Of the many forms of history, military history ranks as one of the most difficult to write, because of the obstacles and temptations it presents. The obstacles include the variety of disciplines to consider and combine: military, political, economic, technical, geographic, and, since wars involve men, psychological. The temptations are either to surrender to an illusory simplicity or abandon the narrative to excessive detail.
The military historian can be confronted with the paradox of having either too few details or too many. Precision regarding ancient battles is impossible to attain; one can never know the exact number that fought at Marathon or precisely what happened at Cannae. Many modern conflicts, however, remain almost equally vague: Contemporary states seem to halve their combat casualties and double those of their opponents, and the tactics involved are obscured for reasons of security and the next war. In such instances, the historian is tempted to mask the lack of facts by facile assumptions and post hoc calculation. On the other hand, since the sixteenth century, constant accumulation of archives and records have presented the military historian with the opposite problem of too much detail: too much to be examined, too much to be assimilated, and, for many writers, entirely too much to be presented to the reader in a coherent fashion.
One solution is to succumb to the detail, presenting it in its totality. This results in a mass of unit designations, commanders’ names, and geographical locations, none of which makes sense unless the reader already has a firm grasp of the campaign or battle.
A second unsatisfactory solution is to assume an air of spurious certainty, much like that adopted when the material is too scant. In such cases, the historian confidently presents a narrative which resembles the neat and orderly map a general might prepare before a battle rather than the actual confused and muddled engagement itself.
A third approach, however, the one adopted by Alvin Coox in Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939, is for the historian to plunge into the details, omitting none in his research, but piecing them together in an orderly fashion, and then giving the reader a thorough, clearly organized description of the structure revealed by those details. It is this general outline that is important, but it must be built upon the details and not merely assumed beforehand.
This understanding of the mosaic of facts by the historian is essential to overcome the greatest obstacle: explaining what happened by means of why it happened and showing what effect it had on subsequent events.
Reconstructing actions of the past is most difficult when the subject is war, that mixture of emotion and confusion, with testimony from a multitude of actors and partisan observers. To discern the causes of those actions is perhaps the single most difficult task for any historian; indeed, many have wondered if the task is possible at all, as Isaiah Berlin discussed in his classic work, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953).
Assuming that, at least to some degree, cause and effect can be determined, the military historian must again immerse himself in detail to understand events. Why did one army win, its opponent lose? Was it a difference in ability of the commanders, morale disparities between the troops, or superior against inferior arms and equipment?
In Nomonhan, Coox examines all these factors in a masterful fashion. Recounting the full story of a complex, little-known, but highly significant border war that raged in northeastern Asia just before the outbreak of World War II, Coox places the struggle in its historical context and analyzes the results as they affected the course of the larger war.
In the early 1930’s, the Japanese Empire was expanding on the Asian mainland. Moving northward from Korea (annexed in 1910), the Japanese military assumed virtual control of Manchuria, China’s northernmost province. Chief instrument of this thrust was the Kwantung Army, named after territory Japan had forcibly leased from China; the army retained the name even after it was responsible for the whole of Manchuria—indeed, after it was literally responsible for the creation of a separate, if hardly independent, nation known as the Empire of Manchukuo.
That a field army could create its own nation was possible only because of the unique nature of the Japanese Imperial Army. The Kwantung Army was not under control of the Japanese Army general staff; thus, its orders “were private communications only, not really imperial orders; no matter how many such...
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