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.

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