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Wartime Lessons

March 2023
2min read

An audacious new book offers intimate glimpses of 2,500 years of strife

An Instinct For War

Emeritus professors are allowed their eccentricities, but university presses tend to be more orthodox, and An Instinct for War: Scenes from the Battlefields of History (Harvard, 403 pages, $29.95) is a brilliantly unorthodox piece of work. Roger Spiller, now George C. Marshall Professor, emeritus, of Military History at the U.S. Army Command " General Staff College, has written a strange, brave, and absolutely fascinating book. It is also a bit strange and brave for Harvard University Press to have published it. The first sentence of a terse three-paragraph prologue notes that “some of this actually happened and some of it didn’t, but all of it is as true as I can make it,” which sounds like the opening of a novel, which is exactly what An Instinct for War turns out to be: a collection of 13 fictions. But that is not quite right, for Spiller’s fictions are always in the service of ideas. They dramatize aspects of the experience of war and of strategic thought over two and a half millennia, so they are fictions in the sense that Platonic dialogues are fictions.

Some of them are actual dialogues. One, set in a Florentine prison, takes place between Machiavelli and his torturer. Others are short stories, their quality evoking Stephen Vincent Benét, who at his best—in, for example, The Curfew Tolls , which imagines an obscure and bitterly frustrated Napoleon Bonaparte, one born a generation too soon—was fine indeed. But that is not quite right either, because Benét dramatized relatively simple ideas, and Spiller is dramatizing some very complicated ones. What the two have in common is that both can summon the voices of other eras with what seems like perfect pitch.

Spiller is certainly pitch perfect in “Human Rain,” as heartbreaking as it is mesmerizing, which moves among three speakers. The first is a czarist colonel preparing to defend the Russian lines outside Port Arthur in 1904. The second is a Japanese lieutenant who will have to attack the Russian position. The third is a Briton reporting in breezy, jaunty Edwardian tones for the Times of London, a war tourist describing an unprecedented tragedy with a perfect lack of imagination.

Afforded a terrible preview of the First World War—men attacking with bayonets entrenchments protected by barbed wire, machine guns, and modern artillery—the journalist does not know what he is seeing, and neither, quite, do the protagonists. This should not be surprising. European military observers almost entirely misunderstood what they were looking at in the Russo-Japanese War and assumed that courage, panache, and discipline would always carry the day, as they did in Manchuria but did not in the trenches of World War I.

Spiller’s ability to set down persuasive century-old Japanese voices is perhaps his most remarkable achievement, but every chapter is highly effective: Thucydides, at the end of exile and on the verge of his city’s final defeat, explaining to tough, skeptical young Athenian commanders the campaign that had ruined him; a memoir by a Napoleonic surgeon investigating what appear to be soldiers’ self-inflicted wounds incurred in the Leipzig campaign; a Union officer, badly hurt on Cemetery Ridge, writing a series of letters in a futile effort to keep up his family’s spirits. All these stories are powerful, most of them are disturbing, and each contains lessons that can be subtle, multiple, and contradictory, as so many of war’s lessons are.

The book’s final story is science fiction. It recounts the suicidal triumph of tacticians over strategists in a brutal future, and it is hard not to read it as an allegory of our current war on terror. Along the way Spiller displays great learning, always lightly worn; great moral seriousness, never ponderously displayed; and literary flair. This is a remarkable book, initially disconcerting and eventually enthralling.

—Fredric Smoler

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