The short history approach to military conflict

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by jumpinjarhead, Sep 18, 2009.

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  1. Long Marches, In Brief
    The 'short history' approach to military conflict


    Twenty or 30 years ago, the study of armed conflict was deeply unfashionable among Western scholars. The preference then was for social history and for theory-driven investigations of the past, like "postcolonial studies." Those intellectual fashions have not disappeared, of course, but over the past two decades, war has invaded the college campus, so to speak. Among the most prolific scholars of military history is Jeremy Black, who has written accounts of 18th-century British grand strategy and World War II, among much else. Now he has taken on the daunting task of boiling his knowledge of military matters down to a single volume.

    There is no overarching theme to "War: A Short History." Rather, Mr. Black is intent on making a number of related claims about war and the men who wage it. First, he rejects the "Eurocentricity" of so much war study, by including copious examples from the Middle East and East Asia. Second, he agrees with John Lynn and John Keegan, two other eminent military historians, that war should be seen as a "process"—a tangled, dynamic interaction— and not as a series of discrete events. And finally, he wants us to realize that complexity, not progress, is the key to understanding war and indeed history as a whole.


    By Jeremy Black

    Continuum, 184 pages, $24.95

    World War One

    By Norman Stone

    Basic Books, 226 pages, $25

    Mr. Black notes that some military practices that seem to be modern inventions are actually long-established. The undeclared war, for example, was routine throughout the early modern period. Then, as now, it made sense for nation-states, at times, to contain the fighting by avoiding an all-out commitment to war, as the British and French did in North America in 1754, before the outbreak of full-scale war in Europe two years later, or as the U.S. and China did in Korea between 1950 and 1953. Also routine were the concepts of pre-emptive and preventive war. The British and Frederick the Great's Prussia regularly practiced both in the 18th century. In 1718, Britain famously launched a surprise attack on the Spanish fleet off Cape Passaro; in 1756, Prussia struck first at an encircling Austro-Russian-French coalition.

    As for "asymmetric warfare"—to be found these days most visibly in the insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan—Mr. Black reminds us that the strategy dates back through the peasant revolts in the 17th century to the Greek wars against Persia in antiquity. As one might expect, such guerrilla warfare is most successful when it targets the weakest point of an apparently stronger adversary, such as extended supply lines or, on the home front, a flagging political will.

    At the core of Mr. Black's project is a subversion of the "teleologies" that dominate so much of our thinking about war. Take the assumption that Eastern empires failed because they neglected to match Western naval power, with the result that, around 1500, the Indian Ocean was turned into a Portuguese lake. Mr. Black notes that the real reason for this outcome lay not in any technological inferiority but in a strategic decision by larger land-based powers in the East, such as the Ming and the Moghul dynasties, to concentrate on more proximate, and hence more dangerous, rivals. The effect was a decline in imperial ambition.

    Mr. Black enters similar objections to other grand narratives. He argues, for instance, that positing a "Military Revolution" in the early modern period puts too much emphasis on the development of firearms and not enough on intangibles such as morale, popular opinion and sheer happenstance. Closer to our own day, he debunks the "Revolution in Military Affairs," the extraordinary leap in computer technology in the 1970s and 1980s that is often used to explain present-day U.S. conventional military superiority. The revolution, he argues, did not suffice to end the Bosnian and Kosovan wars, and it has been left floundering by the "asymmetric" challenge of al Qaeda.

    As effectiveas Mr. Black's arguments can be, he offers complexity and nuance without also offering a broad interpretative sweep. Such an approach, though appropriate in a scholarly monograph, is less suited to the kind of overview that one might expect from a short history of war for general readers. The text races over hundreds of years (in the early chapters) and decades (in the later chapters), sometimes stopping to engage in minute narrative detail or dense historiographical debate. The overall effect can be rather choppy and confused.

    By contrast, Norman Stone's "World War One" is a smooth, efficient and highly readable addition to a crowded field. It takes us through the strategy and tactics of the war and describes along the way the varied personalities who led their countries or troops into battle. As one might expect from the author of "The Eastern Front: 1914-1917" (1975), Mr. Stone has a great deal to say about the war in the East, especially in the Baltics and along the borders separating Russia from Germany and Austria-Hungary.

    The trench warfare of Belgium and France is most indelibly stamped on British and American minds, but the Russian, Balkan and Italian fronts absorbed almost the entire Austro-Hungarian war effort and tied down enough German troops, in the first two years of the war, to prevent Berlin from "closing the deal" in the west. Without the heroic self-sacrifice of the Russians in the "Brusilov offensives"—waged in what is now Ukraine and Belarus—the French might have collapsed in 1916-17. That the Germans nearly won in 1918 after the Russian Revolution knocked the czarist empire out of the war helps to make the point.

    Mr. Stone also explores the Balkan and Mediterranean dimensions of the war. World War I really began with the conflict between Italy and Turkey in 1911, which escalated into a broader Balkan War in 1912-13 before finally exploding into a global conflagration after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir to the throne, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in June 1914.

    Of course, Mr. Stone does not neglect the more famous battles of the war, at the Somme, for instance, and Ypres. He notes that what seemed like a static system of trench warfare was actually a dynamic process, in which new tactics were continually being tested. Over time, both sides refined a strategy of creeping artillery barrages, hoping to lay down a lethal blanket of shellfire just in front of advancing troops. The Germans developed "infiltration tactics," whereby small groups of infantry men, acting on their own initiative, threaded their way through the enemy frontlines to wreak havoc in the rear. And of course armored warfare, using primitive tracked vehicles—the British code-name "tank" stuck—grew ever more common over the course of the war and eventually helped to break the deadlock in favor of the Allies in the fall of 1918.

    It is hardto say anything new about such a well-plowed subject, but Mr. Stone manages to hold the reader's attention until the last page. His book is full of fascinating asides for those who thought that European history could hold no more surprises for them. One is amused to learn, for instance, that Romanian army officers below a certain rank were forbidden to wear make-up; and one is staggered to learn that Kurt Riezler, the secretary to the German chancellor in 1914, and a key witness to the decision for war, was forced to emigrate to the U.S. after 1933 on account of his Jewish origins. He ended up leading the commission advising Presidents Roosevelt and Truman on the morality of using the atomic bomb. (He supported dropping it.)

    The home front, during World War I, was crucially important, as Mr. Stone makes clear. Of the original belligerents of 1914, only the societies of the British and French proved able to take the strain until the bitter end. To be sure, the French army mutinied in 1917, but Mr. Stone shows us how the nation rallied and deserters were shamed back to the front by their womenfolk. Russia, by contrast, was forced out of the war through revolution that same year, and in 1918 both Germany and Austria-Hungary disintegrated from within, in the first case because the social inequalities aggravated by the Allied blockade had worn down the civilian population and in the second case because the monarchy was no longer capable of keeping the lid on national antagonisms.

    Mr. Black, in "War: A Short History," emphasizes that, over the broad sweep of history, "reconciled"—that is, cohesive—societies perform better in war than coerced ones. It is a lesson that President Barack Obama, whose domestic policies are beginning to prove every bit as divisive as those of his predecessor, would do well to take to heart. War is still very much with us.
    —Mr. Simms is the author of "Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783."
  2. Andy_S

    Andy_S LE Book Reviewer

    Would be interested to read what ARRESERs think of "War: A Short History."

    I found Keegan's "History of Warfare" heavy going (the man is damned clever and has a wide frame of reference, but his penmanship is not compelling); Max Boot's thesis in "War Made New," OTOH, is more graspable, largely as he restricts himself largely to technologies. (He underplays morale factors though.)
  3. The Ming and the Moghul dynasties knew what they were about: if only the Europeans had kept their ships in home waters that unfortunate discovery of America would never have taken place.
  4. And if so, you would be speaking Japanese now.
  5. And why would that be?
  6. I was responding to one of our members who I understood to be from down under and was referring to that slight recent unpleasantness known quaintly as WWII.
  7. rampant

    rampant LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    Ah but wasn't it a certain Commodore Perry of the USN who forced the Tokugawa Bakufu to open Japan to the outside world in 1853/4.

    I wonder had he not that Japan would have modernised so soon and so not been at such an advanced stage to go rampaging through the Far East and Pacific in such a wanton fashion. :wink:

    although it might of helped if we hadn't trained their navy either...
  8. You got there before me.

    If is wasn't for the Americans, the Japanese may have stayed in splendid isolation from the rest of the world for many more years.
  9. rampant

    rampant LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    I know, need to get the riposte in quick with jjh. Mind you, had to cover my arrse too because the old bugger is too erudite to get one over for long.

    On a side note, the reviewer's, Brendan Simms, work, Three Victories and a Defeat, is an excellent history of the early British Empire and compliments superbly Piers Brendon's The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.

    Both works should be compulsory reading for all those who want to understand the world we live in now.
  10. Well, the Americans were just playing catch-up in the Far East after all and at least they didn't go into Japan to protect the profits of a drug-cartel.
  11. rampant

    rampant LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    Minor alteration, the Honourable Company lost its monopoly on trade with China in 1833. So lots of others got stuck like Jardine & Matheson amongst others.

    Remember kiddies tea causes communism.
  12. Probably safer to say that riding rough-shod over the locals and forcing them to accept the flagrant breach of their laws by foreigners causes Nationalism. I doubt we'd be too chuffed if the yanks bombarded our coast and occupied our major ports to protect the interests of a few Florida dope-smugglers.

    The root cause? They had something we wanted and we weren't prepared to accept that they didn't want what we were offering to pay with.