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Conspicuous Proliferation

War Made New begins with a crisp introduction, sketching four revolutions in warfare since 1500 around which Max Boot chose to organize his book. It ends in a fog of acronyms for weapons still on the drawing boards, uncertainty about future military revolutions, and “The Danger of Too Much Change—and Too Little.” In between Boot found many persuasive things to say about how changes in military technology and management affected the course of European and world history, illustrating each of his military revolutions with detailed accounts of three specific battles or campaigns.

The first of these changes, the “Gunpowder Revolution,” actually started in China, but Boot does not discuss that. Instead he confines his attention to Europe, where, he says, gunpowder was first recorded as early as 1267. But it remained of marginal importance until 1494, when a French army marched into Italy with mobile siege guns, easily shattering hitherto impregnable fortifications with a few hours of bombardment, only to withdraw without any lasting gain, while spreading the nasty new disease of syphilis far and wide as it retreated.

Boot illustrates the Gunpowder Revolution by choosing first to describe how the Spanish Armada was defeated by the superior guns and tactics of the English navy (1588) and how Swedish soldiers won two hard-fought victories during the Thirty Years’ War in Germany at Breitenfeld and Lützen (1631–1632). His accounts of these battles are admirably clear and concise; but they are also thoroughly familiar and offer no new insights. One may even reproach him for a kind of blindness, since he never mentions the conscious purposes of the persons who planned and fought them, apparently assuming that their religious convictions, hopes, and fears had nothing to do with what happened.

I learned a lot, however, from what he says about the Battle of Assaye in India in 1803, with which he concludes the first part of his book. He uses it to show how the Gunpowder Revolution opened a wide gap between European and Asian efficacy in war. For the Battle of Assaye was where Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington), in command of the East India Company’s British and sepoy troops, established his reputation by defeating a much larger Maratha force. The still youthful Wellesley prevailed by dint of reckless audacity, backed up by the superior tenacity and discipline of his soldiers.

The Battle of Assaye was, Boot tells us, “one of the two bloodiest engagements that the Duke of Wellington ever fought (Waterloo was the other), and the one of which he was proudest later in life.” It resulted in a substantial enlargement of British-administered territories in India, and marked the end of military competition between the East India Company and native Indian rulers.

I had supposed that Robert Clive’s earlier victory at Plassey in 1757 was the principal step in establishing British military supremacy in India. Boot does not even mention Plassey, but his account of Assaye makes it clear that Clive’s easy victory over vastly superior numbers was not really decisive. For Indian rulers, most notably a cluster of Maratha chieftains in western India, reacted to the defeat at Plassey by systematically imitating European weapons and drill, in hope of defeating the white intruders. European weapons were readily available for purchase and so were experienced European gunners and drill masters, including a few Britons. In less than half a century the Marathas were therefore able to create infantry and artillery units just as good as the sepoys in British service. That was why the Battle of Assaye was so bloody and hard fought; the outcome did not depend on large-scale desertion and betrayal, as had happened at Plassey.

Yet the Maratha armies still suffered from critical shortcomings, as Boot explains:

Lacking a single commander like Wellesley whose orders were binding on all, the Maratha chieftains often would act at cross-purposes in battle, to the benefit of their enemies. Moreover, their supply service was virtually nonexistant and most of their soldiers were not paid regularly….

The real problem was that the Marathas were handicapped by a lack of officers and NCOs schooled in the new way of fighting…. To turn over ultimate military power to Westerners or even to Western-educated Indians would have meant giving up their own absolute authority, and this the Maratha chiefs would never do….

In sum, to fight like Europeans you had to become “European.”You had to adopt at least some of the dynamism, intellectual curiosity, rationalism, and efficiency that has defined the West since the advent of the Gunpowder Age.

Since Colonel Blimps always outnumbered and usually prevailed over military innovators, this is a dubious description of European armed forces. But the difficulty of equaling them in battle was real and it gave Europeans more than a century of easy successes, imposing a uniquely lopsided, imperial character on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Boot’s dating of the tipping point in favor of European military superiority as late as 1803 is both novel and convincing, for China too succumbed to European aggression only after the Opium War between 1839 and 1842.

At the same time, however, so late a date blurs the transition between his first military revolution and the “Industrial Revolution” in military technology that followed. Historians have long agreed that the Industrial Revolution itself started in Great Britain with the mechanization of textile manufacture between 1733 and 1793 and extended to other industries after James Watt invented an efficient steam engine in 1776. But Boot claims that military change lagged:

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, logistics and command-and-control systems could not keep pace with the growing size of armies. Supplies still had to be hauled by horses; muskets, cannons, ammunition, and uniforms still had to be hand-made by skilled artisans; orders still had to be relayed by bugles, shouts, and messages carried on horseback; and commanders still had to depend on their spy glasses to figure out what was happening on a smoke-shrouded battlefield….

Napoleon brought the old style of war to its ruthless zenith; he did not invent a new style. At most, by stoking the fires of nationalism, the Napoleonic era blazed a path for a true revolution in warfare when mass production could be combined with mass mobilization.

This combination, Boot claims, only began with the Crimean War between 1854 and 1856. But such an assertion disregards far-reaching improvements in French and British artillery and metallurgy after 1750, when new ways of casting, boring, aiming, and transporting artillery, together with coke-fired furnaces and increasingly systematic administration of personnel and supply services, expanded the military capacities of both countries very rapidly indeed.

Moreover, what Boot refers to as “stoking the fires of nationalism” involved an intensification of warfare that surely deserves to be called revolutionary. For the levée en masse that saved the French Jacobins in 1793 was justified and sustained by a new secular faith proclaiming “the rights of man”—liberty, equality, and fraternity. Accordingly, French armies claimed to be liberators when they invaded Germany and other West European countries. Initially, many Belgians, Dutch, and Germans welcomed them as such, but the French soon outwore their welcome by flaunting a sense of their own superiority. Moreover, their demands for material contributions for the support of the occupying armies turned popular feeling against them and everything they stood for, first in Spain, then in Germany. Spreading national consciousness swiftly provoked a new intensity of mobilization against the French that overthrew Napoleon and his empire in 1814 and 1815. To dismiss such upheavals as merely continuing the same style of war strikes me as completely wrongheaded.

Boot also implausibly postpones his “First Industrial Revolution” in military production by choosing to illustrate its impact only after 1866, describing the Battle of Königgrätz in Bohemia between Prussia and Austria in 1866, the Battle of Omdurman in Sudan between British and Mahdist forces in 1898, and the naval battle between Japan and Russia in the Tsushima Strait in 1905. To be sure, these are familiar landmarks and his account of each is clear, persuasive, and without surprises. But by waiting so long to acknowledge the First Industrial Revolution in warfare, he overlooks critical changes in weapons not just of the eighteenth but also of the early nineteenth century, including explosive shells, steam-propelled iron warships, and supply systems capable of supporting campaigns across indefinite distances by sea.

His most pregnant paragraphs in this section appear as an afterthought to his discussion of the Battle of Königgrätz:

Within days of Königgrätz, every army in Europe was rushing to buy its own breech-loading rifles, many of them superior to the thirty-year-old needle gun. Four years later, when Prussia went to war against France, its infantrymen were at a disadvantage in small arms…. Just as Austrian infantry had been slaughtered charging Prussian rifles in 1866, so Prussian infantry was slaughtered charging French rifles in 1870. Prussia prevailed anyway, ironically enough, because of its artillery…. Having seen that muzzle-loaders were outdated, the Prussians scrapped them after 1866 and reequipped their entire force with Krupp’s breech-loading rifled cannons made of cheap and durable cast steel. France continued to rely on old bronze muzzle-loaders. Better artillery gave Prussia a crucial edge in 1870 that allowed its gunners to annihilate the French army from long range.

Such technological flip-flops were to become common in the Industrial Age, when plummeting manufacturing costs allowed a state to completely reequip an army of hundreds of thousands within a relatively short period…. In those circumstances it proved impossible for any state to develop and maintain a lasting technological edge over equally sophisticated adversaries.

Nonetheless,

Outside Europe, the new technology enabled the white man to complete his conquest of the world. For while industrialization was leading toward military parity among European states, it was exacerbating the growing disparity between the West and the Rest.

Boot skips over World War I just as he skipped the advances in weaponry and ideological mobilization between 1750 and 1866, although that conflict introduced many new weapons, and raised the intensity of mobilization on the home front to previously unimagined heights. But Boot prefers to make his “Second Industrial Revolution” in military affairs coincide with World War II and emphasizes three innovations—tanks, aircraft carriers, and heavy bombers—by focusing on the defeat of France in 1940, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the American firebombing of Tokyo in 1945.

As always, these narrative chapters are well written and make a good case for the importance of the three new weapons he chose to discuss. At the same time, he recognizes the partiality of his approach, and acknowledges that other innovations—radar, code breaking, amphibious landings, and improvements in older technologies like submarine warfare and industrial production lines—also affected the outcome.

I quite concur with his summing up of “What Produced Victory?” Here are some of his observations:

The Germans outthought their enemies in the interwar period, which is why in 1939–41 the Third Reich was able to outfight the countries of Western and Eastern Europe…. On paper, at least, this gave the Third Reich the potential to compete against the US and USSR…. Japan, too, grabbed a vast empire for itself in Asia that should have given it greater ability to hold its own. Yet by 1942 the US was outproducing all of the Axis states combined. The USSR, too, staged a remarkable recovery…and was soon outproducing Germany….

He continues:

On the whole, however, the Allies pulled off the difficult feat of war management far better than the Axis. Nazi Germany was plagued by the erratic and often irrational decision-making of Adolf Hitler, who fostered an atmosphere of bureaucratic chaos and infighting. While Japan had no single leader of comparable power, it was handicapped by the lack of coordination between its army and navy. The British and Americans, by contrast, set up a Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee that, despite some inevitable friction, capably coordinated their joint war effort….

This underscores a theme running throughout this volume: Having an efficient bureaucracy is the key determinant of whether a country manages to take advantage of a military revolution…. The reason German armies were able to reach the gates of Moscow and Japanese armies the borders of India before being defeated was that the Axis had done a better job of organizing beforethe war. This gave them an important initial advantage that they allowed to slip away through catastrophic miscalculations—which once again goes to show that the early movers in a military revolution are not necessarily the long-term winners.

This last observation strikes me as a useful warning for American policymakers who are dealing with the ongoing “Information Revolution” that Boot dates from the 1990s, which has transformed warfare with high-tech advances such as cruise missiles, computer-guided targeting and navigation systems, and stealth planes invisible to radar. “While much is still murky,” he declares, “one impact of the Information Age so far is reasonably clear: Even while decreasing the importance of traditional nation-states, it has given a substantial boost to the American position in relation to that of other states.” More particularly, “American weaponry remains at the cutting edge of military developments.”

As before, he illustrates this contemporary military revolution with three narrative accounts, this time of US-led campaigns in Kuwait and Iraq (in January and February 1991), Afghanistan (from October to December 2001), and Iraq (from March 2003 to May 2005). Each lasted longer than its predecessor; and the termination of Boot’s final narrative was defined not by events in the field but by his publishing deadline. He is suitably ambiguous in appraising the outcome:

The lesson the United States was learning in Iraq was similar to the lesson that other armed forces had learned on other battlefields: a military machine built for one purpose, no matter how superb, could not easily be redirected to another kind of fight. In Spain’s case, an armada that might have been well suited for the placid waters of the Mediterranean did not fare as well in the tempestuous seas of northern Europe. In Germany’s case, an army built for a blitzkrieg across relatively confined spaces did not fare as well in the vast steppes of Russia. In America’s case, armed forces built for conventional combat in the Arabian desert or European plain did not fare as well in the streets and alleys of Iraq.

I found Boot’s discussion of his “Information Revolution” disquietingly triumphalist in tone. In a section titled “America’s Unparalleled Power” he writes:

In the early years of the twenty-first century the United States enjoys a preponderance of military power greater than any other nation in history…. Today America is rivaled in land, sea, and air power by…no one. Although the dominance of US forces can still be challenged when they come into close contact with the enemy on his home turf, they are undisputed masters of the “commons” (sea, air, space), which allows them to project power anywhere in the world at short notice….

In the Information Age the US edge lies in quality, not (as it did during the Second Industrial Age) in quantity. Both its soldiers and their equipment are among the best on earth.

But what is the use of being able to “project power anywhere in the world” if American soldiers “can still be challenged when they come into close contact with the enemy on his own turf”? And can the US expect to discover and defeat the amorphous groups of people we call “terrorists,” whose anger flames more fiercely with every invasion of distant lands the US government undertakes?

Boot’s prognosis is unpromising:

Unless the US government can streamline its Industrial Age bureaucracy and become a networked organization, it may find that even purchasing the latest and best technology will not offer sufficient protection against the country’s foes.

But turning the US military into what would, in effect, be a network of independent operators could mean relaxing control from the center, and risks turning the US armed forces into a replica of the loose swarm of enterprising and uncontrolled “terrorists” they oppose.

The concluding part of the book, “Revolutions Past, Present, Future,” suffers from similar confusion. Boot surveys a great variety of potential changes in weaponry—robots, star wars, ray guns, computer viruses, nanotechnology, and germ warfare. He concludes: “Advances in biological and cyberwar promise to put even more destructive potential into the hands of ever smaller groups—as does the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons.” Accordingly, the US

needs to place more emphasis on making up for its deficiencies in irregular warfare…. But that doesn’t mean that the US can ignore the dangers of major warfighting or the dictates of technological change…. Innovation must be organizational as much as technological, and it needs to focus on potential threats across the entire spectrum, from low-intensity guerrilla wars to high-intensity conventional conflicts.

So, according to Boot, everything must change at an ever-increasing pace and on an ever-expanding scale. He does not say how that is feasible; nor does he ask whether American or any other human society can conceivably sustain such a continuous proliferation of military enterprise and expenditure. Limits surely exist. No government can continue for very long to spend far more than it takes in while relying on foreigners to finance such extravagance by buying its bonds. Yet that is what the US is doing today. Moreover, aggressive wars like those Americans have been fighting on and off ever since 1955 in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq inflame opposition both at home and abroad. Surely, if changes of policy fail to diminish such fighting and to check the US government’s increasingly strenuous preparation for future wars, a general economic and social collapse like that which overtook the USSR is more likely than the indefinite expansion of our military establishment that Boot foresees.

Had he looked more closely at how French efforts to spread liberty and equality among neighboring Europeans backfired between 1793 and 1815, his observations about the future of our “war on terror” might have been more persuasive. More generally, if he did not assume that technical advances in weaponry, together with appropriate modifications of command and control, guarantee success in war, his understanding of the past and future of warfare would be more plausible.

Overall, I feel that Boot’s focus on four separate and distinct military revolutions since 1500 is misleading. Change is pervasive and continual. Fixing on a few periods and aspects of military innovation, as he does, imposes far too tight a corset on the sprawling confusion of human affairs. By schematizing his story so drastically, he minimizes surprises and almost entirely overlooks the larger human setting—moral and intellectual as well as social and economic—within which wars are fought. Professional fighting men are not wholly autonomous and the perpetual social flux within which they, like everyone else, actually exist needs always to be taken into account when trying to understand their victories and defeats.

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