War: A Short History: Conclusions: Assessing War

War A Short History

The centrality of war in history emerges clearly in any discussion of particular countries or of specific centuries. A brief study written by a British author for a British publisher risks putting the premium on conflicts involving Britain, but the emphasis here has been more wide-ranging, not least with the discussion of developments in China. Such a focus serves as a reminder of the very different political and geographical environments for conflict. A stress on contrasting political environments is of particular importance because there is a tendency to emphasize regular warfare-wars between states; rather than paying due attention to conflicts within states, such as, in the case of China, the Sanfen and Taipeng Rebellions and the Chinese Civil War.

An awareness of variety in goals, contexts and means of waging war underlines the difficulty of judging capability and assessing developments. The conceptualization of war and of military history is a sparse field. This might appear a surprising remark given the number of words deployed about Clausewitz, Jomini, [Sun Tzu], Mahan, Corbett and others, but is in fact the case. First, in comparative terms. The writing on the theory of social, gender or cultural history, for example, is far more extensive. Second, although particular writers, themes and episodes in military affairs and history have attracted conceptual literature, many have not. Moreover, the conceptualization has frequently been fairly simple. Whiggish notions of improvement in terms of a clear teleology are rampant, not least with regard to weapons technology. War and Society approaches also attracted teleological treatment, not least with the idea of improved social mobilization in modern industrial warfare. Alongside teleology came determinism, notably with the assumption that superior resources explained results. Thus, determinism was bound up with the material-culture approach to war.

A contrary approach, albeit one related in its simplicity, was the notion of national or cultural ways of war. This was an approach that drew on a number of roots, but particularly on the organic ideas of identity that became more prominent in the nineteenth century, which was very much an age influenced by biological approaches and, notably, Darwinian ideas of competition. These organic ideas of a distinctive response to environmental circumstances creating a synergetical basis for identity proved particularly interesting for those concerned with international competition. They led, moreover, to vitalist notions in which environment was linked to will. The concept of a national will proved especially conductive to commentators, not least those considering the nature of capability in an age of mass-conscript armies. The idea of superior national will appeared to provide an explanation for how to ensure success, particularly through better morale.

A separate strand contributing to the same end emerged from the idea of cultural competition. The concept of distinctive cultures appeared to match that of different national identities. Each drew on a notion of essentialism and one that can be seen as indicative of the strength of neo-Platonic ideas. Cultural essentialism was potent in the nineteenth century as a description both of present and past. It appeared to provide an explanation for Western expansion and also to link it with past conflicts that could be seen in cultural terms. The key rivalry was that of civilization and barbarism, and, to that, all else could be subordinated. This idea drew on the attractive notion that the then modern West was the embodiment of the Classical world. This linkage between Classical Greece and Rome and the modern Europe and the United States seemed obvious to commentators reading the classics in the original and seeing their legislators emerge from neo-Classical buildings. If the neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster did not appear to match this, nineteenthcentury British prime ministers such as Derby and Gladstone not only read the classics in the original Greek and Latin, but also wrote knowledgeably about them.

The idea of a linkage was scarcely new at that juncture. While important during the Middle Ages, this idea had received a powerful boost from the Classical revival that had been so significant during the Renaissance. This revival had a direct military manifestation with interest in writers such as Machiavelli seeking to employ Classical ideas and models, a practice taken forward by the Princes of Orange during what was later seen as the Military Revolution of 1560-1660, and again by Maurice of Saxe and French commentators in the early eighteenth century. The sense of parallelism had varied manifestations over the following century, ranging from the response to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), a response that indicated a sense that Britain in the age of the American Revolution was moving in the same direction, to the conscious use of Classical echoes by the French Revolutionaries and Napoleon. Indeed, the latter was a modern Caesar, with his coup, his legions and his imperial aspirations.

Western imperialism during the post-Napoleonic century took this cultural approach to new heights. It drew on a revived Romanitas, with modern Western proconsular generals and governors seeing themselves as successors of the Romans. Napier’s ‘Peccavi’, the Latin for ‘I have sinned’, in response to his conquest of the region of Sind in modern Pakistan in 1843 was commentary as much as joke: the magazine Punch portrayed him sending this telegram; in fact he never did so. Here, however, was another view of the modern Caesar, not as a Napoleon making war on fellow Europeans, but as a warrior bringing barbarians to heel. This idea also drew on a strong notion of religious superiority, and, in particular, on an activist pulse that was also seen in large-scale missionary activity.

The amalgamation of these ideas was important because war was waged outside Europe not only with those who could be presented as barbarians (not least by the application of a stadial [stages] theory of development), but also because there was conflict with states that were seen as products of decayed civilizations. It was thus that China and Persia, Burma and Egypt, Turkey and Ethiopia were presented. Only Japan escaped this conceptual trap, and then because it Westernized so rapidly. Thus, the modern Europeans were akin to the Classical Greeks resisting Persia under Xerxes and Darius, while their generals were latter-day Alexanders the Great. The notion of Western warfare therefore drew on strong cultural impulses and these gave it an identity that helped explain and justify success. Christian providentialization and cultural superiority were also present in the explanation of technological progress, which, in turn, was held to demonstrate them. Different commentators presented this account with contrasting emphases, but it was, nevertheless, a key element in the positioning and explanation of warfare.

The Western interpretation of warfare in terms of Christian providentialism and Western cultural superiority became far less prominent in the twentieth century, although it was definitely to the fore in the opening stages of the First World War. After that, there was a shift away from nineteenth-century notions, although again for varied reasons that were of different importance for particular commentators. First, the emphasis from 1914 to 1989 on struggle or confrontation within the Western world-the assassinations that launched the First World War at Sarajevo, to the Fall of the Berlin Wall that ended the Cold War-did not encourage such a clear-cut and consistent cultural and moral approach as the ‘less developed’ world was not so consistently the sphere of imperial warfare. Looked at differently, however, such approaches were deployed during both the two World Wars and the Cold War, but they were short-term and particularly associated with one or other side. Thus, German assumptions of a right to rule and of cultural superiority were discredited with the failure to establish a German empire in Europe, while Communist counterparts also proved unsuccessful.

Second, the failure of the West in sustaining imperial rule or even post-imperial power across the Third World was a prominent feature of the period 1919-75, and, more particularly, 1945-75. Ideologies of cultural superiority did not provide victory for the French in Indo-China and could not ensure lasting domestic support for the Portuguese government in its resistance to insurgencies in their African colonies in 1961-74.

Lastly, the warfare of the age of total war appeared so different to what had come before that historicist accounts of conflict seemed redundant. The Western Way of War was not thus to the fore in the late twentieth century. Indeed, one of the key concepts of the 1990s, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was particularly unreceptive to such a designation, because its technological impetus and definition were presented as possibly for diffusion across cultural boundaries. The 2000s, however, witnessed a rediscovery of the concept of the Western Way of War, most prominently with the writings of the American historian Victor Davis Hanson, although not only with him. This rediscovery was very presentist in character, resting as it did on the concatenation of expeditionary warfare and the ‘War on Terror’ with the need to provide a new doctrine and exegesis to replace, or at least supplement, the RMA. Hanson, an expert on warfare in Classical Greece, sought to provide reassurance and certainty, arguing that Western cultural factors brought strength and success, and that, once this was understood, it should encourage a firmness of purpose. He also proposed a clear lineage, linking the ancient world to modern conflict.

The details of Hanson’s approach have been much criticized and its lacunae and flaws are clearly highlighted, not least with the absence of the clear linkage he proposed between the citizens’ army of ancient Athens and such armies in the West over the last quarter millennium; but less attention has been devoted to a more central flaw, that of essentialism or a central identity. In short, whatever the questionable nature of the belief in a Western Way of War having certain characteristics, there is the issue of whether there is something that can be defined as a Western Way of War.

The questioning of the latter can come from a number of directions. It can be argued that the key element is that of national military culture and that there was/is such a powerful variety among the latter that the idea of an aggregate Western Way of War falls to the side. It can also be suggested that the national dimension has been overplayed, an argument that can be made not in order to privilege a Western Way of War, but, instead, because most military development is task-driven, and changes in the context that condition and affect tasks are crucial. For example, talk of a distinctive and consistent Way of War means little for militaries and societies that have to adapt to the changes entailed by switching into and out of the practice and consequences of conscription, or between conventional and counter-insurgency conflict.

Variety occurs across space as well as time. A Western Way of War in 1650 would have had to encompass the ‘regular’ forces of Western Europe, the greater role for cavalry in Eastern Europe, as well as colonial forces, most obviously in Latin America, and those thrown forward by civil wars. Moreover, it would be necessary to show that these forces were recognizably different in type from those seen elsewhere in Eurasia. Once external contrasts are taken out of consideration, were the force structures and doctrines sufficiently contrasting to non-European/Western counterparts to think in terms of distinctive European patterns, whether or not they were to be aggregated in terms of a Western Way of War? The answer is probably not. In particular, there was considerable overlap between methods of warmaking and fighting in Eastern Europe across the Christian-Muslim divide. Comparisons with the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) can then be extrapolated by asking about the extent of the contrast between, say, the armies of Tsar Alexis of Russia and John Sobieski of Poland or those of the Kangzi Emperor in China and Aurangzeb, his Mughal counterpart in India.

If contrasts between Western and non-Western warfare emerge more clearly by 1750 and, even more, 1850, it can be asked whether this was due to essential differences or to stages in a developmental process, the latter a thesis advanced by those interested in Westernization and diffusion, and, notably, in some of the writing on Indian military history; or to contingency. Moreover, contrasts between West and non-West have to be set alongside a reality of variety in both West and non-West, with these variations also involving overlap with the other category. This situation has remained the case throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and into the present age.

Parallels are also instructive. The ability of governments, not limited to Western ones, to impose their will on the state or nation in order ultimately to achieve their objectives, and the extent to which they are willing to expend resources, including population, to achieve that end, are crucial. If this warmaking is defined as a ‘Western’ characteristic, then, however, as a key qualification, it has to be noted that war among states beyond the West, such as between the Ottoman and Persian Empires, or the recent Iran-Iraq and India-Pakistan Wars, were conducted in an analogous fashion. Indeed, the ability and willingness of these governments to sustain heavy casualties to achieve their objectives suggests that the notion of a distinctive Western way of war should be questioned or perhaps simply stated as the way governments wage war, irrespective of geographic region.

If the idea of a distinctive Western Way of War is therefore suspect from a number of different directions, this does not mean that a Western-dominated mindset has not conditioned much of our (Western) understanding of warfare, with war understood in terms of a largely Western vision. A similar point can be made elsewhere, and the related deficiencies could also be serious. For example, the Chinese understanding of war in the nineteenth century was even more flawed than its Western counterpart because the relevant range of experience was more limited (no recent transoceanic or naval warfare), and the same point can be made about other states and ‘cultures’, whatever the latter are to be understood as meaning. Whether belief in a Western Way of War can be successfully detached from a Western-dominated mindset is unclear, but the freedom of expression in the West and the breadth of scholarly discussion (within the academy but also outside it) offer some encouragement on this head. The extent of sophisticated debate within the American military and related military academies and think-tanks is particularly impressive. In large part, there has been a strong critique not only of the RMA but also of any notion of technological determinism.

There has also been much call for a need for task-based warfare rather than the capability-centred emphasis on output: force delivered, for example bombs dropped. An interest in outcome certainly entails an attempt to place warfare more centrally in its political context. All this can be seen as conforming to or clashing with the/a Western Way of War, which simply highlights the questionable nature of the latter concept if it is to be employed as a coherent analytical tool and building block.

Yet, approached differently, it is precisely because the idea of a Western Way of War is so loose that it has proved so valuable, especially to broad-brush writers. Indeed, it is the very looseness of concepts that makes them useful. It can be argued that this feature is particularly the case with military history, not least because many of the writers are popular historians or military figures who are not adept at, or interested in, sophisticated (or any) conceptual discussions. The latter point suggests that the Western Way of War still has considerable mileage. Like many ideas it fills a gap. As such, it offers a parallel to such concepts as the early-modern European Military Revolution (see pp. 61-76). The extension of the idea of military revolution indicates the value attached to any concept that is available.

This situation again, in part, is a reflection of the degree to which the field often lacks intellectual sophistication, although, looked at differently, the treatment of military developments by specialists in more conceptual fields, such as sociology and politics, is scarcely encouraging. Moreover, it would be inaccurate to suggest that military affairs lack a changing vocabulary. The large-scale diffusion from the 1980s of the concept of the operational dimension of conflict is particularly instructive, as is a more general engagement with doctrine. Furthermore, in the 2000s, the range of discussion of COIN (Counter-Insurgency) doctrine and methods repays attention as evidence of a capacity for a considered response to circumstances and experience.

Whether other societies have different response methods and models is unclear, for one of the problems that is worth considering is the extent to which there is a lack of published critical discussion of the situation by many other societies. Indeed, however much Western-centric perspectives are to be criticized, they are less flawed than what appears to be on offer elsewhere. For example, it is unclear how much the insurgents in Iraq or the Taliban have a sense of the wider parameters of military change. Looked at differently, they locate their own activities in an experience that provides not only motivation but also an ability to respond to challenges. This situation was seen in Afghanistan with the response, first, to the Red Army in the 1980s and, second, to Western military power in the 2000s. Yet, considered in another light, the Iraqi insurgents, like the Taliban, found that their ideas and practices brought less success than they had anticipated, and this failure contributed to a general inability of warmaking in 2001-8 to achieve desired results. The extent to which this inability reflected widespread conceptual limitations, both in the West and in the non-West (in so far as they can be aggregated and distinguished), repays attention. It also suggests that criticism of simple practices of Western-centred analysis should be set in a wider context of failure, and, more generally, underlines the need for comparative assessment when judging capability. That is not simply the case for historians, but also for those considering war today as well as its likely future development.

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

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis

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