Moment of Battle: A book review by Bob Morris

Moment of BattleMoment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World
James Lacey and Williamson Murray
Bantam Books/Rabdom House Publishing (2013)

Twenty battles that “changed the flow of history in profoundly fundamental ways that still echo throughout the world”

Although I am by no means a military historian nor even as well-read in history as so many others are, I remain keenly interested in the great battles and the great leaders engaged in them. You can thus appreciate my excitement when working my way through James Lacey and Williamson Murray’s lively as well as erudite narrative as they examine twenty battles that “changed the flow of history in profoundly fundamental ways that still echo through out world.” I agree with them that “wars and battles have had a direct and massive impact on the course of history, one that is essential to understanding the world in which we live.” Business leaders (especially those who inhabit the C-suite) can learn much of value from these battles and those led the troops, for better or worse.

As Lacey and Murray explain, “As with much of history that attempts to ask the larger questions, our choices of those battles that we believe have been decisive are idiosyncratic…In the end, the battles that we have discussed in this volume were wretched, miserable, and bloody affairs even for those on the victorious side. But what narks them as special, we believe, is the fact that they changed the flow of history in profoundly fundamental ways that still echo through pour world.”

Of the twenty, I found these of greatest interest and significance: Hastings (1066), Trafalgar (1805), Vicksburg (1863), the Battle of Britain (1940), and Dien Bien Phu (1954). Of the dozens of passages that caught my eye, I now provide brief excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of Lacey and Murray’s style:

o After the Battle of Hastings, “Saxon England was gone. In its place, a new country and people were forged, as Norman England slowly became just England. There is little doubt that the change had a profound effect on the future of Europe and world…The great tides of history did not require that a small island on the fringes of the civilized world would propel itself into the forefront of events. That it did so was the direct result of Norman dynamism.” (Page 135)

o “The Battle of Trafalgar marks the rise of Great Britain as a global superpower. Its centuries-long control of the seas allowed it to maintain and grow its empire. Moreover, as the dominant naval and, thanks to its embrace of the Industrial Revolution, economic power of the era, Britain was, despite several notable exceptions (the Crimean War, the German wars of unification), able to maintain a general European Peace – the Pax Britannica – from the fall of Napoleon until the start of World War 1.” (241)

o “It was Vicksburg that opened up that path that would lead directly to the Union’s triumph in the Civil War. Simply put, the word that describes the American nation is now a single noun – the United States [begin italics] is [end italics] – rather than a plural noun. And as a result of that victory, in which Vicksburg was the decisive turning point, the United States would come to dominate the world as no other power has done in history.” (263-264)

o “In the end, the Battle of Britain ensured that Great Britain would survive. That very survival ensured that the British Isles provided the base on which the great Anglo-American partnership not only defeated Nazi Germany, but also developed into the great alliance that would hold Western Europe against the Soviet tyranny until Communism collapsed of its own economic and political ineptitude and incompetence.” (317)

o The Viet Minh victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu “was clearly the catalyst for the independence not only of the Communist regime in the north, but the regime in the south as well. In the broader sense, it marked the rise of a new kind of conflict and a new mode of warfare and balance of power that would reverberate into the twenty-first century.” (406)

Others have expressed their reasons for holding this book in high regard. Here are three of mine. First, Lacey and Murray seem to have written it with special consideration for non-historians such as I in mind. They initiate and then sustain a direct and personal, almost conversational rapport with their reader, as have (listed in alpha order) Stephen Ambrose, Shelby Foote, John Keegan, David McCullough, James McPherson, and Nathaniel Philbrick. Lest there be any misunderstanding, however, I hasten to add that this is a research-driven book, as indicated by heavily annotated Notes” (Pages 429-456). Its historical authenticity is rock-solid.

Also, to extent possible and appropriate, anchor their historical material in human experience (as Keegan does in The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme) without compromising the scale and significance of the decisive encounters. Human beings rather than “epic warriors” were blown to bits and hacked to pieces.

Finally, as I read the book, I was alert to lessons that could be immensely valuable to business leaders. None is a head-snapper, I realize, but I’ll share two nonetheless: (1) Those who send people into harm’s way must accompany them, confronting together whatever may develop, and, (2) There really is a “fog of business,” as there is in war, and so leaders must not only possess but demonstrate steadfast character, moral as well as physical courage, and decisiveness.

This is a book I will re-read again several times in years to come. Thank you, James Lacey and Williamson Murray, for providing an abundance of historical commentary that is as entertaining as it is informative. Bravo!

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