Book Review – War Studies Reader

[Cross-posted at Birmingham “On War”]

War Studies Reader: From the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day and Beyond edited by Gary Sheffield. London: Continuum, 2010. Tables. Notes. pp. 257

When I began my undergraduate degree in War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton back in 2001 it was a small subject that was only offered by two universities; the other being Kings College London. However, nine years down the line and there is at least, according to UCAS, six institutions offering this subject at undergraduate level with several more institutions’ offering courses in similar disciplines such as Peace Studies and Military History. On top of this there is now a plethora of taught postgraduate degrees in the subject. Thus, as I have noted elsewhere, War Studies, as a peculiarly British subject, is currently an area for growth in academia. The reasons for this are many and varied but undoubtedly linked to a growing interest in national security in the fragile times of the 21st Century.

When I began my studies the standard text for students to read before beginning the course was Lawrence Freedman’s edited work War; a useful collection of essays and extracts from key works on the subject. This new reader works along similar lines. Gary Sheffield, Chair of War Studies at the University of Birmingham, has selected a range of contemporary articles that deal with important concepts that any student studying war will encounter; it should be noted that theses pieces have been published elsewhere but it is useful to have them all in the one place for reference. Sheffield’s work differs from Freedman’s in that all the articles are recent where as War had works from throughout the ages, albeit these were often produced in abridged form. Indeed the book looks at the following important areas; Strategy, Total War, Coalition Warfare, Revolutions in Military Affairs, Guerrilla Warfare, Law and Ethics in War, Culture and War and Politics and War. All of these areas are important areas for study in the field of War Studies and would be encountered by students of the subject.

The collection begins with a useful overview of field of War Studies by Sheffield and the themes that the book will deal with. The articles collected for this work are all excellent primers for the themes that they deal with. The book begins with the most simple of questions, ‘Why Study Military History?’ and then it goes on to the issue of Strategy and why it is a difficult for most to comprehend. However, for this author perhaps the most interesting article was Gartner, Segura and Barratt’s ‘War Casualties, Policy Positions and the Fate of Legislators’. This piece deals with the issue of why politicians are susceptible to the problem of casualties in times of elections. They use the US elections of the late 60s and early 70’s to show that military deaths affect their outcome and that they are dependent on the position that candidates take on the conflict. Indeed modern commentators often refer to this as the ‘Body Bag Syndrome’ in western liberal democracies. All of the essays have merit and deserve to be read and understood by anyone interested in the subject.

I only have two small criticisms of this work. First, there is no index, which could be frustrating for readers searching for information of specific issues and concepts. While the book does not have a theme, other than it deals with the subjects of war in its widest context, there are facets that would occur in each chapter. Second, given that each chapter deals with a specific theme such as Total War and that the audience for the book will be students it would have been useful if a short bibliography on each subject be provided so that each subject can be further explored.

Overall this is a useful work that should end up on many reading lists on War Studies/Military History courses. It brings together important essays on key ideas that readers will come across in the course of their research into a subject that continues to grow in the academic world. It will introduce students and interested parties alike to the complicated nature and character of war. This work is ideal for new students taking up the challenge of trying to understand the phenomenon of war and is highly recommended.

Disclaimer: Please note that Professor Gary Sheffield is currently my PhD supervisor. However, this review has been written with a critical eye of the work in question and it is hoped that the reader recognises this.

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3 responses to “Book Review – War Studies Reader

  1. Pingback: Book Review – War Studies Reader « Thoughts on Military History·

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