War: A Short History: Introduction

War A Short History

We were promised the end of war with the ‘end of history’ or with the obsolescence brought about by nuclear weapons. The reality has been very different. War has been a major aspect of politics since 1990, notably, but not only, in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. As I write, the Russians are invading Georgia while NATO forces are under pressure from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the threat of hostilities remains a key feature in world developments, not least, in terms of ‘high spectrum’ weaponry, with talk of future confrontation between China and the United States, and, at ‘lower spec’, with discussion of conflicts over resources, particularly water. On top of this comes terrorism, as well as conflicts within states. A key element of the modern world, and one that threatens to be an important feature of the future, war therefore deserves re-examination. This book sets out to do so by providing a short thematic history, with references forward to present and future.

Several points are worth underlining at the start. War is a key element in world history. Far from being Braudelian ‘epiphenomena’ of scant consequence compared to underlying realities, wars have played crucial roles in geopolitics, social developments, economic history and in the cultural/mass psychological dimensions of human life. War indeed is cause, means and consequence of change. Second, most work on war deals with conflict between states, but a key element, often the forgotten dimension, is that of the distribution and use of power within states and societies. Focusing on this provides a different narrative and analysis of military history and the history of war, and looks toward the present situation. Third, Western interpretations of military capability and change are generally mechanistic, and deterministically so. These have a certain value, notably for sea and air capability, but are far less appropriate for land power and conflict. This situation is linked to the current crisis of Western military power, notably the contrast between output (force deployed and used) and outcome in terms of obtaining success. Fourth, non-Western traditions also have or had flaws, notably the cult of will (for example in imperial Japan), but they repay study in order to consider the past, present and future of warfare. Non-Western capability, moreover, is far more than a matter of the diffusion of Western weaponry and organization.

The key place of war in history emerges repeatedly in this book, which provides an up-to-date account of central themes and episodes. The major argument is for complexity-in what happened and why, and in the measure of military capability and development-and, rather than seeing this complexity and variety as a distraction from some sort of inherent core reality, they are presented as this very reality. Indeed, complexity and variety help to explain why military history is both important and fascinating. War also poses a puzzle. Bookshops groan with military titles, and, with biography, military history is the major historical topic in non-academic writing. Yet, there is not comparable academic attention and, indeed, some American military historians consider themselves an endangered species. This is paradoxical because conflict is a major theme in historical writing, while the relationships between war and statebuilding or war and society are major topics.

There are now a whole host of what could be seen as ‘nontraditional conflicts’ to which the term war is applied. These include war on drugs, war on crime, war on cancer, the battle of the sexes, generational conflict, culture wars and history wars; and that is not a complete list. Moreover, it can be expanded if other languages and cultures are considered. War, if not bellicosity, has therefore entered the language as part of an assessment of all relationships as focused on power, confrontation and force.

Warfare, however, needs to be abstracted from this language of war. Indeed, there is a need for a more precise definition in which war should be seen in functional terms as organized large-scale violence, and in cultural or ideological terms as the consequence of bellicosity. The first, at once, separates war from, say, the actions of an individual, however violent the means or consequences (one individual poisoning a water supply could kill more than died in the Anglo-Argentinean Falklands War of 1982); from non-violent action, however much it is an aspect of coercion; and from large-scale violence in which the organization is not that of war, for example football hooliganism. Each of these points and caveats can be detailed and qualified, but they also draw attention to fundamental issues of definition.

The cultural or ideological aspects of war also repay examination. They focus on the importance of arousing, channelling and legitimating violent urges, and of persuading people to fight, kill and run the risk of being killed, without which there is, and can be, no war. The willingness to kill is crucial to the causes of war and is a confiation of long-term anthropological and psychological characteristics with more specific societal and cultural situations. It is necessary to consider how far, and to what effect, these propensities to organized conflict have altered over time, an historical question, and one that emphasizes the point about bellicose drives varying by individual cultures.

The model of war as organized conflict between sovereign states, begun deliberately by a specific act of policy, is that which has been discussed most fully by theorists and historians. Thus, the grand title of Donald Kagan’s interesting On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (1995) reveals a study only of the Peloponnesian, Second Punic, First World and Second World Wars, and of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kagan explains: I am interested in the outbreak of wars between states in an international system, such as we find in the world today. The Greeks and the Romans of the republican era lived in that kind of a world, and so has the West since the time of the Renaissance [late fifteenth century]. Most other peoples have lived either in a world without states, or in great empires where the only armed conflicts were civil wars or attempts to defend the realm against bands of invaders. (p. 10)

This overly restricted definition of wars worthy of consideration can be matched by the prominent British historian A. J. P. Taylor, who wrote of ‘the more prosaic origin of war: the precise moment when a statesman sets his name to the declaration of it’.

Such an account of war might seem to have been made redundant by shifts through time, leading to the position today when nonsovereign actors such as insurgent movements and terrorist groups, most prominently al-Qaeda, play a major role, but, instructively, the clear-cut distinction between peace and war was even inappropriate for 1815-1945, the focus of Taylor’s work and of much International Relations scholarship. It was inappropriate as an account, for example, for much of the warfare then arising from Western imperialism. More generally, any definition of war in terms of a public (governmental) monopoly of the use of force has to face both the contested nature of the public sphere and the role and resilience of ‘private’ warfare, both of which are major issues today.

Moreover, the rulers of sovereign states did not necessarily declare war on each other. In 1700, Augustus II of Saxony-Poland and Frederick IV of Denmark joined Peter the Great of Russia in attacking the Swedish empire, a war that lasted until 1721, but neither declared war. In 1726-7, the British blockaded the Spanish treasure fieet in Porto Bello and kept another fieet off Cadiz, dislocating the financial structure of the Spanish imperial system, while the Spaniards besieged British-held Gibraltar, but neither power declared war and the conflict did not spread. Indeed, the two powers became allies in 1729. Large-scale Chinese intervention in 1950 against the American-led United Nations forces in the Korean War (1950-3) did not lead to any declaration of war, and there were no hostile operations on Chinese soil.

The question of goals is raised when defining war in terms of intentionality (what were the combatants fighting for), but that approach also poses problems. In eighteenth-century India, military operations were sometimes related to revenue collections, often indeed dictated by the need to seize or protect revenue, but it is not easy to separate the operational aspects of wars that lead to a focus on gaining supplies from the widespread use of force to collect or seize revenue. The same point is relevant for many other societies. The treatment of enemies as beasts or as subhuman poses other issues. Such treatment can be widely seen in conflict, especially civil warfare, as for example the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Western Europe. This treatment was also a feature in the genocidal drive of ‘modern’ states, most obviously Hitler’s Germany. Indeed, the centrality of the Holocaust to Hitler’s views and, finally, goals has been increasingly emphasized in recent years, and this has helped make the Holocaust a major part of our understanding of the Second World War. As such, the totally onesided war on Jews becomes a conflict that should be considered as a war, and indeed Hitler regarded it as a meta-historical struggle. This is a point that can also be discussed in relation to other genocides. More generally, if the savage practice of warfare-killing-can, for many, pose problems for any idea of war as inherently legal, because of the fact of sovereignty, or nobility, due to the test of battle, there is also the problem of whether and how far the practice of warfare can be legitimated by discussing it in terms of a benign goal. The use of saturation bombing and the atomic bombs in the Second World War are pertinent instances. Western intentionality was far more benign than that of the Axis powers (Germany, Japan, Italy), and the use of air power was effective, particularly against Japan in 1945, but, from the perspective of civilian victims, the situation looks less happy. There is also the need to address the issue of the relationship between war and state development. The fifth-century ce Church-father St Augustine’s comparison, in his City of God, of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, a key Classical reference point for heroism, with a company of thieves-‘in the absence of justice there is no difference between Alexander’s empire and a band [societas] of thieves’-was a moralist’s vain attempt to argue that intentionality, not scale, was the crucial issue, and that sovereignty was not a legitimator of slaughter. This point can be approached from a variety of directions, which can be grouped as ideological, legal and functional, without suggesting that this categorization is precise or uncontested. If a key issue with warfare is how it is possible to persuade people to kill, and to run a strong risk of being killed, then, for example, there was not much functional difference, in the sixteenth century, between ‘state-directed’ warfare and its ghazi (the Muslim system of perpetual raiding of
the infidel) and, indeed, piratical counterparts. Ghazi raiding was often large-scale as with al-Mansur’s campaigns in Spain in the tenth century against the Christian north, campaigns, focused on plunder and slave-raiding, which recruited jihadis and mercenaries from around the Muslim world. Spain was known as Dar Djihad, the land of jihad. Most spectacularly, the great pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela was sacked in 997. The organized control, indeed killing, of humans was central to these different types of warfare, even if the objectives behind this control and killing were different. ‘States’ were inchoate, and not generally seen as enjoying the right to monopolize warfare and alone to initiate and legitimate conflict.

Today, issues of legitimacy come into play, not least with the claim to the attributes of sovereignty, including waging war, by groups not recognized as such, for example al-Qaeda, but also with the rejection of the idea that sovereign governments have a monopoly of force, and with moves toward supra-national jurisdiction through the United Nations and international courts. This question of the acceptability of conflict overlaps with the issue of the distinction between military and civilian as combatants, one that is at the heart of the legitimization of the modern Western practice of force and the legalization of Western high-technology warfare.

Furthermore, the use of force by (major) states against those they deem internal opponents or international reprobates cannot be rigidly separated from definitions and discussion of war simply because the states do not accept the legitimacy of their opponents. Turning to the past, there was a distinction between wars begun by imperial powers, such as Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Persia, Mughal India and Ming or, later, Manchu China, with outside polities, and, on the other hand, conflict within these empires, but the latter, indeed, could be large-scale, more so than external warfare, and could be regarded by contemporaries as war. Moreover, since each of these states rested on warfulness, war and conquest, they had highly bellicose values. When I asked the Mughal specialist John Richards to explain the propensity of the Mughal rulers for war, he used the analogy of a bicyclist to describe the Mughal empire and war: if it was not fighting, it would collapse. Through fighting, however, it did in the end do so.

It is difficult to determine whether attempts to overthrow these or other states, or to deny their authority, many of which took the form of rebellions, should be regarded as functionally sufficient and intellectually different to conflicts between sovereign powers not to be classed as wars. This raises the question whether it is only outcome that earns the designation war, an aspect of history belonging to the victor. Empirically, this is a question posed by the contrast between the American War of Independence (1775-83) and the unsuccessful Irish rebellion/revolution of 1798 against British rule, and also by disagreements over whether the unsuccessful Indian Mutiny (1857-9) should be referred to as a mutiny, a rebellion or a war of independence against Britain. This question feeds directly into modern revolutionary claims about struggles as wars.

More generally, the absence of strong, or even any, police forces frequently ensured that troops were used to maintain order and control, as is also the case in many countries today. That, again, raises the question of a definition of war as the use of force, in other words through function rather than intention. Given the role of the military in many countries, for example much of Latin America, as the arm of the state, with its prime opponents being internal, this approach directs attention to civil violence, if not civil war, and the para-military policing involved, as a prime instance of war. Any working definition of war has to be pertinent for Paraguay as much as the United States, and not least because a diffusionist model of military definitions and practice (i.e. modern American definitions and practice are adopted elsewhere) is nowhere near as applicable as some might imagine.

Turning to culture, the use of the concept of bellicosity (warfulness) not only counteracts the idea that the causes of war involved rational actors and rational calculations but also, in part, overcomes the unhelpful distinction between rationality and irrationality in leading to war. Bellicosity can be regarded as both, or either, a rational and an irrational response to circumstances. To refer to bellicosity as a necessary condition for, and, even, definition of war, is not to confuse cause and effect, or to run together hostility and conflict, but to assert that, in many circumstances, the two are coterminous. Bellicosity also helps explain the continuation of wars once begun. An emphasis on bellicosity leads to a stress on the assumptions of ruling groups, assumptions that are often inherent to their existence and role.

Such an emphasis also underlines the extent to which both sides have to be ready to fight, and to continue fighting, if war is to start and last. An emphasis on will emerged clearly from the account by the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 485-425 bce) about the response to the Persian invasions of Greece in 490 and 480 bce. In the first case, he reported Miltiades the Younger outlining what was at stake for Athens, one of the leading Greek city-states: if we forbear to fight, it is likely that some great schism will rend and shake the courage of our people till they make friends of the Medes [Persians]; but if we join battle before some at Athens be infected by corruption, then let heaven but deal fairly with us, and we may well win in this fight.

Miltiades’ tactics were to bring victory at Marathon in 490 bce, with the invading Persian army charged down by rapidly advancing Athenian hoplites or heavy infantry carrying long spears and large shields, who broke the wings of the Persian force before turning in on the stronger Persian centre. Herodotus also noted a widespread reluctance in Greece to fight in 480 bce:

the great part of them had no stomach for grappling with the war, but were making haste to side with the Persian. . . . Had the Athenians been panic-struck by the threatened peril and left their own country, or had they not indeed left it but remained and surrendered themselves to Xerxes, none would have essayed to withstand the king by sea. . . . I cannot perceive what advantage could accrue from the walls built across the Isthmus [of Corinth] while the king [Xerxes] was master of the sea . . . by choosing that Hellas [Greece] should remain free, they [the Athenians] and none others roused all the rest of the Greeks who had not gone over to the Persians, and did under heaven beat the king off.

The ‘wooden walls’ of the Athenian fieet were to save Greece at the Battle of Salamis. In the face of the larger Persian fieet (about 800 ships to the Greek 300), the Greeks decided to fight the Persians in the narrows of Salamis, rather than in the open water, as they correctly anticipated that this would lessen the Persians’ numerical advantage. The Persians indeed found their ships too tightly packed, and their formation and momentum were further disrupted by a strong swell. The Greeks attacked when the Persians were clearly in difficulties, and their formation was thrown into confusion. Some ships turned back while others persisted, and this led to further chaos which the Greeks exploited. The Persians finally retreated, having lost over 200 ships to their opponent’s 40, and with the Greeks still in command of their position.

In recent decades, there has been a growing reluctance to fight in many societies, certainly in comparison to the first half of the twentieth century, although the popularity of war toys, games and films suggests that military values are still seen as valuable, indeed exemplary, by many, or at least as an aspect of masculinity. Partly thanks to growing professionalism and the abandonment of conscription in many Western states, the military there is less integrated into society, both into social structures and into concepts of society. This demilitarization of civil society leads to a decline in bellicist values: instead, they are expressed through sporting rivalries or as a response to media portrayals of violence. There has also been a ‘civilization’, ‘civilianization’ or process of civilizing of the military. It can no longer be an adjunct of society able to follow its own set of rules, but is expected to conform to societal standards of behaviour, for example, in the treatment of homosexuality.

Yet, as recent years have shown, these changes do not have to mean passivity and the absence of war. Indeed, a range of issues, including pressures and tensions latent in globalization, and the response, can readily lead to the use of force. Moreover, whatever the current of social change, democracies, once roused, can be very tenacious in war, or at least their governments can be.

The suggestion that the ‘West’ has become less bellicist might also seem ironic given its nuclear preponderance, the capacity of its weapons of mass destruction and the role of its industries in supplying weaponry to the rest of the world. Indeed, it might almost be argued that this strength is a condition for the decline of militarism. A decline in bellicosity, in so far as it has occurred, could also be seen as owing something to the prevalence and vitality of other forms of ‘aggression’, for example, economic and cultural imperialism as a substitute for war.

An emphasis on the cultural contexts within which war is condemned by many but also understood, even welcomed, by others as an instrument of policy, and as a means and product of social, ethnic or political cohesion, is, also, in part, a reminder of the role of choice. As such, this approach is a qualification of the apparent determinism of some systemic models. A denial of determinism also opens up the possibility of suggesting that the multiple and contested interpretations of war by contemporaries, both today and in the past, are valuable, which underlines the importance of integrating these interpretations into explanatory models.

As far as intentionality is concerned, bellicosity leads to war, not so much through misunderstandings that produce inaccurate calculations of interest and response, the war by accident approach, but, rather, from an acceptance of different interests, and a conviction that they can be best resolved through the use of force. As such, war can be the resort of both satisfied and unsatisfied powers. The resort for war is also a choice for unpredictability, which is not simply the uncertain nature of battle, but an inherent characteristic of the very nature of war. The acceptance that risk is involved in warfare, and the willingness to confront it, are both culturally conditioned, not to mention the cultural role of rage leading to war.

This book seeks to show not only that military history is important, but also that a short military history of the world does not have to dispense with scholarly topics and debate. Instead, there is an introduction to key issues, notably the value of the idea of military revolutions, the extent to which it is valid to write of a Western way of war and the question of where the emphasis should be placed in the coverage of military history. These issues are introduced not only because they are significant but also because they serve to underline the extent to which the subject is an active one, with important controversies that are of direct relevance for the world today.

Source: Jeremy Black, War: A Short History, Continuum UK, London, 2009

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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