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Wars That Won the World

By Williamson Murray
5/30/2018 • Military History Magazine

It is war—for all its destructive impact on humankind— that has driven the West to its present dominance over the world’s other civilizations. That is the conclusion of advances over the past four decades in our historical understanding about the role wars and military organizations have played. Historian William McNeill kicked off the examination of that role in his monumental works The Rise of the West (1963) and The Pursuit of Power (1982): Simply put, he argued in his first book that the disparate nature of Western civilization, with its ferocious competition among emerging states, had created a situation in which no single dominant worldview could emerge among the peoples huddled at the far western end of the Eurasian landmass. In The Pursuit of Power, he expanded on the military-technological elements of that situation. McNeill’s examinations combined with arguments from other historians of early modern Europe in the 1950s to describe a military revolution that had fundamentally changed the way Western states waged war. What has recently emerged from these examinations is a coherent explanation of Western military and political advances.

Historians suggest there have been four great revolutions in how the West formed and articulated its armed forces. In geologic terms, these episodes were like earthquakes that entirely reordered human polity in the West. Accompanying them has been a series of smaller but significant, strictly military revolutions, akin to the foreshocks and aftershocks of major quakes. During these smaller revolutions, military organizations worked the tactical, operational and technological elements into a new, more coherent approach to the battlefield.

The first of the four great revolutions occurred in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It involved political and military aspects of the creation of modern states. Since the complex processes involved in that creation took more than a century to evolve, the word “revolution” seems something of a misnomer, but in the larger sense of drastic change, revolution is exactly the right word. Emerging at the end of the 17th century, the modern European state—a political entity capable of projecting real military power over oceanic distances—represented something entirely new in human history. That state was capable not only of executing coherent tax policies to support vast military forces, but also of paying and disciplining those military forces in a manner the world had not seen since imperial Rome.

The re-creation of military organizations with civil, as well as martial, discipline was the first of several key revolutions. Seemingly small things sometimes illustrate the extent of great changes: The Swedish articles of war, drawn up by Gustavus Adolphus in the 1620s, affirm that soldiers were to dig when told to dig. The point is that for more than a millennium since the peak of the Roman imperial army, soldiers had only dug when they felt like digging. More important was the reintroduction of civil discipline to 17th century Europe’s military organizations. Paid, fed and, largely, quartered by the state, armies no longer supplied themselves through foraging and pillaging sprees.

From a strictly military perspective, the 17th century saw a reintroduction of discipline to military organizations to the extent that Roman commands were employed to drill and deploy forces on the battlefield. (Those Roman parade commands still guide American soldiers and Marines on modern parade fields.) Historian Flavius Josephus’ description of 1st century Roman armies now applied to 18th century European armies:

And indeed, they never have any truce with wartime exercises; nor do they stay till timers of war admonish them to use them; for their military exercises by no means fall short of the tension of real war, but every soldier is every day exercised, and that with real diligence, as if they were in time of war, which is why they bear the fatigue of battle so easily;…nor would [one] be mistaken that would call those their exercises unbloody battles, and their battles bloody exercises.

This new discipline also allowed modern European armies to organize their firing lines, thus maximizing the potential of gunpowder weapons.

Such land-based developments were accompanied by equally important maritime developments. Beginning in the early 16th century, the Spanish and Portuguese plied the world’s oceans for trading purposes, but their ability to project military power remained weak; the conquests of Central and South America had resulted as much from disease as military prowess. But by 1700, navies possessed heavily armed ships of the line, able to project real military power to distant shores. The capture of Gibraltar by the British in the first years of the War of the Spanish Succession signaled what was to come: a contest for world empire between the British and the French, which the Royal Navy was to win decisively in 1759, when British amphibious and naval forces destroyed French power in India and Canada. The effects of those British victories still echo in our world, where English rather than French has become the dominant language of global business, politics and exchange.

For most of the 18th century, there was relatively little change in how armies fought. In a technological  sense, almost nothing changed: The Duke of Wellington’s soldiers at Waterloo in 1815 used muskets that were virtual copies of those the Duke of Marlborough’s troops had used at Blenheim in 1704. But in the late 1700s, two monumental social-political-military revolutions completely overturned the 18th century model of carefully articulated violence.

The first of these was the French Revolution. In 1792, threatened with military defeat and the overthrow of their regime, revolutionary deputies in Paris declared a levée en masse (“mass uprising”), which placed everyone in the French nation, as well as their resources, at the state’s disposal. Carl von Clause witz, the great Prussian military theorist, alone among 19th century commentators, grasped the extraordinary nature of this French transformation:

Suddenly, war again became the business of the people—a people of 30 millions, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens.…The people became a participant in war; instead of governments and armies as heretofore, the full weight of the nation was thrown into the balance. The resources and efforts now available for use surpassed all conventional limits; nothing now impeded the vigor with which war could be waged, and consequently the opponents of France faced the utmost peril.

This great social and political revolution had few technological components, but it changed the nature of campaigning and the conduct of military operations.

Meanwhile, technological innovations were brewing across the English Channel, where the Industrial Revolution was literally gathering steam. The changes it set in motion in Britain had no direct impact on the naval battles or the land campaigns of the French Revolution or the Napoleonic period. Nevertheless, it did play a considerable part in winning the war for the Allies. By starting the processes that revolutionized the means of production, the Industrial Revolution altered the basis on which human economic activity had rested since the dawn of time. The economic gains flowing from the Industrial Revolution provided the financial resources that enabled British statesmen to assemble the great coalitions that eventually defeated Napoléon.

In the period between 1792 and 1815, those two great revolutions had come together only tangentially, but that was to change drastically in the 19th century: The fourth of the great social-political-military revolutions occurred during the American Civil War. In effect, the changes spawned by the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution merged, and their offspring was modern war—as the world would witness all too graphically in the 20th century. The idea of mass mobilization in a democracy led to the creation of armies, the size of which no prewar analysts or serving officers in the U.S. Army could possibly have imagined. The real challenge for the North lay in how to project military force over continental distances. Here, both railroads and steamboats played decisive roles, while the telegraph allowed the coordination of supplies and reinforcements almost instantaneously.

The casualties, suffering and costs of the Civil War should have served as a warning to the Europeans. They did not. Prussian Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke is reputed to have dismissed the Civil War as a conflict between ill-trained militias. The relatively short duration of the Wars of German Unification misled most of Europe’s military theorists and pundits. This was especially true of the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War, in which Moltke’s forces destroyed the two main French armies in the opening weeks of the campaign. Without that catastrophic opening, the French might well have turned the conflict into an extended war of the people, approximating the American Civil War in length and casualties, and the Europeans might not have so lightheartedly embarked on war in 1914.

Convinced that a future conflict would be short, Europe stumbled into World War I and destroyed most of the sureties on which it had based its civilization. In many ways, that war was at once one of the most terrible and the most influential of all human conflicts. What added to its horror was that in the years before 1914, Europe’s military institutions had had to grapple with an explosion of civilian technologies and scientific knowledge, all of which carried enormous implications for the battlefield—while their understanding of these new technologies was none too impressive.

The 43 years from 1871 to 1914 represented a period quite unlike any other in history. The Industrial Revolution matured and changed the entire face of civilization, including the military. For the most part, the Europeans tested these new technologies against colonial opponents who possessed little technology and no real military institutions. Thus, the actual battlefield potential of such innovations remained unclear. In fact, developments during that period had enormously expanded firepower capabilities, while maneuver largely remained muscle-bound and incapable of trumping the advances of fire. But even firepower (e.g., massive artillery barrages) remained uncertain and ambiguous in coordination and flexibility.

Another distant conflict, the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War, might have served as a warning to Europe. But while reports from the battlefront provided clear evidence that trouble lay ahead, European general staffs mostly ignored the implications of the conflict. They were still thinking in terms of Napoleonic warfare and would soon be forced to grapple with the advent of smokeless powder, high explosives, barbed wire, the internal combustion engine, rifled weapons, machine guns, long-distance artillery fire, aircraft, telephones, radios and a whole host of unforeseen political problems. Adding to their difficulties, much of this technological development emerged from the civilian world, where military organizations had little control over or even access to the scientists, engineers and technologists driving these changes.

Even more disastrous for the fate of a whole generation of European youth was the fact that the Industrial Revolution had created societies of great resiliency, while the French Revolution had provided excellent guideposts to the mobilization of entire societies and their resources. Ironically, most politicians and economists had issued prewar estimates that the modern state was a fragile affair and could not bear the burden of a prolonged conflict. In this, as in much else, they were wrong.

The combination of the two great social-political-military revolutions enabled opponents to assemble increasingly larger armies and to keep those armies well supplied with munitions and equipment. When the pool of volunteers dried up, the modern state proved more than able to dragoon large numbers of the unwilling into service as cannon fodder. Tragically, the generals and admirals were intellectually unprepared to handle the complex tactical problems of a world war.

Adding to the complexity, the tactical and technological situation on the battlefield evolved rapidly as the war progressed. A simple example illustrates the speed of tactical adaptation: If one could take a brigadier off the battlefield of late 1918 and transport him to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he would—after a short tutorial explaining the range and speed of war in the 21st century—be able to grasp what coalition commanders were attempting. On the other hand, if one were to take an equivalent officer off the August 1914 battlefields and bring him forward to the late-1918 battlefield, he would understand nothing.

What did happen on the battlefields of Europe was the invention of modern war. In a terrible process of attrition, the opposing sides developed combined-arms tactics by late 1918. Fearsome weapons systems, such as the armored fighting vehicle, appeared in the field as early as 1916, but learning how to integrate them into the overall framework was to take two more years. At the same time, the birth of air combat saw the development of fighter tactics and the concepts of strategic bombing and interdiction, as well as close air support for infantry and armor attacks.

World War I also altered the balance between the development of civilian and military technologies. From 1914 through the end of the Cold War, developments in military technology drove civilian technological development to a considerable extent. During the interwar years, as a result of economic and political difficulties, technological development stagnated. But as the Nazi and Japanese threats began to emerge in the mid-1930s, the pace of technological and tactical innovation picked up. While military organizations drew extensively on civilian scientific expertise (here the British were far superior to anyone else), it was the military that again became the initiators of technological developments.

The great revolution of 1914–1918 generated a host of aftershocks in military affairs, which carried over into the next world war. Above all, honest assessment of the lessons of World War I proved crucial to successful innovation. In the tactical sphere, General Hans von Seeckt, chief of the disguised German general staff immediately after the war, compelled thorough examinations of what had actually happened on the battlefield. The result? The Germans learned far better than any of their Continental opponents the implications of combined-arms warfare. These studies also pointed the way for the Germans to develop a more coherent and realistic appreciation of the full potential of air power. Unfortunately, the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Corps paid little attention to what had happened in World War I and focused almost exclusively on strategic bombing as the sole mission for their forces.

The Germans took a disastrous misstep, however, in their failure to recognize that they had lost World War I because of strategic mistakes. The great irony of their tactical brilliance in World War II was that they would lose the war due to inept strategic choices, including a declaration of war on the United States. Thus they managed to repeat every mistake they had made in the prior war.

But innovation was not just the provenance of Germany. The interwar period revolutionized military affairs, and the U.S. military proved to be the most adaptable of all the world’s military organizations. In the early 1920s, for instance, officers under the guidance of Admiral William Sims at the Naval War College tested and developed an understanding of the potential of carrier warfare before the U.S. Navy possessed a single carrier. Their key insight was that planes would take off from carriers in pulses; therefore, the crucial determinant of carrier effectiveness would be the number of aircraft they could launch and recover. By the late 1920s, the Navy had worked out the parameters of how to do this, with crash barriers, deck parks and other innovations, so that the carriers Lexington and Saratoga could handle upwards of 100 aircraft, at a time when Royal Navy carriers were barely carrying 20.

Similarly, the U.S. Marine Corps, threatened with extinction by the benign neglect of the Navy and grasping hands of the Army, began developing the concept of amphibious warfare; it literally stopped its staff college mid-stride in the early 1930s to develop the definitive manual. Out of that thinking came capabilities that proved essential to the projection of American military power onto the shores of its opponents in Europe and the Pacific.

Perhaps most important for the course of World War II were military developments in Britain, where Hugh Dowding’s insights flew in the face of the RAF maxim that “the bomber would always get through.” Dowding pushed the limits of technology, in the development of both the Hurricane and Spitfire and of radar. Equally important to the success of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain was the fact that Dowding integrated technological developments into a coherent, articulated air-defense system.

The opposing sides would fight World War II largely on revolutions in military affairs that stemmed from concepts developed during the interwar period. Those revolutions had begun to emerge by 1918 and heralded a level of destructive power never before seen in history. Modern warfare was no longer a matter of the people, as the French Revolution had determined, but through the auspices of the Industrial Revolution had become a war against the people. The shattered ruins of European and Japanese cities bore witness to what these revolutions had wrought. The ending of the Pacific war with the dropping of the atomic bombs only underlined that the Western way of war and its search for ever more effective means of destruction had hardly come to a halt in 1945.

Historians have often referred to World War I as the “chemists’ war” and World War II as the “physicists’ war.” What then do the decades since 1945 suggest? The Cold War represented a war that should have happened but did not. In the post–World War II period, two deeply opposed ideologies contested the very world. In the late 1930s, such a state had led to the catastrophe of 1939. But in the Cold War, nuclear weapons introduced an element of caution into the strategic equation. By the early 1950s, the long-term radiological implications of their use were becoming increasingly apparent, as deaths from various forms of cancer mounted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus, instead of massive nuclear exchanges, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a standoff.

But despite optimists’ proclamation that the destructive power of nuclear weapons heralded the end of war, war continued its dismal course. Contests between superpowers were waged through proxies, while colonies of the European powers obtained their independence through insurgencies. Yet the patterns of military-driven technological development continued throughout the Cold War. The most important of these developments had to do with the ICBM race: Computers had first been developed during World War II to help cryptanalysts break the complexities of the German Enigma codes. But the development of ICBMs and subsequent race to the Moon required miniaturization in computers to reduce weight, while still increasing their power. From those efforts emerged the communications and computer revolutions, with their immense impact on civil society.

By the late 1980s, yet another military affairs revolution was under way, one that combined precise weaponry, stealth and increasingly sophisticated communications systems. The Soviets were the first to recognize the implications of what they termed the military-technical revolution. They realized the Americans would soon be able to inflict with conventional weapons a level of effective damage the Soviets could only achieve with nuclear weapons. Moreover, they were steadily falling behind in the technological race. Their political system ultimately unraveled, which led to collapse. The subsequent end of the Cold War prompted an onrush of technological development outside the military sphere, a return to the situation that prevailed in the years before 1914.

Adding to the difficulties that have confronted Western military organizations—particularly that of the United States, with its vast worldwide responsibilities—is the fact that revolutions in military affairs are no longer a strictly Western affair. The Japanese led the way for other cultures by adapting to the Western way of war in the first four decades of the 20th century. But technology now belongs to the entire world. India, China, Brazil and others are all capable of developing sophisticated military organizations. Posing a far greater threat are nonstate actors with access to the deadliest technologies, including biological weapons.

Thus, the very innovative restlessness that enabled the West to build the global interconnected civilization of today’s First World continues to drive humankind ever forward, even as our penchant for violence and mayhem has shown no signs of abating.


For further reading, Williamson Murray recommends: The Rise of the West and The Pursuit of Power, by William McNeill, and The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050, coedited by Murray and MacGregor Knox.

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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