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The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, by Cathal J. Nolan, Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, $34.95

All too often nations envision war as a grand and glorious enterprise. To this way of thinking, easy victory is virtually assured through the efforts of talented military commanders, high troop morale and quick, decisive battles. Through war governments seek tactical victories to permanently alter the course of history. But this idealized vision of war soon evaporates when it encounters such harsh realities as mass slaughter, the decimation of national economies and the destruction of societies.

In The Allure of Battle Cathal Nolan—an associate professor of history at Boston University—argues that wars are not won merely by the actions of gifted military commanders and decisive battles, but through endurance and attrition. Drawing on historic examples from ancient Greece to World War II, the author illustrates just how the dangerous vanity of aggressor nations and the hubris of civilian and military commanders have led to catastrophic defeat.

Nolan also sounds a warning, noting how technological and societal changes over time have had significant effects on military actions. Failure to recognize such changes, he argues, can spell defeat for countries less equipped to withstand a protracted war.

Nolan provides an important historical overview for modern military and political leaders tempted by the siren song of war and under the delusion that conflict will be short-lived under the right commander. Ultimate victory is more dependent on which side has the technological capability and stubborn willpower to outlast its opponents and endure a war of attrition.

—S.L. Hoffman