Three Historians on War

Three Historians Investigate the Elephant:

Paul Kennedy, William McNeill, Jeremy Black


Three acclaimed historians – Paul Kennedy, William McNeill, and Jeremy Black –

have attempted to identify the primary engines of war in human society. Although they frequently examine the same periods, regions, and cultures, they disagree about the principal sources of these conflicts. They disagree further when they identify the primary contributor to success in warfare. Each man provides numerous examples to support his thesis. In some cases, these very examples contradict the author’s proposed view. All three historians appear to be searching for a model that will allow us to predict success as a world power. They have each identified a part of the elephant. After examining at their arguments, the careful reader will conclude that war is a more complex animal than any of these theses suggest.

Paul Kennedy wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers toward the end of the cold war, just before the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower. He defined a Great Power as a state capable of “holding its own” militarily against any other nation, and asserted that this capability demanded a flourishing economic base (K, p. 538-539). With this definition, he examined the state of world affairs in the early 1980s and determined that “today’s world powers (would be) the United States, the USSR, China and Japan”, an assertion that events immediately proved wrong (K, p. 540). Accordingly, we must first recognize that historians cannot assess relevance in the present, and secondly, that Kennedy’s proposed method of identifying power potential is suspect. It is also helpful to examine Kennedy’s concept of what it means to be a “great power”. The countries he associated with historical greatness are typically imperial states that have demonstrated both military superiority and political domination. Since he further restricted his analysis to the period beginning 1500, this assured an essentially Eurocentric viewpoint. Indeed, he tells us that his work does not deal with “small” powers and that a Eurocentric viewpoint “is only natural” (K, p. xxi). It is thus fitting that Kennedy began his search in the post-Renaissance with a mind-set about greatness similar to that of Machiavelli.

Kennedy proposed that success as a Great Power is achieved by balancing the efficient utilization of economic resources with military reach (K, p. xv).  Consequently, he concluded that the United States has arrived at a state of “imperial overstretch”, where it cannot maintain this balance without judicious reductions in global commitments (K, p. 514-515). Kennedy’s economic-driver thesis is commonsensical, but he tends to focus on this factor to the exclusion of a more comprehensive examination of contributing elements. As a result, he devotes considerable space to the relative ability of former Great Powers to develop their national economies in peacetime, in order to acquire technology and to create the wealth reserves to sustain conflict. In this sense, technology which improves the economic (revenue-raising) potential of a country is as important as the technology of the battlefield (K, p. xvi). Indeed, Kennedy implies that the economic capacity and military might of a Great Power are mutually reinforcing. It is a concept he reiterates so frequently that it takes on the nature of an “iron law”.

To support his monocausal thesis, Kennedy needs to explain the habitually superior military performance of some European powers against equally wealthy European and non-European states. Further, he should be expected to make clear why wealthy and militarily advanced European states were frequently unsuccessful against less-developed nations. He attempts a partial response to this objection when he proposes that European states were uniquely stressed by “warlike rivalries” which led both to improvements in strategy and weapons development, and by “competitive, entrepreneurial (market) environments” (K, xvi). Accordingly, he argues that non-European powers were exposed to far less rivalry and therefore experienced fewer requirements to accelerate their military evolution. Kennedy fails to provide sufficient case examples to prove this point. To the contrary, many examples rebut his hypothesis.

Kennedy’s selection of starting date and his focus on European Great Powers deeply influenced his analysis. Any history student can illustrate why. For example, had he kept his focus on Europe but begun in the 3rd century BCE, he would be forced to explain how an economically weak Greco-Macedonian force could defeat the largest and wealthiest power in the known world. Had he kept his period focus on 15th century forward, but looked at Mesoamerica, he would have had to explain the near-instantaneous rise of the Aztec Empire from feeble nomadic slave state to absolute political dominance without the benefit of “a flourishing economic base”. Clearly, additional factors must be at play.

With the thesis of economic overstretch driving his argument; Kennedy minimized the impact of other factors. For example, he saw the failure of 16th-17th century Hapsburg expansion as the direct consequence of an empire exceeding its economic resources. One could just as easily argue that their failure was the result of alliances between opponents determined to preserve a regional balance of power. Kennedy even submits evidence that mitigates his conclusion – demonstrating that the Hapsburgs were in fact wealthier than their continental rivals (K, p. 43-44). As a further example, Kennedy himself argues that balance-of-power politics checked French expansion between 1689 and 1763, which seems to contradict his thesis (K, p. 74). Similarly, he applies the economic-driver argument to Revolutionary Europe, where economic factors heavily favored the combined allies over Napoleonic forces. We will see that other historians identify such critical factors as population, technology, esprit and total mobilization as major contributors to French success (M, p. 200-206).

Kennedy has made a compelling argument that the United States and Russia benefitted from being peripheral to Europe, thus permitting them to expand across their own continents without contending with strong opposition. Unfortunately, his central thesis weakens when we observe that the rise of the United States as a major economic power occurred without the stimulus of warfare against an external power (the American Civil War being seen as an internal conflict). Further, how did the Soviet Union develop as the other component of a bi-polar 20th century dominated by two superpowers? Kennedy’s approach should lead us to expect that a country devastated by WWII and handicapped by an inefficient economic ideology would not become that other world superpower.

Where Kennedy focuses on economic and commercial factors, William McNeill proposes technology as the key component of Great Power status. In his view the evolution of military technology changes a state’s accessibility to power and leads to periods of punctuated dominance as new technologies emerge. Further, the cultural reluctance of some societies to embrace new technologies can drastically handicap their war capability in a short period of time. McNeill sees a strong correlation between commercial interests and the development of ever-more potent military technologies. This thesis appeals to our technology-focused age. It is also no surprise that McNeill has a dismal view of the future of the world. For him, the “industrialization of war” creates a new and more dangerous global instability than in previous ages (M, p. viii).

McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power examines many of the same world players and conflicts as Kennedy did, but the organization of his argument is superior in that he proceeds chronologically and summarizes each point before providing supporting examples. He theatrically compares soldiers (“men who specialize in violence”) with plague organisms, and their weapons technologies with genetic mutations (M, p. vii).  This suggests that the soldier is an alien, permanently negative force that lies outside of the natural state of human society. Rather than a virus, a better biological analogy for McNeill’s fears might be cancer, which can occur only when cells grow when they should not and, simultaneously, the systems that retard tumor production fail. Thus a natural organism – the military – can metastasize and experience uncontrolled growth when the body’s control mechanisms go awry.

Technology-driven warfare is an obvious thesis for a historian and McNeill provides a solid framework to demonstrate that entrepreneurial invention, industrialization and standardization heavily influence battlefield success. In other words, he sees the evolution of military technology as a characteristic byproduct of commercialization (M, p. 22-23). It follows that the “reluctant readiness to tolerate private pursuit of profit” and relatively open markets of European states have permitted them to excel over the command economies of other societies that discouraged a merchant class (M, p. 116). In merchant-tolerant European states, individual advances in weapons technology and tactics trigger the entrepreneurial invention of still better weapons (M, p. 80). The result of this interplay is “a self-reinforcing cycle…sustained by economic and political expansion” at the expense of other peoples (M. p. 143).

McNeill expands this line of reasoning by exploring the relationship between collateral entrepreneurial activities – such as mercenary armies and naval weapons development – and command-based military bureaucracies.  An example of the excellent support provided for this sub-theme is an expanded comparison of the steadily-evolving interdependence between the British admiralty and naval armament manufacturers Armstrong and Whitworth during the late 19th century (M, p. 238-241). Such focused examinations are the book’s strongest chapters because of the multiple illustrations provided for each connection. McNeill frequently circles back to these connections with good effect. For example, he perceives a strong vector of increasing military effectiveness as early command-economy armies gave way to mercenaries and privateers, only to be replaced by directed procurement and eventually, an embedded military-industrial complex.

Like Kennedy, McNeill is in thrall to his thesis. Despite providing the reader with multiple alternatives to his technology-driver hypothesis, he gives scant attention to accommodating these other factors. For instance, he mentions that compression into a small land area exacerbated tensions between European. He implies that this compression drove technological development, but he fails to explore this dimension outside of the European theatre. To use the Hellenistic and Mesoamerican examples again, we could observe that in both cases a collection of warlike states fought incessant wars in a confined space, yet they did not experience accelerated technological development.

Like Kennedy, McNeill unintentionally provides numerous cases that contradict his monocausal thesis, whether it is Frederick II’s superior leadership abilities or Prussian logistical planning (M, p. 155, 251). He proposes that non-European states were exposed to fewer serious conflicts because they were surrounded only by nomadic peoples, and he then illustrates this with the internal stability enjoyed under a Mongol emperor of China (M, p. 32, 59)! As we will see in Jeremy Black’s history, non-Europeans also lived in an environment of relatively constant warfare. An interesting thought is embedded in McNeill’s examination of the apparent stability among Chinese and Indian/Mughal states. McNeill suggests that internal stability was enhanced because these states discouraged capitalist behaviors (M, p. 48-49). He implies that this distrust of merchant wealth and power had the “beneficial” effect of dampening the innovation that normally contributes to weapon development. This smacks of a “new age” conceit in which dampened innovation = impeded weapon evolution = internal stability. Using McNeill’s own data, it is obvious to the reader that this same discouragement of innovation produces a broad array of penalties. One glaring handicap is that the Indian and Mughal states were significantly unprepared when more militarily-advanced nations invaded.

Like Kennedy, McNeill is also fortunate in his choice of examples. What if he had selected Alexander’s conquest of Persia? He would have been faced with explaining how Greek forces with more limited weapon technologies – the Persians had mercenary phalanxes armed just as the Macedonians were, plus additional technologies such as the chariot and mounted archers, and they employed a broader use of mixed forces – overcame vastly superior numbers. Or as in the second criticism leveled at Kennedy, what if McNeill had examined Aztec hegemony in 15th century Mesoamerica? Here again, an outnumbered people repeatedly triumphed over superior numbers armed with identical technologies. Surely culture, ideology and organization are factors that often compensate for a lack of technological superiority.

McNeill occasionally digresses while arguing his main theme. Some of these musings are intriguing enough that they should have been expanded. For instance, he points out the positive influence of warfare on population control, comparing the Napoleonic approach of battle deaths during continental conquest with Britain’s use of third-world imperialism, impressments, and penal transshipping. This does not further his thesis as well as his extended discussion on naval rivalry between the two powers, but it keeps the reader engaged through often repetitive repositioning of his principal argument. Similarly, his examination of the strong ties between the development of Britain’s maritime technology and its commercial empire offers excellent support for Kennedy’s earlier economic thesis (M, p. 186). Perhaps the most interesting detour is McNeill’s frequent return to the theme of drill, to which he ascribes not only battlefield proficiency, but also the creation of strong social bonds within fighting units (M, p. 117 – 118, 125 – 133, 171). When he alludes to a possible connection between drill and other synchronized, rhythm-based activities such as dance that increase social unit bonding, the reader wants to hear more. Finally, McNeill comments on the influence of WWII and the Cold War in making managed economies “normal” in all of the more industrialized countries of the world (M, p. 346, 364). He sees the difference between the command structures of PRC and the USA as “only one of degree” (M, p. 364).

McNeill’s presentation is often disjointed and lacking in organization and presentation. Nevertheless, he does provide a broad array of excellent insights to bolster his technology hypothesis. For example, he contrasts the relative success of Mongol commanders who enthusiastically adopted new weapon technologies and won victories, with the string of defeats inflicted upon Moslem and Ottoman states that rejected new technologies if they challenged the prevailing warrior ethic (M, p. 59, 61, 135). Further, the previously-mentioned battlefield advantages of drill are an insightful example of how a “soft” technology can produce effects as valuable as more “concrete” advances in military hardware.

Late in his work, McNeill introduces a secondary “new age” thesis – that only by returning to a global command economy can mankind break the cycle of war (M, p. 386). This requires some amazing gymnastics in which he argues (a) that highly centralized command states such as China have been more peaceful than those with relatively free markets, (b) that military invention is primarily a free-market phenomenon driven by entrepreneurs, and (c) that 20th– century advances in management and communications make world government possible, thereby delivering us from further conflict (M, p. 386). He has laid the groundwork for this conclusion by largely disregarding the frequent wars and regime changes that occurred in states like China and the Mughal Empire, and by maintaining that command states, through prohibiting innovation, achieved greater stability and internal peace. He concludes that with the transformation to a world command state, “human society will…return to normal”. It is disappointing to see an acclaimed historian resort to unsupported conclusions. As depressing as it may be, conflict is a “normal” state of human society. Further, command economies from the Assyrian Empire to the Soviet Union have not demonstrated the ability to maintain internal or external peace any better than market economies.

Both Kennedy and McNeil claim that their works broadly examine the relationship between war and society. Nevertheless, their case examples emphasize familiar European histories over the experiences of other cultures. In War and The World our third historian, Jeremy Black, provides the most globally comprehensive study of what determines success in the pursuit of power. The answer appears to be…any of a number of factors taken individually or in combination. Black states that he wants to “put naval and land warfare in the same frame” and to look at both European and “extra-European” warfare (IB, p. 2). This is a declaration of catholic intent, but it is not a clear framework within which we can examine themes. Black avoids the danger of a concise thesis and instead assembles an often bewildering assortment of conflict examples from around the world. He uses these examples to successfully attack the theories of historians from Gibbon to McNeill to Kennedy.

Black’s analysis recognizes a multitude of factors to explain the origins of individual conflicts, and to explain the keys to victory in each. This approach attributes success in individual conflicts to a changing set of factors, such that no clear standard emerges. For example, he will show how Europeans repeatedly succeeded by capitalizing on internal political divisions within their target country. The very next case will illustrate how Europeans became less effective as they moved inland from coastal strongholds and thereby lost their logistical support. He is most effective when he demonstrates how a nominally weaker force can neutralize an opponents’ advantages by refusing to “play the game” on their terms. Illustrations of this range from colonial Americans who take pot-shots at British troops, to the guerilla tactics used in the Vietnam and Boer Wars. Black provides many of these examples in summary form. He would have been better served to have used fewer examples, with greater depth of analysis.

Like the previous two historians, Black cannot avoid letting personal ideology intrude into his observations. For example, he gratuitously comments that “America was a nation framed in a cult of violence” (B, p. 144). This observation does not move his work forward, and simply prompts the reader to ask what country was not created through violence – Iceland, perhaps? Norman England, Magyar Hungary, Doric Greece, Aryan India and numerous other examples are even better examples of nations “framed by violence”. In an otherwise objective presentation of historical data, dogmatic intrusions like this represent poor scholarship, and are therefore distracting.

In contrast, Black is to be commended for his objective of widening the historical inquiry to include non-European warfare. He opens his study by criticizing Edward Gibbon for a Euro-centric viewpoint and for the assertion that a network of competing states is necessary for progress (B, p. 3). He follows with an attack on McNeill’s thesis as “exaggerating the potency of military technology” (B, p. 270). He demonstrates with repeated examples that non-Europeans frequently defeated imperialist forces with inferior technology. Conversely these same cultures, armed with superior European technology, often failed to gain victory against other non-Europeans. Black is even more harsh with Kennedy, asserting that a “determinist economic account…is open to serious question” (B, p. 133). To refute Kennedy and the others, Black will variously ascribe success in warfare to population, leadership, religion, terrain, technology – the list grows with each case example he cites.

Unfortunately, Black’s approach is to throw a large number of examples at each rival theory. He will make abbreviated mention of a particular conflict and then move to another cursory commentary, as if his purpose is to impress with the wealth of data rather than analyze. He also has a tiresome habit of presuming that the reader knows the broader background for many of his examples, which is true only if one is a fellow historian with the same focus. His data lacks a solid thematic organization and is not selective. It jumps from period to period and from region to region and does not clearly summarize his conclusions at any point. What the global approach does show is that the link between war and society has no mono-causal explanation. Each case appears to demonstrate unique circumstances. There are many causes for conflict and the path to success is varied.

The new student of War and Society will learn from the efforts of previous historians. Reading McNeill and Kennedy, he will observe how difficult it is to sustain a mono-causal explanation for the complex interaction of factors that influence the phenomena of human warfare. Reading Black, he will observe the penalties for stuffing a work with poorly codified, abstracted data. If he was to read no other histories but these three, he would likely conclude that the elephant of war is a more complex animal than any of these explanations. Many causes exist for each specific case of warfare. Although economic power and superior technology are major contributors to success, many paths lead to victory. The data presented by our three historians demonstrate that every case is unique. The task should be to present a cogent examination of the causes of conflict and the paths to victory and, if possible, to group them loosely by similarity. An appropriate methodology would be to create specific categories for these causes; then perform a statistical analysis of frequency and distribution to identify patterns. The caution is to avoid locking these identifications into a rigid thematic straightjacket by settling on too few categories – or on a single thesis!

Should he attempt to write his own history of War and Society, the student will avoid the intentional Eurocentric approach of Kennedy and the unintentional Eurocentric presumptions of McNeill. He will attempt to integrate the entirety of human experience with war into an agenda-free examination, avoiding ideological side comments. The study will be balanced across geographical regions and historical periods, and will look at the war experience of small nations and societies, not just Great Powers. While his scholarship of historical examples will be broad, when he presents his material for popular consumption, he will cogently summarize each point with a few clear examples, leaving the great mass of data in end notes for review by other scholars who are equipped to interpret it. He will avoid McNeill’s sermonizing, Black’s gratuitous ideological intrusions, and Kennedy’s wrongheaded analysis of too-recent events. He will present his scholarship in so comprehensive and objective a manner that the reader will be able to recognize the patterns that lead to war as they develop in the present, in “real time”. Thus armed, the average citizen may then act – politically, ideologically, or fatalistically – with some idea of potential consequences.