The Hall of Mirrors
War and Warfare in the Twentieth Century
Helion, Warwick, England, 2018, 312 pages
Book Review published on: June 21, 2019
The Hall of Mirrors: War and Warfare in the Twentieth Century examines the impact of war on the twentieth century, but its broader purpose is to guide practitioners in seeking a better understanding of war and warfare. Jim Storr is a soldier-scholar who melds the pragmatism of his career as an infantryman in the British Army with perspective gleaned from a second career in writing British military doctrine and instructing British professional military education. Storr thus brings a wealth of personal experience and the weight of years of discussion with soldiers, from the most junior to the most senior, and eminent military historians to underpin his argument in The Hall of Mirrors. Although he makes assertions that some will disagree with, the strength of the book is his definitive positions on challenging issues, which serve as points of departure for personal reflection and professional military discourse.
In fourteen chapters, Storr carefully examines war and warfare in the twentieth century from a predominantly British perspective. In the first chapter, he sets the stage for the rest of his argument by beginning with the wars in South Africa and the Philippines. He examines the state of technology and warfighting on land and at sea, as well as the international political situation and, ultimately, the failure of strategy in 1914. In the next three chapters, Storr examines World War I and attacks several long-held but misguided notions, such as the phrase “lions led by donkeys,” which was a popular description of World War I British infantry generals, Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s incompetency, the question of who “won” the Battle of Jutland, and several others.
For the next third of the book, Storr explores the significant interwar period, the time between the conclusion of World War I and the onset of World War II, and World War II. Although there were several conflicts during the interwar period, Storr aptly describes it as a time of technological and doctrinal transition, including discussion of political and economic issues as well as innovations in naval, land, and air warfare. This is when Storr begins to set up his argument against strategic bombing. The next three chapters explore key aspects of war and warfare during World War II, covering such diverse topics as Allied shipping and manpower, air-sea cooperation, 1944 operations in Normandy, irregular warfare in the European Theater of Operations, and the importance of high explosive rounds for Sherman tanks and many others.
The final third of The Hall of Mirrors covers the second half of the twentieth century. Storr devotes one chapter to the violent period of post-World War II decolonization and the dawn of the Cold War. He then describes the importance of technological innovations in weaponry, post-decolonization irregular warfare, and the Gulf War (arguing against the efficacy of strategic bombing in this particular war). The concept of marching versus fighting is another crucial topic, and Storr underscores their importance, especially the latter, for tactical and operational success. For counterinsurgency, however, Storr asserts that the critical struggle is to gain the support of the uncommitted middle. One of his most definitive, and likely most controversial points, is his clear and resounding criticism of strategic bombing. He describes it as both immoral and inefficient, as he argues that the resources put into twentieth-century strategic bombing would have been more effective if used elsewhere, namely with land or air forces that directly supported land and sea forces.
Like the overall book, Storr titled his concluding chapter “The Hall of Mirrors,” in which he explains his larger metaphor. Storr claimed, “History is our best guide to the future, but it is an imperfect mirror … It is like looking down a hall of mirrors … reflections in the reflections of reflections.” This metaphor essentially explains historiography—the history of history—in practitioners’ terms, as today we read what historians have written of the past, which normally they have in turn based on the work of previous generations of historians but interpreted for their current generation. Storr’s “hall of mirrors” metaphor highlighted that the process repeats imperfections with each reflection, or in other words, those exploring the past often repeat previous authors’ misunderstandings without critical thinking and careful analysis.
Throughout the book, Storr sets up the notion of different historical images by using an unusual yet useful tool in his writing. He described the broader context for a historical situation and then began a thought experiment—and here is the unique part—without letting the reader know. He would portray an image of a past situation that was very different than what actually occurred, would analyze why that hypothetical outcome did not happen, and, further, why the historically accurate result occurred. At first, this was a bit jarring, but the further one reads, the more this methodology helps make Storr's points, which are didactic and therefore easily used for professional military education. Given that this approach is novel and interesting, it is a welcome addition for self-studies or seminars. It assists in exploring Storr’s three themes: how we should consider war and warfare—war is a human phenomenon (the subject of his previous excellent book The Human Face of War)—and how we should best study war and warfare.
Overall, this book is very much worth reading for both academics and practitioners interested in war and warfare in the twentieth century. Storr does an admirable job in balancing intellectual rigor with an experienced soldier’s pragmatic views and insights, preciously adding to the literature of military history by bearing his life-long study of war and warfare. The Hall of Mirrors is a penetrating look at one of the most violent centuries in history with a clear view of future conflict. It aims to support practitioners in their efforts to “discover how to win” and is a must read for military professionals and educators within the professional military education system.
Book Review written by: Col. Jon Klug, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas