Thoughts on War
Phillip S. Meilinger
University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, Kentucky, 2020, 308 pages
Book Review published on: August 7, 2020
Phillip Meilinger’s Thoughts on War is a modern history book organized into a collection of essays grouped around three themes: theories of war, war through the ages, and American military experiences. Its historian’s approach commonly uses examples from many periods but favors the ancients, the Napoleonic era, World War I, and World War II through 2019. Each essay is well reasoned and supported with cited historical evidence or occasionally by journalistic observations. The author is unafraid of treading where most military literature does not. For example, Meilinger critiques no less an icon than Carl von Clausewitz himself through analysis of fixation with decisive battle, land-centric warfare, and the interpretation of politics. He also credibly appraises the principles of war, a subject all too often taken for granted. Meilinger is particularly insightful identifying the shortcomings of modern-era military operations and debunking aspects of conventional wisdom deeply rooted in military institutions. He recognizes the importance of conventional warfare but for the more likely irregular version proposes a formula of special operations, airpower, intelligence, and indigenous forces.
One of the strengths of Thoughts on War contains seeds of its weakness. Each chapter is readily understood, coherent, and easily read in under thirty minutes. The weakness is that the proposed alternative approaches to military problems are underdeveloped and only marginally convincing. Counterfactuals are complex. These types of arguments require detailed cause-and-effect reasoning backed by substantial evidence. One suspects the author’s cases suffer from selection bias. Evaluations of success or failure appear overly influenced by assessments from journalists and pundits. Meilinger does make effective use of the World War II-era strategic bombing survey and similar period documents, but such evidence wanes in his more contemporary analysis.
Thoughts on War contains three major contributions to the body of knowledge. First, it critically examines the foundations of conventional military wisdom. War is a complex undertaking and any unexamined aspect invites risk. Second, Meilinger studies war broadly. Rarely do authors balance air, land, maritime, economic, and political perspectives. In the military realm, Thoughts on War adds an airman’s perspective yet is equally comfortable with land and maritime considerations. While Meilinger devotes most analysis to the military, he effectively weaves economic and political factors into the narrative. Third, the book suggests an alternative solution to every problem it identifies. While the proposals require further development and examination, at a minimum, they are plausible starting points for professional conversation and study. Critical and creative reasoning begin with thoughtful observation. I highly recommend Thoughts on War for all military leaders’ libraries. Meilinger’s judgments could prove to be valuable.
Book Review written by: Richard E. Berkebile, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas