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War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 1450-2000

War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 1450-2000

by Jeremy Black


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ISBN-13: 9780300082852
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/11/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 346
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.72(d)

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War and the World

Military Power and the Fate of Continents 14502000

By Jeremy Black


Copyright © 1998 Jeremy Black
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-14769-8




It cannot happen again. That was the optimistic conclusion of Edward Gibbon, writing in the 1770s, as he considered whether contemporary Europe could once more succumb to those whom he termed barbarians. Gibbon's answer was couched in terms of military progress: 'Cannon and fortifications now form an impregnable barrier against the Tartar horse'. This book seeks to use Gibbon's analysis as a point of departure for looking at a series of crucial and related topics that centre on the question of the relationship between the rise of European military power on the global scale and the relative military development and success of non-European peoples. It seeks to demonstrate the adaptability of a broad spectrum of social and political systems to the ultimate challenge of war, and to provide a balance between operational material and the broader contexts subsumed under the heading of 'new military history'.

At the outset, it is necessary to make two points. First, there is no suggestion that the rise of European power should be regarded as good, no question of a triumphalist approach. This is true not only of the consequences of warfare in terms of changes in territorial control, but also of the nature and means of conflict. To kill people more 'effectively' or ruthlessly, is not regarded as a desirable aspect of civilisation or a facet of progress. This point has to be emphasised because such assumptions are latent in much, although by no means all, of the literature on war.

Secondly, this subject is not a tabula rasa, although, given its importance, it is surprising that more attention has not been devoted to it. In part, this reflects the relative neglect of military history, especially pre-1900 military history, in academic circles over the last forty years. In part, it is the case that most military history, whether operational or the so-called 'new military history' that adopts a wider social dimension, concentrates on Western history and is very much Euro-centred even when it considers developments elsewhere in the world.

This, in turn, is due to a number of factors. Source availability and linguistic capability are clearly crucial but so also are attitudinal factors that are harder to gauge. First, and linked to issues of data and language, is the heavily positivist nature of most military history, arguably a consequence of the approaches that have been developed to tackle both operational and 'new' military history, the bureaucratic nature of modern European military forces, the types of people that become military historians and the 'culture' of the subject.

In addition, there is the reluctance to grasp the wider global context, or the tendency to approach it as a simple function of a given explanatory model, classically that of the triumph of the West through technology. Intellectually and visually, this is a matter of the 'Rorke's Drift' approach to military history: through technology and a sense of mission, small numbers of Europeans were able to defeat, indeed destroy, the military 'other', that is large numbers of alien non-Europeans. The military culture of the latter was and is largely neglected, not simply because of problems in studying the subject – the objective 'scholarly' aspect; but also because non-Europeans appeared then and now anachronistic and bound to fail.

Indeed, non-Europeans were and are generally seen as of military interest only in relation to the Europeans and, more specifically, if they adopted European weaponry and methods. The former leads to the 'Plassey approach': an emphasis on battles, such as Plassey (1757), that involved Europeans, especially those in which they were successful, rather than on other, often larger, struggles that did not; for example, in the case of India and Plassey, the major battle of Panipat fought four years later between the Afghan invaders and the Marathas, and decisively won by the former, or the Persian invasion of India in 1739 which led to Persian victory at Karnal, to the sack of Delhi, and to the cession to Nadir Shah of Persia of Sind and the Mughal territories west of the Indus River. The Eurocentric Plassey approach has had even greater impact because the American experience can be accommodated by treating the struggle between European and native Americans as an aspect of the wider 'rise of the West'. Thus military history becomes a misleading question of the West versus the Rest.

It would be mistaken to argue that no historians have tackled global military history and military technology. Indeed, three scholars, in particular, have made major contributions. William H. McNeill, a skilled practitioner of global history, in his The Pursuit of Power. Technology, Armed Force, and Society since AD 1000 (Oxford, 1983), and the innovative military historian Martin van Creveld in his Technology and War. From 2000 BC to the Present (New York, 1989), both illuminated the role of the technology of war, although they were less concerned with operational military history, and may be criticised for placing too great an emphasis on technology. Geoffrey Parker in his The Military Revolution. Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1988, 2nd edn, 1996) projected European military developments in the sixteenth century on to a global scale.

The current study is an attempt to build on these contributions, not to make points at their expense. In particular, it seeks to build on two of Parker's achievements: first his putting of naval and land warfare in the same frame and, secondly, his bringing together of European and extra-European warfare. Has the subject then been already done and is this book redundant? No; first because Parker, despite the dates of his book, very much concentrated on the period prior to 1650. Secondly, the notion of a European 'military revolution' in the sixteenth century, that Parker took from Michael Roberts, is not without problems. As Parker noted, European success in the New World and in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century contrasted with less effective military capability on land elsewhere until the nineteenth century. Thirdly, the subject is a wide one and capable of a number of interpretations.

It is a particular pleasure to me that Geoffrey has accepted the dedication of this volume. His work has always been an inspiration. He is a scholar of great ability, wisdom and fortitude.


Gibbonian Strategies

It is particularly appropriate to begin by considering the views of Edward Gibbon (1737–94). Aside from his being arguably the greatest historian of the last half-millennium, Gibbon is of particular importance for two reasons. First, he sought not to be Eurocentric, and, within the constraints of the intellectual constructs and scholarship of his period, achieved his goal. This was seen most famously and controversially in Gibbons treatment of religion: he admired the vigour of Islam and found much to criticise in Christianity. More generally, Gibbon was not a Euro-triumphalist. Secondly, Gibbon was fascinated with the issue of the rise and fall of empires. The generally held notion that he wrote only about the fall of the Roman empire is misleading. In fact, Gibbon covered over a millennium of history. He dealt with the successor states to the Western and Eastern Roman empires, but also ranged more widely, discussing for example Persia (Iran) and, though much more briefly, China.

Gibbons writing about empire took place against a background of a long European discourse on the subject. This was a discourse that served moralistic and polemical ends and was essentially expressed in moralistic terms. Christian concepts framed the discussion about international relations and, not least for that reason, traditional consideration of such relations made little sense of aggressive actions.

Cultural relativism, rather than Christian conviction, was an important aspect of Gibbon's Enlightenment ideology. He was an intellectual who proclaimed that he was 'a citizen of the world' and did not favour conflict: "I must rejoice in every agreement that diminishes the separation between neighbouring countries, which softens their prejudices, unites their interests and industry, and renders their future hostilities less frequent and less implacable'. Furthermore, Gibbon sought to fulfil this aspiration not simply in terms of adopting pan-European sentiments, but also by looking at non-European cultures with greater sympathy than his counterparts.

Military developments were crucial in Gibbon's analysis, both in explaining European history and in accounting for Europe's position in the wider world context. In Europe, Gibbon claimed, an absence of gaps in military capability was the underpinning and consequence of the particular nature of political society and international relations. Gibbon argued that a network of states operating in a competitive network of civilised polities was necessary to progress. In his 'General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West', an essay written in about 1772, set within his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1776–88), and published in 1782, Gibbon contrasted the centralised government of Imperial Rome, and what he felt was its susceptibility to autocratic abuse, with the multiple statehood of the eighteenth century:

Europe is now divided into twelve powerful, though unequal kingdoms, three respectable commonwealths, and a variety of smaller, though independent, states; the chances of royal and ministerial talents are multiplied, at least with the number of its rulers ... The abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame; republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times. In peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals; in war, the European forces are exercised by temperate and indecisive contests.

For Gibbon, this 'happy mixture of union and independence' had been prefigured in ancient Greece and in Italy during the period of the early Roman republic, and, by the fifteenth century, was well developed in Europe. In contrast, other powers lacked the stimulus of competition and emulation: of situation and process. For example, according to a hostile Gibbon, Byzantium, isolated by language and arrogance, 'was not disturbed by the comparison of foreign merit; and it is no wonder if they fainted in the race, since they had neither competitors to urge their speed, nor judges to crown their victory'. This situation was not challenged until, from the late eleventh century, Western European power was projected eastwards with the Crusades, when 'the nations of Europe and Asia were mingled ... and it is under the Comnenian dynasty that a faint emulation of knowledge and military virtue was rekindled in the Byzantine empire' (Decline and Fall VI. 108–9; VII. 116).

A similar argument has been recently used to explain the failure of Asian powers, such as China, to maintain their early progress in gunpowder weaponry. William McNeill argued that 'once a decisive advantage accrued to central authorities through the use and monopolisation of heavy guns, further spontaneous improvements in gunpowder weapons ceased ... There was little incentive to experiment with new devices.' He also suggested that there was little incentive to experiment with novel modes of military organisation, an obvious contrast with the developments in European infantry and naval organisation in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Constant, or at least frequent warfare is not a complete answer to the question why the West progressed so quickly in gunpowder weapon technology while Asia and Byzantium did not, not least because it excludes or minimises cultural, political and operational considerations; but it was clearly important. In addition, Byzantium by the fifteenth century was a poor state, and this poverty may have been partly responsible for the failure to develop a significant gun-making industry.

A number of economic historians, particularly Eric Jones and Joel Mokyr, have also emphasised the importance of political fragmentation in ensuring the continued advance of technology in Europe. More specifically, if one centre of technological innovation ceased to set the pace, another would supplant it, and the same was true of commercial energy and financial entetprise. From this point of view, the political and military factors that encouraged and sustained such fragmentation were in turn enhanced by the process of technological change. Thus, for example, printing helped to disseminate opinions and to encourage the development of national identities, while the pressure of international competition ensured emulation in military innovations, preventing the creation of long-term gaps in military capability.

The character of the international system in Europe therefore becomes an important variable that helps to explain the particular nature of warfare on the continent, both warfare as a function and expression of tactics, technology and techniques, and warfare as a pressure for governmental and social action and change. In multipolar Europe, societies did not have as large an option about mobilising resources for war as was the case with states elsewhere that lacked powerful neighbours. Instead, the pressure of international competition affected the nature of states, the conduct of politics, the culture of societies, the degree of military preparedness and the search for alternative means for security in diplomatic organisation and devices.

Balances of Power

A balance of power was, for Gibbon, a crucial device of and for collective security. He believed that it was self-correcting, prevented hegemony and permitted progress through emulation that was essentially competitive but that, within Europe, was tempered by 'the general manners of the times': the ethos and conventions of warfare and the international system. Far from adopting any timeless geopolitical systemic account, Gibbon, therefore, argued that the ideological context of international relations was important.

This stress on the balance of power in international relations matched a similar emphasis on the balance in domestic politics. Gibbon favoured a balance in the disposition and operation of power within communities, but it is clear that for him this balance reflected ideological-cultural as well as constitutional-structural factors: balance was most likely to work in virtuous communities. For Gibbon, 'the firm and equal balance of the constitution' of republican Rome somewhat confusedly 'united' the character of three different elements: popular assemblies, senate and regal magistrate (IV. 160), and 'legislative authority was distributed in the assemblies of the people by a well-proportioned scale of property and service' (V. 263). In contrast, in the post-Classical world, Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, 471–526, failed to join, through balancing, 'Goths and Romans', and was thus unsuccessful in creating a stable state fusing Roman civilisation and barbarian vigour (IV. 187). The military ability of the 'barbarians' to overthrow the Western Roman empire was not matched by their political capability; an argument that could be echoed in the case of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. In eighth-century ad Rome, the attempted re-creation of the 'rough model of a republican government', with its consultation and checks and balances, failed because 'the spirit was fled', so that 'independence was disgraced by the tumultuous conflict of licentiousness and oppression (V. 263–4).

Gibbons use of the concept of balance in both domestic and international policies, however, raises several questions. The apparent precision and naturalness of the image and language of balance greatly contributed to its popularity in an age in thrall to Newton and mechanistic physics. Furthermore, balance served as an appropriate leitmotif for a culture that emphasised the value of moderation and, in the eighteenth-century British context, 'politeness', the last understood as a moral and practical code of restraint. In military terms, it corresponded to an emphasis on discipline, drill and a science of war, although they were not necessarily designed to serve international or domestic equipoise.

However, the notion of balance of power offered little guide as to what criteria should be used to measure strength and military capability, assess intentions, or respond to change, while there was a central contradiction between the descriptive and normative possibilities of the theory. In international relations, it was also unclear how regional balances were related to a general balance; how the military-political system worked. Regional hegemonies could be seen variously as maintaining or threatening the balance. For example, Gibbon presented Theodoric as supporting, not threatening, international stability: '[Theodoric] maintained with a powerful hand the balance of the West ... and although unable to assist his rash and unfortunate kinsman the king of the Visigoths, he ... checked the Franks in the midst of their victorious career ... the Alemanni were protected ... an inroad of the Burgundians was severely chastised' (IV. 186). Gibbon noted that 'by the departure of the Lombards and the ruin of the Gepidae, the balance of power was destroyed on the Danube' (V. 53), but, although Avar dominance there threatened Constantinople, it is unclear what the wider significance of such regional balances was supposed to be.

As with other concepts, these limitations in terms of analytical rigour did not remove the value of the balance of power as a political and polemical tool. Indeed, its very openness to interpretation made the concept more flexible and thus widened its use in discourse: the academic desire for precision is fundamentally misleading when considering the past use and development of concepts.

Gibbon's praise of the balance of power was in keeping with the assumptions of other eighteenth-century historians whose cultural emphasis was more strongly Eurocentric. They viewed the balance of power as characteristic of European political society, cause and consequence of European progress and strength. Non-Europeans were generally seen as lacking balance and balances. Furthermore, the balance was seen as a particular characteristic of a post-medieval world defined by the successful challenge to Papal authority and the pretensions of the Holy Roman Empire from the early sixteenth century. This matched a sense that warfare had changed from this period.

Excerpted from War and the World by Jeremy Black. Copyright © 1998 by Jeremy Black. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Illustration Credits....................     viii     

Preface....................     ix     

Acknowledgements....................     x     

1 Introduction....................     1     

2 Gibbonian Strategies....................     3     

3 Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Expansion and Warfare...................     18     

4 The Seventeenth Century....................     60     

5 The Pre-Revolutionary Eighteenth Century....................     96     

6 An Age of Revolution and Imperial Reach, 1775–1815....................     129     

7 The Nineteenth Century....................     164     

8 Warfare and the State, 1450–1900....................     203     

9 Twentieth-Century Reflections....................     232     

Notes....................     292     

Index....................     321     

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