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How to Lose a Battle: Foolish Plans and Great Military Blunders by Bill Fawcett
Review by Paul Haggerty
Harper Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780060760243
Date: 01 July 2006 List Price $13.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

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History is said to be written by the winners, but it's summarized, edited and assembled into easy to read collections by historians. In this case, Bill Fawcett has collected essays on thirty-five famous battles from the Battle of Arbela, Persia in 331 BC to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in 1954. How did Alexander defeat a Persian army three times larger, and on the Persians home turf? How did Publius Quinctilius Varus lose three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest, and to his nominal allies at that? Why did a squabble between two civil war generals lead to the sabotage of a plan that could have ended the war a year earlier? And how did a modern French army, equipped with the best military hardware of the 20th century, lose to what the commander considered nothing but a bunch of Vietnamese peasants?

According to the authors of the various essays; arrogance, stupidity, cowardice, lack of planning, and sheer bad luck account for the reasons why so many stunning victories have been turned into ignominious defeats across two thousand years of military history.

Having been written by five different people, the essays vary in style and content. Some essays are comprised of rambling philosophical discussions of the events and people not directly involved in the battle, but still having an impact as they shaped the events and situations in which the battle took place. Others are more of a play by play recounting with maps of the battle lines and maneuvers as the generals strove to overcome the obstacles in their path. I found both styles to be fascinating in their own way, although the former could be a little harder on the temper when people not personally at risk, and who were clearly incompetent to mend socks were making decisions based on personal ambitions or personal concepts of what was and what wasn't proper in a battle. The results, invariably, were rout and defeat, and large numbers of people dead. I particularly recommend the two chapters on the siege of Petersburg, where an intelligent plan is conceived, honed, and prepared for, executed by brilliant professionals, and then doomed to failure at the last moment by micromanaging superior officers.

If you've an interest in history, military or otherwise, I recommend giving this book a try. While sometimes the inevitability of defeat seems to be obvious only at the distance of a few decades or centuries, and hindsight clearly plays a part in determining good actions from bad, there are plenty of real blunders, and tragic mistakes that one can only hope will never happen again.

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