Castles, Battles, and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History

By Fratantuono, Michael J. | Parameters, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Castles, Battles, and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History


Fratantuono, Michael J., Parameters


Castles, Battles, and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History. By Jurgen Brauer and Hubert van Tuyll. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 403 pages. $29.00.

In this ambitious, well-organized, and extremely thorough book, economist Jurgen Brauer and historian Hubert van Tuyll apply a handful of core principles from the field of economics to more than 1,000 years of military history, in the hope of disseminating new insight. The authors initially describe six principles they regard as most relevant. Those principles are all associated with microeconomic analysis, the branch of economic theory that focuses on the choices made by individual consumers to maximize their well-being, efforts of individual producers to obtain the highest possible profits, and market-based interactions between both sets of parties. While four of the principles had become foundation stones of neoclassical economics by the early 1900s, two others, which deal with the economics of information, were developed following World War II. The authors explain that in each of the ensuing chapters, they will examine a particular era of history; select a key development from that era to serve as a case study; and employ one of the six economic principles as a point of reference for commentary related to manpower, logistics, technology, planning, and operations. Finally, given their assertion that all six principles are at work in every era, Brauer and van Tuyll summarize the relevance of the other remaining principles. How then does this all play out?

Local rulers in the High Middle Ages had limited access to revenues. When it came to military expenditures, a ruler had to choose between having castles or armies. Primarily due to the multifunctional nature of a castle, a ruler most often opted for the former. When he did so, he incurred an opportunity cost--the value that would have been derived from organizing a large standing army. As a result, there was a preponderance of defense over offense in strategy, tendency toward siege warfare, and general absence of open-field battles.

During the Renaissance, the city-states of Italy vied for power and influence. Instead of raising large indigenous armies, city leaders hired contractors, who headed their own bands of itinerant mercenaries, to provide both offensive and defensive capabilities. To overcome deficiencies in information relevant to hidden actions and incentive alignments and protect their respective interests, city leaders (principals) and commanders (agents) drew up detailed and comprehensive contracts. Those arrangements implied that all military matters, and even operational outcomes, were influenced by monetary incentives.

By the Age of Battle (more generally, the Age of Enlightenment), dynastic powers had marshaled their own standing armies. In the context of complexity and uncertainty, and during an era in which annihilation of the enemy was recognized as a legitimate strategic objective, general officers had to weigh expected marginal benefits against expected marginal costs when confronted with opportunities to engage in large-scale, high-stakes battle. Famous generals such as Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon all excelled in their ability to make those assessments and decisively act.

During the American Civil War, commanders on both sides were often confronted with limited information about an opponent's whereabouts, troop strength, and intentions. …

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