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Command Performances

Professor William McNeill, of the University of Chicago, is a prodigy among living historians. Two world histories crown his achievements, one so called and the other bearing a title that implies a confidence in our civilization rare among intellectuals today.* The same confidence sustains him in his treatment of smaller and less universal subjects—though almost any subject acquires, at Professor McNeill’s hands, a largeness and sweep more timid men would shrink from giving it. His history of Venice is subtitled “Hinge of Europe,” his regional survey of the borderlands where Ottoman, Romanov, and Hapsburg empires met is called Europe’s Steppe Frontier, while his examination of the function of disease as an advance guard of population movements in history is called Plagues and Peoples. And heavy though the conclusions are that he lays upon these specialist studies, the skill with which he treats them lends him a charmed life in the barbed and acerbic world of professional historiography. Oxford University, a Mrs. Grundy in its attitude toward historians of wide horizons, elected him George Eastman Visiting Professor in 1980, and he retired from his own great university as professor emeritus with many honors.

In view of Professor McNeill’s interest in the mechanisms of large historical changes, it was perhaps inevitable that he should at some time have turned his interest to military affairs, as he has now done. It is a neglected subject, at least in our own time. The neglect derives, in all probability, both from its obviousness and from the degree to which it was over-worked in times gone by. “Kings and battles” is professional shorthand for a sort of history writing and history teaching that has killed for good generations of schoolchildren’s interest in the past. The phrase also proclaims an intellectual and corporate attitude that says that the world changes for much more complex reasons than victories or royal successions provide. Such events are dismissed as événementiels—having to do, that is, with the superficiality of things and not with that grinding of the tectonic plates of history which allegedly shift the human continents about time’s surface.

Or so the fast men on the inside track of scholarship have been insisting these last two hundred years. First it was soil and climate, then the ownership of the means of production, then biological determinants, finally the buried and forgotten power of myth that was held to lie behind and beneath the structure of human society. Almost any explanation, it seemed, of the formation and alteration of those structures was preferable to one that depended on man’s visible, conscious, and violent struggle for change. Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, one of the greatest Victorian best sellers, might be taken to stand as the all-purpose target for Marxists, social Darwinians, Freudians, and structuralists who, disagreeing about almost everything else, could all join cheerfully in contempt of the notion that the warrior—his tools, techniques, and social relationships—was worth five minutes of a serious historian’s time.

Not even two great wars could change that. Indeed the quality of military historiography, at least in English, was probably at a lower level in the Twenties and Thirties than at any time before or since, and it did not improve immediately after 1945. During the last twenty years, however, there has been a dramatic change for the better. And what, it must be presumed, has so wonderfully concentrated men’s minds is the nuclear weapon. Shut his eyes as the historian may, twist, turn, and deny, the warrior now confronts him whenever he closes his book and opens his newspaper. The cost of supporting the military establishment is daily reported. The debate over how the money should be spent is a regular and recurrent theme in national politics. The consequences of making the wrong choice are calculated not in the probabilities of defeat in some war that lies ahead but in the immanent threat of complete destruction.

Historians, like other scholars, have been driven to take a position in the strategic debate; unlike other scholars, they have also been compelled to reconsider the assumptions on which they conduct their business. For if the warrior is important now, has his importance in the past not perhaps been underestimated by those whose profession it is to study it? Is it possible that the warrior—his tools, techniques, and the rest—was not the expression merely of other forces in the world to which he belonged, but a force in his own right, autonomous, self-regarding, self-aware, and the recipient of tribute accordingly? Above all, might the current pervading concern with security not give a clue to the preoccupations of earlier times, when perhaps the fear of the invader and destroyer was as vivid as the need to win subsistence, and as large as the fear of nuclear extinction today?

These are large questions. In Professor McNeill the art of historiography has found a practitioner of talents and learning ample enough to suggest answers. The book he has written has serious defects, including major over-sights. It betrays crucial misunderstandings of key elements in the relationship between warrior and society. It under-estimates the importance of topography. It almost wholly ignores the central military and economic significance of fortification. It is haphazard in its discussion and appreciation of the social anthropology of warfare. It is excessively dependent upon demography as an explanatory concept. It is wrong in detail, sometimes when detail is made to bear the weight of arguments vital to the argument of the book itself. It misses a number of revolutions in technology, when technology is the book’s subject. It rides hobby horses. It withdraws tantalizingly at the last moment from what appears to be the point to which the whole work is directed—a demolition of Marxist analysis. Its tone is insufferably de haut en bas, know-all and dismissive of the ideas of others. Its vast scope will ensure the active hostility of specialist historians—those “who crawl round the frontiers of knowledge with a hand glass”—by the battalion. It is nevertheless a magnificent achievement, a soaring work of scholarly imagination, by far the most interesting study in the field of military history that this reviewer has read in many years and a book certain to become a focus of debate among historians of all specialties for years to come.

The book begins where all good history books should—at the beginning. And because Professor McNeill is a champion of the longue durée, that means in the very mists of time: in the Bronze Age, from which no narrative records descend. It is a pity that he does not risk speculation about an even earlier period, for which the customs of surviving Stone Age peoples yield some suggestive evidence, since their style of “primitive warfare,” as anthropologists have come to call it, provides clues toward the answer to that central conundrum: is man innately aggressive, or did he learn? But it is understandable that the professor should have wished to take up the story when man’s aggressiveness stood forth plain to see, since the concepts with which he works are those of economics and technology rather than of psyche and ethos.

McNeill’s early world is one in which the inhabitants of the Middle Eastern river lands, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, had already learned the techniques of economic cooperation and the consequent need for superior political authority. But their rulers rested their powers as much on appeals to religion as to force, and sustained only as much armed force as was necessary to suppress internal dissent. About 1800 BC, however, these comparatively happy lands were challenged from without. Horse-breeding peoples from inner Asia, who had learned to tame quadrupeds to light chariots, overran the “hydraulic” societies and established government by aristocracy. The invention of iron weapons, about 1200 BC, shook aristocratic power, because their cheapness and availability allowed the ordinary farmer to have an effective military role, which the scarcity of bronze had denied him. But aristocracy was reestablished from about 600 BC onward by the appearance in the civilized world of another type of horse people from inner Asia, who had learned how to ride and to handle weapons from horseback.

Their recurrent eruptions were to act as a crucial influence on—and were perhaps the key determinant of—political organization in all the lands that border the inner Asian steppe for the next two thousand years. The early invaders, in China, in India, in the Middle East, and in Europe, gradually made common cause with the indigenous farmers, forsook barbarian ways and became a warrior aristocracy that fought on foot (since the cavalry principle and intensive agriculture are antithetical). It was from these grafts that descended the Celtic kingdoms of the West, the Aryan states of India, the historic dynasties of China, and the heroic societies of the Mediterranean shore, notably the Greeks.

The societies that most quickly achieved a high degree of political and economic organization all assumed the character of what Professor McNeill calls “command societies.” The leaders who held authority, understanding that economic just as much as political competition was destructive of their monopoly of power, discouraged both innovation and the market, which provides one of the motives for innovation. The authorities took care of the other motive, military necessity, by choosing a superior level of weapon technology that was just sufficient to disable fresh intruders from the barbarian lands, while discouraging private initiative in arms making.

The most notable of these command societies was the Chinese, whose mechanisms for discouraging dangerous change and at the same time entrenching the central power of the state were to help it pass more or less intact through two millennia of assaults on its borders. But Professor McNeill also identifies as command societies the Roman empire (about which he is curiously silent), the Persian empire (likewise), Aryan India, the Islamic lands, including particularly the Ottoman empire—with its curious and unique feature of the slave army, and even the abortive Carolingian and Hohenstaufen empires and the papal universal monarchy. In their durability the command societies must be numbered among man’s most remarkable achievements; but the author is quite rightly interested not in stasis but in change, and the center of his study therefore lies in his analysis of why Western command societies disintegrated, while at the same time their peoples learned techniques which in the long run were to threaten and eventually overthrow the deliberately unadaptive societies of Near, South, and East Asia.

Professor McNeill has two general-purpose explanations for most change: the first is population pressure, the second the “steppe gradient”—a geographical quirk which directed population explosions among the mobile and ferocious horse peoples of the Eurasian steppe westward rather than eastward. The latter tendency he sees as compelling a higher level of adaptiveness in Europe, which was more frequently challenged by alien pressures than were China, India, or even the Middle East. But he has also a particular explanation for change in Europe: that the failure to establish a comprehensive theocracy, after the collapse of the Roman empire, permitted the emergence of small polities in which the mechanisms for change could flourish in relative safety. That this was so he ascribes to the profit to be won, directly in cash or indirectly in magnified power, by the pursuit of improvement in weapons technology. A particular example is the development of the crossbow, a weapon long known in China, where it had broken the dominance of the armored horseman in the first century BC and then been allowed deliberately by the emperors to fossilize. It was adopted in the West about the eleventh century AD and rapidly underwent revolutionary development in trading cities like Genoa and Barcelona. A better crossbow led to the extinction of the armored feudal warrior (himself an early answer to the menace of the steppe raider), for its use could be learned without the constant practice in skill at arms which was the justification of the knight’s social primacy. The weapon also presaged a political revolution. Burghers who began by wielding it against feudal enemies in their municipal militias ended by using the wealth their military success won for them to hire paid men to take the field in their place.

In the short term the irresponsible profit seeking of these men on contract (condotta, hence condottieri) was disruptive of order. But various mechanisms that disorder stimulated, notably a more rapid acceleration of extorted cash, actually hastened the appearance of large tax-gathering authorities; and the principal investment of tax revenues was in long-term contracts that made mercenaries “regulars.” By the end of the sixteenth century two states in Europe, Spain and France, had regular armies. By the end of the seventeenth century all armies in Western Europe were regular and the model was imprinting itself further east.

Large, regular tax collection also bought much else: state artillery, which devastated the fortified refuges of feudal intransigents, the skills of technicians (often based in free cities like Liège) anxious to sell a better handgun to a large purchaser, and the expertise of a class of international organizers and leaders who, like today’s industrial experts and followers of Milton Friedman, traveled between countries selling their nostrums, in their case the latest in drill or tactics. (A strange omission here is any discussion of the role of the “fortification families” Sangallo, Savorgnano, Peruzzi, and Genga, who between them carried the revolutionary “trace italienne” from the Baltic to Puerto Rico.) Wallenstein was the best known of these master hirelings, and his nerve almost made him a pan-Germanic Sforza; but they are to be traced throughout Europe and, during the eighteenth and even the nineteenth centuries, as far away as India and South-east Asia.

By then, however, the European military-technical revolution had moved into higher gear. The discovery of the psychosocial power of military choreography, which we know as “drill,” had transformed European military units into world-beating instruments of conquest: hence the otherwise inexplicable triumph of minuscule expeditionary forces over Moguls and mandarins. And, more important, the dynamics of weapon procurement had provided fuel for the industrial revolution. Professor McNeill detects a burgeoning European crisis in his favorite guise of population explosion toward the end of the eighteenth century. He sees it resolved in France by the revolution, which expended demographic increase through Napoleonic aggression. (One would like to hear Richard Cobb, whose armées révolutionnaires McNeill both misrepresents and misspells, on this thesis.) In England part of the expanding population was harnessed to iron-founding for the arming of an enormously expanded Royal Navy. In the subsequent Pax Britannica, admirals and entrepreneurs made common cause to outwit the parsimony of successive governments and unadaptiveness of state arsenals until, at the outbreak of World War I, something like President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” stood plain to see for anyone who had eyes.

And so back to the command society. For it is there that Professor McNeill believes that Western man’s thousand-year obsession with military innovation has carried him. The demands of the First and Second World Wars for victory through weapon-power has conjured into being a new class of Pharaohs, Sons of Heaven, Caliphs of the Sublime Porte, call them what you will, whose overriding preoccupation is with the financing and management of the state’s military machine. The day of the independent military inventor is past: a good idea makes him instantly an employee of the state, and so a prisoner of its monopoly, with the penalties for treason at hand should he seek the free market. Even further past is the day of the independent manufacturer, whom capital starvation denies any hope of access to a free market. Dissent with this state of affairs is not repressed; but its effective expression is curtailed by an enormously increased state investment in police forces, whose expansion throughout the world since 1945 Professor McNeill sees as even more significant than the concurrent inflation of defense budgets.

The Pursuit of Power is not a heartening tract. It induces in the reader a deep sense of his own littleness in the scheme of things, and that of everyone he knows, slaves of the power nexus not excluded. The specialist will derive some pleasure from catching the author out. McNeill misidentifies the origins of drill, for example, which clearly derives from the need to avoid accidents among closely ranked handgunners, and has nothing to do with a supposed intuitive appreciation of its enhancement of obedience by Maurice of Nassau (otherwise Caesar or Augustus or Hadrian would certainly have hit upon it).

Fellow practitioners of macrohistory will undoubtedly keep their powder dry until the quarterlies provide space for detailed dissection of his arguments, particularly the economic arguments. General readers may take some comfort from his (very short) conclusion, which holds out the hope of the nuclear cup passing, as human rationality teaches human instinct that it poisons more surely than it protects. But until we have some evidence that reason is beginning to work, The Pursuit of Power cannot be recommended as a reassuring book. Even if it is eventually categorized merely as a miscast matrix for a series of brilliant insights and observations, its collisions with what professional military historians believe to be reality come too often and too accurately for any of them not to return to their subject with renewed seriousness of purpose—and an eye cocked suspiciously at the future.

  1. *

    A World History (Oxford University Press, 1967), and The Rise of the West (University of Chicago Press, 1963)

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