How societies march to war

Technology transforms society. Technology linked to warfare revolutionizes society.

So it has proven out over the past millennium. Gunpowder is an excellent example. The development of gunpowder weapons in Europe and China during the first half of the 14th century bears a direct correlation to the organization of societies into the nation-states we take for granted today.

"The organization that is the modern state developed out of the need for European princes and princelings to maintain large standing armies with gunpowder weapons," says Meyer Kestenbaum, a sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park. With gunpowder weapons "the critical thing is that you have to keep the army in place, even during peacetime," he explains.

Under feudalism, war was a sometime thing. Places like Burgundy or the Savoy existed, but less as political units than as geographical expressions. Their defense was handled through an elaborate system of subcontractors mobilized ad hoc, not unlike the modern rural volunteer fire department. If the duke was feeling the heat from a neighboring duchy, he would call his lesser nobles, and the lesser nobles would round up their knights, and the knights would call their pages into action.

But with firearms, princelings' desire to get the most bang for the buck - literally - led to much greater emphasis on the training of their armies, on precision drill to get soldiers into a steady rhythm of aim, fire, reload. "Random fighting by 1,000 soldiers is less effective than disciplined fighting by 100," Professor Kestenbaum explains. As opposing infantries faced off at distances of 50 to 100 yards, survival depended less on individual soldiers' aim than on their collective skill at reloading quickly. This was a job for trained full-time professionals, not weekend warriors.

Thus it was, around 1500, that the peacetime standing army developed. It had to be recruited, trained, clothed, fed, and housed. And that led to the development of another army in turn: civil servants to administer the taxation systems needed to support both armies - the soldiers and the pen-pushers. Thus was born the modern bureaucratic state.

The gunpowder revolution transformed interpersonal relationships, too. Under feudalism, everyone up and down the hierarchy would have multiple allegiances, not always in perfect harmony. The newly professionalized armies owed their allegiance to one leader. "If they are your own men, you can hire and fire them," Kestenbaum says.

The prince became the "fountain of privilege," dispensing salaries, commissions, titles, and prestige, as Kestenbaum explains. And the prestige was more important than the money. The modern notion of a career path - staying in and climbing up - dates from this period, Kestenbaum adds.

The gunpowder revolution changed not only vertical relationships but horizontal ones, too. "It becomes very clear very quickly that the only way you can get people to stand there and get shot at is to train them to forget about themselves," Kestenbaum says. The issue is "how you immerse a person in the larger group - get them used to standing in mud for days on end."

Military units needed to bond, in other words. Fortunately, for military commanders, the drilling required to ensure technical mastery of the new weapons also helped instill solidarity among the soldiers.

In September 1941, a graduate student named William McNeill, subsequently one of the preeminent historians of the United States, was drafted into the US Army and sent to Texas for basic training. For want of actual functioning weapons to be trained on, in those days before Pearl Harbor, the recruits were endlessly marched around the field: Hut! Hup! Hip! Four!

As Professor McNeill later wrote, "Moving briskly and keeping in time was enough to make us feel good about ourselves, satisfied to be moving together, and vaguely pleased with the world at large." He adopted the phrase "muscular bonding" to describe the solidarity such military drill can instill.

Half a century after his basic training, he wrote a book, "Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History," which surely represents one of the more interesting sidelights on this aspect of military history.

This phenomenon of muscular bonding, whether expressed by dancers, drill teams, or football crowds, is, he wrote, "critically important in human history, because the emotion it arouses constitutes an indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time, moving big muscles together and chanting, singing or shouting."

Maurice of Orange's introduction of close-order drill to the Dutch Army in the final years of the 16th century - copied elsewhere in Europe - allowed wide recruitment for these new-style standing armies. "It became safe to arm even the poorest classes, pay them a pittance, and still expect and secure obedience," McNeill wrote. "The emotional resonance of daily and prolonged close-order drill created such a lively esprit de corps among the poverty-stricken peasant recruits and urban outcasts who came to constitute the rank and file of European armies, that other social ties faded to insignificance among them."

Maurice thus anticipated all those World War II movies, where the members of the American bomber crew come from different ethnic groups but are all buddies.

For George Washington, keeping his troops in line was important to his vision of the kind of new country he was fighting to establish, according to Jon Guttman, editor of Military History Magazine. Generations of Americans may have learned in school that the colonists fighting for independence learned what we today know as "guerrilla tactics" from the Indians. "But Washington did not want the revolution to deteriorate into guerrilla warfare," says Mr. Guttman. "The discipline of the Continental Army surprised the British."

There's a paradox here, or perhaps an irony. Drill continues to be important for its ability to instill esprit de corps 150 years after it has ceased to be relevant for reasons of military technology.

By the time of the American Civil War, rifles had been developed that were accurate over a much longer range than that of the early muskets. But in the time-honored tradition of generals everywhere, fighting their last war over again, commanders continued to order their men to engage at close range. "Tactics didn't keep up with technology," Guttman says. This explains why the Battle of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history.

By the end of the 18th century, a second wave of change was sweeping through military organizations, according to Kestenbaum: The citizen-army was developing, in the wake of the French and American revolutions. These "truly massive armed forces," as he describes them, were possible only by drawing on a much larger swath of "the people" than was ever involved in professional armies.

And note: The citizen army developed long before most people had any idea of elective government or universal franchise. The involvement of the citizenry in warfare continued to the point that it was nations and not armies who went to war. Eventually, "the characteristics of mobilization extend well beyond the military to the economy, and the entire nation, if only symbolically," Kestenbaum says.

Thus, the immense social and economic changes wrought in the US during World War II - women streaming into the workforce, blacks working alongside, or at least in proximity to, whites, Southerners moving north, and Easterners moving west to take part as the entire economy shifted to a wartime footing. If war became ultimately too important to leave to the generals, so did leadership.

Today, leadership is an area of convergence, says William Rosenbach of Gettysburg College, Pa. "The worlds of the military, business, religion, and sports are becoming more alike.... I don't think there's political leadership or military leadership or business leadership, there's just leadership."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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