Whatever Works

Perilous Glory
The Rise of Western Military Power
John France
Yale University Press, $35, 447 pp.

The West Point military historian John France has written a magisterial overview of warfare from ancient times to today, seeking to explain why and how modern warfare as practiced in the West proved so dominant. The central thesis of his book is that the brutally successful “Western way of war” resulted not from efficiency, individualism, or any other internal value of democratic societies, but rather from situational exigencies and opportunities. France rejects as “nonsense” the view that warfare reflects or enacts values; for instance, reinforcing the recent work of political scientist Robert Pape (Dying to Win), he puts the lie to any notion that suicide attacks and other forms of asymmetric warfare are tactically or morally bizarre. On the contrary, suicide attacks are essentially the most effective means that an under-resourced group has against a better-equipped foe. In his view, styles and practices of warfare are not reflections of values but more like accidents of situation. In ancient Egypt, he notes, battle dictated close-quarters fighting because efficient missile weapons—bows, slings, and javelins—were too hard to make or use.

An authority on medieval warfare and the Crusades in particular, France treats the notion of revolutionary developments in military practice with skepticism. What he sees is a gradual evolution. For instance, when mobile, cavalry-based steppe powers conquered agro-urban...

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About the Author

Jonathan Stevenson, a New York-based writer, is author of Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom from the Cold War to the Age of Terror (Viking).