Modern Approaches to Considering Modern Military History

By Schmitt, Michael N. | Naval War College Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Modern Approaches to Considering Modern Military History


Schmitt, Michael N., Naval War College Review


Modern Approaches to Considering Modern Military History

Lieutenant Colonel Michael N. Schmitt, U.S. Air Force

Townshend, Charles. ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997. 354pp. $49.95

Black, Jeremy. War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 1450-2000. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1998. 334pp. $35

EXCESSIVE AMBITION USUALLY yields only failure. As the readers of the Review surely realize, history teaches that this truism knows few exceptions in war. Interestingly, writers are no less subject to such ambition than those on the field of battle-even writers on the history of war. In The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War and War and the World, two accomplished historians have taken on an ambitious task indeed: analyzing war over the past five centuries. Nonetheless, both succeed in their risky endeavor, adding two solid contributions to our understanding of military history. Both merit serious scholarly and professional attention.

Edited by Keele University's Charles Townshend, History of Modem War has as its goal to "provide a history not merely of modern warfare but of modern war as a whole." Townshend operates from the premise that modern war differs from the organized violence that characterized conflict in centuries past. The point of demarcation for modem war, he suggests, occurred between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, when Europe developed the wherewithal to withstand attacks from the East, a turning point symbolically marked by the Ottoman defeat at Vienna in 1683. This European victory signaled the beginning of the progressive Western dominance that would reach full maturity in the nineteenth century. For Townshend, "this shift cannot be understood in purely military terms. It was part of a complex process of social and economic modernization."

This theme of a symbiotic relationship between war and society pervades the book's organization and substance. To develop the theme Townshend has neatly, and appropriately, bifurcated the study. Part I traces the evolution of modern war from its transitional period, starting around the sixteenth century, through the twentieth-century phenomenon of "people's war." In Part II, various elements of modern war are addressed separately-technology, modern combat, war at sea, aerial warfare, war and society, women in war, and the normative control of, and opposition to, war. Though each part could easily stand alone, the net result of the combination is a synergism between complementary approaches. The former provides the context within which the elements of war can be better understood, whereas the latter explicates and illustrates how that evolution played itself out in discrete areas of interest.

The success that the book achieves relies heavily on the distinction of the group of contributors Townshend has gathered. Of particular note are a number of names familiar to those associated with the Naval War College: John Hattendorf, the renowned naval historian who holds the Ernest J. King Chair at the College; Douglas Porch, a former member of the Strategy and Policy Department, now on the faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School; and Oxford's Adam Roberts, who has worked closely with the College's Oceans Law and Policy Department. The remainder of the group are no less accomplished; it is an impressive array of intellect and expertise.

Virtually every one of the chapters is remarkably well done. Several, though, will prove especially interesting to this journal's readership. The introductory chapter by Townshend, "The Shape of Modem War," sets the stage beautifully with an insightful general survey of the topic. For Townshend, the rise and evolution of modern warfare were driven by technological, administrative, and ideological change, and he identifies a number of key historical milestones in those processes. The revolutionary decree of levee en masse by the French Republic in 1793, for example, made possible battles of expanded scope and frequency.

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