Reviews - What do customers think about Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900 (Handbook of Oriental Sudies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik)?
A much needed book on a neglected subject Feb 4, 2009
On the cusp of European involvement, Southeast Asia was not a region bereft of war, patiently waiting for a more warlike Europe to come and colonise it. Michael Charney showed that Southeast Asia was a place of extensive warfare and was developing modern ways of war; just not at the same pace as Europe. It was a vibrant region where countries learnt about warfare from broader Asia as well as from the Middle East.
The book was written along thematic lines and does require a good understanding of Southeast Asian history and geography to get the most out of it. It was not written as a descriptive history but Charney is passionate and knowledgeable about his subject.
The major thrust of the book was that warfare in Southeast Asia was not bloodless ritualistic warfare nor was it warfare lacking in modern character as a European of the time would understand it compared to military technology in Europe. It was a hard task to write about Southeast Asia as a whole, as the region is made up of different and differing countries. Charney occasionally lapsed into generalisations or extrapolating about the whole region from one country. He often divided the region between mainland and maritime Southeast Asia, which is a generally accepted categorisation.
The book covered various themes including culture and warfare, elephants, firearms and supply and transport. The chapter on elephants was fascinating because it went into detail about how various armies used elephants and how the elephant units were the elite of those armies. Elephants were sometimes demanded as tribute and wars were declared over the supply of elephants. While male elephants were the most aggressive, some warriors preferred female elephants in battle as they were easier to control.
The chapter about maritime warfare was also very interesting in that it discussed the advantages that Southeast Asian navies had with oar-driven vessels over European sailing ships in coastal and riverine warfare. Charney returned to this line of argument in his final chapter, about the Nineteenth Century, when steam driven European vessels were finally able to out perform the native vessels.
Charney's discussions on firearms was fascinating as he demonstrated that some of the Vietnamese armies were considered by Western observers to be of the equal of European forces. The reader also learnt that cannons were admired for their spiritual power as much as for their ballistic power and that some rulers would not fire them as they were used for show only.
The book revealed a Southeast Asia that existed before Western intervention and had relations with the Ottoman Turks as well as China and India. It was a region that was overlooked before Western involvement and warfare was an aspect that was also neglected in that study. Charney has produced an excellent book that may not have covered all aspects of warfare in great detail but it did present a great start to the subject. It perhaps would have been helpful to go into more detail on some of the battles mentioned, including maps, to allow the reader to fully understand how the various components of the militaries fitted in but that does not detract from the overall usefulness of the work. I thoroughly recommend this book for those with an interest and an understanding of Southeast Asia.