2 December 2016

Some Thoughts on Maks, Japs, and Yanks.

Christ, what a year we've had. Bloody Ramadan, Nice terror attack, Orlando shooting, Brexit, Trump, failed Turkish coup and Erdogan's purges, FARC referendum, Panama leaks, Korean shaman scandal, Brazilian presidential impeachment... That's not even mentioning all the other noteworthy events going on in Syria, Yemen, Baluchistan, and Philippines. Well, only one more month left in 2016 so let's just hope the year doesn't end in a literal bang from some surprise asteroid strike. In the meantime, I'm gonna try to wrap up my Some Thoughts on Books of 2016. This is Part 4 of 6.

An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic Pike-Phalanx at War
First up for the military history fans is Christopher Matthew's new book on the Macedonian phalanx. For those who don't know who Christopher Matthew is, he's the dude that wrote A Storm of Spears, an absolutely kickass book on hoplite warfare. That is one book you have to read if you're a fan of ancient Greek warfare. Unlike your typical book on that topic which simply relies on pictorial depictions and second-hand accounts of hoplite warfare, A Storm of Spears is unique in that it gives more weight to analyzing the actual arms and armour. From this, Matthew first outlines what is and isn't biomechanically practical about the way these arms and armour were used before coming to theories that are still compatible with the historical art and accounts of hoplite warfare. This comprehensive approach is again applied to the Macedonian phalanx for An Invincible Beast, and once again, I'm left astonished. 
When you look at traditional depictions of hoplites like the pic above and compare it to the Macedonian phalangite, you get the impression that the latter was quite a revolution in warfare. But once you come around to the view of hoplite warfare as rarely involving a literal othismos (shield-shoving), and more about a style of battle that emphasized outreaching the enemy with a long-ass spear used to deliver conservative underarm thrusts aimed towards the chest, you realize that the phalangite was less a revolution than it was a natural evolution of the traditional hoplite. If a hoplite's true strength comes from the reach of his spear, then it makes perfect sense why a person might come up with the bright idea of extending the spear. And the longer your spear is, the less important having a large shield becomes, especially if you have to start using two hands to use your spear-turned pike. So give a hoplite a longer spear and a smaller shield and... voila! You essentially have yourself a phalangite. This is essentially Matthew's view of the Iphicratean reforms. Basically, there's 3 main interpretations to the military reforms of the Athenian general Iphicrates. One is that the reforms were directed only for Athenian marines. This is the idea that Iwaaki actually uses in Historie when Eumenes discusses how the sarissa came about. The second interpretation is that the reforms targeted the light infantry skirmishers since it was said to result in a new style of "peltasts." Finally, the third interpretation is that it specifically targeted the traditional heavy infantry hoplites, and that the reformed hoplites were only called "peltasts" because they were now using the smaller peltast shields instead of the traditional aspis. Matthew advocates this third interpretation, and then uses Iphicrates' close ties to the Macedonian royal house to overturn the popular idea that Philip II created the phalangites in favour of the idea that it was actually Alexander II who likely adopted (not created) Iphicrates' new peltast/phalangite. This is all just in the first chapter of the book and I was once again left feeling like I knew absolutely nothing about the Macedonian phalanx. I always took it for granted that Philip II was the one who came up with the phalangites but like Matthew points out, the very fact that Iphicrates was an adopted son of Amyntas and a close friend to Alexander II seems to very heavily support the idea that the phalangite was already a thing almost 2 decades before Philip II's reign.

After establishing the origin of the Macedonian phalanx, the book turns to the nitty gritty details of the phalangite's arms/armour and how he was expected to fight and march. Way too much stuff to summarize here, but trust me when I say it's a gold mine for all things phalangite-related. His chapter on phalangite organization, officer locations, and how they would have served before and during battles are all stuff I never encountered before in other books, let alone even considered. Definitely not a book I recommend if you're not already strongly interested in the topic, but if you are, you should probably put it at the top of your to-read list.
Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan
Mention Japan to your average history fan and the conversation will inevitably wind down to: a) samurai/Sengoku-jidai b) Tale of Genji/Heian court-culture, or c) Imperial Japan/WW2. I for one, am sick of it! No, youtube. Fuck off with your video recommendations on the "truth behind the katana." No, cultural snobs. You can shove that gazillionth translation/commentary on the Tale of Genji up your pretentious asshole. And for Hitler's sake, WW2-nerds. Don't you ever get tired of debating whether or not the nukes were justified? You know what I love about history? The mystery. Who doesn't like wondering about the Sea Peoples, origins of the Basques, or any one of technologically-impressive ruins of Meso and South Americas? A love for the mist-shrouded past combined with my interest in state formation is why I love ancient Japanese history (anything pre-Heian). So I demand publishers to give me more fucking books on ancient Japan so I don't have to try to dig up pdfs for journals I don't even have access to!
Read this if you've never thought about how to think history from a demographical perspective
...Unlikely wishes aside, I am incredibly glad to have found this book on archaeological controversies of ancient Japan by William Wayne Farris. I previously thought Farris was more of a medieval Japanese historian after reading his Japan's Medieval Population and (parts of) Heavenly Warriors, but luckily for me, he’s also into ancient Japan. Basically, the topics covered in this book are:

1.       What the heck was the Yamatai and who was Himiko really?
2.       What exactly was the relation between the gooks and the nips?
3.       What’s the deal with all the pre-Heian/Kyoto palaces?
4.       Taika reforms. For show or fa’ sho?

For those of you who don’t know jack about Japanese history, the first question is about whether the famous Yamatai mentioned in early Chinese records like Sanguozhi (yes, Sanguozhi not only mentions what the RotTK heroes were really like, but has an incredibly important chapter on China’s Eastern neighbours) is the same Yamato that was based in central-Japan many centuries later. The second question concerns the relationship between Korean and Japanese state formation which – surprise, surprise – has been subject to much controversy. The third question is about what we can learn about Japanese state development from all the palatial constructions that came before Heian-kyo (these palaces are the ones that get barely a page of mention in a typical Japanese history overview). Finally, the last question is about whether or not the famous Taika reforms really did turn Japan into a centralized state (for a time, at least)… or if they were, instead, wish fulfillment fantasies for a state that never really escaped the trend towards decentralization.

The chapter about palatial architecture and construction is probably the slowest part, but the book overall is fantastic. Farris gives a concise intro of each topic as well as the evolving view by archaeologists that he ends up turning what would otherwise be fairly dense archaeological studies into an engaging read that even a 1st year undergraduate student can easily pick up and read. I would still recommend reading the chapters on ancient Japan in any survey of Japanese history like Varley’s Japanese Culture or at least skim through a few Wikipedia pages before jumping into this book though.
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
There's a saying that goes something like, "In Europe, 100 miles is a long distance while in America, 100 years is a long time." While I don't think that's entirely true, I do think the quote's a good example of the general belittlement of American history. The snob with a British accent in my head scoffs, "Not even 3 centuries old? Come back when you've got at least 5 under your belt, kiddo." I'm honest enough to admit that I've got an Anti-American bias when it comes to current events, but even I think it's saddening that so few around the world actually study how the most powerful empire to have ever existed actually came to be.
I think Mormonism ought to be taught more widely around the world as a case study
on how even a "cult" mocked by contemporaries can organically evolve into a mass religion.
So if you're not particularly interested in American history as I was some years back, I recommend Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought. This shit is +800 pages on less than 4 decades (!!!) of American history. So think again if you thought a country less than 3 centuries old doesn't have some riveting tales in store. Interested in democracy and mass politics? This is the fucking age of Jacksonian democracy, when badass/scumbag Andrew Jackson campaigned and won on a populist and anti-elitist/financial platform! The era that gave birth to the spoils system in U.S! Interested in technology? This is the era when electric telegraph lines, railways, and canals were constructed on a national scale, gradually transforming a federation of states into a more coherent country. Interested in religion? This is the time of the Second Great Awakening, with all sorts of millenarian movements infused with utopian social progressivist ideas, not to mention the freakin' birth of Mormonism! Christ, I can't believe that actually became a full-fledged religion but damn, it's got a pretty cool history. Never even knew there was a Mormon War. Or if bigger wars are more your thing, there's the Mexican-American War! I know this is a forgotten war for most Americans who probably scratch their heads at the opening line of the Marines' Hymn ("From the Halls of Montezuma"), but fuck, it's a disservice not to remember General Winfield Scott's kickass amphibious landing at Veracuz and the subsequent push to Mexico City. Sorry, Mexicans, but you gotta admit it's one hell of a campaign, considering the US Army of this time was still mostly a volunteer force.

Overall, What Hath God Wrought is proof that American history is worth reading about. It's certainly convinced me to check out the rest of the Oxford History of the United States series (I really should read more about American Civil War since I never studied that at school...). Alright, that's enough gushing about American history. Next time, I'll be back with a post on some economic history books.

No comments:

Post a Comment