Midget Ninja & Tactical Laxatives. Bizarre Warfare through the Ages

I don’t have to tell our readers about the importance of historical science. The hard efforts of professionals and amateurs alike of mapping the course of history provides us with understanding of how things were like in the past, and enables the public to paint a picture of life hundreds or thousands of years ago.  

In addition, military history provides us with the basics necessary to make spectacular movies about gladiators, Greek Companions and Roman legions, about the Crusades, Scottish rebellions by enigmatic freedom fighters in a-historical kilts, American revolutionaries against English oppressors, and waves of brave soldiers attacking otherwise irrelevant beaches in France while being mowed down by German machine guns (that many, if not all, of these films only have a very loose connection with actual history is, in part, irrelevant, since historic science is still the basis of such entertainment, no matter how little connection there is in the end). Aside from that, history offers us amazing stories which can be impressive, bizarre, and/or hilarious to boot – even if one does not care for anything older than the latest series of Game of Thrones – and which, at the same time, can actually inform us of how things were done when Rome was just three buildings and a cow put together, Jesus was also known as Gregory, Europe was littered with lots of bearded guys killing each other, popes could make kings crawl, lots of sane people were literally allowing enemies to shoot at them while keeping up a steady pace, and Germany was still the main bad guy. Such knowledge is perfectly suited to impress fellow guests at dinner parties, or as a conversation starter when you’ve just ran out of things to say. That said, I can advise you to restrain yourself during dates, as some of the more gory aspects may not be deemed all that romantic by the potential significant other (perhaps it would be wise to save it for your bro’s first). 

The main goal of the booklet Midget Ninja & Tactical Laxatives. Bizarre Warfare through the Ages, written by Philip Sidnell (an editor of books on mostly military history), seems to be to provide readers with such sort of information. The testimonial on the cover says it all: “Entertaining, informative and funny”, and that is exactly what this booklet does. It offers short stories of strange – sometimes hilarious – military episodes during some 3-4000 years of military history, from Ancient Egypt all through the ancient Greek and Roman world, the Middle Ages, Early Modern era, and ending with a short chapter about weapons possibly entering the stage in the next decades or so. The book contains 17 chapters varying in length between 2 and 20 pages, depending on how many interesting details the author found during his research. There seems to be little chronological order to the whole, instead the stories are grouped based on certain themes, like the use of war elephants, stories related to sieges, weapons, suicide missions, and so on. Within the chapters, one sometimes finds oneself reading about World War 2 one moment, and reading about Alexander the Great’s dance with death the next. That said, there is some chronological order within certain paragraphs, and the sometimes seemingly haphazard order of stories never becomes a problem, at least not in my opinion. After all, it doesn’t really matter in what order the stories (varying in length between a few sentences and several pages long) are provided. In fact, I found it rather refreshing to jump from one era to the next; I can imagine that covering all the ancient tales first would have become rather boring after a while, and that seems to be rather counterproductive in a booklet like this.

I certainly won’t provide a list of all the stories mentioned by Mr. Sidnell; the book contains a little over 150 pages of main text (no introduction or conclusion/aftermath, which would have been rather redundant anyway), and there are too many stories to relate. But a taster is certainly in order. Most suitable is the eye-catcher itself, the cover; one episode mentioned in the book is how a certain ninja of small stature managed to kill one of the greatest warriors of its time during a rather private moment at a rather smelly location. For more details, read the book!

Charles VI

The nature of the book implies that many of the stories focus on the ancient period and World War II. This is to be expected; after all, the ancient world was full of superstition, historiography full of events of a dubious nature, and World War II was massive enough to generate a wild event or weapon every once in a while. Still, as the editor of Medieval Warfare magazine, I was rather disappointed at the low number of medieval stories mentioned. The reader of Medieval Warfare magazine will have to be content with the stories of Tamerlane’s solution against Indian elephants, Gautier d’Autreche’s stallion causing the death of his master, the death of the Viking Sigurd after being bitten, the end of King Edmund (involving Cnut the Great and possibly also a latrine), the use of camels by early Muslims to surprise a Byzantine army, pig fat and Jurrasic-Park-like situations during medieval sieges (but most readers of Medieval Warfare will already be familiar with such stories; read Brian Burfield’s article on mining during medieval sieges in Medieval Warfare II-5), the reason behind the sinking of the Mary Rose (also covered in an earlier Medieval Warfare news item and blog), another example of cruelty by Vlad the Impaler, and a nervous Charles VI going mad because of loud noises. I am fairly certain that more fascinating episodes can be found, and it’s a shame that no more are included. Then again, offering a full account of all bizarre or funny tales must not have been Mr. Sidnell’s intention (how could it?), and I can imagine that, if a choice has to be made, one prefers to include the story of the alien crash-landing postponing a battle during the ancient period instead of something else.

Written in a fluent style, easy to read, with lots of sarcasm and humour, and several nice pointers to modern (and less modern) comics and movies, it’s fun and never becomes boring. In addition, it accidentally provides the reader with quite of lot of information about military history through the ages. Of course, it’s nothing compared to the latest  Illustrated Oxford History, and many of you will recognize quite a few of the battles, equipment and characters mentioned (if not all), but it was more than I expected when I started. Being an enthusiast of military history for quite some time now – and a downright nerd when it comes to medieval or World War II stuff – I was at times still pleasantly surprised, such as the time when I read about the American attempt to bomb Japan into submission by using bats as bomb-delivering-devices, or the plan to make an aircraft carrier out of ice. The book contains a few pages of notes spread rather haphazardly throughout the book, but I don’t think that the author ever really felt the need to offer solid evidence for all his stories anyway. That is not to say that many of the narratives are nonsense; in fact, he seems to base his work on proper scientific research done by historians throughout the ages; his work is simply of such nature that including the proper footnotes for each and every story would take away the fun in reading. And where he does mention the odd cock and bull (aspect of a) story (like the aliens), his sarcasm is often so apparent that even those people convinced of the alien origins of the pyramids won’t take it seriously.

The book, published by Pen and Sword, is available for $ 12.75 at Amazon. To be honest, that seems to be rather expensive for what it offers, as one can walk through it in what seems like a few hours. In fact, the book is less suitable for intensive reading anyway, as it’s nothing more than many short stories grouped together, and there’s no conclusion or climax to look forward to. Instead, it is more a book perfectly suited for the nightstand, or for when one needs to spend some time on the latrine, reading a few stories every once in a while to wonder at what sort of strange things have been done by mankind during their less glorious moments of killing one another. That said, this lack of cohesion is actually the only drawback I could find (aside from the lack of medieval episodes, that is), if one could even call it a drawback. So, if you are one to enjoy the occasional bizarre story of military history, this is surely a book which should be on your bookshelf or nightstand, preferably quite prominently, if only to let your guests see the rather dubious cover, which would enable you to spend several hours of shared laughter and amazement without too much difficulty.

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