Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on May 18, 2008 in Books and Movies

Stupid Wars – Book Review

Gerald D. Swick

Stupid Wars: A Citizen’s Guide to Botched Putsches, Failed Coups, Inane Invasions & Ridiculous Revolutions. Ed Strosser & Michael Prince. Collins, 2008. Trade paperback. US $14.95.

 

A footloose, wandering prince, the son of the deposed Byzantine emperor, bounced around Europe looking for a spare army.

Stupid Wars is an anthology of cautionary tales about what happens when political leaders channel Wile E. Coyote as their military advisor.

It covers 16 actions the authors consider to be among the most ill-considered or badly bungled military operations in history, from "Valens and the End of the Roman Empire: AD 377" to "The Soviet Coup against Gorbachev: 1991." Reading it is like watching a series of train wrecks, with Robin Williams providing commentary.

{default}

Readers will find some familiar stories, such as the Fourth Crusade, the Russo-Finnish War of 1939 and Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, but there are also several lesser-known Big Bungles, including the 1879 War of the Pacific, America’s invasion of Siberia in 1918, and the Chaco War of 1932.

The authors’ witty commentary and ironic asides make for entertaining reading and help to leaven the underlying fact that millions died and nations were destroyed because of the hubris, megalomania, greed or outright incompetence of the leaders found in these pages.

Books that attempt to balance informative writing with humor are difficult to pull off. The temptation to let jokes supersede facts is always present. However, when the combination works — as it does in, say, David W. Barber’s Bach, Beethoven and the Boys and When the Fat Lady Sings, humorous but insightful histories of classical music and opera, respectively — the result is both entertaining and educational. Fortunately, Stupid Wars pulls off this balancing act nicely most of the time.

Each chapter provides a short intro with background information on that chapter’s Big Oooops and a sidebar about key players on both sides, listing some of their strengths and weaknesses, and the authors’ take on why a really bad idea seemed good at the time.

Consider this partial example from "The Fourth Crusade" chapter:

Prince Alexis — A footloose, wandering prince, the son of the deposed Byzantine emperor, bounced around Europe looking for a spare army to put him atop the throne of the Byzantines.

Doge Enrico Dandolo
Pros — Was over ninety years old and blind but still rode into battle to lead the Fourth Crusade.
Cons — Led them everywhere but their destination.

The rest of each chapter explores the buildup, the action, and the aftermath of its subject in more detail, accompanied by additional sidebars on such delights as the development of the Molotov cocktail, the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, or a short history of the Goths.

This format allows readers with little or no knowledge of the subject to immediately grasp the situation and to end the chapter with a pretty accurate idea of what happened. The chapters’ brevity makes it possible to read one during lunch break, which might have some workers thinking, At least my boss isn’t this stupid. On the other hand, they may immediately post their resumes on Monster.com because they’ve recognized their employer in the description of Ion Antonescu or Francisco Solano Lopez.

In any theme-based historical anthology, there are points to quibble over. Romania really didn’t have many options in World War II, for example, so is it really fair to include it because its leader agreed to help Hitler invade Russia in the hopes of regaining lost territories?

There will also be a lot of Hey, why did you include X but not Y? That’s why sequels exist.

What quibbles I have about the content of Stupid Wars are minor; the authors pulled off their humor and history balancing act effectively. My biggest complaints concern the cheap paper and mediocre cover used by the publisher, Collins, which make the book look like a low-budget, self-publishing effort instead of something from an imprint of HarperCollins, and that isn’t fair to what these authors have accomplished.

Cosmetics aside, this is a fun and informative read, a great gift for Father’s Day. I give it four stars for content, one-and-a-half for production values.

For more information, check out the POV the authors provided to ArmchairGeneral.com and weigh in on the forum discussion with your views.

Gerald D. Swick, the senior online editor for ArmchairGeneral.com and HistoryNet.com, is known for frequently incorporating witticisms and wordplay into his own historical writings.

1 Comment

  1. I love the book! My dad wrote it, Michael Prince! They might make another book about something else stupid.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Stupid Wars - Examining The Book About The Stupid Wars of History » Armchair General Magazine - We Put YOU in Command! - [...] book, go to the authors’ web site, amazon.com, bn.com or your local bookstores, or read the ACG review. bookmark…

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *