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Perhaps the best book on the subject
on March 21, 2011
Lest you think Geoffrey Regan has the market cornered on books regarding military incompetence, James M. Perry provides an excellent account of blundering and hubris which led to military disasters.
Perry mostly ignores the blunders of "big wars" (aside from one fairly obscure World War I campaign) and focuses on badly mismanaged colonial conflicts, where a "civilized" country was humbled by a native power inferior in arms and technology, but not tactics or competence. Some conflicts depicted are well-known, others more obscure, but all extremely illustrative of Perry's point: hubris is surely as important a factor in warfare as tactics, technology or leadership.
Rather than place his arguments in a theoretical framework like Regan, Perry examines conflicts on a case-by-case basis. There are significant differences between what went wrong in Braddock's Monogahela Expedition, say, and Charles Gordon's doomed stand at Khartoum against the Mahdists, and Perry accounts for a variety of failures. Simple incompetence is often compounded by factors often beyond an army's control: political finagling (Italy's invasion of Ethiopia), logsitical problems (the Rif War), climate (the "reconquest" of Haiti), and a simple idea that the enemy is scarcely worth fighting. These detailed examinations are both interesting and thought-provoking, making it clear how and why a specific campaign or expedition failed.
Perry's writing style is crisp, lively and easy to read, making this a treat for both history buffs and lay readers. He doesn't hestitate to pass judgment, but he's about as judicious as an author can be to the likes of Arthur St. Clair and Charles Townshend. A few chapters are subpar; for instance, Perry's coverage of the Rif War is basically a cliffnotes version of David Woolmann's excellent Rebels in the Rif. I agree with another reviewer on this page, that conflicts more recent than 1925 might have been surveyed, especially post-colonial adventures like Indochina/Vietnam, Suez, Grenada, etc. On the whole, though, there isn't much to complain about.
With the possible exception of Charles Fall's From the Jaws of Victory, Arrogant Armies is the best book I've read on the subject of military incompetence and a worthy addition to any history buff's bookshelf.