Whatever Works

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 societies, as the Manchus did in China and the Ottomans did in Asia Minor and Europe, they simply merged their own military techniques with those of their new subjects. Evolution has been the rule rather than the exception, with notable retrogressions along the way—like the trench warfare of World War I, which in some ways tragically recalled the Greek phalanxes, with all their vulnerability. Until firearms were developed, France explains, there were no major changes in armies’ ways of war—and even then, the shifts that did occur were fitful and incremental. He notes that although one-shot muskets did extend the killing ground, they were so awkward to reload that they functioned mainly as longswords, and close-quarters fighting remained necessary for decisive victory in battle.

Political and social developments, of course, played a major role in the advance of Western military power. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) blunted the imperative of imperial conquest—expansion requiring an expensive military, which encouraged further expansion—and elevated the importance of standing armies for the monarch’s protection of the state. The challenges of maintaining such an army away from its base gave rise to the systematization of military logistics, since “pillage threatened the discipline on which all armies depended, and ravaging could drive peasant populations from the land and even convert them into guerrillas.” The Prussian cantonal model, involving highly selective conscription, produced a disciplined and respected professional class of soldiers, and the extravagant warfare of the eighteenth century led to the institutionalization of officer training in Europe. Yet at the same time, the industrial revolution, in fostering a middle class, produced a better life for more people and consequently an aversion to sacrifice—or, as France mordantly puts it, “poorer human material.” Such complacency, he goes on to suggest, was in turn offset by an emphasis on moral qualities—“dash and spirit”—that catered to the kind of exuberantly mindless offensive aggression that characterized World War I. France’s nuanced reflections reveal how terrifically complex, indeed at times seemingly paradoxical, is the dynamic of change, with bursts of progress often entailing surprising reversals.

According to the view put forward in these pages, the one true military revolution occurred in the late nineteenth century, when the advent of cheap high-quality steel and machine tooling gave rifled barrels, artillery, and machine guns a degree of accurate lethality that made traditional close-order combat suicidal. Yet the Napoleonic Wars had planted in popular and military consciousness alike the notion that conflicts would be settled in single climactic battles, and military commanders were slow to appreciate the perils of mixing traditional tactics and modern weapons, with gruesome results. The Civil War drove home the point to the Americans (France notes that General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” of encirclement and blockade, ridiculed at the outset of the war, “proved to be the most appropriate strategy”), while some fifty years later it took the Somme and other meat-grinders to enlighten the British—and ultimately the tank to render trench warfare definitively obsolete.

An engaging curmudgeon of an author, France can be cheekily glib. He writes, for example, that “the Americans dropped the atomic bomb, forcing a surrender which probably saved millions of Japanese lives”—surely a hefty argument to relegate to a single subordinate clause. The book’s concluding chapter suffers from excessive editorializing (France pontificates that “insisting on ‘human rights’ is foolish”) and, for a volume of history, too much ideological antagonism. But these are small and isolated complaints. Perilous Glory treats its massive topic with exemplary compression, trenchancy, and an almost unerring sense of scale. And, it does not eschew subtlety. The lessons of World War I, France notes, were contradictory: on one hand, it illuminated the tactical need for small, fast, and agile military units with command autonomy; on the other hand, a massive operational coordination of infantry, tanks, artillery, and air power was indispensable. And France’s succinct gloss on the challenges facing us today—“defeating insurgency is labor-intensive, and to succeed requires a fairly brutal mixture of carrot and stick”—is soberingly true.

Explaining his book’s title, the author argues that “glory is always perilous because, while it evokes fear, it also creates hate, which is fertile in invention.” Put another way, one state’s military success creates a vexing security dilemma, since other states inevitably fear it, loathe it, and seek to counter it. Giving this wary logic pride of place in his book’s title reveals John France as a consummate realist and puts him in the company of such scholars as Kenneth Waltz, Samuel Huntington, and John Mearsheimer, theorists who hold that states ultimately act in their own strategic interests regardless of their collective values. This is a coherent and serious view of human history. We currently find ourselves, however, in an age in which interests and values have become difficult to separate—a time in which the gentle promotion of democracy and human rights is viewed not merely as a proper response to the threat of militant Islam, but also as a prudent one. Will the realist separation of interests from values prevail? It may take a little more history for us to know the answer. In the meantime, John France has convincingly articulated the very useful lesson that adversaries will tend to adopt whatever military operations and tactics their circumstances allow.

Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: 
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Jonathan Stevenson is senior fellow for U.S. Defense and editor of Strategic Comments at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He served as director for Political-Military Affairs, Middle East and North Africa, on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2013.

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