Why it's better to be smart than strong
If nothing else, one would hope that the war in Iraq would dispel the myth that wars can be fought through the seemingly bloodless medium of "smart" bombs.Skip to next paragraph
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Max Boot, in his meticulously researched new book, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today, does as much as any other writer of recent vintage to bring the fleshy reality of warfare back into view by looking at how technological advances, coupled with the innovations of field commanders, have changed warfare over the past five centuries.
Boot divides revolutions in warfare from 1500 to the present into four main categories: The Gunpowder Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Second Industrial Revolution, and the Information Revolution.
While the weaponry and the tactics from one "revolution" to the next vary greatly, Boot identifies a few factors that have spanned the centuries.
The first is that change rarely comes from outside the military. "At best, civilians can play a supporting role in aiding military mavericks against their bureaucratic foes," Boot writes.
For the most part, Boot stays away from politics and touches on economics only briefly in order to explain how innovations in tactics or weaponry have allowed smaller, or less wealthy, nations to beat back their seemingly more formidable foes.
"The rise and fall of nations," he writes, " ... is largely a tale of which ones took advantage of these military and naval revolutions and which ones did not. Sheer size or wealth was not a good predictor of military outcomes."
In his examination of the "gunpowder revolution," Boot details three examples of a larger, richer party losing to a smaller but smarter opponent: the defeat of the Spanish Armada (outgunned by the more adaptable British fleet), the battle at Brietenfeld (where Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus used innovations in troop deployment and artillery to best the Imperial Army of the Hapsburg Empire during the Thirty Years' War in the first half of the 17th century), and the Maratha Confederacy (in which British Major-General Wellesley cut down a vastly superior force of Indian irregulars).
During the "industrial revolutions," which stretch from the mid-19th century to the end of World War II, the innovations in weaponry took a decidedly more deadly turn, when countries like Japan, Germany, and the United States bested their competitors in the development of railroads (which allowed for better troop transit) and machine guns (which helped the British to defeat numerically superior forces in Africa and India in the late 19th century).
A good portion of Boot's treatment of the "information revolution" deals with the already well-documented military prowess of the United States during the latter half of the 20th century. Boot's chapters on the Afghan and Iraq wars are evocative, but have been more thoroughly documented in books like Steve Coll's "Ghost Wars" and "Cobra II" by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor.
That said, "War Made New" remains a timely and important work, providing an excellent thumbnail sketch of the sometimes simultaneous strokes of genius, luck, and technological smarts that kings and generals have used for centuries to best their enemies in the field.
• Paul McLeary is a reporter for the Columbia Review of Journalism.