Moment of Battle by James Lacey and Williamson Murray

Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World (Bantam, 478 pp., $30) immerses the reader into the epicenter of world-changing battles. Authors James Lacey and Williamson Murray are acclaimed military historians. Their attention to detail and flowing narration make the book both worthwhile and enjoyable. They are very clear in explaining how each battle affected world history.

All the battle descriptions depict the evolution of military tactics and equipment. The authors also show how human error and dumb luck often made the difference between victory and defeat. Wrong decisions were often based on incorrect information and sometimes decisions were just a matter of ego.

The book also reveals the evolution of military tactics. While some methods of combat might be practiced the same way for decades or even hundreds of years, successful leaders seem to be the ones who were able to change tactics in the midst of the fighting and to take advantage of the enemy’s weaknesses or mistakes.

Moment of Battle never drags. It’s more like twenty adrenaline rushes. I would suggest that the reader allow a bit of time between chapters and not read this book straight through. That way you can take time to appreciate the contributions made by so many. Having a global map at hand to identify locations as we know them today also would be helpful.

The book begins with the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Readers are caught up in a battle in which the victors overcame incredible odds that allowed democracy to maintain its foothold in the world. The screams of the wounded and dying can almost be heard emanating from the pages.

Cultural differences between Western and Eastern Europe still exist today due to the battle of the Teutonberger Wald in the first century A.D. In that battle the seemingly undefeatable Romans were stopped by a German army. The legacy of that fight would continue to play its part in two world wars and the Cold War in the 20th century.

Williamson Murray

England and Spain had their turn at being the most powerful nations on earth. The battles of Hastings in 1066, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 are vividly described here. It is not an exaggeration to say that blood flowed like water and the dead piled up in both engagements.

Lacey and Murray have us travel with Grant to Vicksburg in 1863 and into the Battle of the Marne to open World War I in 1914. We are invited to fly with the pilots in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and in the battle of Midway in the Pacific in1942.

While storming the beaches of Normandy in 1944, we relive the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime. Savagery, blunders, brilliance, heroism, and indescribable suffering are all part of all the fighting, regardless of the century.

France lost its colonies in Indochina to the Viet Minh in 1954. The reader witnesses the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh under Vo Nguyen Giap at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The authors do not discuss the American war in Vietnam. Perhaps not enough time has elapsed for historians to judge if the outcome of the Vietnam War made a big difference in the world. I believe that the Vietnam War has made a tremendous difference in the attitude of the American people toward their own government. It remains to be seen if that change makes a difference throughout the world.

The book concludes with the American military’s drive to Baghdad in 2003. Although this battle took place relatively recently, the authors make predictions of the world-wide effects of the Iraqi defeat and their that nation’s attempt at democracy.

Col. Marcone of the 69th Armor Battalion could be speaking for most Americans who fought in that war.  “They kept coming, rolling over their own dead,” he said of the Iraqi army troops. “They should have learned. Fighting for us was easy. Killing at close range, though, is very hard and unforgettable I am still dealing with having to kill so many people. Destroying the 10th brigade still bothers me.”

—Joseph Reitz

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