Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression

Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression

Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression

Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression

Synopsis

At the battle of Agincourt, over six thousand noblemen--the flower of French knighthood--died in a day-long series of futile charges against a small band of English archers. They charged not simply because they failed to recognize the power of the longbow, but because their whole ethos revolved round an idealized figure of the knight that dated back to Homer: the man of great physical strength and valor, who excelled at hand-to-hand combat with men of equal worth. The bow was an affront to this ideal. As Robert L. O'Connell points out in this vividly written history of weapons in Western culture, the battle of Agincourt typifies the complex and often paradoxical relationship between men and arms. In a sweeping narrative that ranges from prehistorc times to the Nuclear Age, O'Connell demonstrates how social and economic conditions determine the types of weapons and the tactics employed in warfare and how in turn innovations in weapons technology often undercut social values. He reveals, for instance, how the Church outlawed the use of crossbows--except against muslims--to preserve the status quo of the medieval world; how the invention of the gun required a redefinition of courage from aggressive ferocity to calmness under fire; and how the machine gun in World War I so overthrew traditional notions of combat that Lord Kitchener exclaimed, "This isn't war!" Indeed, as O'Connell points out, the technology unleashed in the Great War radically changed our perception of ourselves: weapons had made human qualities almost irrelevant in combat. And with the invention of the atomic bomb, humanity itself became subservient to the weapons they had produced. While its emphasis is historical, Of Arms and Men also draws on such disciplines as biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and literature to illuminate the course of arms. O'Connell integrates the evolution of politics, weapons, strategy, and tactics into a coherent narrative, one spiced with striking portraits of men in combat and brilliant insight into why men go to war.

Excerpt

Every book has a moment of conception. This one's came during an extended luncheon with Mike MccGwire of the Brookings Institution, as I complained for what must have been hours over my dissatisfaction at the way weapons have traditionally been studied. "How can we ever deal with these things effectively, until we look at them more openly and with fewer preconceptions?" Perhaps as much in self-defense as anything else, he replied: "Well then, why don't you do it?" Mike MccGwire is a thoughtful and enthusiastic man; but he is also an ex- Royal Navy officer, and his voice had the ring of authority. It occurred to me for the first time maybe I really could do such a thing. So began an eight-year intellectual odyssey.

As part of the Ph.D. glut of the mid-1970s, I was a historian by training, but found myself working in military intelligence. My job was interesting, and my background provided me with some useful perspectives on the present course of arms. Nevertheless, the two never really came together in a way which took full advantage of the insights I believed lay fallow in the field of military history. Yet now, armed with Mike's suggestion, I thought I saw a means to this end. It was clear that weapons were very old and that the military profession was a highly traditional one. It also stood to reason that the accumulated rituals of military life would have been deeply conditioned by the succession of arms, and that contemporary weapons choice should logically be an extension of this condition. Technology might appear dominant. Yet culture was subtle and pervasive. Therefore it made sense to go to the very origins of these phenomena, and begin reconstructing the matrix of thought and action from which weapons have sprung. Much of what I found surprised me. And the conclusions I have reached are far from what I might have anticipated. Yet at my journey's end, I do have the sense that I have been on the right track, and that my work will serve as a useful guidepost to those who venture onward.

Meanwhile along the way I have accumulated numerous debts of gratitude. Although I can never repay most of those who helped me, I can at least thank them. First I want to acknowledge a few scholars whose work had a particular . . .

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