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Wall Street Journal reporter Perry awards most of the booby prizes to pompous British officers who looked down on "inferior" native peoples in the heady days of empire. Some Spanish, Italian, French, and American disasters also make the list. The author combs primary sources, such as diaries, letters, memoirs, and news reports, to create some exotic, fascinating tales of idiots (Perry's word) responsible for an appalling loss of human life. We read of Braddock's defeat at the hands of French and Indians (who used guerilla-like tactics against the regimented British troops) in the Pennsylvania wilderness (1765); the destruction of General St. Clair's army (178990), the worst defeat ever inflicted by Indians on an American army; the thrashing inflicted on the French by liberated slaves in Haiti (17931804); and such British debacles as Afghanistan (183942), the First Boer War (188081), and the fall of Khartoum (188485). Also, Perry recounts the Italian catastrophe at Adowa, Ethiopia (189596), American general Shafter's incompetence in the Spanish-American War (1898), the bungled Spanish War of conquest in Morocco (192126), and the American mini-disaster in Somalia (199294). Perry argues that these military failures had many common factors: the hubris of commanders, contempt for native soldiers and guerrillas, bad intelligence, over-reliance on advanced equipment, and incompetent military and political leadership. In most cases, the best armies of the times were defeated by mobile, lightly armed natives.
A study of historic episodes and characters that should be of interest to readers at a time of military adventures in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. It should also be required reading for military cadets, politicians, and the bureaucrats who typically direct wars from a safe distance.