So how does someone review a book as large, in depth, and complex as this one? This conflict, which I certainly learned less than nothing about in schSo how does someone review a book as large, in depth, and complex as this one? This conflict, which I certainly learned less than nothing about in school, was a brutal, long, and devastating war that ravaged many parts of Central Europe. Modern estimates put total losses at 15%-20% of the Holy Roman Empire's population, a loss rate greater than that suffered by the Soviet Union during WWII.
I still cannot conceptualize just how terrible this conflict was. There were domestic armies crisscrossing the land, taking what they needed to sustain itself like a heavily armed swarm of locusts, foreign armies taking advantage of the Empire's weakness to pick off territory, economic collapse, the plague (!!!), and massive population displacements over the course of 30 years. The land was so devastated that by the later parts of the war military strategy had to take into account what regions were still even capable of supporting an army.
Wilson does an excellent job walking the reader through the immense complexity of the war (though the book would have been immensely improved by the addition of more maps). Wisely starting in the years leading up to the actual outbreak of hostilities. The politics that culminated in this devastating conflict were a toxic brew of ambitious nobles, religious zealotry, familial relations, imperial politicking, and the sabotage of existing imperial institutions that could have served as a venue for developing a consensus and compromise.
"Imperial politics was thus a series of formal meetings or rulers and their representatives at irregular intervals, supplemented by lesser assemblies to discuss specific issues... Contact was maintained in between by couriers or informal meetings. The large number of relatively weak elements made it difficult for anyone to act alone, discouraging extremism and diluting any agenda to a minimum that all could agree."
What surprised me most was the proto-representative structures that were already in existence within the Empire. It was nothing close to the representative institutions that exist today, but did provide some degree of representation, even if only among the nobles and other notable citizens. The HRE was much less imperial/autocratic than I initially assumed and there was much too be admired in its structure when compared to its neighbors. Unfortunately those institutions were not strong enough to prevent war (partially through sabotage by religious militants and partially by a very stubborn emperor).
Another thing that surprised me about the conflict was how little religion impacted events. Yes, there was certainly a religious influence on the political decisions of rulers and rebels, but it was not a hard a fast barrier. Protestants served and attained very high positions in the Imperial army while Catholic powers such as France allied with protestant Sweden to take advantage of the Empire's weakness. While being the same religion as your superiors was an advantage, protestants and Catholics served under the banners of all sides. Political gain, more so than religion, was the driving force of nation states with confessional alignments serving as convenient to propaganda efforts.
Speaking of protestant Sweden, it is often forgotten this now benign Nordic country was a world beater back in the 17th Century and successfully invaded and held a portion of the HRE for quite a while. While it had a small population, it more than made up for it by hiring mercenaries and recruiting Germans into its forces. In fact, the vast majority of its army for most of the war was comprised of Germans who preferred the yolk of Sweden to the rule of the HRE. So remember, the next time a volvo cuts you off, they could mean serious business (as long as their were Germans to hire to do their dirty work).
Another fascinating aspect of this war was the inability of contemorary states to sustain the country in a time of war. Financial systems were just beginning to develop their more modern aspects, but were still small and weak. Taxing the population was a difficult activity and rarely raised the expected amount of revenue. Shortfalls were made by loans, IOUS, and granting lands and titles to secure financing. Because this conflict lasted much longer than previous conflicts and had such high stakes, nations, even rich ones such as Spain which could draw upon New World silver, had to take out more and more loans to maintain itself. Sufficced to say, the interest costs ballooned rather quickly:
"Of this [Spanish government expenditures], 30.5 million went to the civil budget; 44.2 million directly to the armed forces; and 175.8 million to bondholders and contractors for loans and interest."
Not surprisingly the lenders had little interest in any sort of public good and could care less if the world went to hell:
"The formal structure of ordinary taxation became little more than a front behind which the financiers carried on their affairs with studied indifference towards the damage that they did to the government and contempt for the suffering of the tax-paying element of the population."
This financial weakness made seizing property from enemies even more important and led to further crimes against civilians and their property. This, in turn, made it more difficult for states to generate tax revenues, continuing the cycle of loans, interest payments, pillaging and more loans. Continue this for 30 years and you can see why this was such a terrible war.
A final note I would like to add is just how few battles there actually were over the course of 30 years. It was primarily a war of maneuver, siege, and diplomacy. Armies lost many more soldiers to desertion and disease than enemy contact. In fact the biggest problem most generals faced was retaining soldiers so that they could threaten the enemy with maneuver and sieges. Unlike the battles and wars we see in so many fantasy novels even crushing victories in the field would not guarantee success in the war. The campaign seasons were short making it difficult to follow up smashing victories, cities and towns could hold out against siege forces that were attritioned through hunger, desertions, and disease, the Empire was large with little in the way of major transportation arteries apart from rivers, and even in victories the winning army would often be severely diminished themselves.
"[Military] Operations were essentially intended to secure local military advantage to lend weight to these negotiations and compel the other side to be more reasonable."
Military victories had to be paired with diplomacy that could extract concessions from the defeated party. Before Clauswitz rulers of the time knew war was merely politics carried out by other means.
All in all reading this book reinforced by fervent belief that a representative secular government is the ideal arrangement for a nation. The Thirty Years War provides a striking example of just what can go wrong in a state so closely tied a specific religion and with so little recourse among the ruled.
"Though they are now largely silent, the voices from the 17th century still speak to us... They offer a warning of the dangers of entrusting power to those who feel summoned by God to war, or feel that their sense of justice and order is the only one valid."
Some other passages that struck me as ringing true and still relevant to today's world:
"Nevertheless, then as now, militancy proves especially dangerous when combined with political power. It creates a delusional sense in those who rule of being chosen by God for a divine purpose and reward. It encourages the conviction that their norms alone are absolute... their faith is the only really true religion."
The two [law and faith] were considered indivisible because religion provided the guide for all human endeavor: since there could be only one truth, there could be only one law. But now Catholics and Lutherans both claimed to be right."
"...while the Germans as a whole were regarded as backward and boorish, too busy gorging themselves on fatty foods and guzzling barrels of beer to achieve the heights of Castilian civilization. They lived in a rain-soaked land of dreary forests... and expensive, uncomfortable inns." Wait, how did that one get in here?
"Factions in both Spain and the [Dutch] Republic saw war as the means to assert control over their own governments and promote what they regarded as their country's best interest."
The Imperialists occupied Meissen and dispatched Croats towards Dresden with the message that Johann Georg would no longer need candles for his banquets as the Imperialists would now provide light by burning Saxony's villages." Mostly because this was the most badass line in the entire book....more
So how much trouble could 250 horses be? I mean, besides feeding them and keeping them in shape it can't be that bad, right?
Well, if these horses hapSo how much trouble could 250 horses be? I mean, besides feeding them and keeping them in shape it can't be that bad, right?
Well, if these horses happen to be highly prized by very powerful people (including an Emperor) AND you are stuck in the middle of nowhere when you receive the gift you can find yourself in a bit of a pickle. This is the situation Shen Tai finds himself in when he is gifted (though gifted might not be how he sees it) 250 magnificent Sardian horses, horses whose qualities far surpass all others available to the great Kitai Empire (Kay's name for what we call the Tang Dynasty of China), of which Shen Tai is a citizen of.
Thrust into this precarious situation Shen Tai strikes out to discharge this gift before it gets him killed. Having been away from the Kitai Empire for two years he is unprepared for the volatile political environment his appearance and gift unsettles. There are may layers of court intrigue, hidden agendas, and good old fashion personal grudges.
I think the best way to describe Under Heaven was achingly beautiful. The characters in this book were vibrant and nuanced, the setting was beautifully crafted and multi-layered, the story was both grand and personal, and the writing was elegant and well balanced, never saying more or less than was needed. There is a refined beauty in the economy of language and the imagery Kay employed to tell this story. It sweeps you up and places you firmly among the characters and events of the book.
Kay does a marvelous job balancing three story telling devices: the perspective of the main characters, the perspective of the tangential characters who we only see briefly but fall into the orbit of the main characters, and the greater picture of the events going on beyond the characters' awareness. Each passage, even those from tangential characters we will never see or hear from again, enriches and deepens the setting and atmosphere. Some of my favorite sections were from these characters' perspective, letting us see the main characters from a more impartial position, providing another view on the events going on, and just being delightful to read on their own merits.
I was initially put off by some of the third person passages that cropped up near the end of the book that provide a sweeping view of some events occurring outside the main character's view but it call came together at the end to provide what I think was the message of the book: decisions matter. Large, small, well planned, spur of the moment, all of them in some way contribute to the human experience. A simple, off the cuff decision could have extensive repercussions in a year's time. Empires could fall, famine could spread, love could be unrequited, the path not taken could have been ruin or paradise.
All we can do is make the best decisions we have available to us and move on with our lives knowing that some decisions we can control and other decisions control us. Be it the strict imperial protocol of a fragile empire or what inn we choose to stop at. Life and love may not turn out as we expect or play out like a fairy tale but we must make the best of it and continue to live life as we best see fit. To quote the ever entertaining movie Gladiator: What we do in life echos an eternity.
Under Heaven's story about intersecting lives, decisions, and consequences poignantly conveys this message with subtlety and beauty rarely found in literature.
(For those of you who want to read about the actual historical circumstances that inspired this book, check out the wikipedia article on the An Lushan Rebellion)...more
I was very disappointed with this book. The Byzantine Empire has a fascinating history and faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges over the couI was very disappointed with this book. The Byzantine Empire has a fascinating history and faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges over the course of its existence. I thought a book that described how they accomplished this would be very engagin gand fascinating. While I still believe that to be the case, that book is not Luttwak's "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire".
I found several major problems with this book. The most obvious was the organization. Luttwak split the book into two sections: diplomacy and military. On face this may make sense but in delivering the information Luttwak jumps around quite a bit chronologically. Over the course of a chapter Luttwak might over events separated by hundreds of years without discussing any intermediate events. Further many events are mentioned multiple times as they are relevant to whatever Luttwak is discussing in a chapter.
Luttwak never really establishes the story of the Byzantine Empire at a high level to provide a common reference between himself and the reader. I came to the book with a decent knowledge of Byzantine Empire but stumbled through a good amount of the book before I was able to put the major events in their proper perspective. This greatly diminished my ability to soak up what Luttwak was discussing. On a more minor note Luttwak very infrequently uses sub-headings in chapters and when he does he often moves on to another subject within that heading without any formal indication.
I love maps. I think they are spiffy and, when done right, can be worth much more than a thousand words. While Luttak does have some maps, they are scattered throughout the book. What I think would have been more effective was a central location for all the maps showing the major periods of Byzantine Rule as well as their main rivals. That would have made it much easier to get my bearings regarding Byzantine's strategic position in a given point of time. Instead Luttwak provides a limited number of maps and, because he does not follow a purely chronological account of Byzantine, they are somewhat subjectively assigned to different parts of the book.
But by far the most glaring issue I had with the book was the Military strategy section. I was expecting a discussion of Byzintine military operations and how strategy informed them. Why they had a certain army composition, why they fought the way they did, why they won/lost and how they adapted. Instead I got a glorified cliff notes version of a whole bunch of Byzantine Military manuals. And not even very interesting ones. These outlined how troops should be trained, how much food they should carry, how they should be equipped, etc. While I recognize these are important documents that informed how the Byzantine Empire approached military matters Luttwak did very little to connect what these manuals discussed with how they were operationally realized. The military section was WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too heavy on discussing theoretical military matters without tying it back to Byzantium's actual behavior. These manuals could have been discussed at a much higher level without losing any important information. This treatment would have left more space for the actual military strategy of the Byzantine Empire instead of the theory of several military manuals.
There were some parts of the book I did like. The use of prestige to negotiate with foreign powers, how the Orthodox church and faith played into statecraft, and the the sheer weight of numbers that continuously came off the great eurasian steppe. But these interesting sections were weakened by the weak organizational structure of the book as a whole. By the end I felt much like Luttwak did about The Strategikon of Kekaumenos on page 387: "The composition of the text... meanders from theme to theme and back again with much repetition..." Quite possibly the least self-aware statement I have read in recent memory....more
My parents got me this book as a birthday gift during the height of my fascination with WWII history (late middle school through high school). I had hMy parents got me this book as a birthday gift during the height of my fascination with WWII history (late middle school through high school). I had heard about references to this book and how it predicted a lot of the events that would transpire during the actual Pacific War between America and Japan. While I enjoyed reading this a lot, I think the author got just as much right (surprise attack on the US Fleet, kamikaze attacks, etc.) about the conflict as he got wrong such as:
-Aircraft carriers would only be useful for scouting purposes and not be a decisive instrument of war. -Japan would cripple the Panama canal to prevent the flow of material from the Atlantic to the Pacific. -Japan would launch the war in order to forestall domestic social unrest (namely communist influence among industrial workers). -Americans of Japanese ancestry would rise up in Hawaii to disrupt the American war effort. -Poisonous gas would be used in combat.
Of course I can't blame Bywater for being wrong, the man wasn't psychic.
He was very good writer who crafted a very believable conflict between the U.S. and Japan. He had a very good eye for technical details of military equipment as well as military strategy. The story primarily concerns itself with the disposition of military forces and material with little in terms of characters or character development. It isn't a book in a conventional manner, more like a series of newspaper dispatches from an omniscient reporter detailing the developments of the conflict (which makes sense since Bywater was a Naval correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph).
All in all I really enjoyed this bit of speculative military fiction and would recommend it for any WWII buff. It was different enough from the actual Pacific War that the developments and battles felt fresh. My only quibble was that (at least in my version) the beginning over every chapter had a quick synopsis of what would happen in that chapter. So much for literary tension!...more
Good, informative book on the development on the wind industry. Mostly concentrates on the personalities involved in the industry with some discussionGood, informative book on the development on the wind industry. Mostly concentrates on the personalities involved in the industry with some discussion about the technology. This book gives you a very good perspective on how wind energy (both electrical and mechanical) has intersected with Texas history and culture, going back to the early days of wind being used to pump water on the plains. The book provides a very accessible view into how regulations and changing market conditions impacted the development and growth of the wind energy sector in Texas. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in renewable energy, public policy, or Texas.
Pretty interesting history on the development of the electric grid and natural gas markets (mostly concentrating on Texas and the Gulf), but I found hPretty interesting history on the development of the electric grid and natural gas markets (mostly concentrating on Texas and the Gulf), but I found his editorialization of virtue and the pristine perfection of a free market rather grating and distracting from the historical accounts.
That being said there is a lot of good stuff in this book and it is very informative when it comes to explaining how the electric industry developed (both politically and technologically) and how the natural gas industry grew from a waste gas from oil fields that was flared at the site to a very crucial part of America's energy sector.
If you can handle the free market evangelicalism that Bradley adds in too liberally and want to further your understanding of the electric and gas sectors, then this book is for you....more
First off, this is more like a long academic paper than a book. Tainter has a thesis whereby he attempts to explain the collapse of all complex societFirst off, this is more like a long academic paper than a book. Tainter has a thesis whereby he attempts to explain the collapse of all complex societies (quite a tall order of business) and goes about this by establishing a lot of background information and existing theory review in the first part of the book.
I am by no means an archeologist (professional or amateur) but was able to make my way through this part, picking most of what Tainter was trying to communicate. I'd say to give the early sections a shot because they do form the basis for his later arguments. Sort of scary in retrospect how many complex, seemingly stable societies basically evaporated over the course of only a few generations and that civilization as we know it has a relatively short existence compared to the totality of human existence. Civilization is more the exception than the rule.
So the crux of Tainter's argument is that the development of a complex society is predicated on the explotation of low hanging resources. The investment to acquire these resources is (at first) easily outwighed by their benefits. This allows for the support of specialized roles that do not necessarily contribute to the sustainability of the society (aristocrats, priest castes, etc.). Subsequent resource extraction (be it in the form of new mines, new agricultural lands, or new conquests) have a lower return on energy invested generating a smaller surplus to sustain the complex society.
Eventually a society will reach a point where existing resources or potential new resources cannot maintain the level of complexity the society currently has. The result is a decline in public works/investments, the loss of centralized control and influence, and the loss of the periphery regions of the society (and not always a peaceful or gradual process). Eventually the society will "decline" to a level of lower complexity: more local control, less public works, etc.
To Tainter the story of a complex society is a race against the resource clock. To maintain and expand complexity (which is a good strategy when new resources are low investment accessible) a society must continue to increase the amount of resources available to it to support classes that do not contribute to resource expansion. Just to maintain the status quo new resources are needed and when they are not available the center of the complex society begins to crumble.
I really enjoyed this book because of the unique perspective Tainter presents in explaining the collapse of complex societies. The examples he provides are quite illustrative and can provide guidance to the challenges we face today. I'm not going to lie, this book majorly bummed me out, but I'd rather we had this perspective and a chance to avoid past mistakes than blindly blunder into the same fate that has befallen many past societies....more