Holy Wars - 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land

By Paul Robinson 31 May 2013 0

Holy Wars by Gary L Rashba is something of an ?it does exactly what it says on the tin? type book!  The intention is to give an overview of ?the Holy Land?s profound military history?.  And whatever your thoughts and views of the modern day problems of this part of the Middle East it is undeniably an area with more than its fair share of military history; one might say it?s curse is to be at a strategic crossroads between North Africa and Asia.

The book covers the history of warfare in the area of modern day Israel and the Palestinian territories starting with the conquest of Canaan by the ancient Israelites and ending with the conflicts of the twenty first century between modern day Israel and Hamas.  Over the course of seventeen main chapters all the salient wars and invasions are covered.

The first four chapters cover what most wargamers refer to as the ?Biblical? period (Israelites, Philistines, and Assyrians) and for obvious reasons (a lack of detailed historical accounts etc) are more in the way of overviews.  And whilst the author admits to being more of a storyteller than a historian he really should give a health warning to the numbers quoted in some of the battle accounts.  Many are quite clearly the almost made up guestimates that are typical of this period of military history.  They should never be taken at face value.

The next three chapters take us through the classical period and into, what in Western European terms; we might call the Dark Ages.  So we have the Maccabean War, the intervention of the forces of Rome and the clash of early Islamic Arab forces with the Byzantine Empire.

Chapters eight to ten take us through the Medieval period; the end game for the Crusader Kingdoms of Outremer, the less well known clash between Mongols and Mamluks and then the latter taking on the might of the Ottoman Empire in 1519.

There is then a leap into more modern times and the eruption of Revolutionary France onto the scene.  For anyone who was not aware of this early episode in Napoleon Bonaparte?s career then this chapter will be a surprising revelation; it is a small part of military history that has always fascinated me.  There is then another step forward into the twentieth century with a chapter on the First World War.  For anyone who only knows about Lawrence of Arabia ?and all that? the author provides a satisfying summary of how  British Empire forces drove back the Ottoman Empire in a series of campaigns that in the main were far removed from the horrific trench warfare on the Western front and elsewhere.

The final five chapters cover what might be lazily termed the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the last century.  So we have an episode form the 1948 War of (Israeli) independence-the defence of the Yad Mordechai kibbutz; next is the assault by Israeli paratroopers on the Mitla Pass from the 1956 Sinai Campaign; then we have the 1967 Six Day War; followed by the Syrian assault on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur war and finally the air campaign over the Bekaa Valley during Israel?s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. These chapters are followed by an Epilogue which briefly brings things up-to-date with the 2006 Lebanon War and Israeli incursions into Gaza in 2008.

I have to say that these latter chapters are something that gave me an issue with the book.  Whilst I would not go as far as to say they are pro-Israeli the events are clearly in each case told from an Israeli perspective; we follow their forces into action whilst the ?Arab? forces are clearly the ?other side?.   Many military histories take this approach, it is often less complicated to tell the story from one side?s point of view only.  And in these cases I don?t think the author says anything controversial and the issues written about are a matter of recent record.  The two military events in the Epilogue are written in a similar vein but I felt less comfortable that I was being fed a point of view meant to further a political agenda.  However if you don?t want to find yourself morally and intellectually challenged avoid military history as a subject matter!

I think one of the things a book like this does is show the layering of history in the area and whilst modern day problems might be clearly identified as starting with the British perfidity during the dark hours of the First World War, history had already created a complex backdrop to the dramas of the twentieth and twenty first centuries!

My comments above aside I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Whilst I was familiar with many of the campaigns, having them juxtaposed closely together really brought it home that whilst technology might change there are certain military constants brought about through logistical requirements, geography and topography.  Also the nature of man in war is also very much a constant; bringing out the very best in people at the same time as humanity displays its worst characteristics!  Also Mr Rashba has a very nice writing style which lets the action roll along and in the main gives the book a feel of a novel rather than just a series of dry historical accounts.

The book is supported by a number of maps for those unfamiliar with the geography of this part of the world.  Also there are a number of black and white photographs showing locations mentioned in the text, artwork illustrating historical events and troops in action and equipment from the modern period.

Overall I have some difficulty recommending this book to a specific audience mainly because it covers such a vast time period!  I wonder whether it is something more for political scientists, geographers or socio-political historians who wish to understand the military background to the modern day situation.  I think those interested in military history generally and was looking for a primer on the Middle East could use this as a launch pad.  Or it could be helpful for someone interested in a specific period of warfare in the region and who wants to get a greater depth of understanding.

Available now in paperback from Casemate Publishing, normal price £11.99/$18.99 (ISBN 978112001531)

Review written by: Paul Robinson




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