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The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost
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The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  178 ratings  ·  28 reviews
Cathal Nolan's The Allure of Battle shows that while wars have shaped the history of the modern world, their outcomes are decided by many other factors. The book argues that major battles are not decisive to the outcome of wars; rather, wars depend on longer-term attrition in which the side that wins gradually and remorselessly overwhelms the other with larger arsenals and ...more
Hardcover, 728 pages
Published February 1st 2017 by Oxford University Press
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Steven Peterson
May 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a book that needs to be read. I have for many years (decades) felt that the whole concept of one great battle that will make a world historical impact is overblown. We hear of masterpieces such as Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz. Yet, less than a decade later, his empire was falling into ruin. So what made Austerlitz a decisive battle? Hannibal and Cannae? Who ended up winning that war? Not Hannibal. The German Wehrmacht's extraordinary victories at the outset if the Russian invasion. . ...more
Leopold Benedict
Jun 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The book makes the important point that wars are not won by decisive battles or genius generals, but by attrition, resources and long defensive strategies. As a supporter of longue durée history by the Annales school, I cannot applaud this insight enough. Especially as I come from a country which has long promoted the glory of decisive battles and has been lured by it into two destructive world wars. The two World Wars are strong examples of wars that have been won by attrition. The Allied ...more
Richard Subber
Jun 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is filled with stunning, inarguable truths about battle and wars and geopolitics and human nature through recorded human history.
The human nature part is mostly depressing. Nolans copiously documented conclusion is that mankind has spilled blood for millennia, praised noble, decisive battle, and failed to invent any way of making war that makes sense or is strategically effective.
Nolan says that generals and armies and kings and governments nearly always find ways to lose wars, and
Gary Klein
Jan 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book was a great survey of (mostly Western) wars from Ancient Greece to World War II that argues that most wars are decided more by attrition than decisive battles. I was hoping that it would delve into a discussion and analysis of the differing evidence and opinions, but it is more of a historical narrative. This book tells the story of how how most societies and militaries seek a swift decisive battle to start and end wars, but how it usually devolves into a war of attrition.

"How to win
Aug 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was probably the most remarkable book on military history that Ive ever read. The center point is that the draw of the decisive battle has blinded the minds of political and military leaders for the last two centuries. It is attrition that wins wars and brings defeat. The short war after a decisive battle fantasy has let down several aggressor nations in that time period. This is a great resource and very detailed and convincing in its central points. I recommend reading this to any student ...more
Chris Ingram
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Most history books look at battles, some examine wars, but Nolan questions the narrative of those battles as decisive to the outcome of war, calling into question much of the modern offensive doctrine. Invaluable questions for those thinking about strategy in major wars.
Wayne McCoy
Aug 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
'The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars have been Won and Lost' by Cathal J. Nolan is a book that has captivated me for the last couple months as I read, then put it down to think about it.

The premise is that warfare, as viewed by history and scholars, has glorified specific leaders, like Marlborough, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte, is flawed thinking. Many of these leaders may have had good ideas, or breakthrough technologies, but often times their victories are not viewed
Jul 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was pretty hard to get through in large part because I kept getting distracted by the author's implications on the nature of warfare and zoning out thinking about it while the audiobook rolled on. Consistently.

I suppose that means this was a pretty good book.
Mar 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A great big book on a great big subject. Nolan argues that victory in war is misunderstood. Exhaustion is more important than brilliance and the desire to find a Cannae where the enemy is destroyed has led to aggressive pursuit of war that made no sense. It is curious to note that the victors at Cannae, the Carthaginians, were the losers in the war, as the Romans ground them down in Spain and Africa.
Sep 02, 2018 rated it liked it
The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost by Cathal J. Nolan is precisely what its subtitle promises. I wouldnt consider myself a military history enthusiast, so I cant easily assess Nolans presentation of (mostly European) war in the context of his major themes. But Nolans history illuminates the ways in which innovation in war has many of the same issues as innovation elsewhere. In particular, knowledge spillovers matter a great deal.

The bulk of Nolans book is a
Jun 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Despite my rating, I think this is pretty much a "must read" as a good summary work. even if you don't agree with the author's premise, there is plenty of food for thought. There are several provisos, though. For one thing, there is no formal bibliography; all the reference works are covered in the notes. I found this a bit distracting, especially when I wished to refer to the works in question.

Nolan is definitely not a "Great Man of History" proponent. His comments on Marlborough, for instance,
Dec 29, 2017 rated it liked it
Extremely thorough, but lacking focus.

The book's premise is to describe the ways in which wars are actually won, claiming that "decisive" battles seldom lead to victory. The real decisive factor, it says, is the attrition of men and materiel during long campaigns,a fact seldom envisioned by the men who start "short and lively" wars.

And yet, most of the book deals with describing in great detail a number of "decisive" battles, down to the tactical, and sometimes even micro-tactical, level. While
Matt Caris
Aug 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
On the surface, the main thesis of Cathal Nolan's The Allure of Battle shouldn't be that earth-shattering - namely, that Great Power conflict is almost never decided by any sort of battlefield brilliance, but by exhaustion of one side's material means and political will to continue. Yet Nolan's long tour of military history demonstrates just how pervasive the pernicious myths of "short, sharp wars," "military genius," "operational art," and the like truly are. Not only did most of the celebrated ...more
Mar 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Are you looking for a military history examining how the idea of "decisive battle" has shaped politicians, military commanders, and scholars actions and writings. Cathal Nolan provides just such a history in The Allure of Battle.

Nolan opens The Allure of Battle with a defense of military history in general and the role of battles as specific events in his introduction. He then, in Chapter 1, sets the role of battle, especially the concept of "decisive battle" in a historical context. He also
Ryan Wulfsohn
Feb 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Should be read by everyone interested in military history
James Wilson
May 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Mar 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read this book after seeing a review in the Wall Street Journal. I thought it was outstanding. I'm sure each of the great Captains that he covered warrant their own review, but from someone unfamiliar with the history of military tactics/evolution, but interested in them, this book was first rate! I've always wondered how Sweden became a Great Power for a time - it was Gustav II Adolphus. I had never actually heard of the Duke of Marlborough or Gustaf Mauritz. Of course, everybody knows about ...more
Tony Selhorst
Dec 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Cathal Nolans The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost is a brilliant read on why we do not learn the right lessons from wars in the past. He explains how tying the ideas of decisive battle and glorious campaigns to the shifting ambitions of political and military leadership to pursue their interest lead to short war fantasies that never come true. When you open Pandoras box, war seems to have a mind of its own, enemies have a vote and the military doesnt deliver what ...more
Eric J. Hartsfield
Excellent analysis of the short or quick war

O thought this a very good historical survey of conflict in the western to the end of WW II. The author explores how conflict for the most part is never short or quick but eventually leads to mmm one of attrition. The exception to this idea were the German Wars of unification in the 1860's and 70's were the Bismarck & Moltke did lead Prussia into a series of conflicts that were quick and decisive but we're the exceptions not the rule. I'm
T. Fowler
Oct 24, 2017 rated it liked it
This very knowledgeable and respected author presents a very interesting thesis about how victory has been achieved in military history from the Middle Ages to the end of World War II. Unfortunately the length of the book (582 text pages), the size of the front (9 or 10 as I can estimate), and the depth of detail in the narration needed more energy than I could muster. I have read books of this size & more, but the subject matter would have to be very compelling to slog onwards. I think the ...more
Gerry Connolly
Aug 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In a sweeping review of military history from the Middle Ages to WWII Cathal Nolan debunks the ideas of short wars and decisive battles. In The Allure of Battle he demystifies Marlborough, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, von Moltke and others who bankrupted and depleted their countries in ruinous wars of aggression (Hitler and Tojo are on their numbers too) Most wars are won through attrition, the stubborn, grinding repulse of aggressive first battles. Thought provoking.
Apr 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Real score: 3.75
Overall strong, from a reader who is not very interested in military history. There is a fair amount of fat in here, especially in the third of the book on WWII which gets needlessly bogged down in Nolan's excoriation of Axis war crimes (and need to defend those of the Allies. While Nolan's writing on the horrors of war is extremely evocative, he often writes himself away from the central thesis.
Oct 20, 2019 rated it liked it
Exhaustively researched but desperately in need of an editor, this book poses an interesting but fundamentally incomplete argument against decisive battles as the framework for a successful war. In place of these poorly defined battles, the author posits equally poorly defined attrition as the most significant factor. The thesis is, I think, valid but this book needs to be much tighter to make the argument stick.
Apr 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: never-finished
I didnt read the whole thing because there was just too much material but he has an amazing grasp of military history and is able to draw his own conclusions based on patterns he sees. ...more
Jun 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I wrote a full review here:
Ted Gaffney
May 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
It took me 2 months to finally get thru this one...but it is a must for any and all military history libraries.
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Cathal J. Nolan is Professor of History and Executive Director of the International History Institute at Boston University.

The Allure of Battle: A History of Wars Have Been Won and Lost (Oxford UP, 2017), won the Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History, as "the best book on military history in the English-speaking world, distinguished by its scholarship, contribution to the literature, and

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