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Posted on Feb 19, 2006 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

An Instinct for War – Book Review

By Rick Baillergeon

Instinct1.jpgBook Review: An Instinct for War: Scenes from the Battlefields of History, Roger Spiller
Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005,
403 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Imaginative and thought provoking are words that instantly came to my mind as I began reading Roger Spiller’s superb book, An Instinct for War. In it, Spiller expertly intertwines history and fiction to exemplify how the conduct and nature of war itself has changed over the years and how it may change in the future. The vehicle he employs is 13 vastly diverse vignettes spread throughout history. These range from the ancient wars of China to a futuristic examination at how the ultimate war between ideals and culture may play out. Within each vignette, Spiller creates a character to give a first person account of the story and to use as an intermediary to subtlety convey his personal thoughts and purpose to the reader. It is truly an innovative approach.


Perhaps, the first question that arises in An Instinct for War is why did Spiller pursue this approach to illustrate his points? Certainly, he could have utilized ‘pure history’ throughout his pages instead of this challenging blend of history and fiction as his mechanism. I believe the answer simply lies in the fact that he took this as a ‘challenge’ to his abilities as an historian and as a writer to successfully make this combination work for his readers. In essence, Spiller expressed this sentiment in an interview published in The Kansas City Star just weeks ago. He stated, “My objective from the beginning was to make the dividing line between history and fiction so indistinct that even a specialist would even scratch his head and say, ‘What a minute, did that really…?’

Spiller accomplishes his book’s objective (truly, there are many specialists scratching their heads) and succeeds in his personal challenge by possessing two distinctive attributes. First, he is a much admired military historian who currently holds the esteemed position as the George C. Marshall Professor, emeritus, at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Second, Spiller is an extremely engaging writer, who has written many highly acclaimed volumes in his career. It is this combination of subject mastery and ability to articulate this mastery that enables him to merge historical fact with fiction. I would contend few historian/writers today would even undertake a project such as this, let alone succeed so successfully as Spiller.

As discussed above, the 13 vignettes are an eclectic mix. The book’s minimal parameters allow Spiller to craft some fascinating scenarios and situations. For example, imagine an exiled Thucydides coming back to speak to new Athenian Commanders on the lessons he learned in war and life. Or envision, Machiavelli discussing politics, patriotism and war with his guard while sitting in jail. Perhaps, visualize von Wallenstein and Justus Lipsius meeting in the afterlife and debating on what motivates men to fight. Finally, picture a young George McClellan spending weeks listening to an elderly Antoine-Henri Jomini espouse on a myriad of topics including the fact that Clausewitz ‘stole’ many of his ideas.

As intriguing as the above vignettes are, the most interesting and chilling vignette is Spiller’s final one entitled Discovery of Kansas. Spiller utilizes this particular vignette to portray how World War III may start, how it may be fought, and how it could end. Without wishing to give much away to potential readers, I will say it will leave a lasting impression on you. It is simply powerful!

As exceptional as the creativity of the vignettes are, the real strength of the book is Spiller’s ability to make his readers think. Throughout the book, readers will find instances where the writer’s words will stimulate thought on many subjects. These subjects will include the art and science of command, the relationship between the government and the military, the experience of learning, what motivates men on the battlefield, and of course, the character and essence of war. For many, An Instinct of War will provide the opportunity to reflect on subjects not thought about in years.

In summary, Roger Spiller has truly created a special book. It is a book that displays his talents as an historian and as a writer. Obviously, I highly recommend it to military history readers of all levels and interests. However, I will offer future readers one piece of advice. Do not try to consume An Instinct for War in a couple of evenings. It is recommended that you focus on one vignette per sitting. This will allow you the time to digest the story and more importantly, to reflect on the issues and subjects Spiller so subtly places in your mind.