The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800
The Mask of Command
Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.