Ideas of War

Johann Sommerville

  • The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 by Geoffery Parker
    Cambridge, 234 pp, £15.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 521 32607 9
  • War and Society in Europe of the Old Regime: 1618-1789 by M.S. Anderson
    Fontana, 239 pp, £4.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 00 686053 2
  • Waging war: A Philosophical Introduction by Ian Clark
    Oxford, 154 pp, £17.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 19 827325 8

‘In war,’ Napoleon said, ‘moral considerations make up three-quarters of the game: the relative balance of manpower accounts only for the remaining quarter.’ Just one of these three books appears to endorse this thesis. Ian Clark’s Waging war argues that moral philosophers have much to contribute to an understanding of warfare. How war is fought depends, at least in part, on the concepts of war held by those who participate in it: ‘the idea of war itself is a major factor in the way in which it is waged.’ So to grasp what past wars were about ‘is undoubtedly, albeit not exclusively, an excursion into the history of ideas’. Professors Parker and Anderson discuss past wars, but rarely wander into the history of ideas. Parker’s book, which is scholarly, stimulating, lucid and very attractively presented, is concerned with technical changes in the conduct of war during the Early Modern period, and with the effects of those changes, his argument being that there was a military revolution in 16th and 17th-century Europe, and that this revolution was crucial in enabling the West to control 35 per cent of the Earth’s surface by 1800.

Historians have discovered a considerable number of revolutions and crises in the 16th and 17th centuries, including a General Crisis as well as more geographically confined episodes such as the Tudor Revolution in Government, or the Crisis of the Aristocracy (which preceded the English Revolution). Occasionally it turns out that the discoverer has been a little too enthusiastic, and that on re-examination things look rather less revolutionary (or critical) than they did at first glance. The idea of an Early Modern military revolution was introduced by Michael Roberts in 1955. Professor Parker accepts and develops the notion. Perhaps the single most important aspect of the revolution was the victory of the gun.

In Venice the gun replaced the crossbow in 1490, and elsewhere guns came into fashion in the early 16th century. The introduction of the musket in the 1550s accelerated the process: in the following decade the musket replaced the longbow in England. But muskets were not the only important type of gun. The manufacture of powerful siege guns in the 15th century led to innovations in the construction of fortifications, and in particular to the development of a new defensive system which included angled bastions. The new system (known as the trace italienne) greatly increased the length and expense of sieges. In other ways, too, the expense of warfare rose, for armies grew in size up to tenfold between 1500 and 1700. As wars became dearer and involved a higher proportion of the population, so their effects on society became increasingly significant. Indeed, it is arguable that the demands of warfare helped to bring about political change in many European states, leading to centralisation and bureaucratisation, and encouraging the growth of absolutism.

Professor Parker has much to say on changes in tactics and weaponry. He also devotes a chapter to ‘supplying war’. This discusses such topics as recruitment, rates of mortality (surprisingly high) and desertion (unsurprisingly high), the cost of warfare (often over 75 per cent of the state’s revenue), uniforms (which developed only slowly: Cromwell’s redcoats did not consistently wear red), military hospitals (the Spaniards were the pioneers here) and rations – which included a (theoretical) daily allowance of some six pints of beer, or three of wine.

More centrally relevant to the book’s main thesis is the next chapter, ‘Victory at Sea’. It argues that ‘a revolution in naval warfare occurred in Early Modern Europe which was no less important than that by land.’ In about 1500, muzzle-loading single-cast bronze naval guns were developed, and at much the same time hinged gun-ports were introduced. These innovations helped to make possible the emergence of purpose-built ocean-going warships (galleons) from the 1520s. In an interesting digression Professor Parker suggests that the defeat of the Spanish Armada was due less to the greater manoeuvrability of English ships than to the superiority of their gun-carriages, which made the guns easier to reload. Another naval innovation was the introduction of the frigate (long in relation to its breadth) which featured in the Dutch ocean-going fleet of the early 17th century. The Dutch fleet reached all corners of the globe, but as long as Europeans lacked a large military presence in the East, orientals found it more economical to pay protection money to Westerners (and to take reprisals on land if Europeans committed offences at sea) than to invest in arming their own ships. The failure of the Japanese to build up an armed navy may have been influenced by their abortive invasion of Korea in the 1590s. Their fleet was defeated by Admiral Yi, who deployed ‘turtle ships’ entirely encased in metal plates.

Professor Parker is at pains to make it clear that his book deals with Asia, Africa and America, not just with Europe: ‘There is no shortage of Eurocentric works; the world does not need another.’ Indeed, his ‘principal justification’ for subjecting the question of the military revolution to renewed scrutiny is ‘the argument ... that the key to the Westerners’ success in creating the first truly global empires between 1500 and 1750 depended upon precisely those improvements in the ability to wage war which have been termed “the military revolution”.’ He approvingly cites Frederick Lane and Niels Steensgaard to the effect that ‘the principal export of pre-industrial Europe to the rest of the world was violence.’ It is undeniable that the willingness of Westerners to use harsh methods in order to get their way abroad, and their technical ability to do so, were important in ensuring the success of European expansion: but it is not clear that European victory had all that much to do with the ‘military revolution’.

The trace italienne and volley fire of muskets were characteristic of the revolution, but neither featured in the fall of the Aztec and Inca Empires. In America, South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, native populations failed to resist the Europeans as much for intellectual as for material reasons. Natives fought to enslave each other, and bemoaned the tactics of the Europeans, who fought to kill. Yet the Indians of New England were willing to adopt European standards, and Professor Parker concludes that they ultimately lost ground, not for military reasons, but because the balance of numbers swayed against them as European immigration continued unabated, while the Indian population declined as a consequence of European diseases – arguably it was disease which was Europe’s main export. Of course, muskets gave Europeans an advantage over many of their opponents, at least for a while. But it is likely that European success owed as much to differences in outlook and political organisation, and to disease, as it did to the ‘military revolution’.

To understand why Europeans conquered so successfully we must examine European society, and not just military organisation. Indeed, military life itself can only be fully understood if it is analysed against the background of society as a whole. In his introduction to Professor Anderson’s book, Geoffrey Best observes that until recently much writing on military history has had little to say about the social context of warfare: ‘Sometimes sinking to uniforms, badges and buttons, it rarely rose above campaigns and battles.’ One purpose of the ‘Fontana History of European War and Society’ is precisely to place military affairs within a wider historical context. Professor Anderson’s admirably balanced introduction to war and society between the Thirty Years War and the outbreak of the French Revolution examines the ways in which social, economic and political factors influenced armed forces. He also discusses the effects of war on Early Modern society. Occasionally his book draws on material which is also used by Professor Parker, but mostly the two works complement each other rather than overlap. In Parker’s book, the stress is on technical change, on the ‘military revolution’, and on the expansion of Europe to other continents. Professor Anderson’s focus is unashamedly Eurocentric, he is concerned more with organisation and effects than with muskets and bastions, and he says little about the ‘military revolution’: readers could be forgiven for failing to appreciate that there was a revolution at all.

Anderson’s book is a very clear, straightforward and readable introduction to its subject. It is well-written and sensibly structured, and the arguments are illustrated with a wealth of apposite anecdotes. The book is divided into three sections, covering the periods 1618-60 (‘The Age of the Entrepreneur’), 1660-1740 (‘Old-Regime Warfare at its Height’), and 1740-89 (‘Towards a New World: Nationalism and People’s Armies’). Anderson’s approach is subtle and judicious. He documents changes, but is cautious about attaching the label ‘revolutionary’ to them, and points out that there were many continuities between the three periods. For instance, the desertion rate stayed high until the eve of the French Revolution (when it began to fall, perhaps as a result of the advent of mass nationalism). Again, the proportion of foreigners serving in the Army was high throughout the period.

To a large extent, war remained an aristocratic game. Feudal levies, it’s true, lost their importance, and in 1674 the last French attempt to use the old levies of the ban and arrière-ban proved a total fiasco, but quasi-feudal obligations between a landlord and his tenants continued to play a significant role in recruitment. In some respects, war became increasingly aristocratic as the period progressed. It was more difficult for soldiers to rise to high rank by mere military ability, unaided by birth, in the second than in the first half of the 17th century. Similarly, high-ranking prisoners were sometimes treated badly in the Thirty Years War, but this was rarer fifty years later. When Habsburg forces captured the French Marshal Villeroi in 1702, he was allowed to live in complete freedom in castles at Innsbruck and Graz, and was later permitted to return to France. The Marshal sent 50,000 livres as ransom, but Prince Eugene at once gave back the money. The aristocratic ethos of warfare was accompanied by a stress on ceremonial. Armies were fond of firing salutes, and of expensive flags so large that they could hardly be unfurled. Other relics of a chivalrous if inefficient past included such eccentric actions as that of the French naval commander Sourdis, who in 1635 offered to send some of his own ships into port because his forces outnumbered those of his Spanish opponent, and he thought that this was unfair.

Though aristocratic values were important during the whole period, in many other respects large changes did take place. Before 1660, the state often delegated the running of armies to entrepreneurs. In this period the size and cost of armies rose sharply, and sieges grew in significance, particularly in the West. After 1660, governments imposed greater central control over warfare, and regiments first began to be known by names other than those of their colonels. Some countries were exceptions: in England centralisation was feared as a threat to liberty, while in Russia and Prussia militarisation went further than elsewhere. Sieges became less important by the 1730s. After 1740, the balance of military power shifted to the East, and armies declined in proportion to the population: in some Western countries they declined absolutely. Under the influence of militaristic Prussia, armies were increasingly professionalised, but the destructive effects of war decreased – a point noted in the second half of the 18th century, and attributed by some to the decay both in religious enthusiasm and in dynastic rivalry.

Professor Anderson makes little attempt to assess the military effects of such intellectual changes. Nor does he say much about how war affected attitudes, sometimes with important political consequences. Conrad Russell has persuasively argued that the pressures of war were one of the major precipitants of political crisis in early 17th-century England, but this book devotes little space to that topic. At several points Anderson notes that English hostility to standing armies was closely associated with a dislike of absolutism – a theme which has been well documented by Lois Schwoerer – but he does not fully pursue the possible connections between political attitudes and military developments. There is, however, some interesting discussion of the opinions on war of a number of 18th-century writers. On 17th-century thinkers, he is weaker – Grotius is conspicuous by his absence from these pages

Professors Parker and Anderson have relatively little to say about ideas of war, and instead concentrate on practice. According to Dr Clark, we must grasp theory if we are to understand practice. His book illustrates this thesis by deducing practical applications from a variety of concepts of war. He pays particular attention to theories of just and of limited war, and to the practical applications of these and other notions in an age of nuclear weapons. His book raises many interesting questions. If a war is illegal, are the actions of those who fight in it automatically criminal? Is guerrilla warfare objectionable because guerrillas deprive their opponents of the choice of prosecuting war only against combatants and not against non-combatants? If so, do states act wrongly in building military installations near centres of population? Dr Clark makes some telling points. The argument that nuclear deterrence must be good since its consequence has been peace is, he observes, indecisive, for potential alternative consequences need to be set in the scales: ‘selective consequentialism is an unsatisfactory ethical position.’

This book mounts no over-arching case on how war should be waged, and comes to few firm conclusions, but it does provide a repository of philosophical arguments about the practice of war. A serious problem, however, is that its prose style is often unclear and its structure unsystematic. On one page we learn that ‘the tortuous logic of deterrence theory’ has a ‘seeming capacity to lend credence to contradictory conclusions’, and a little later we are told that an ‘intent ... has been chastised by some’. Philosophers, and others, may find such locutions irksome, and they occur very frequently.