The Napoleonic Wars by Alexander Mikaberidze
This is an extremely detailed examination of the Napoleonic Wars. It begins with a nice overview (necessarily brief) of the origins of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power. Then things slow down and Mikaberdize takes the reader year by year through the bloody slugfest that were the Napoleonic Wars. If you’re interested in this period, you’ll enjoy this book.
A Brief History of the Samurai by Jonathan Clements
This history wasn’t quite brief enough for me and it seemed to get bogged down in individuals rather than talk about the phenomenon of the samurai, their ethics, their skills, and all the things that we think of when we think samurai. Perhaps that is because the modern idea of bushido and the samurai is largely a myth created after the age of the samurai was over. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed the book but when I finished, I felt like the first last chapters contained most of what I got out of it.
In Alpha Order by Author
The Decisive Battles of World History by Gregory S. Aldrete
This is one of the best Great Courses audiobooks that I have listened to. Aldrete offers a thoughtful look at more than three dozen major battles and argues for why they changed the course of the world. So not only do you get an introduction that provides the context of the battles and a description of the battle itself, you get a conclusion that cogently lays out how the battle altered the status quo in a way that affected an area for decades and often centuries. A wonderful account all around.
History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons they Teach by Gregory S. AldreteWhat makes this book interesting is that it flips on its head how we generally look at military battles. After all, each of these terrible blunders resulted in an amazing victory for the other side in the battle. But Aldrete is looking for lessons in how not to blow tremendous military advantages and so he examines the totally avoidable mistakes that often lead to dismal failure. Over confidence, hostility within a chain of command, failures of intelligence, unclear orders—it’s a fascinating look at the other side of a lot of battles you’re probably already familiar with, plus a few you may well have never heard of yet.
How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander
This one is obviously for lovers of military history and strategy. I don’t think this was one of the best Great Courses books, but that may be because I’ve enjoyed so many on similar topics that nothing here felt fresh. Obviously, that could be quite different if I had started with this one. Overall, it’s a nice (if short) look at the importance of deception to a commander, but in doing so, other critical elements of success seemed to me to get minimized whether they be supply, discipline, etc.
Caesar’s Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins
I like the idea behind this book, which traces the Tenth Legion from its creation until it was disbanded. Most of the book is dedicated to the legion’s role in fighting for Julius Caesar, which means Dando-Collins gets to walk the reader through a number of famous battles. This is both a strength and weakness of the monograph as for much of the book it feels as if we are really getting a sort of bio of Caesar, but then suddenly Caesar is wrapped up at extreme speed and killed and the legion goes on to other things.
There were two other things I found disappointing about the book. I would have liked to have seen a lot of time put into what life in the legion was like, and I just never got that sort of day-to-day life view I was hoping for. Also, Dando-Collins chose to use modern ranks like colonel and general to describe Caesar’s officers. I understand he’s trying to make these men’s roles more accessible to the modern reader, but I found it jarring every time a modern rank was mentioned.
Rome and the Barbarians by Kenneth W. Harl
In Rome and the Barbarians, Harl flips the normal narrative around and looks at the impact of Rome’s neighbors—especially those they termed barbarians—on the development of the Republic and the Empire. This makes for a very unique experience in exploring the history of Rome and really illuminated aspects of Rome’s foreign policy that I hadn’t recognized before. Using their patron-client system on a national scale, the Romans managed to accumulate a mighty empire on the backbone of their legions—an innovative military constantly adapting to the threats they encountered. Harl also identifies the point in the fourth century when the legions start to break down, lose their discipline, and set Rome on its path to destruction, incorporating barbarian tribes wholesale into the military. It’s an absolutely fascinating way to look at Rome.
The Barbarian Empires of the Steppe by Kenneth W. Harl
The great tribes of the steppes from the Huns to the Mongols and beyond, have had a huge impact on the civilizations that border them—some positive and some negative. This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on those empires and their impact. It’s a fascinating book, but unfortunately, the records to do not give us a good look at how these empires functioned without the government bureaucracies that Rome and China depended upon. The empires adopt the already existing institutions in territories they conquered, but how did they govern themselves and the other stepped tribes they conquered?
Mongoose Bravo: Vietnam by Tim McCullough
This is an autobiography of the author’s years fighting the Vietnam War as an infantryman, but it often reads more like an adventure story. It mixes telling about the day to day drudgery of life in the war with those moments of intense fear and excitement when McCullough and his fellow soldiers encountered the enemy. Most surprising to me was the large number of times McCullough was injured or grew sick in his years in the army—a constant reminder of how very dangerous the war truly was.
The Real History of Pirates by Manushag N. Powell
This is a fascinating Great Courses text which explores primarily the Golden Age of Pirates in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the Caribbean. It’s extensive, looking at myth, legend, and the reality as we currently understand it. From there it turns to eastern hemisphere pirates and shows how, like in the west, piracy depends tremendously on the political events happening on the land around it. Finally, and in some ways the most interesting, it offers a far too brief look at piracy today.
I enjoyed the book, but came away far from wholly satisfied. When a book called The Real History of Pirates has a blurb discussing Alexander the Great and his encounter with a pirate, I think it’s reasonable to expect the work to make a serious effort to discuss piracy throughout human history, not just in the last few centuries. While Powell does make the occasional reference to Vikings and historical acts of piracy, she doesn’t deal with these events in any serious way, which I think was a tremendous lost opportunity.
I also wonder why she would choose to include Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, as a “Pirate Queen”. Yes, she was a powerful ruler in Anglo-Saxon England, but that doesn’t make her a pirate. If we’re going to go down that road, almost any ruler with a fleet would qualify as a “Pirate Monarch” because Powell was quite effective in pointing out that the label “pirate” is often dependent on perspective. Victims often see their antagonists as “pirates” even if the antagonists would not use that term to describe themselves.
War and World History by Jonathan P. Roth
This is one of the best books I’ve read on the history and evolution of warfare, making a serious attempt to include the whole planet even as it focuses primarily on what Roth calls the “core” (which is mostly Europe and Asia and northern Africa). It starts in pre-history and ends in the present day, looking at how technology, the economy, society, ideology, religion, culture, and many other things have impacted the conduct of military action. It was absolutely fascinating. I will definitely read it again.
Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers by Andrew Wilson
This Great Courses series offers brief overview of the thoughts of many of those great military minds you’ve doubtless heard of but don’t really know anything about—Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Jomini, Clausewitz, and more. These are men who built the foundations of strategic thinking in the military world and its interweaving with political thinking. It’s a fascinating discussion made more so as author, Andrew Wilson, adds into the conversation the advances in warfare—steam navies, air power, nuclear weapons, terrorism—that forced strategic thinkers to evolve their views. As an added bonus, he covers not only some of the major battles of history—Midway, the Peloponnesian War, Napoleon’s Campaigns—but a number of smaller but equally fascinating military actions such as the War for Irish Independence and the Algerian War for Independence. If you’ve an interest in the development of strategic thinking in the military, I think you’ll find this an engrossing overview.