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Book Review


Jeremy Black, A Century of Conflict: War, 19142014. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. Xv + 212. $29.95 (paper).


     There is no doubt that war as a mechanism of global change has had major influence in the 1914–2014 period. A Century of Conflict seeks to demonstrate the effects on war on society, the importance of operational decisions on the fate of nations and peoples, and the changing context of war towards conflicts "between peoples," the author's term for ethnic- or sectarian-based conflict.

     Jeremy Black, Exeter University's renowned military historian and one of the world's most prolific writers on conflict, offers a sweeping survey of war suitable for world history courses, creating an accessible text suitable for advanced undergraduates. Few historians could even attempt such a Herculean task, but Professor Black has written so much about so many different conflicts that he is uniquely qualified for the project and he succeeds in creating an introduction laudable for its concise summation and historiographic currency.

     Black opens with an appeal for "The Importance of Military History" (chapter 1), arguing along the similar lines to Robert M. Citino's seminal 2007 American Historical Review article.1 As Black writes, "War was no add-on to the history of the past century. Instead, as throughout the history of the human species as social beings, war was a formative experience for the peoples of the world" (1). This theme permeates the book as Black skillfully interweaves the less familiar and more technical operational history with macro themes of likely interest to World History Connected readers. He shows how the changes in ideas in and about war—including technology—affect people in an approach termed within the field as "war and society." Far from celebrating the glory of war, the author introduces it as a troublesome but persistent influence necessary for understanding the world in both centuries.

     The "war and society" approach emphasizes the effect of war on peoples, or the converse, the effect of peoples on war. As such, it tends towards a more cultural viewpoint, one that can easily become detached from the operational realities. But Black succeeds with the very difficult task of binding the two together, and student readers more interested in operations or in society will both find material to hold their attention.

     Underscoring accessibility, Black's work is segmented into coherent chapters, averaging twenty pages each, covering reasonably distinct periods that include "industrial" war (1914–18); the interwar period (1918–39); World War II (1939–45); decolonization and the early cold war (1945–60); the middle years of the Cold War (1960–75); the "later" Cold War (1975–89); the era between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 (1989–2001). These chapters should dovetail with traditional historical treatments of the twentieth century, and can be read in parallel with a more general world history text.

     The last three chapters are less easily characterized, and Black cautiously addresses them simply as the "2000s", "2010s", and, provocatively, a speculative chapter, "Into the Future," which has value given Black's superb grasp of the subject's length and breadth, and he successfully connects more recent developments—such as the use of drones and the near-genocidal conflicts in Africa and in Syria—giving the book an immediate currency that will further connect it to undergraduates.

     Black's sensitivity to historiographical change and trends within the field of military history are apparent throughout the work. His treatment of the Vietnam War, central to the chapter on the "middle years" of the Cold War, is a nuanced testament to different perspectives on the war. But this also represents one of the book's weaknesses, which is its lack of citations or declarations of where to go to delve more deeply into the historiographical challenges he suggests. Very often Black's own work is one of very few "further readings" offered, and this self-referential loop might perhaps be improved in future editions.

     Over the course of the work, several themes resonate. First, in contrast with much military history written in the last century, he is careful to ascribe operational victories not only to the brilliance of a leader, an idea, or a technology, but equally to the actions or mistakes of the defender. He maintains this focus throughout the work, until the last three chapters. Second, he emphasizes the primacy of political objectives in trying to match military capabilities, and this theme is one that is both useful for his audience and inherent in striving to maintain a top-level strategic viewpoint, which he successfully does. Finally, and most pervasively, is the above-mentioned theme, that war and its variant strains of conflict (such as terrorism or genocidal violence) are crucial to understand the events of the twentieth- and, so far, the twenty-first century. Even in the absence of an active war, the political, economic and social aspects of preparation for it—or neglect thereof—remains a crucial aspect of any world history treatment of the period.

     The inclusion of color maps is excellent but would be more helpful had they been bound near the chapters they were intended to support, an understandable bindery decision by Oxford but one that could reduce the content's value as some students will doubtless fail to flip back and forth to use them. Binding them in the middle of the book might have been a preferable alternative.

     The weaknesses mentioned above—the self-referential character of the sparse references and lack of citations—fail to cripple the work, and it offers an excellent introduction to the study of war in enough detail that it could be used for courses on the history of warfare in the twentieth century as well as in world history curricula.

     The very existence of this book signals an increasing awareness by world historians about the importance of war, perhaps representing a small step in shedding the Vietnam-era belief that to study war is to advocate for it.

Brian R. Price took his Ph.D. in military history from the University of North Texas, served as a Department of Defense civilian social scientist in Afghanistan, teaches medieval swordsmanship, and both graduate and undergraduate courses in military history, strategy and counterinsurgency within Hawai’i Pacific University’s Diplomacy and Military Studies program. Contact him at



1 Robert M. Citino, "Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction," American Historical Review, 112:4, (2007). Citino's article is highly recommended for readers who want to get a strong indicator of the relationship of the field of military history to the rest of the discipline. Citino argues that, contrary to the post-Vietnam perception, military history has reached far beyond "guns and trumpets" popular history to embrace larger questions of the relationship between war and society, which should suggest a re-acceptance of the subfield into the historical mainstream.



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