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Review of Heros & Villians: Inside the Minds of the Greatest Warriors in History

Heroes & Villains: Inside the Minds of the Greatest Warriors in History
By Frank McLynn
Pegasus Books, 2009

British historian and biographer Frank McLynn has written many very good books. His 1066: The Year of the Three Battles is the best book on the oft-chronicled Norman Invasion; his biographies of Carl Jung and Napoleon are among the strongest ever written on either subject; his life of Robert Louis Stevenson is a towering achievement; his dual study of Richard I and King John is history at its thrilling best. His writing combines ironclad research with an accessibility that looks effortless.

That having been said, this recent book of his, Heroes & Villains, is easily the most frustrating book he’s ever written. It may well be the most frustrating book any professional historian has written in the last fifty years. It’s one thing to finish a work like this – it’s a comparative study of six great ‘warriors’: Spartacus, Attila, Richard I, Cortes, Shogun Tokugawa, and Napoleon Bonaparte – and wonder about some of the questions the book raises; it’s quite another to close it and say (out loud, plaintively, to one’s sleeping basset hound) “What the Hell did any of that MEAN?”

The book’s subtitle (for which McLynn may not be explicitly responsible, although the sentiment is echoed plentifully throughout his book) promises a look inside the minds of the greatest warriors in history – and then it fails to deliver, on both the points of that subtitle. Not only are the six men on display here only very arguably the greatest warriors in history (we’ll come back to that), but at no point do we get a good look inside the minds of any of them – even though three of the six left behind windy memoirs, for Pete’s sake.

The heart of the frustration here comes from the fact that McLynn is such a damn fine writer, such a gifted sifter of fact and anecdote, that he could windify on practically any historical subject and still be topographically fascinating even when he’s engaging in what’s referred to in Brooklyn as talking out his ass.

To put it mildly, a strong suspicion of exactly that activity hangs around Heroes & Villains, which steps right away into the deep end of the quagmire from which you keep expecting it to extricate itself. McLynn writes, “A leading scholar of Chinese language and history once told me he could never become interested in the Mongols, as their main contribution to the story of mankind was a mountain of skulls.” How can the reader take that statement other than as McLynn’s implication that his sextet somehow do more than create a mountain of skulls? What “contribution to the story of mankind” did Spartacus make? Or Attila? It’s faintly tenable to say Richard I and Shogun Tokugawa made such a contribution, but in both cases it was an enormously negativeone, respectively exacerbating Christian-Muslim antipathy and mindless Japanese militarism. Cortes’ flag, riches, and empire vanished almost before his body was cold, and McLynn must surely be aware of the sheer number of historians to declare Bonaparte an essentially pointless historical anomaly.

But there is no questioning the mountains of skulls. Firm figures for Spartacus and Attila are impossible to find (mainly due to the exaggerations upward by Romans who always had to have the very worst, fiercest adversaries), but at the very least they were responsible for the deaths of their thousands of followers. At Sekigahara, Tokugawa was responsible for probably 50,000 deaths; at the great city of Cholula, Cortes and his allies slaughtered probably 180,000 civilians; and Napoleon eclipses them all – his wars caused a conservatively estimated 4 million deaths (100,000 at the Battle of Borodino alone). Once he reached the Holy Land, Richard lept into the killing with a very personal enthusiasm that McLynn finds entirely charming, as at one of the battles of Jaffa:

Even in a military career full of superlatives, this was the Lionheart’s finest hour. Throughout the day the issue was on a knife-edge, but the king’s energy, acumen, and bravery won the day. At one point he was completely surrounded and seemed certain to be captured but fought so ferociously that the Saracen ranks finally parted and gave him a wide berth; he emerged from the fray covered in arrows. After Jaffa even the Saracens concluded that he was no ordinary man but rather a creature of legend.

The narrative here is so breakneck that it seems almost boringto point out that a) the Saracens certainly thought no such thing, and b) the king wasn’t exactly alone when he was doing all that surrounded fighting, although you’d never know that from our author’s starry-eyed summary. And yet, even in the midst of such jingoism (it’s much stronger with Richard than with any of the others, tellingly), McLynn is endlessly fascinating – readers picking up this book who are new to military history will find it deeply compelling, and even those who know enough about the events McLynn’s narrating to question his conclusions will enjoy his technique, his wonderfully assured voice. “The great warrior,” he tells us,

…must be a master of strategy and tactics, have high military talents, boldness, cunning, self-belief, be lucky, fight in the right circumstances and against an almost equally matched foe. On these criteria Napoleon and Ieyasu would emerge at the top of the heap, while Cortes and Spartacus, because of the second-rate opposition they faced, would rank lower down. Despite his ultimate failure, one would be inclined to rate Attila ahead of them, if only because he had to contend with at least three first-rate figures who ought-fought him: Marcian, Aetius and Geiseric. Richard the Lionheart defeated the best the western and Middle Eastern world could throw against him, but just misses the first rank because of his showmanship and the gallery touch.

And that last-minute dismissal of Richard I (for his “gallery touch”?) brings us back to the question of whether or not this book even knows its own subject. “The greatest warriors in history”? Attila but not Belisarius? Cortes but not Rodrigo Diaz (‘el Cid’)? Richard I but not his mightier father, Henry II? Bonaparte but not Wellington or Nelson, the men who beat him? No Genghis Khan? No Boadicea? No Trajan? No Elizabeth I? No Marlborough? No Patton? No Hitler, for all that? Spartacus? What the Hell did any of that MEAN?

The basset hound is silent.

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