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Posted on Nov 3, 2012 in Books and Movies

Military History: The Definitive Visual Guide to the Objects of Warfare – Book Review

By Tim Tow

Military History: The Definitive Visual Guide to the Objects of Warfare. Gareth Jones, Senior Editor. Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 2012, Hardcover, 448 pages, $50

There are picture books and then there are Dorling Kindersley (DK) books—which set the standard for visual guides. The lavishly illustrated Military History: The Definitive Visual Guide to Objects of Warfare follows in the DK tradition of providing high-quality, image-rich, and data-filled guide books. Published in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute and the Royal Armories in the UK, Military History is a coffee-table book, weighing in at nearly six pounds. It is physically superb, from its well-illustrated slipcover to the color-coded page corners identifying each chronological section, to its exhaustive index and glossary of military terms. Content-wise, it covers warfare technology from the dawn of history to the modern age, and it is the next best thing to going to a museum to see these items for yourself.

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Military History features full-color pictures of the panoply of military gear from the earliest Stone Age flint and rock weaponry to the finest modern ironmongery. The pictures are of actual museum items, most often the artifacts themselves or modern reproductions. As in most DK books, items are shown in full color against a white background. This is unlike other “visual guides,” which often simply take photos directly, leaving in surrounding details such as museum cases and other surroundings. DK style provides a uniform consistency in presentation that allows the items to be fully appreciated. The high-quality pictures are accompanied with descriptions, including the items’ physical dimensions, and context information. Physical dimensions are important because the items are not all photographed to the same scale, a necessary trade-off in order to fit in so many disparately sized objects, from handheld weaponry to multi-ton vehicles.

Military History breaks up the history into seven time periods, which form the major chapters of the book:

  • To 500 BC, Chariots and Swords
  • 500-1500, Knights and Bowmen
  • 1500-1680, Pikes and Gunpowder
  • 1680-1815, Flintlocks and Bayonet
  • 1815-1914, Industry and Imperialism
  • 1914-1945, The World Wars
  • 1945-Present, The Nuclear Age

Each period of history is highlighted with an overview of the period, with timelines of key events and battles. Significant innovations or particularly monumental battles are highlighted in multi-page articles, such as Hastings, Bouvine, Lepanto, the siege of Osaka castle, and Leyte Gulf. Obscure battles recognized only by military aficionados are also covered to show their significant impact on warfare. From the Assyrian siege of Lachich to Operation Mostahrak in modern Afghanistan, these battles provide vignettes on how technology has changed and influenced warfare.

As wonderful as the pictures are, the data provided is where Military History really shines. Along with write-ups on how items were used and how they affected battles, physical dimensions including weights and material composition really show how weapons and even uniforms have changed over time. One drawback is that some items are listed with dimensions and weight, while some omit the latter. It would have been interesting to have a comparison of the weight of an individual’s soldier’s kit through the ages, but armor, uniforms and non-weaponry have no weight measures listed.

For more recent and larger hardware, there are many models interspersed with actual pictures of machines. Nearly all of the historical naval vessels no longer exist, either having been destroyed in battle or scrapped, so models are all we will ever get to see. The book provides a multi-page exploration of the DDG Donald Cook, a vessel launched in 1997 and, although it is state of the art, it is not the latest in military technology. A profile of one of the Freedom or Independence class littoral combat ships that are an emerging part of the US Navy’s arsenal would have been more interesting.

Where the book falls short is in the modern warfare section. Although history is still being written, there is only passing coverage on critical contemporary warfare technologies such as satellite reconnaissance, precision guide munitions, and drones. Although some bomb disposal gear is mentioned, there are few details on specialized vehicle technology such as the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, new urban combat technologies, or Improvised Explosive Device (IED) technology. Asymmetrical warfare is not discussed extensively, with only a single section on Guerillas and Terrorists. However, as much of this history is still evolving and some technologies are still classified, we can look forward to a new definitive Military History in the years to come if DK continues with its high-quality production.

This book will appeal to anyone who wants to see the span of technology of military hardware and physical gear throughout history. It provides an extensive bibliography and provides a reader the opportunity to see museum quality items and learn about them in a single comprehensive and well-presented volume. This book would serve well to introduce a child or young adult to the panoply of military weapon technology, but even someone who is well versed in military history will appreciate the fantastic pictures and presentation and the historical nuggets of information found within.

Would you like a chance to win your own copy of Military History: The Definitive Visual Guide to Objects of Warfare? Play Armchair General‘s Combat Decision Game #54, “Confederate Guerrilla Attack, 1863,” and submit your solution to the challenge before December 28, 2012. The top three winning solutions will receive a copy of this outstanding book.

Tim Tow has studied the history of military intelligence and writes on technology and military affairs.

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  1. CDG 54 – Confederate Guerrilla Attack, 1863 » Armchair General - [...] General® by December 28, 2012. The winner and first and second runner-up will receive a copy of Military History: …
  2. Holiday Shopping Guide 2012 » Armchair General - [...] Military History: The Definitive Visual Guide to the Objects of Warfare (Smithsonian and DK Publishing, 2012) [...]

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