Military History Today: Jeremy Black Calls for a More Wide-Ranging, Inclusive Approach to the History of Warfare

By Black, Jeremy | History Today, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Military History Today: Jeremy Black Calls for a More Wide-Ranging, Inclusive Approach to the History of Warfare


Black, Jeremy, History Today


DRUMS AND TRUMPETS' history, offering a narrative account of battles and campaigns, much of it written for a general readership, is flourishing. While much of this popular work--Andrew Gordon on Jutland, for example, or Rory Muir on Salamanca--is thoughtful and first-rate, all too often it has a narrow focus and is somewhat familiar. Thus, in the Reader's Guide to Military History, one of the most commercially successful of recent works, Antony Beevor's Stalingrad (1998), is described as offering "nothing in the way of new insights or analysis'.

Popular work also tends to concentrate on the famous campaigns of Western military history. To range further afield, we are forced to turn to a less extensive literature that often looks at long-term trends rather than individual campaigns. Many historians writing in this mode, however, tend to deal in metanarratives, paradigms and mono-causal explanations, offering a whole explanatory culture of long-term military history, as in W.H. McNeill's The Pursuit of Power (1983). Instead, I believe it is important to emphasise diversity and be cautious of explanations that adduce characteristics supposedly inherent in particular military cultures and systems.

We should be wary of the idea of a single Western way of war, such as that recently offered by Victor Hanson. There was always a variety of military cultures and practices within the West, from conflict with external forces to counter-insurrectionary and policing operations. Rather than downplaying the latter, we should appreciate the pluralistic nature of warfare and the way in which this can undermine what we thought were clear rankings of military capability and prowess.

Even more troubling has been the tendency of traditional military historians to simplify the non-West. The range of military cultures and environments around the world since earliest times has been immense. Indeed, tiffs variety has played a role in the West's failure to dominate much of the world's population. It is worth considering the reasons for European military failures in Africa and much of Asia prior to the mid-nineteenth century, including for example, disease and successful resistance. Although the major empires in the New World were rapidly conquered, the bulk of the world's population lived elsewhere. Furthermore, although European warships and merchantmen sailed the oceans, deep-draught European ships found it difficult to operate in inshore, estuarine and riverine waters, where the major changes in force projection did not occur until the 19th century. The eventual military success of the West in these areas was only partly due to technological superiority; it also required a mindset at home that supported imperial warfare, as well as the ability to elicit and compel success in the areas that were conquered.

We should not just take the 'military' out of 'military history'; we should use a sophisticated operational approach, adopting an informed consideration of what leads to operational capability. And when we set out to assess capability, we should be cautious of explanations focused solely on resources and technology. In particular, mechanisation plays a major role in the modern concept of war as in McNeill's work. There is a focus on the capabilities of particular weapons and weapons systems, and a belief that progress stems from their improvement.

This emphasis on the material culture of war can also he seen in discussion of earlier eras. For example, with the Iron Age replacing the Bronze Age, historians describe how the superior cutting power of iron and the relative ease of making iron weapons led to a change in civilisations. Weaponry is certainly important, but, as we know from observing modern conflicts, such as the Vietnam War and the Russian attempt to dominate Afghanistan, it is not always the best armed that prevail.

Instead, I believe it is necessary to locus less on what resources a society had, and more on how those resources were used, in terms of fighting quality, unit cohesion, leadership, tactics, strategy etc, as well as with reference to the organisational issues that affect the assessment and use of resources. …

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