Refractions of war

Empire of chance

During my recovery I’ve done less writing than I would like but more reading than I thought possible.  Out of the blue I received Anders Engberg-Pedersen‘s Empire of chance: the Napoleonic wars and the disorder of things, which turns out to be one of the best books I’ve read in an age.  Here’s the summary:

Napoleon’s campaigns were the most complex military undertakings in history before the nineteenth century. But the defining battles of Austerlitz, Borodino, and Waterloo changed more than the nature of warfare. Concepts of chance, contingency, and probability became permanent fixtures in the West’s understanding of how the world works. Empire of Chance examines anew the place of war in the history of Western thought, showing how the Napoleonic Wars inspired a new discourse on knowledge.

Soldiers returning from the battlefields were forced to reconsider basic questions about what it is possible to know and how decisions are made in a fog of imperfect knowledge. Artists and intellectuals came to see war as embodying modernity itself. The theory of war espoused in Carl von Clausewitz’s classic treatise responded to contemporary developments in mathematics and philosophy, and the tools for solving military problems—maps, games, and simulations—became models for how to manage chance. On the other hand, the realist novels of Balzac, Stendhal, and Tolstoy questioned whether chance and contingency could ever be described or controlled.

As Anders Engberg-Pedersen makes clear, after Napoleon the state of war no longer appeared exceptional but normative. It became a prism that revealed the underlying operative logic determining the way society is ordered and unfolds.

And here is the Contents list:

Introduction: The Prism of War
1. The Geometry of War: Siege Architecture and Narrative Form
2. State of War 1800: Topography and Chance
3. Modus Operandi: On Touch, Tact, and Tactics
4. Exercising Judgment: Technologies of Experience
5. Paper Empires: Military Cartography and the Management of Space
6. The Poetics of War: Cartography and the Realist Novel
Conclusion: The Disorder of Things

It’s a stunning achievement: beautifully written, meticulously argued, bristling with ideas and substantive insights.

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