• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Art of War

The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800

by Geoffrey Parker
Cambridge University Press, 256 pp., $29.95 (to be published in June)

The Mask of Command

by John Keegan
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 368 pp., $18.95

Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace

by Edward N. Luttwak
Harvard University Press, 283 pp., $20.00

A comparison between Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler as national leaders may seem a pointless and even tasteless enterprise, but it yields at least one common characteristic: a stubborn faith in the transforming power of military innovation. Ronald Reagan’s belief that SDI, if properly funded, will produce a space shield that will make the United States invulnerable to nuclear attack seems as strong at the end of his presidency as it was when he first announced it. Hitler’s trust in the power of new and secret devices to reverse his fortunes is well known, and John Keegan tells us that on February 13, 1945, only six weeks before his suicide, he told a visiting doctor, “In no time at all I’m going to start using my victory weapons, and then the war will come to a glorious end.”

Hitler’s wonder weapons never arrived, and SDI may not materialize either, at least in the form that Reagan has imagined it, but the belief that the military balance can be profoundly altered by innovation is, as history tells us, by no means fanciful, although before Hiroshima the changes that it wrought were apt to be gradual and cumulative rather than immediately decisive. The military revolution that enabled Prince Cheng of Ch’in in the years between 246 and 221 BC to destroy six powerful enemies and establish an order that endured substantially for two millennia was the result of that ruler’s skillful exploitation of changes in weaponry, tactics, and logistics that had been evolving during the constant warfare of the previous two centuries. Similarly, the military revolution that enabled Europe to conquer 35 percent of the earth’s surface by the year 1800 was the result, as Geoffrey Parker tells us in his new book, of events set in train when the stalemate between offensive and defensive military capacities that had prevailed at the end of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance was terminated by the invention of powerful new siege guns at the end of the fifteenth century.

Francesco Guicciardini once wrote:

Before the year 1494, wars were protracted, battles bloodless, the methods followed in besieging towns slow and uncertain; and, although artillery was already in use, it was managed with such a lack of skill that it caused little hurt. Hence it came about that the ruler of a state could hardly be dispossessed.

All of this changed in 1494, when Charles VIII of France swept into Italy with an army of 18,000 men and a siege train of at least forty guns, with which he proceeded to batter towns once considered impregnable into submission. “The balls flew so quick,” Guicciardini wrote, “and were impelled with such force, that as much execution was done in a few hours as formerly, in Italy, in the like number of days.”

The reaction of the other principal states to the French success was immediate, and there was a general rush to acquire firearms. But by the operation of that perennial tension between the offensive and the defensive from which, Parker reminds us, strategy and innovation spring, the challenge of firepower was soon answered by improvements in military architecture that diminished, if they did not nullify, the advantages gained by the new siege guns. The defensive system that came to be known as the trace italienne involved the building of geometrically designed fortifications with angled bastions set at intervals to catch the enemy’s infantry in enfilading fire, and moats to keep his artillery at a distance, and casements and ravelins to protect the moats—the result being ingenious but so complicated that readers of Sterne will remember its having permanently bufuddled Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby, who, whenever he tried to tell of his adventures during the siege of Namur, became hopelessly entangled in “the differences and distinctions between the scarp and counterscarp, the glacis and the covered way, the half-moon and the ravelins.”

Since such fortifications were massive in themselves (the town of Antwerp had a seven kilometer enceinte with nine bastions and five monumental gates) and had to be defended by sizable garrisons of trained troops, and since states had also to maintain field armies, both the size and the costs of military establishments increased dramatically. In its time Charles VIII’s army of 18,000 had seemed a formidable force, but by the 1630s the leading states of Europe were maintaining armies in excess of 150,000, and at the end of the seventeenth century there were almost 400,000 French soldiers. The arms race, for that is what it amounted to, created financial problems for all participants, most of all for states that were unpopular abroad and without allies, and hence incapable of supporting their wars by foreign loans. Thus Louis XIV’s France, Peter I’s Russia, and the Cromwellian Republic in England appear to have devoted respectively 75 percent, 85 percent, and 90 percent of their revenues to war and the maintenance of military establishments. This raised the stakes sufficiently to induce the leading powers to extend their enmities beyond Europe’s proper limits, first in the form of naval encounters in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean, and then, as they sought allies or economic advantage, to other continents. Here the results of the revolution in land and sea warfare manifested themselves in the clear superiority of their military methods over those of native tribes and kingdoms and led to their gradual mastery over the Americas, Indonesia, and large tracts of Africa and India before the end of the eighteenth century.

The Military Revolution is a work of superb scholarship, as one would expect from the author of The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, and its 154 pages of text are accompanied by 59 pages of notes and a useful bibliographical guide. The general reader should not, however, allow himself to be daunted by this apparatus criticus, for Parker has written a brisk and engaging account that illuminates virtually every aspect of warfare in this watershed period. He shows, for example, that the composition of armies was so heterogeneous that in one Bavarian regiment in 1644 there were soldiers from sixteen different countries, including fourteen Turks. In his account of how private contractors and entrepreneurs supplied troops in the field, he makes clear the crucial importance of provisioning, which led one observer to say that it was a regular supply of Cheshire cheese and biscuit that enabled General Monck to pacify Scotland in 1654. He reveals the tactical problems of a time when firepower was increasingly dominant, radically altering the ratio between cavalry and infantry in all armies, but when the deadly Highland Charge was still capable of overwhelming troops who were supplied with all the tools of the military revolution, as it did, for example, at Tippermuir and Prestonpans and, for the last time, on the Plains of Abraham.

Parker also tells of failed experiments—like the so-called leather gun, a thin metal barrel bound with rope and encased in tough hides that was invented in Zurich in 1622 and widely adopted, which possessed great mobility but an unfortunate propensity for blowing up after the third round—and successful ones, like the epochal Dutch introduction of the technique of volley fire in 1594. Nor does he neglect the development of techniques to improve the efficiency and discipline of troops under fire, like Maurice of Saxony’s encouragement of the principle of arming forces with weapons of the same size and caliber and his brother John’s role in promoting organized drill.

In his substantial chapter on the course of the military revolution at sea, Parker includes not only an engrossing treatment of the relationship between weaponry and the evolution of the fighting ship from the galley to the frigate but incisive analyses of the factors that determined the outcome of the Battle of Lepanto and the defeat of the Spanish Armada and a description of the development—in the first instance by the Dutch but later, more effectively, by Cromwell’s Republic—of a high seas fleet capable of operating at long range for long periods of time.

Equally impressive, and fascinating in its details, is his account of how their military revolution carried the Europeans to other continents and was the key to their success there—partly, he tells us, because peoples like the Aztecs and the Incas learned, to their dismay, that the white men “fought dirty and (what was worse) fought to kill,” and partly because more formidable opponents in the Muslim lands and India, while possessing firearms and a knowledge of siege warfare, were handicapped in various ways when it came to combat with their new antagonists. Thus the Ottoman army, which was quick to adopt Western military technology, seems always to have suffered from a tendency to prefer huge and unwieldy artillery, whereas the Western armies were more intent upon increasing the number and mobility of their guns. When conducting sieges, the Ottomans also neglected to build siege-works to protect their army against attempts at relief, a mistake that cost them dearly at Vienna in 1683, and in general they suffered from metallurgical inferiority, so that their guns were brittle and unsafe, as was demonstrated at Lepanto. Indian armies had the same deficiencies and also, because they were always aggregations of individual warriors rather than of articulated fighting units, were at a disadvantage, even when in superior numbers, when opposed by European armies that had profited from the tactical innovations of the military revolution.

The changes that took place in warfare between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were so extensive that many of those who benefited from them were inclined to believe that nothing was to be gained from the study of the past, and Parker quotes Sir Roger Williams as writing in 1590 that Alexander, Caesar, Scipio, and Hannibal were doubtless “the worthiest and famoust warriors that ever were” but that their example had little relevance to the modern age. This was an opinion that disregarded the fact that war in general changes with greater pace and intensity than the technique and ethos of command, a point that John Keegan makes in justification of his decision, in studying the latter, to compare the Duke of Wellington, who in his early career was one of those who carried to India the innovations that Geoffrey Parker has described, with Alexander the Great, and both of them, in turn, with Ulysses S. Grant and Adolf Hitler, who lived in times affected by other military revolutions.

All four men, in Keegan’s view, represent types of heroic leadership, “aggressive, invasive, exemplary, risk-taking.” All of them, because of their ambitions or their responsibilities, had to test themselves, he writes in a fine sentence, “on the open field, when armies clash face to face in the grip of those terrible unities of time, place and action,” and to prove their “powers of anticipation, flexibility, quick-thinking, patience, spatial perception, thrift and prodigality of resources, physical courage, and moral strength.” And all four were compelled also to sustain their followers’ faith in their heroism, by letting them know of themselves what they needed to know for that purpose and concealing what they did not need to know and should not have known behind the mask of command.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print