible task, but to my way of thinking it is vitally necessary, and I am deeply appreciate that Lacey undertook it.

    I sincerely hope the book will receive a wide audience and influence others to take on similar efforts.

  3. Interesting, thanks. Contemporary warfare is a bit of a blind spot for me, and I’m not sure that an autobiography is my best way into it (though by the same token some understanding of what it’s like at the sharp end would be useful). I did read Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars (2011) — good, journalistic narrative.

  4. Engineers of Victory, by Paul Kennedy was my best 2013 read, hands down. Kennedy looks at WWII not from the top down or the troops up, but from the middle – the problem solvers. Each chapter examines a problem (How to Get Convoys Safely Across the Atlantic; How to Stop a Blitzkrieg; How to Seize and Enemy-Held Shore; etc.) A fascinating book, and one that every manager – military and civilian – ought to read.

    • Glad to see your recommendation. Kennedy’s book has been on my “must read” list since his article appeared in JMH. Now if I can just find the time……

  5. Thanks, Jim and Candice, for both of those suggestions (Jim, your earlier comment wasn’t approved until after I’d replied to Matt — wasn’t ignoring you!) I’ve read neither, but it sounds like both books, in different ways, deal with the often excluded middle parts of warfare, which are easy to neglect but are nonetheless rather crucial.

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