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The Culture of War

The Culture of War

Mini Teaser: Books by John Keegan and Bruce Porter attempt to address the broad question of the role of war in history.

by Author(s): Ronald H. Spector

John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1993), 432pp., $ 27.50

Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State (New York: Free Press, 1993), 350pp., $24.95.

Many historians and social scientists harbor a strong antipathy toward the serious study of war and its influence. Their dislike is based not only on understandable emotional and moral considerations, but also on intellectual ones. The history of wars and warfare as it is taught in most general high school and college history courses appears not only repulsive, but sterile, repetitive and boring. The same countries always seem to be marching their armies across Europe and fighting big, bloody but inconclusive battles--the names to be memorized for the final exam. One war and battle follows another all waged by kings and generals with easily forgettable names over equally arcane and forgettable issues: "the Habsburg-Valois struggle," "the Austrian Succession," "the Schleswig-Holstein Question." Even before the era of music videos and computer games, this was the kind of stuff guaranteed to induce terminal boredom in any red-blooded high school or college student.

For those with a serious interest in history there were also more interesting subjects to pursue in the areas of political and intellectual and, more recently, social, cultural, urban and gender history. Left to themselves, military historians--many of them soldiers, or former soldiers, rather than academics-- concentrated their efforts on chronicling battles and campaigns, analyzing strategy, tactics and generalships and tracing the development of weapons and their impact on the battlefield. Historians of foreign relations, more numerous and respectable than military historians, but still a somewhat isolated and narrow group, focused their efforts on identifying the causes of war and the subsequent course of peace negotiations. Many historians of both sorts produced important, even distinguished work, but their impact on their academic colleagues and the larger reading public was negligible.

All that began to change with the publication of John Keegan's The Face of Battle in 1976. Keegan chose to examine three battles, Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, which had often been described before. Yet by attempting to reconstruct what these battles were like for those who actually fought them, by looking at them from the point of view of the combatants, rather than the generals, the strategists or the chroniclers, he was able to show that the history of war was both more awful and more interesting than had previously been supposed. His work captured a large audience, including many people who had read no military history before, and inspired graduate students and younger academics to apply and expand his methods and techniques and to ask new questions about old subjects such as battles, leadership and the relationships between technology and warfare. As for Keegan, he received the ultimate accolade for an academic: he was invited to contribute to The New York Review of Books. Over the next fifteen years he continued to author books which dealt imaginatively with broad and difficult subjects relating to war, generalship, and command and control in The Mask of Command (1987) and war at sea in The Price of Admiralty (1989). In A History of Warfare he addresses an even broader subject, war in human history.

Bruce O. Porter's book is also about war in human history, at least in the period since the Renaissance. Yet his book is very different from Keegan's in scope, style and viewpoint. Porter's book is intended to demonstrate that wars are "more than mere interruptions in history, that they [are] grand causes of change in their own right." As his subtitle suggests, Porter is particularly interested in the ways in which war and military organizations shaped political institutions and practices in Western Europe and the United States. A political scientist, Porter aims to move beyond the usual questions about war which political scientists and diplomatic historians normally pose, that is, "what are the causes of war?" and look instead at the question of "what war causes."

What war causes, Porter argues, is an inexorable growth of powerful centralized government and bureaucracy, often at the expense of individual rights and liberties. However, war can sometimes also have the effect of fostering democratization in cases where governments are compelled to call on the less privileged members of society to bear arms and are frequently obliged to grant them new rights and opportunities in return.

Porter appears to regard all this as an important new discovery, despite earlier work along the same lines by authors ranging from Tocqueville and Max Weber to Theodore Rabb, Charles Tilly, David Kaiser and William McNeil, some of whom are cited in Porter's own copious footnotes. Perhaps he was moved to restate their conclusions by the belief that contemporary Europeans and Americans nonetheless still "resist acknowledging, much less squarely confronting, the pervasive role of war in our history and politics." He believes part of this may be due to ideological bias on the part of both liberals and conservatives. Conservatives admire military values and are sympathetic to the military outlook but refuse to acknowledge that "big government" has often been the direct outgrowth of war and preparations for war. Liberals "likewise cannot accept that the welfare institutions which they regard as hallmarks of human progress could possibly have derived in part from anything so horrendous as war."

Professor Porter is determined to disabuse both liberals and conservatives of such illusions, and he makes an impressive attempt, ranging over five centuries of European and American history, discussing such diverse subjects as public finance in the sixteenth Century Dutch Republic, the relationship between trench warfare and the rise of Fascism, government control of industry in France during World War I, and the impact of World War II on politics and social legislation in Sweden and Switzerland.

Having identified war as "a powerful catalyst of change," Porter has some difficulty in describing the nature of the change. His careful research keeps getting in the way of his social scientist's urge to generalize and categorize. Thus, "large states were better equipped than smaller ones to endure the violence of the Renaissance age"--except when they weren't; as in the case of Spain which "unravelled under the centrifugal stress of large scale violence." Then again, some small states, like the Dutch and the Swiss, didn't do too badly either. Further on we learn about "the democratizing penchant of modern armies" like Cromwell's roundheads and the soldiers of the First French Republic. Except this doesn't seem to apply to Prussia or Russia. War, Porter concludes, often stimulates national unity and political consolidation--except when it doesn't, as in the cases of Italy and Poland.

Although Porter disavows any attempt to "postulate a military dialectic of history," he ends up doing something very close to it, concluding his study with a call to "discard evolutionary and progressive models of change and humbly acknowledge this tragic and fundamental thread in Western Civilization." In his zeal to sustain this line of argument Porter is sometimes driven to questionable extremes. He defines "war," for example, to include not only international conflict and civil war but arms races and international rivalries as well as all of the phenomenon associated with late nineteenth century imperialism. Even the use of "war" as a metaphor by FDR during the Great Depression qualifies for inclusion by the author, who sees the success of the New Deal as due to Roosevelt's success in "imparting a warlike urgency to the economic crisis." Having defined almost everything in modern political and economic history as somehow war-related, Porter has little difficulty in proving that war is "the fundamental thread in Western Civilization."

Porter's book attempts to show how "war made the state and the state made war," in the words of historian Charles Tilly. Keegan rejects this formulation on the first page of his History of Warfare. War, he reminds us, "antedates the state, diplomacy and strategy by many millennia."

Until recently most historians and strategists viewed war as conflict between sovereign states or principalities, waged by organized armies who decided the contest by means of battles and military campaigns. Of course there were also civil wars and insurrections, but they were generally viewed as too messy to lend themselves to much theorizing, except in cases such as the United States where they took on many of the characteristics of international wars.

Keegan tells a different story. He invites us to contemplate not only the record of European warfare of the last few hundred years, but also "to observe how different war might be in societies where both state and [European style] regiments were alien concepts." Less than 20 percent of History of Warfare is devoted to the period from the seventeenth century to the late twentieth, the era to which most military historians devote all their attention. Instead Keegan ranges widely over 4,000 years of history discussing in detail societies from the Assyrians to the Aztecs, from Easter Island to ancient Greece. He also attempts to discern the nature of early combat through an examination of warfare among three contemporary primitive peoples, the Yanomamo of Brazil, the Maring of highland New Guinea and the Maori of New Zealand.

Keegan's point, one made earlier in Martin Van Crevalds's very different book The Transformation of War, is that the history of war, as discussed in most textbooks, describes only one type of warfare, that of the European states and the U.S. in the past two or three centuries. It is this type of warfare upon which Jomini, Clausewitz, Mahan and their later disciples and critics based their ideas and treatises and which military professionals study in their schools and training courses. This kind of war was the monopoly of sovereign states in a society which "distinguished sharply between the lawful bearer of arms and the rebel, the freebooter and the brigand...It expected that war would take certain narrowly definable forms--siege, pitched battle, skirmish, raid, reconnaissance...It assumed that wars had a beginning and an end. What it made no allowance for at all was war without beginning or end, the endemic warfare of non-state, even pre-state peoples."

In other words, the sort of "war" we have recently witnessed in Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. There is, as Keegan shows, no normal or natural type of warfare. Nor has war always been a matter of Clausewitz' "continuation of politics by other means," certainly not for the Aztecs, the Mongols or the Yanomamo.

Keegan's view of the relationship between weapons and war is also far different from that of most military historians. The most common approach has been to describe the evolution of warfare primarily in terms of the application of new gadgets to the battlefield; the musket, the bayonet, the breechloader, smokeless powder, the machine gun, et al, and to analyze the ways in which armies and navies adapted or failed to adapt their organization, tactics and strategy to the new weapons. The story of war was thus viewed as a steady, almost linear progression from less to more and more technologically sophisticated armies and armaments.

Adopting a viewpoint similar to that of historians such as Robert L. O'Connell and John Sumida, Keegan sees culture and not technology as the most important influence on military organization and practice. The most striking example, described at length in his book, is the largely successful attempt by the Tokugawa Shoguns, who ruled Japan for more than two centuries, to outlaw the use of firearms, thus preserving the dominance of the Samurai warrior class with their highly stylized warfare based on swordsmanship. Similarly, the Mameluke warriors of the Middle East refused to modify their traditional mounted warfare based on the lance sword and bow, even in the face of enemies armed with muskets and cannons.

The reader should not come away from a reading of Keegan, however, with the belief that dominance of cultural forms, preferences and attitudes is confined to exotic peoples in remote periods of history. In every society military leaders and organizations have not automatically adopted new weapons and equipment as soon as they came out of the workshop or laboratory, but have made choices based not solely, or even mainly, on utilitarian considerations, but on past experience, strategic ideas, prejudices, and the desire to preserve a particular style of warfare which may be the basis of an entire political and social system, as in the case of the Samurai and medieval knights of Europe. In recent history the reluctance of the European and American armies to abandon the horse cavalry is an example of the complex interplay of bureaucratic rivalry, military conservatism, technological uncertainty and the desire to preserve a particular "style" of warfare.

Sometimes choices may be based on considerations of what is permissible and impermissible in warfare. This type of thinking is far from confined to the Mamelukes or the Samurai with their disdain for firearms. During the recent Gulf War, for example, American leaders and the media expressed anxiety, indignation and anger at the possibility that the Iraqis might employ chemical weapons against American soldiers, while accepting with little comment the far greater possibility that these same soldiers might be blown to bits by high explosives, burned to death in aircraft or armored vehicles, or killed or maimed by small arms or mines.

What of war in the post-Cold War world? Porter sees several possible scenarios. The growth in the number of democratic states appears to bode well for the future, given the historical reluctance of democracies to wage war on each other. On the other hand, should tensions between industrialized powers somehow increase we may see the rise of the "scientific-warfare state" employing the new sensors, communications, and "smart" weapons of the military-technical revolution in even more destructive and capital intensive forms of war.

Keegan is optimistic. He sees the "total wars" of the twentieth century not as the norm, but as an aberration resulting from the practice, begun in the era of the French Revolution, of extending the right and obligation of military service to virtually the entire adult male population, while at the same time extending the scope and aims of war to encompass the total overthrow of the enemy. The norm in warfare throughout most of human history, Keegan argues, has not been total but limited war; limited by ritual and convention, as in primitive war and the wars of the Aztecs and medieval knights or by "evasion, delay and indirectness" as in the warfare of many tribal and nomadic peoples. More important, it has been limited by reserving fighting to special classes and categories of society, "those bred to it by social position or driven to it by lack of any social position whatever" or to slaves, as in the case of the Mamelukes.

At the close of the twentieth century, Keegan believes that all forms of war may be becoming rarer. Despite the long history of war and its infinite variety as recounted in his book, war may finally "be ceasing to command itself to human beings as desirable or productive, let alone a rational means of reconciling their discontents." This may well be true of the great wars between sovereign states recounted so meticulously in military histories. However, Lebanon, Yugoslavia and Central Asia remind us that the messier, more ill-defined and open ended conflicts "without clear beginning or end" may continue to grow and flourish.

Essay Types: Essay