Our books today are the three volumes of J. F. C. Fuller’s magnificent The Decisive Battles of the Western World and their Influence upon History, specifically the handy paperback set issued by Da Capo in 1987 and re-titled A Military History of the Western World. All of which might sound like a forbidding tangle, but once you start reading Fuller, you forget it all – he’s a skilled storyteller, and his comprehensive, wide-ranging interest all things military is positively infectious. In fact, Fuller is so wide-ranging that this is one of those rare instances where I consider the American title of his masterpiece better than the British one; our author was not only a staff officer during the First World War but also a postwar fascist and heartfelt dabbler in crackpot mystical mumbo-jumbo – he was well-steeped in the world, in other words, unafraid of confronting either the physical, the theoretical, or the metaphysical. He read voraciously and wrote voluminously, and he thought very deeply on all the ways mankind’s ferocious internecine clashes both fuelled history and drew fuel from it – his huge work is by no means a simple run-through of troop movements, as is clear from this little aside from Volume I, “From the Earliest Times to the Battle of Lepanto,” about his theory as to why the Rhine became Rome’s northern frontier:
Yet there was a deeper reason still, deeper than the loss of Roman vigour; it must be sought in the character of Alexander himself. In spite of the glamour of his age, he was a splendid rather than an heroic figure. Though not lacking in courage or pertinacity, as a leader of men he cannot compare with Julius Caesar. He was a tolerant opportunist who, by means of his policy of divide et impera, became the managing director rather than the monarch of his Empire. He believed in Rome as a great business, a vast monopoly, and looked upon states and frontiers as bonds and securities. He lacked the power to electrify men and compel them to accomplish the seemingly impossible which distinguishes the man of genius from the merely great.
In some important ways, Fuller was one of the architects of what we now think of as modern warfare, and that fact is never clearer in A Military History of the Western World than when his narrative reaches just such junctions of change. He’s always mindful of how war changes history, but he’s acutely sensitive to how war itself changes:
Napoleon’s strategy failed, not only because his means were inadequate, or because his presumption was inordinate, but because his policy was out of tune with the spirit of his age. He had aimed at establishing a universal empire and had followed in the footsteps of the great conquerors of the past. But times had changed. No longer was Europe a conglomeration of tribes and peoples, but instead a mass of crystallizing nations, each seeking its separate path towards the illusive pinnacle of a new presumption – its personal deification.
At Jenna, Napoleon destroyed not only a feudal army, but the last vestiges of the feudal idea, and out of the ashes arose a national army, which at Leipzig destroyed him. On the corpse-strewn fields by the Elster, present-day Europe writhed out of its medieval shell.
It was in Fuller’s time – and in largely through Fuller’s agency – that just such another calamitous transformation came upon the world of war, this time in the realm of his particular speciality, mechanization. He began his military career in the Africa of the Boers; he saw cavalry-charges with sabers waving, and he imagined less fleshy, less stoppable variation on that theme. Fuller was that most politically useful of scholars: a theorist with a coldly quotable literary style. Never more so than when he was writing about his brainchild, the modern tank:
It solved the two outstanding difficulties – namely, how to harmonize movement an fire power and movement and protection. It increased mobility by substituting mechanical power for muscular; it increased security by neutralizing the bullet with armour plate; and it increased offensive power by relieving the soldier from the necessity of carrying his weapons and the horse from hauling them. Because the tank protected the soldier dynamically, it enabled him to fight statically; it superimposed naval tactics on land warfare.
Virtually every page of these three volumes is like this: intelligent, scrupulous, debatable, vaguely disturbing. You never lose the feeling that you’re in the hands of an enormously well-read authority, but you’re also fairly often reminded – on some rhetorical level that would be hard to pinpoint – that you’re in the presence of a military thinker well-loved by Adolf Hitler.
I imagine there are few military history buffs out there who haven’t already studied their Fuller, but reading him is to be urged just the same. This is stark, grand, appalling, stuff, but it – more than anything else – is mankind’s most unambiguous history. And Fuller is its master historian.