What We’re Reading: The History of Battles and the King of Cuba

Weekly reviews of what’s on our bookshelves.


Battles That Changed History

At any given moment, several conflicts are raging around the world. Today, the Syrian civil war is still claiming lives and drawing in foreign powers that want to either empower or contain the Assad regime and defeat the Islamic State once and for all. The conflict in Afghanistan continues after nearly 18 years of fighting, even as peace talks seem ever-closer to a deal. The frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine simmers as neither side is willing to back down. And the civil war in Yemen shows no signs of resolution. Only two years ago, the Korean Peninsula seemed on the brink of war as North Korea refused to halt its nuclear weapons program. Earlier this year, tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir nearly erupted into a full-fledged conflict.

Indeed, it may seem like an especially dangerous moment in history. But having multiple conflicts seething at the same time has been the world’s predominant condition. Though they have a devastating human toll, most of these conflicts will not leave a major mark on history, which raises an important question: Which conflicts change the course of human history? Answering this question is the main task of “Battles That Changed History,” an illustrated guide to more than 3,000 years of conflict and military history.

The book is divided into five chapters, each covering hundreds of years of war. It begins with the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., when Darius I, the king of Persia, sent troops into central Greece in response to revolts Ionia nine years earlier. The Athenians were able to fight off the Persians at Marathon, a victory that granted them only a 10-year reprieve before the next Persian incursion. From here, the book goes on to cover hundreds of other conflicts, including all the legendary battles that have been the subject of countless books and movies like Dunkirk, Midway and Pearl Harbor during World War II and Gettysburg in the American Civil War. But it also examines some lesser-known battles such as the 1521 Siege of Tenochtitlan, in which Spanish forces conquered the Aztec Empire and established Spanish rule in Central America.

“Battles That Changed History” covers each conflict in a maximum of a few pages, so don’t expect a huge amount of depth. But the accompanying illustrations, maps and photography make up for the lack of detail. It’s a fascinating way to explore military history and to try to put current conflicts in historical perspective.

Valentina Jovanovski, editor

King of Cuba
By Cristina Garcia

Spending a week in Cuba, the timeless land where nobody hurries and where Wi-Fi hot spots are few and far between, is a superb way to escape the daily fire hose of reading required by this job and dig in to, you know, actual books. Taking a cue from my colleague Jacob Shapiro, I thought it a good idea to enrich my trip with fiction. Cristina Garcia’s darkly funny “King of Cuba” did the trick.

The novel ruminates on Cuban history since the revolution through the vantage points of two octogenarians on either side of the Florida Straits. El Comandante, based on a largely bedridden Fidel Castro, is equal parts despair and defiance as he fixates on his decaying legacy and whether immortality is still possible. Goyo Herrera, his wealthy Miami-based analogue whose family lost nearly everything in the revolution, craves redemption for his failure to stand up to the tides of history and is determined to outlive “the tyrant” – even if he has to take matters into his own feeble hands. El Comandante spends most of his time stewing about his deteriorating health, power and communist state, as well as efforts by his family and doctors to micromanage his decline. Goyo spends his time basically the same way – but with endless hours on exile websites claiming to provide real-time tracking of the tyrant’s vital signs. The pair, once classmates at the University of Havana in the 1950s, find themselves locked in an extremely slow motion race to meet their destiny.

Three other recommendations that may be of interest: The History of the Cuban Revolution podcast, for an (unfinished) crash course on how things in Cuba got this way; David Ariosto’s “This is Cuba,” for a look at the Kafkaesque inner workings of modern Cuba from the viewpoint of an American journalist who spent much of the past decade in Havana; and “Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution” for a more in-depth account of Cuban history.

Phillip Orchard, analyst

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.