Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Israel war history entertaining, informative

By Ben Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Christian end-of-the-world theologies often focus on a battle of Armageddon in what is now northern Israel.

        Rather than join their speculation or debate the validity of prophecy in the Book of Revelation, Eric H. Cline recounts four millennia of bloodshed at Har (Mount) Megiddo, as Armageddon is called in Hebrew.

  The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age
        In this book, Dr. Cline is a popularizer. Among academics, that can suggest a scholar is not pushing knowledge forward with original research. Here, it is a compliment.

        Dr. Cline makes a lot of research, some of it his, accessible to nonspecialists. Just as Samuel Sandmel, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan and others were introduced to us through their popular writings rather than scholarly journals, books and dissertations.

        Dr. Cline did much of his research before leaving the University of Cincinnati's classics department for George Washington University. He begins his tale before the first recorded battle in 2350 B.C.E. and carries it through the Yom Kippur War in 1973. It is a crash course in history, geography, politics and archaeology as each chapter focuses on one battle.

        Dr. Cline starts with recognition of the role of Armageddon in Christian thought and ends with a fuller exposition of that theme, tying the book together.

        Har Megiddo and the larger Jezreel Valley are prominent in the histories of contending empires and kingdoms in this endlessly contentious region.

        Dr. Cline is at his best describing strategies and tactics, and the records and archaeological clues from which they are inferred.

        For instance, Musmusc pass was ideal for ambush because it forced an attacker to string out his forces for miles and make them vulnerable. However, daring commanders repeatedly used it for successful surprise attacks.

        Why? Apparently, they guessed correctly that foes would think conventionally and leave the pass unguarded. It happened thousands of years ago, and as recently as Gen. Edmund Allenby's march from Jerusalem during World War I. As with so many successful tacticians, the Brit knew the history of wars where he would fight.

        Clear maps show how each army approached and departed. A detailed index makes the book easy to use as a reference.

        However, some editorial choices are irritating. Dr. Cline refers to mountain passes and other geographical features that figure in a given battle, but leaves them off his map. In the same way, many photos are neither helpful nor well-reproduced.

        A tougher edit would have minimized the frequent mentions of Allenby; and the endless reminders that Acre is Acco, 'Ayn Jalut is the Spring of Goliath and el-Fuleh is Afula.

        Lastly, in the chapter on the first Israeli-Arab War, Dr. Cline offers a photo of “bullets found in trench at Megiddo.” They aren't. Four are spent shell casings without bullets. The other appears to be an unfired cartridge, with casing and bullet intact.

        Those are quibbles. This book is informative, easy to read and a pleasure to own. Would that we had more popularizers of his talent.


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