Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World
By James Lacey and Williamson Murray
Bantam, 2013, 496 pp.
After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars
By Paul Cartledge
Oxford University Press, USA, 2013, 240 pp.
In 1851, Sir Edward Creasy published The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo. This classic work of military history introduced a controversial concept -- that individual military encounters could change the course of history -- and implicitly challenged other military historians to come up with their own lists. Lacey and Murray are the latest to try. They have no doubt that the outcomes of wars can “reverberate down through the ages” and that those outcomes can turn not just on the application of superior resources but also on the quality of generalship. They choose battles that allowed the Western world to take shape, endure, and prevail: the fights of the ancient Greeks against the Persians, the contests that led to the rise of the United Kingdom as a dominant power, four of the critical confrontations of World War II, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and -- not wholly convincingly -- the U.S. drive to Baghdad in 2003. These choices invite refutation and alternative suggestions, but in the hands of two such accomplished historians, the accounts of the selected battles are models of lucidity.
In his introduction to an engaging little book on the Battle of Plataea, which took place in 479 BC, Cartledge complains that this victory of a Greek army over the Persians was as decisive as they come and yet invariably gets left out of compilations of great battles such as Lacey and Murray’s. One reason is that very few reliable accounts of the battle exist, partly because Athenian chroniclers very likely de-emphasized the leading role played in the victory by their rivals, the Spartans. Indeed, Cartledge demonstrates that the “Oath of Plataea,” an inscription in an ancient monument outside Athens that hails the Athenian commitment to the fight, is nothing more than propaganda. This is a challenging book for readers who are not classicists, but it is a fascinating reminder of how the politics of memory shapes the understandings of wars, including their conclusions.