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January 16, 2008

Jeremy Black reviews recent work in Military and International History: The First Total War - David Bell; Great Power Strategy in Asia - Jonathan Bailey; Victory in War - William C. Martel

Posted by Jeremy Black

The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It
by David Bell
Pp. x + 420
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007
Hardback, $27

Great Power Strategy in Asia: Empire, Culture and Trade, 1905-2005
by Jonathan Bailey
Pp. 312. London: Routledge, 2007
Hardback, £70

Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy
by William C. Martel
Pp. ix + 436. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007
Hardback, £19.99

The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It - David Bell
Why bother with Napoleon? These were the opening words of my presentation to the first Gunther Rothenberg seminar on military history, held in November 2006, and it was therefore with particular interest that I read David Bell's new book. Extravagantly puffed on the back cover, this work might seem a surprising shift for the author of The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), but the two are actually closely linked as they are both histories of ideas. As the earlier book showed, Bell is an adept scrutineer of the language of power, is adroit at studying shifts in ideas, and is keen on the notion of essential concepts. Unfortunately, this approach offered only a partial palimpsest of reality.

So also with the new book. The claims are bold. Apparently "mainstream historians" have ignored the centrality of war, an assertion that is highly surprising at best and that tells us more about certain American coteries in the field of French history than it does about the field as a whole. In the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, Bell claims, the military transformations have been studied mostly from an operational viewpoint, and the centrality of culture to them has been neglected, an argument that has a degree more weight, although it is more exaggeration than accuracy.

Bell arrestingly seeks to fill the alleged gap by arguing that (p. 9):

the intellectual transformations of the Enlightenment, followed by the political fermentation of 1789-92, produced new understandings of war that made possible the cataclysmic intensification of the fighting over the next twenty-three years. Ever since, the same developments have shaped the way Western societies have seen and engaged in military conflict.
This argument seems necessary to Bell because, greatly underplaying the extent to which there was continuity with ancien régime conflict, he feels he has to explain something new, warfare that was at once total and modern, a major intensification from the conflict of the ancien régime. Thus, he sees from 1792 a (p. 8):
political dynamic that drove the participants relentlessly toward [his italic] a condition of total engagement and the abandonment of restraints.
Unsurprisingly therefore there is much on the Vendée and on the treatment of captives in Spain. There is also some interesting material on the rhetoric of conflict, particularly, but not only, in France, while Bell suggests that Napoleon's cult of heroism and the reception to it grew directly out of new understandings of the human self that were emerging in the late Enlightenment and Revolutionary period.

Unfortunately, Bell does not devote much space to investigating other approaches. He could have considered revisions in our understanding of ancien régime warfare that stress the extent to which it was far from indecisive or limited, not least in the treatment of civilians. This is a major theme in the specialist literature, but Bell needs a theme of (p. 50) "the eighteenth century age of military restraint" in order to provide a counterpoint to his own subject, and thus to provide a contrast that requires analysis in terms of dramatic contrast.

Instead, his approach repeats outdated, formulaic descriptions. It is rather as if he explained the French Revolution in terms of class action. Or Bell might have discussed the ability of powers to avoid "total engagement": Prussia spent the years from 1795 to 1806 at peace with France, and she was far from alone in being willing and able to negotiate agreements. The rhetoric of "total engagement" was frequently misleading as Paul Schroeder has shown.

More significantly, the description of modern warfare in terms of large-scale conflict by ideologically-committed forces is a seriously flawed one. Moving forward from 1815, it does not describe, for example, many of the conflicts of the 1820s and this should undermine any sense that Napoleonic conflict had transformed warfare and brought forward modernity. A key characteristic of modern warfare is its variety, not least in scale, goal and intensity; rather than its conformity to an essential set of characteristics as Bell misleadingly suggests.

Moreover, if modern warfare is not necessarily total, total warfare is not necessarily modern. The goal of apocalyptic violence, and the means to that end of violence, scarcely had to wait for modern times, as a reading of Mongol warfare or that of Timur would indicate. Total war can therefore be separated from any developmental model of conflict. As far as naval or European overseas warfare were concerned, France was not a key model for military change. This suggests the need to move aside from an emphasis on land warfare within Europe as if it provides a paradigm even for Western warfare.

At the global scale, it is those powers that took a prominent part in conflict between the West and the non-West that deserve more relative attention, whereas warfare between Western powers is generally overplayed. A different history therefore means devoting more space to Britain, Russia and the United States, and less to that longstanding ménage à trios of Austria, France and Prussia.

Moreover, Bell scarcely links developments in European warfare in the late-eighteenth century to the situation in the non-Western world of that period. It is unclear from his text why Napoleon should be regarded as different to such eighteenth-century warleaders as Nader Shah of Persia.

Furthermore, in terms of modernity understood in terms of institutional sophistication and effectiveness, the efficiency of the Chinese, in the 1750s, in overcoming the Dsungars of Xinjiang, the topic of a recent book by Peter Perdue, was far greater than that of Napoleon, not least in avoiding a logistical failure akin to that of the invasion of Russia in 1812. That Europe, or rather, the West, dominated the world in 1900 and, even more, 1919 does not mean that a mode of analysis based on this should be applied to the period a century earlier, nor that Napoleonic warfare provides a clue to this domination.

If Bell's depiction of his context is deeply flawed, there is nonetheless much of interest in his book on the rhetoric of violence. His linkage of this rhetoric to hopes of peace is indicative of the recurrence of religious themes in violence, which is scarcely surprising as the French Revolutionary Wars replicated aspects of the early-modern wars of religion, not least in the degree of civil conflict and the extent to which the concept of the civilian was questioned.

Ultimately, however, this book is a disappointment because the fertility of the author's critical intellect falls short of the necessary understanding of military history, in particular of the variety of circumstances and the complexity of change.

Great Power Strategy in Asia: Empire, Culture and Trade, 1905-2005 - Jonathan Bailey
The thoughtful and interesting book by Jonathan Bailey, a retired major general, sees him branching away from his established track record in the field of artillery. His understanding of the greater potential created by the improvements in artillery that led to the three-dimensional battleground underlay his brief The First World War and the Birth of the Modern Struggle of Warfare (Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, 1996), while he is also the author of Field Artillery and Firepower (Naval Institute Press, 2004).

His new book is certainly distinctive. Sensibly eschewing the conventional Eurocentric perspective on geopolitics and warfare, Bailey, instead, focuses on East Asia, where indeed much of the conflict of the last century occurred. Beginning with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, Bailey offers a number of chronological perspectives, but essentially moves forward first to 1941, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and then to the present.

The last provides Bailey with an opportunity to bring together recent history, current affairs and the likely future. In doing so he moves between geopolitics and demography, and looks at the relationships between China, Japan and the USA.

A number of themes emerge, but the tension between strategic continuities and discontinuities is the most apparent. Bailey argues that East Asia continues to be a major area of tension, and that:

the Russo-Japanese War was not so much a "Military Revolution", although it heralded one, as the start of a "Revolution in Strategic Affairs", whose implications are clearly pressing nearly a century later, but have yet to be fully revealed.
He detects an essential continuity from 1905, with a rivalry between "continental" and "maritime" powers, the clash of allegedly Eastern and Western values, and the pursuit of economic and strategic advantage.

The range of the book is impressive, and, if it is fair to note that this is an outsiders' view of Japanese and Chinese policy, with no familiarity with their languages, and no use of primary sources as a whole, the secondary literature is widely, although not exhaustively, probed. Looked at differently, this is an account of both 1941 and the present with an instructive historical background but one that asserts continuities that can also be questioned. 1941 may well have been a replay of 1904 in strategic dimension, risk and execution for the Japanese, but they came to Pearl Harbor [not as Bailey persistently writes Pearl Harbour] only after reaching impasse in China.

Bailey presents Japanese policy in terms of "Asia on the march", but, looked at differently, the key theme was the long-term one of rivalry between China and Japan. Bailey's central theme of the West versus the East may thus require total revision.

Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy - William C. Martel
Arguing that the absence of a modern theory of victory makes it difficult to assess success in war, Martel's book is explicitly designed as an aid to current American policy. That is part of the problem with this book because it devotes far too little attention to non-American war-making and concepts of victory.

The historical approach is very much Western, and both China and India are totally omitted. This is not simply a case of questionable emphasis, which is a problem with all our work, but rather one of wholesale omission. That is scarcely an encouraging start to a review, but I could be more positive if the title was restricted to the USA. From that perspective, Martel, Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, has identified a key problem and thus picked a good topic.

There is indeed, as he argues, a lack of clarity about victory, although, looked at differently, that reflects the very broad range of tasking necessarily involved in conflict and one that it is too easy to underrate. Tasking indeed is a central concept, as I tried to argue in my Rethinking Military History (New York: Routledge, 2004), not least because it encompasses civil control (a topic Martel underplays) alongside foreign war and also clarifies the varied meanings of the definition of victory in terms of persuading an opponent that he has lost.

Thus, tasking is in a dynamic relationship with ideologically and culturally defined perceptions of victory and defeat. These vary in time and place, and it is very difficult to influence the perceptions of others. This presents one way to argue that war is an aspect of the cultural project of conflict that underlines the military and political difficulties of winning.

Most of Martel's book is devoted to case studies of American military interventions from 1986 to 2003: in Libya, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. These are followed by a chapter on military power and victory which notes, for example, the use and also disadvantages of air power, and discusses the ways in which the US military is modernising itself technologically to be more relevant to the kinds of war that the US may confront.

An interesting book, but there is room for a study of other contemporary concepts of victory, for example those of terrorists which Martel only briefly addresses, and the light they throw on American policy. None of those cited on the back cover, a list that includes John Kerry and Fred Kagan, trouble to note the omission of much of the world. No wonder Western policy is in such a mess, which is distinctly worrying for those of us who are rightly troubled by the goals and methods of many non-Western states.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007) and A Short History of Britain (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

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