Wavell Room
Image default
Book ReviewsMilitary HistoryPsychology of War

#WavellReviews “Battle: A History Of Combat And Culture”

Battle: A History Of Combat And Culture is available here from Basic Books

John A Lynn’s ‘Battle: A History Of Combat And Culture’ offers a novel and thought-provoking discourse on the character of warfare and what shapes it.  From the outset, Lynn challenges head on some of the most central orthodoxies offered by peers such as John Keegan.  Lynn seeks to consider much more than just the established military thinkers, by considering evolving cultural forces that he sees as significant and formative.  Through this extensive and deeply intellectual work, Lynn offers an ambitious and often persuasive range of arguments as to the essential truths behind the nature and character of warfare.  As Lynn puts it himself in the books preface, the book is not so much ‘a work about the why of war, but the how of war’1.  Lynn seeks to convince us that armies fight as a reflection of their respective cultures.  That battles therefore can be shaped as much by a culture and its concept of conflict, as by the traits that might be assumed from a universal concept of the nature of war and its protagonists.  Tellingly, in his initial preface, Lynn rejects the idea of the ‘universal soldier’ and this is an important, initial reference point.

In terms of structure, the golden thread to ‘Battle’ is Lynn’s use of individual, totemic battles as the start point for each chapter; for each discrete section of the book a very practical springboard into the intellectualised study of concepts and culture that subsequently follow.  To provide balance across time and space, Lynn draws on the examples of battles through history and across the Continents, starting with the battle of Delium in 424 BC (part of the wider Peloponnesian War), through accounts and analysis of the battle of Crecy in 1346, later Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in 1805 and to Lynn’s final analysis the Arab-Israeli ‘October War’ of 1973 and the Egyptian operation to cross the Suez Canal into Israeli occupied Sinai.  Lynn masters the technical complexity of each individual battle through his detailed and deeply researched accounts of weaponry, tactics and their application on the battlefield, all set in the historical and political context of each conflict.  He then shifts adroitly to a wider and more fundamental analysis of the conceptual and cultural factors which each of those battles and their back-stories reveal.  As the reader progresses through ‘Battle’, the consistency and logic of Lynn’s methodology aids comprehension of what is ultimately a very involved and unique study into why wars are fought the way they are.

Moving from structure and style to his thesis and its related themes, Lynn proposes from the very outset that we should question the concept of the ‘Universal Soldier’.  The idea that through the ages, battle and conflicts spawn warriors and ways of war which share an essential commonality.  Lynn is less concerned with the universal and wishes to focus on what he terms the ‘flotsam and jetsam of daily existence’2, the conflation of civil cultures, influenced as they are by religious, social and political values and thinking.  Here is the major divergence in Lynn’s study to that of Keegan’s ‘Face of Battle’ (1976) or ‘A History of Warfare (1993)’; similarly Hanson’s ‘Western Way of War’ (1989) or ‘Carnage and Culture’, (2001).  Lynn’s thesis leaves the door open for the ‘anti-stereotype’ and in this respect, ‘Battle’ has an immediate appeal as a novel and thought-provoking work.

‘Battle’ offers a convincing and deliberately timeless argument: that societies and their inherent cultural forces can shape a discourse and an approach to warfare, which can defy stereotypes by providing commonality as well as contrast, across time and space.  In that sense, ‘Battle’ provides an important ‘counter-reference’ to the works of Keegan and Hanson, which Lynn quite deliberately and demonstrably sets out to challenge.  The chronological structure to the work offers utility to any student seeking out useful reference(s) from key military milestones in military history.  So for the study of ancient warfare through the enlightenment to the modern day, ‘Battle: A History Of Combat And Culture’ is to be commended.  And yet, Lynn both surprises and disappoints in his choice of milestones.  His omission of (any) accounts of German and Soviet operational art in World War 2 (so central to latter day western doctrine) raises the suspicion that the highly de-centralised and mission centric tactical approach within armies fighting for highly centralised regimes is inconvenient to his thesis that it is societies and their cultures which shape approaches to warfare.  He ignores the important debate as to the importance of technology and its role in network centric warfare in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, often characterised by the term ‘revolution in military affairs’.  Again, one is left rather suspicious that the influence of technology in shaping conflicts in Iraq and the Balkans is at odds with Lynn’s early scepticism in ‘Battle’ that new technology can only prosper where the right cultural values are in place.  ‘Battle: A History Of Combat And Culture‘ is a recommended read.  On balance, however, the book can be justifiably viewed as an ambitious, novel and important work; but one that should be used alongside a wider body of work (by others) which might cover the obvious omissions in Lynn’s historiography.

 | Website

Séan is a career army officer, with experience on several operational tours and across a range of regimental and staff appointments.  He is currently serving as a staff officer within a headquarters.




  1. Preface xxii
  2. Preface xvii

Related posts

A War for the Mind

Jacob Stoil, Edgar Jones and Steven Morelli

#WavellReviews “Blood, Metal and Dust: How victory turned to defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq” by Brigadier (retd) Ben Barry

The Wavell Room Team

Some Corner of a Foreign Field

Andy Netherwood