Big guns may win the battle but not the war

May 14, 2004

What wins wars? Jeremy Black finds superior arsenal is just one factor in determining which side is victorious

Historians used to emphasise the material aspects of war - specifically the quality and quantity of resources. But now the focus is on strategic culture - how tasks are set and understood, how resources are used and how organisational issues are affected by social patterns and developments.

Old assumptions by historians that societies are driven by a search for efficiency and maximisation of force ignore the complex process by which interest in new weapons interacts with the desire for continuity.

Responses by warring parties to firearms, for example, have varied over the years, with societies in western Europe proving keener to rely on firearms than those in east and south Asia. Cultural factors also play a role in responses to the experience of combat. Understanding loss and suffering, at the level of ordinary soldiers and of societies as a whole, is far more culturally conditioned than emphasis on the sameness of battle might suggest, and variations in the willingness to suffer losses influences military success and styles of combat, as differences in British war-making over the past century show.

Furthermore, war is not really about battle, but about attempts to impose will. Success in this involves far more than victory on the battlefield; that is just a pre-condition for a much more complex process. First, the defeated must be willing to accept the verdict of battle. This involves accommodation, if not acculturation - something that has been far from constant in different periods and places. Assimilating local religious cults, coopting local elites and, possibly, today, offering the various inducements summarised as globalisation, have been the most important means of achieving it. Thus military history becomes an aspect of total history; victory in war is best studied in terms of multiple political contexts.

As the interaction of politics and strategy produces specific understandings of war and victory, these, in turn, shape responses to the prospect of future conflicts - not least because the major cause of aggressors deciding to go to war is a presumption of success. This means cultural assumptions are crucial before and after conflict. And the combat stage sits between these as part of an ongoing process of warfare.

Aggressors rely on references to other conflicts to produce, or at least to sustain, this presumption of success. They scour histories of peoples and states to provide evidence of victory, while discussing other wars to suggest that the pattern of military history is clear. This entails conceptualising conflict in a way that minimises risk, and thus denies the nature of war and of its consequences: in practice, even if victory is likely, its results are far less so. For regimes considering conflict, military history has an important utilitarian goal: encouraging people to fight for victory on the battlefield and securing a legacy of victory once the battle is over.

But military history should also be about underlining the precariousness of victory and the difficulties of translating it into lasting success. It is not that scholarship is inherently anti-war, but rather that subjecting conflict to scrutiny challenges the automatic consent for conflict that bellicose cultures are apt to assume and require.

In recent years, too much attention, relatively speaking, has been devoted to the "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) discerned in US advances in information warfare and precision weaponry. In practice, it is not always the best armed who prevail, and there is no reason to assume that this situation will change, irrespective of technological developments. The Americans have encountered difficulties in ensuring the outcome they sought after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It is also important to note that the US is the strongest and the exceptional military power, and is in some respects eccentric to the analysis of modern warfare. Indeed, expeditionary warfare is atypical; most conflict is within states, with militaries and paramilitaries being used to resist challenges to governments, whether authoritarian or democratic in character. In addition, military tasking involves fundamental issues of social organisation; internal policing, for example, is central to military purpose.

If war is seen not in terms of US tanks trundling toward Baghdad but of counterinsurgency operations in the jungles of Colombia, the rolling topography of south Armagh or the slums of the Gaza Strip, it is far from clear that winning means much more than the containment of problems.

Historians need to address this civil dimension of warfare far more centrally, rather than considering it only in so far as it approximates to regular warfare between conventional forces. This is the type of emphasis usually given in histories of the American civil war when, from the perspective of modern conflict, it is more instructive to consider those aspects of that war that approximated to guerrilla warfare rather than the large-scale clashes.

Finally, most war, both in the past and today, occurs in the multiple environments grouped together as the non-West. This has become increasingly the case since 1945, although the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts of the 1990s briefly suggested otherwise. Much writing on war is a matter of thinking within the box, with a particular tendency to treat the non-West as a primitive society in so far as it is mentioned. This is particularly absurd when so much conflict takes place in Africa, south Asia and Latin America.

My emphasis on the non-West poses a challenge to the conventional approach to military history with its established cast of characters, events and ideas, but it is worth asking how pertinent that agenda is when general histories of war can ignore or underrate large-scale conflicts such as the Taipeng rebellion or the Chinese civil war.

There is a general problem with judging what is worthy of discussion in military history. Is it more important to emphasise Portuguese failures in Africa in the late 17th century - in the Zambesi Valley and at Mombasa - or Austrian successes in Hungary? And, if the latter, how much weight should then be put on Austrian reverses in the Austro-Ottoman war of 1737-39? How far are European gains in North America in the same period to be counterpointed by Dutch failure in Formosa (Taiwan), or Russian in the Amur Valley?

The lack of any obvious agenda for discussion is more apparent prior to the period of western power projection that began in the late 15th century.

This activity at least provides a reason for justifying attention to the military history of states representing less than a quarter of the world's population, although the effectiveness of this power projection is generally exaggerated. Prior to the late 15th century, however, it is unclear why medieval European (and it tends to be western European) warfare deserves the relative attention it receives. Its impact on warfare elsewhere was limited, and, in scale, conflict in east and south Asia was more important. Even in the case of the Middle East, the focus on the Crusades is misleading, not least because the extent of their success in part rested on the more long-lasting struggles between Islamic powers competing for dominance of the region. Furthermore, in terms of the dissemination of military technique, the impact of the Seljuk Turks and, subsequently, the Mongols was more significant than that of the Crusaders.

If we take a cultural approach to military history it is clear that not only the forms of war but even its fundamental principles have been subject to variety and change, thus challenging the basic assumption of similarity hitherto underlying military history - an assumption that has condoned the way large periods of time (especially the Middle Ages) and much of the world (particularly sub-Saharan Africa, and east and Southeast Asia) were ignored. Remove, however, the sense that military history is a matter of finding common themes, or "lessons", between Salamis and Trafalgar, or Alexander the Great and Wellington, and you are left with a more challenging subject, one, indeed, that may tell you something about war.

Wherever wars take place, understanding what wins them entails focusing on political, social and economic contexts, and on what caused the wars in the first place. Both within and between states, the politics of grievance are crucial in eliciting popular support for war. They provide a lightning rod for regional, ethnic, religious and class tensions. Resulting clashes are then remembered - as victory or grievance - in the collective memories of competing groups, and this helps to make it easier to persuade people to risk death. That is why we need to look at conflicts in terms of culture.

While it is relatively easy to get people to kill others, it is less easy to persuade them to risk death over a long period. Despite the RMA fantasy of a one-sided banishment of the risk of casualties, the ability to persuade people to risk death and mutilation is a fundamental factor in what wins wars.

Jeremy Black is professor of history at Exeter University and author of Rethinking Military History , Routledge.

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