Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power

October 13, 2011

What is it about pre-modern military historians that tempts them to sermonise so readily about the contemporary world? Ancient Greek historians Victor Davis Hanson and Donald Kagan have both become prominent neoconservative thinkers, and now John France, a leading expert on the Crusades, has written a book whose concluding chapter offers an almost Dick Cheney-like denunciation of Western weakness and self-restraint in the face of multiple threats.

France's final sentence echoes Kipling in its warning that Rome, too, was once dominant, but "Now their empire is dust, their splendid cities are lost, and their glory is buried in earth".

It is rather a shame that the book concludes with such a contentious and one-sided critique of modern Western values, since the rest is a much more measured and erudite survey of the history of warfare. It is a popular study with only limited references, but France displays wide personal knowledge and has benefited from picking the brains of many other period experts.

As with any such endeavour, there are slips, such as his reference to B-19 rather than B-24 Liberator bombers, and there are some dubious claims, such as that the Athenians outnumbered the Persians at Marathon, or that Hitler's Ardennes offensive in 1944 prolonged German resistance overall.

However, this is far outweighed by France's sure-footed overview of more than three millennia of warfare, including the experience of China, India and the Middle East rather than just that of the Western world.

The book's greatest liability may be its awe-inspiring ambition. Not content with tackling such a vast chronological and geographical agenda, France tries to cover all the levels of war, from the tactical to the strategic, as well as including cultural reflections such as snippets of poetry. Moreover, he eschews a purely thematic and analytical approach, and tries to provide a coherent narrative of many of the wars he describes.

He offers, for instance, a very impressive potted history of the three terrible decades from 1914 to 1945, including 20 pages on key developments during the interwar years. The text would actually make a wonderful introduction to military history, if only it were accompanied by more and better maps to illustrate the campaigns described.

As it is, readers will marvel at France's achievement in compressing so much detail into a single volume, but the details themselves (at least of the Western experience) will often be fairly familiar.

Where encyclopaedic surveys of this kind have most to contribute is in providing the platform for overall judgements beyond the remit of more specialised works, and here France has two main points to make.

First, he dismisses claims that many ages saw their own "military revolution", and instead he emphasises the continuities in warfare across most of recorded history. Napoleon's armies still fought in lines of tens of thousands of close-order infantry supported by cavalry, just like the armies of Greece and Rome, and they were still constrained by logistic systems dependent on muscle power.

For France, the only real military revolution took place in the later 19th century when nationalism combined with industrialisation to trigger massive increases in mobilised forces and to make technology a major influence on the nature and outcome of conflict.

France's second overall point is that there is nothing intrinsically distinctive or superior about the "Western way of war", as Hanson has tended to claim, and that democracies are certainly not bound to prevail.

He attributes European expansion in Asia to a fortuitous period of political decline among the "steppe empires", and he claims that the Axis powers were ground down to defeat in the Second World War more by the attritional struggles in the Soviet Union and China than by the efforts of the Western democracies.

This interpretation obviously underpins France's outspoken conclusions on the fragility of Western dominance should we lose our will to defend ourselves robustly in a dangerous world.

Inevitably, France tries to do so much in one book that he lacks the space to argue his case properly on such contentious points, or to address offsetting considerations and contrary views. The work instead offers his own considered judgements based on a lifetime of study. It is a miracle of compression and a rich and thought-provoking read. Many will take issue with some of his ideas, but this book demonstrates yet again the relevance of broad historical understanding for contemporary policy debates.

Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power

By John France. Yale University Press, 448pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300120745. Published 15 September 2011

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