May 19, 2002

Things That Make You Go, "Hmmm..."

So I was reading a book edited by Robert Cowley, _What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been_, when I came across the first "thing that made me go, 'Hmmm...'" I was reading an essay by John Keegan, British military historian, and came across the passage: "Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister... proposed that the Soviet Union... guarantee Bulgaria's frontiers, despite already having taken a large share of Bulgarian territory..." I stopped. I reread it. Bulgaria? The Soviet Union doesn't border on Bulgaria. The Soviet Union never bordered on Bulgaria. What slice of Bulgarian territory did Stalin snatch? What could Keegan possibly mean?

And then it struck me: Romania. He means Romania. He has lost track of which Balkan country is which--forgotten that it is oil-rich Romania that borders on Russia and lost its northern Moldavian province to Stalin, and Bulgaria that is to the south and borders on Turkey.

But if you are going to build a reputation as a trustworthy military historian, shouldn't this be the kind of detail that you work very hard to remember, and sweat to get right?

And then there was D. Cameron Watt's _How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War_. At one point Watt writes of how the German offensive against Poland was planned to be a "... great encircling manoeuvre... on the model of a Zulu impi or the Roman armies against Carthage at Cannae..." Now I realize that the purpose of Watt's similes is not to inform the typical reader--few, very few, readers know in any detail the military organization established by Shaka Zulu, or have received a classical education. These similes are not there to help the reader by comparing what the author is describing to something the reader already knows well. These similes are there to impress readers with the breadth of Watt's mind and the depth of his scholarship.

But if Watts wants us to be impressed, shouldn't his scholarship and learning be deep enough for him to get the winner of Cannae correct? Shouldn't he remember that the Romans under the command of the consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Caius Terrentius Varro did not encircle and destroy the Carthaginians at Cannae, but were themselves encircled and destroyed by the Carthaginian army commanded by Hannibal?

Now I know that nobody is perfect: even Homer sometimes nods. But that Hannibal won at Cannae is one of the first things anyone learns about Rome's Punic Wars. And that Romania is north of Bulgaria is not *that* hard a concept to hold on to...

Posted by DeLong at May 19, 2002 03:42 PM | TrackBack

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