View the h-war Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in h-war's April 2004 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in h-war's April 2004 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the h-war home page.
When I teach undergraduates, I make them go through the exercise of writing a critical book review at least once. Professor Lynn’s book — and the work by Victor Davis Hanson that apparently provoked it — offer support to the idea that care must be taken when reading historians who are attempting to erect grand structures through their work. I have read the pieces of Hanson’s work that stimulated Lynn to write this work, and for those readers who have not, it might prove useful to outline the ideas that lead Lynn to take up his position. Then the strengths and weaknesses of Battle may be seen more clearly. With _The Western Way of War_, which I assign to graduate students, Hanson began to unfold his premises linking Western European military success with its civil culture, at first limiting his narrative to his area of academic training: classical Greece. He claims that the Greek acceptance of decisive battle through the clash of phalangial armies was an effort to limit the demands war made on the citizen under arms, and that this preference for decisive battle established a socio-cultural fault line between Western Europe and the rest of the world.[1} With _Carnage and Culture_, which I understand many graduate students read, but I do not assign as a work, Hanson finishes his claim by offering a series of case studies to give flesh to his claim: Salamis, Gaugamela, Cannae, Poitiers (p.732), Tenochtitlan, Lepanto, Rorke’s Drift, Midway and Tet, which gives Hanson “an eerie feeling that phalangites, legionaries, mailed foot soldiers, conquistadors, redcoats, GIs, and marines all shared certain recurring core ideas about how to wage and win wars.” These ideas include individual rights, cohesive infantry through group discipline, technological innovation, capitalism and free markets and institutionalized critique of the military by the civil sphere. Methodologically problematic, lacking a formal apparatus of references while containing anachronisms and inaccuracies, the latter book provoked Lynn into contesting the field and lured him into the same troubled terrain. Again case studies serve as the vehicles for analysis, this time they comprise Classical Greece, Ancient China and India, medieval Europe, Enlightenment warfare, sepoy military culture, Napoleonic warfare, race and the Pacific war, closing with the Egyptian Army’s performance in the Yom Kippur War. Unlike Hanson’s primitive structuralism, Lynn’s model enlists cultural history in order “to better appreciate the variety and change that have typified military institutions, thought, and practice over the ages.” (p. xiv) Lynn is also at pains to challenge played what he calls technological determinism in shaping historical analyses of the military past. He also declares his intention to lay the universal soldier to rest and to raise in his place a congeries of culturally specific constructions to help us understand the realities of war. Lynn’s book is much more than merely a refutation of Hanson: it stands on its own as a valuable, albeit flawed, contribution to the field. I owe it to the reader to make my position clear. I find a great deal of value in Clausewitz’s _On War_ and have argued that it can be understood in part as a post-structuralist text, I also share Lynn’s openness to using cultural instruments in order to improve our understanding of combat, battle and war. Lynn’s first substantial chapter offers a brisk refutation of Hanson’s thesis, observing the unreality of an unbroken skein of consciousness from the ancient Greeks through to early modern Europe. Lynn then turns his attention to the classic military texts of two ancient cultures: South Asia and China. It is a noble effort, for he carefully matches the Asian texts with the appropriate western European model. It is also an unsatisfactory effort, he relies on the work of other historians; on occasion he misinterprets some of their conclusions and does not always grasp their nuance of analysis. This is not due to any shortcoming on Lynn’s part, apart from the fact that is he is not a polymath in the requisite areas of study. Arguably no one person could offer the necessary mastery to cover such a wide range of material. His chapter on medieval warfare and the contrast between the ideals of chivalry and the realities of the _chevauchee_ is perhaps the most stimulating piece of its length I have read in several years. It clearly serves as the centerpiece of Lynn’s model, yielding a fruitful analysis distinguishing between the necessary cultural construction of chivalry and the brutal reality of sustained, large-scale raiding that characterised much of the Hundred Years’ War. It offers a rich source of serious thought that will prove to be a standard in my reading lists for years to come. Closer to his academic home of _ancien regime_ France, the chapter on war in the age of the Enlightenment does not offer much new except to link the material into Lynn’s larger project. Lynn replays the standard observations that the period was marked by an aversion to decisive battle while at the same time regaining an interest in Roman rationality. Vegetius evidently midwifed the age of sieges and of indecisive battle. I must defer to Lynn’s authority in matters French, but English, then British warfighting contained more enthusiasm for decisive battle. It may be that the luxury of the English Channel allowed commanders like Marlborough to conceive of bold plans in the knowledge that a decisive reverse on the Continent would not lead to an invasion of the Home Islands. But this merely reinforces Lynn’s larger point: that military culture is specific to time and place. Lynn then moves back to South Asia, and the syncretic construction of the sepoy, a South Asian soldier imbued with European discipline through drill. Here again, Lynn’s lack of depth in the field vitiates his argument’s power. Familiarity with David Omissi’s work on ethnicity and imperial rule in India for example would not only have strengthened his argument, but would have allowed it to move forward into the 20th century. Lynn then returns to Europe and the Napoleonic era, introducing the concept of “Military Romanticism,” defined as the rejection of the Enlightenment’s faith in rules and principles such as are found in the natural sciences, and instead emphasized psychology, accepting chance and loss and placing battle at the center of war. (p.183-184) Interestingly, the actual conduct of combat is not described. Instead Lynn looks to the motivation of the revolutionary soldiers. The concurrent construction of the French Revolution’s citizen under arms also gives Lynn scope to outline the preconditions for Napoleon’s success. Lynn closes with a necessarily brief evaluation of Clausewitz’s _On War_ and its influence on 19th century military thought. Although a substantial chapter of forty pages, the treatments are too brief and too general. Again Lynn relies more on the judgments of other experts than on his own analysis, failing to reconcile clearly his use of Azar Gat as well as Peter Paret in evaluating Clausewitz. This is an unsatisfactory chapter, its inadequacy made even more noticeable by the stunning leap from 1914 to 1944 in the next chapter. Racial animosity in the Pacific on both sides is Lynn’s major theme when looking at the Second World War. Here Lynn’s opponent is John Dower’s account of the impact of racial beliefs in _War without Mercy_. Lynn attempts to establish that while both sides were infected with racism, only the Japanese let it affect their strategy.(p. 237-238) He then moves on to trace the evolution of amphibious warfare in the U.S. Marine Corps, then turns about to revisit the issue of racism as a motivation in combat for U.S. servicemen. Lynn concludes it did not by touring the standard accounts of small group dynamics that underpins current theories on combat motivations. Once again his mastery of the necessary material is less than perfect. While he cites S.L.A. Marshall’s 1947 _Men Against Fire_ and Shils and Janowitz’s seminal 1949 article in _Public Opinion Quarterly_, he does not refer to the subsequent critiques of the those works. (p. 377) He then closes by refuting charges that the use of atomic bombs against Japan was racially motivated. He does so by tracing the evolving moral standards when evaluating the morality of bombing cities, then describing the anticipated costs of invasion by U.S. planners. Again, nothing new, but all in all this chapter lacks coherence and cohesion, at least in relation with the book’s larger project. Lynn closes his case studies by examining the Egyptian Army’s remarkable reversal of form in the cross-Canal operations in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Again, Lynn tends to rely on one or two secondary sources for his analysis, in this case Kenneth Pollack’s thesis on Arab military effectiveness, although Lynn observes that he would restrict his use of Pollack to the Egyptians rather than generalize about the Arab military experience. He also confesses, as all good historians must, that Arab civil culture is outside his realm of expertise and would thus focus on the Egyptian military. But if that is the case, how can we proceed given that Lynn’s chapter on Clausewitz emphasized the contingent nature of his philosophy? The care with which the social and cultural roots of the Prussian’s philosophy are laid out for examination is replaced by a relatively conventional account of the difficulties of operational planning in societies lacking the social and educational sophistication of the west. Lynn concludes with a short exegesis of the term “terrorism,” first settling on Caleb Carr’s definition, if not Carr’s conclusions, then advocating a policy of stripping the moral content out of the term, allowing the United States to treat Al Qaeda and its like as military opponents to be defeated rather than evil forces to be excised. Lynn argues that the U.S. must redraught its dominant discourse on war in order to win this war at an acceptable political cost: maintenance of civilian supremacy, retention of civil rights, and so forth. His last section is an appendix laying out his model of cultural discourse and its relationship to war, a puzzling decision given that it could have been fruitfully integrated into the prefatory material that sketched out his project. Taken as a whole, the work is to be praised for its ambition and empathy as well as for its willingness to visit areas of world literature often only viewed from a distance. It is obviously written more for the educated general public than for the specialist in military history, even though it can be given to senior undergraduates and graduate students. It takes positions on issues comfortably, without undue polemics with other authors. There remain, however, serious shortcomings to the book. The case study method simply does not suit an attempt to form a grand synthetic work. Like Hanson’s pieces, it shines a bright light on a small area and then only briefly sketches the passage from one illuminated section to the next. This is less serious for Lynn, given his purpose is to establish discontinuities between spaces and along time. The impact of the work is nevertheless lessened because of its lack of analytical coherence. Each chapter ends up being a story unto itself, the theoretical structure that would have given the book its shape appears inconsistently and as such, fails to persuade this reader that this thesis has been proven. This is especially true given that his project inexplicably does not treat the First World War at all, certainly one of the most remarkable opportunities to examine the extent to which prewar military discourse clashed with military reality. This weakness is made worse by the slender resources that sustain Lynn’s analysis beyond his area of expertise. Here I wish to make very clear that I would have done even worse, I do not wish to imply that Dr. Lynn is not a competent historian, merely that the task he has set for himself may well be beyond the powers of one academic, no matter how gifted, to range from ancient Asia on through to the modern Middle East. Perhaps a better solution would be a set of essays written by specialists addressing the questions that Lynn has raised. Furthermore, the term “culture” needs to be clarified by Lynn, and using the concept of “discourse” does not do it. Here the author runs the risk of making culture mean everything within a specific space and time, and therefore making it useless as an analytical instrument. This would also help make Lynn’s argument more robust by keeping the terms of analysis consistent. Once again there are lacunae in Dr. Lynn’s account. The environmental regime in which specific cultures arise is neglected. Jared Diamond’s _Guns, Germs and Steel_ is also a popular work written by a scholar that could be incorporated into this discussion, especially when raising questions about resource availability and allocation. I hope that much of the above does not strike the reader as excessively carping. I believe that the work does offer much that is provocative and that does great credit to the historians’ discipline. If I remain unconvinced it is for the reasons I have attempted to outline. That does not mean that I will not ask students to address its thesis and arguments, even if only in the context of more specialized studies. I cannot say the same for other works I have read on this topic. I began writing this review over a week ago, and while I have duplicated some of what others have written, I want to join Dr. Grimsley in his hope that discussion will allow us to test the strength of the materials offered by Dr. Lynn as well as others. M.A. Ramsay Kansas State University  Victor Davis Hanson, _The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece_, (New York: Knopf, 1989).  Victor Davis Hanson, _Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power_ (New York: Doubleday, 2001):441.  David Omissi, “ ‘Martial Races’: Ethnicity and Security in Colonial India 1858-1939,” _War & Society 9, No. 1 (1991): 1-27. -- Regards, Janet G. Valentine, PhD H-War Book Review Editor