Aspects of History Book of the Year: Conflict

Our Book of the Year is Conflict, by General David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts.
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As readers and fans of the site will know, Aspects of History runs a Books of the Year feature each December. There is often a history book which stands out for our board and contributors, such as The World by Simon Sebag-Montefiore and The White Ship by Charles Spencer, which turns it in into our unofficial Book of the Year. This year, however, we would like to instigate the award of an official Aspects of History Book of the Year.

After some deliberation between our editor and board members we are delighted to announce the 2023 Aspects of History Book of the Year is Conflict: The Evolution Of Warfare From 1945 To Ukraine, by General David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts. Conflict is an informed and enthralling account of modern warfare. The book is a masterclass in narrative and argument. The quotes, whether from Clausewitz or various commanders on the frontline, resonate. There are some colourful thumbnail biographies of participants. It seems that Napoleon may have had a Douglas MacArthur complex. Given its often bleak and bloody subject matter, Conflict is not without instances of wry humour too. In relation to the Georgian Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s death in 1993, Roberts and Petraeus write, “Reports at the time that he had committed suicide were somewhat undermined by the fact that two bullet holes had been found in his skull rather than the more traditional solitary one.”

There are a couple of themes running through the book. One of which is the virtue of forming a sound strategy, communicating it effectively, implementing said strategy, modifying it – and then starting the process all over again. Conflict teaches us that wars do not always go to plan for the combatants – and that politicians are far from infallible when instigating a war, or trying to extricate themselves from one. Another theme, or message, which the book refers back to is that of the importance of maintaining one’s military capabilities during times of peace, to help serve as a deterrent for any potential act of aggression. Forearmed can forewarn.

Conflict is an important, as well as engaging, book. It is often said that the first draft is history is written by journalists, but what Conflict deftly furnishes us with is a unique and authoritative first-hand perspective of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars written by General David Petraeus, which will instruct both military commanders – and hopefully their political paymasters – for years to come. Conflict may be seen as the first and last word about those fraught campaigns. There is an insight (albeit one that may not be altogether comforting) to be found on nearly every page. Petraeus does not pull his punches when cataloguing the mistakes made by successive administrations during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For all of the “Yes, we can!” rhetoric of some statesmen, sometimes they need to listen when someone says “No, we can’t.”

The final section of the book highlights how the future of war might evolve. Although some of the scenarios and weaponry may seem like science-fiction – involving robots, AI, cyberwarfare and disinformation – they are also, lamentably, grounded in scientific fact. The future does not look bright. But has it ever? As the authors quote Plato towards the end of the book, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” But heeding the lessons of this instructive book may help to make a bleak future a little brighter.

As well as being accessible to the general reader, we hope that Conflict finds its way into the hands of academics and students of military history and international relations. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic – and beyond – should also use their expense accounts, prudently for once, to purchase a copy.

Richard Foreman is an novelist, publisher and the author of Turpin’s Tales.