The NFB Reading List: War Made New

War Made New – Max Boot (2006)


The entry I have read the most recently, but one that fully deserves its place here. A foreign affairs expert, Boot has for his subject here, the oft-debated “Revolutions in Military Affairs”, or RMAs, the historical examples of such, how they came about, and how they changed both the nature of warfare and the countries that used them. In so doing, he divides up his narrative into four distinct “revolutions”, further subdivided into three particular battles or campaigns that help best illustrate the period. For “Gunpowder”, the Spanish Armada, Breitenfeld/Lutzen and Assaye. For the “First Industrial”, Koniggratz, Omdurman and Tsushima. For the “Second Industrial”, the Fall of France, Pearl Harbour and the Firebombing of Tokyo. And for “Information”, the Gulf War, the Special Forces campaign in Afghanistan, and the first two years of the Iraq War.

First off, it is important to note that Boot is an eminently “readable” author, who manages to expertly mix in cold, calculated analysis with a more enthralling, invocative style of writing, using an almost historical fiction approach at times to describe battles and campaigns, beginning his chapters “in media res” and doing his best to bring out the inner characteristics of people like Francis Drake, Van Moltke the Elder, Admiral Tojo and Curtis LeMay, an important task if we are to fully examine the way that revolutions have come to warfare and the men who helped shape and craft those revolutions. If we want to understand why the Sudanese tribesmen were slaughtered at Omdurman, we have to do more than just look at their failure, in comparison to the British, to evolve their military make-up. As Boot outlines, we must also look at the kind of men leading the British forces – like Herbert “More machine than man” Kitchener – and in order to do that, you need the kind of narrative structure that Boot provides. It’s accessible and enjoyable to read, which is important if you want to get the message across to what would be largely a non-military and non-academic audience.

Boot’s book is about understanding why some military innovations succeed and trump others, or how the certain use of an innovation over its use by another party is more successful. He starts off his book with a brief discussion on Charles VIII 15th century invasion of Italy and how his newer form of cannon managed to subjugate large parts of the resident city-states. For the Italians, this was, very much so, “war made new”, the destruction of their old way of thinking just as it was the destruction of their walls. From there we proceed to studying such things.

Boot’s consistent and re-emphasised point is not just that you must have a military advantage in technology over your opponent, but that you must have the right men, the right internal military make-up, and the right application of force in order to make it work. “Wisdom” is the term Boot uses to describe this necessity, of the right minds using the right weapons, for fear that we get sucked into believing the likes of “shock and awe”, as much as Philip II believed in the divine mightiness of his Armada. The proper adjustments over time, even such little time as a few years, must be made, lest your troops are mindlessly walking into machine gun fire. The Sudanese suffered such a reverse at Omdurman, but the seemingly superior British were suffering the same only a few decades later.

Perhaps the best example, from Boot’s examples, is that of the Germany military in World War Two, which through the right application of new armour tactics, built up in the years beforehand while the oppositions tank doctrine was stagnating, managed to steamroll through France, one of the then great powers of the world, with something approaching ease. But then Germany, sucked in to believing the ,myth of their own invincibility as a result of the ease with which Paris fell, went too far, becoming the victim of nations with a greater grasp of the new ways of war – aircraft carriers, citizen soldiers, superbombers and atomic bombs.

And it also a book about counter-moves and how they bring about RMAs. Charles XIII’s campaign in Italy results in a new form of fortress to counter artillery, Catholic princes change their tactics to face the Swedish army of Gustavus Adolphus, Prussian firearms load faster than the more numerous Austrians, Japan gives itself over wholesale to a military modernity program to defeat Russia, Iraqi insurgents continually adapt and one-up conventional American forces. Boots book is a chronicle of such activities, of describing how keeping up to date with the current state of military technology and innovations gives a decided advantage, but such an advantage is never guaranteed of lasting too long. More than that, an advantage may seem decisive – American body armour in Iraq for example – but leads to unforeseen problems – a loss of mobility, deadly in a COIN war. The previously mentioned Kitchener slaughtered his Sudanese foes but then was aghast at his inability to hit back at the insurgent Boers – horror and outrage repeated over a century later in the streets of Fallujah after a conventional campaign characterised by rampantly successful “thunder runs”. Perhaps no other gulf is greater in warfare than that faced by a conventional army that must fight an insurgent foe.

Boot discusses in-depth the apparent strangeness of small armies beating bigger ones, sometimes vastly bigger ones in the case of colonial conflicts, and goes in-death into answering the question “why?”. For him, it is more than just having bigger broadsides, needle-guns or metal plated battleships, but also a very important human element: decentralised command structures, efficient bureaucracy, and the use of a “General Staff” model, so famously created by the Prussians and copied elsewhere, to formulate war plans that are both impressive but easy to adjust.  Boot casts doubt on the legitimacy of a statement commonly attributed to the Duke of Wellington , that “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”, but the general tone of that quotation rings true throughout all of Boot’s account: that military education and training, not just in fighting but in basic strategy, transport and technological advancements, have been the key deciders between annihilating Indian armies, Russian battleship fleets, Japanese cities, and losing entire nations, armies and political leaders. Europe didn’t just conquer most of the world by the 19th century by having better guns.

For Boot, the main thing when it comes to RMAs and military affairs in general, is keeping up with the pace of change. In all of 12 of his offered case-studies, the side that lost had some form of inefficiency or backward thinking, that cost them dearly in the end, whether it was Spanish over-reliance on the outdated tercio formation or the lack of long-term “Phase IV” planning on the eve of the Iraq invasion. Proper investment and openness to change is critical. Boot frames his entire account around the current state of the USA as the worlds military hegemon, warning very directly that, while American has been excellent at innovation and investment in the right projects, its apparent advantage over others can quickly vanish if the effort is not kept up and adapted.

If the Gunpowder and Industrial Revolutions demonstrated ably how superpowers can rise and fall based on their ability to keep ahead in the arms and strategy race, then the Information one demonstrates how the USA, and the Western World at large can try and utilise the latest RMA to battle both conventional – increasingly rare – and non-conventional threats, with the emphasis very much on the likes of al-Qaeda and their progeny. The best tech is never guarantees success, as the Iraq chapter makes clear very plainly, but the correct use of tech just might be – something the likes of Osama Bin Laden and others will continue to try and apply themselves.

Boot closes on possible future RMAs, the likes of nanotechnology, cyber-warfare applications and of course the continuing rise of robotics in warfare. His closing argument is a cynical, but logical, dismissal of any claims that we are heading towards a more peaceful age, if perhaps a slightly less bloodier one overall, sentiments I would share, though I can appreciate the unique way in which Boot makes his argument, from emphasising the “when, not if” aspect of terrorists using WMDs and the failures in theories related to “the end of history” as shown after the 9/11 attacks.

Aside from all of that, it is also a very good history book. In each era of study, Boot outlines the set changes to way that warfare worked, whether it was the regimentation of armies under Adolphus and Maurice of Nassau, the utilisation of new forms of transport by Prussia, the pay-off from investment in civilian research groups by the United States in the 20th century, or the new spectre of increasingly unmanned warfare. Boot offers an excellent level of detail on such things, indicative of a firm amount of research, and more than his larger thoughts on RMAs, his work can still be seen as an impressive collection of individual battle studies.

What did I learn from War Made New? I learned that having an edge in weaponry, technology and infrastructure is critical in warfare and in militaries in general? You have to be willing to innovate, to invest in the wisest manner to take and capitalise on risky manoeuvres.

But I also learned that it is all nothing without the right leadership and the right upbringing for the commanders of such efforts. Applications must be made wisely, by those who have been brought up within a streamlined system designed to increase strategic knowledge and the know-how to utilise various non-obvious aspects of a military machine, be it transport, logistics, civilian wings or communication structures.

Most importantly, I learned that no advantage in warfare, no matter how absolute that it seems at a given time, is forever. Spain, Britain, Austria, Sweden, India, Prussia, Russia, Japan, France, Germany and even America is some respects, they all reached zeniths in their power and then suffered a fall, in some cases a fall so complete as to render then non-existent. Much of this was down to a defeat in war, or being surpassed by a nation that had gained greater power in that practise. Boot’s account illustrates such shifts better than any other book I have ever read on the subject, closing on the terrifying prospect and implications of the same happening wholesale to the United States. Perhaps, as Santana said, “only the dead have seen the end of war”, but we may live to see the end of our modern way of war – and be forced to, like the Italian city-states watching the French cannon open fire on their walls, see war made new once more.

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1 Response to The NFB Reading List: War Made New

  1. Pingback: The NFB Reading List: World War Z | Never Felt Better

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