This post is the first academic history to be presented on this blog (it will not be the last) This paper was written in 2009 and updated in 2021. It will be presented in four parts over four weeks. In the interest of full disclosure, my main scholarly research areas in history are Military History (emphasis on WW2), European History (emphasis on Britain), and American History (emphasis on African-American Studies).
John M. Lane
Conflict between humans has, unfortunately, been part of our existence on earth from the beginning. From the first banding together of village dwellers to protect their farms from hunter-gatherers to the modern, twenty-first-century national security state, war has been a constant presence, mainly for the ill and rarely, if ever, for good. War and preparation for it remind us as a species that we have failed to create societies that help and benefit all. Nonetheless, the wars continue. In the past one hundred and fifty years, they have become more deadly, up to the point where humans now have the power to end life on earth through the ever-growing technological progression of the weapons of war.
This essay will examine the progression of war from the industrialized, technological triumph of the West over the indigenous peoples of the world to the slaughter of the First World War, which was the beginning of the end of European world domination, to the ascent of the United States, whose technological innovations and industrial power, made it after World War II, the most powerful nation in recorded history.
A “Western Way of War” and “The Triumph of the West”: The Classical Age -1945
The foundation for the study of a western way of war was laid in 1973 by the late Russell Weigley. His classic volume, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military and Policy, points to a uniquely American pursuit of victory. From the beginning of the United States up to the conclusion of World War II, the United States pursued a straightforward military strategy:” an emphasis in wartime on military strategy calculated to lead to military victory by the most direct means possible…” (Weigley xviii) The United States had a history of only mustering armies when needed for war. From the Civil War through World War II, with the tremendous growth in U.S. industrial capacity and technological innovation, two tracks of strategy were added to how the U.S. fought it wars. The U.S. was able to equip its forces with modern, mass-produced, highly lethal weapons. These weapons were supplied to massive citizen armies (later navies and air forces) which would then pound and bludgeon their opponents into surrender. This strategy, called by Weigley the “Strategy of Annihilation” (128), was first used by Grant in the US Civil War to force Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to give up.
Victor Davis Hanson believes the U.S. adopted the “classical legacy” of its western predecessors. “American armed forces in recent wars have sacrificed mobility, maneuver, grace, if you will, on the battlefield in exchange for the chance of stark, direct assault, of a frontal attack against the main forces of the enemy and the opportunity to strike him down-all in the hope of decisive military victory on the battlefield.” (*Hanson 10) Hanson believes that this classical legacy can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. “Firepower and heavy defensive armament-not merely the ability but also the desire to deliver fatal blows and then steadfastly to endure, without retreat, any counter response-have always been the trademark of Western armies.” (*Hanson 9) It was also during the classical era that the Western opinion of the military prowess of non-westerners had its beginnings. “For… all the various contingents of the Grand Army of Persia, with their threatening looks and noise, had a very different and predictable outlook on battle. In Herodotus’ view here, the Persians suffered from that most dangerous tendency in war: a wish to kill but not to die in the process.” (*Hanson 10)
The Persians were perplexed and bewildered by the Greek conduct of war. Hanson quotes the Persian leader Mardonios in 490 BCE: “these Greeks are accustomed to wage wars among each other in the most senseless way… since they all speak Greek, they should rather exchange heralds and negotiators and thereby settle differences by any means rather than battle.” (*Hanson 10-11) In the mind of Mardonios and most peoples and cultures in the world at that time, settling differences without battle made perfect sense. Ancient peoples fought wars, usually over grazing lands, hunting rights, or maybe in response to an insult or a loss of face and honor. They were, however, very limited in scope and conducted in ways that limited violence and bloodshed. John Keegan describes war among the Nguni people of Southern Africa. The Zulus would originate from the Nguni: “Battles tended to be ritualized, conducted under the gaze of old and young, begun with an exchange of insults and finished when casualties were inflicted. There was natural as well as customary limitations on the level of violence: because metals were scarce, weapons were made of fire-hardened wood, thrown rather than used hand-to-hand; and should a warrior happen to kill an opponent, he was obliged to at once to leave the field and undergo purification since the spirit of his victim would certainly otherwise bring fatal illness to him and his family.” (Keegan 29).
In contrast,” …this Western desire for a single, magnificent collision of infantry, for brutal killing with edged weapons…has baffled and terrified adversaries from the non-western world for more than 2,500 years.” (*Hanson 9) These divergent and totally at odds cultural views of war and conflict were subjects of intense debate. Most historians have concluded that the West, led by the Greeks and Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, dominated world military affairs from 490 BCE to 500 CE. One caveat must be added, however, and that is Imperial China. The imperial Chinese military was probably a technological and tactical match for the Romans. One can only speculate what would have happened had the two met in battle. The leaders of the Middle Kingdom would have never considered the barbarian Roman Empire worth the effort that would have been needed to challenge it. The barbarians had nothing the Middle Kingdom wanted or needed.
Following the collapse of Rome, conventional wisdom has it that cavalry dominated the battlefield until 1500. While it is true that Islam and the Mongols achieved decisive conquests on horseback, infantry did not disappear. The Byzantines developed a competent military culture that for centuries provided a buffer between Islam and the West. Technology began to change the nature of war during this period, making infantry without question dominant. In quick succession, the longbow, crossbow, and various types of early firearms and artillery appeared. Gunpowder, a Chinese invention, spread worldwide. Gunpowder fits ideally within the philosophy of western warfare. A military revolution took place in Europe from 1600 to 1700, leading to armies’ standardization. Professional military education began to take hold, and tactics were developed that made the new gunpowder weapons even more lethal in battle.
In search of a direct route to the spices of the East, the Spanish and Columbus stumbled into a new hemisphere in 1492. Technological improvements in shipbuilding and navigation made this possible and revolutionized commerce and naval warfare. Both Islam and the Chinese were perfectly capable of accomplishing the same feat. Columbus had sought a western route to the spices because Islamic navies dominated the waters in and around the East Indies, controlling the spice trade. The Chinese, under Admiral Zheng He, had the best ocean-going ships in the world. Zheng He led expeditions into the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. Given the right circumstances, it was entirely feasible he could have crossed the Pacific Ocean. His ships were so technologically advanced that they had ballast seals in the hulls to raise and lower water levels inside the vessel and isolate hull damage. The first western ship to have such technology was the Titanic in 1912. Westerners chose to continue exploration, which would lead to colonization, and the Chinese did not, cultural and societal priorities were paramount, not the ability to use technology.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth century, the American and French Revolutions had a profound effect on western civilization and the world. The Americans established a government based on enlightenment principles, democracy, and individual liberty (which unfortunately were not intended for the African slaves, who made up a large percentage of the population, or for women). The French Revolution introduced the concept of nationalism and brought from the ancient Greeks and republican Romans the idea of universal military service. Free men would willingly make themselves available to serve the state in time of war: what the French called the levee en masse and what is now called conscription or the “draft”. The massive citizen armies created by the revolution and used to even more lethal effect by Napoleon plunged Europe into more than twenty years of constant warfare. It ended with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Belgium in 1815. From 1815 to 1914, the Europeans would not fight each other in general war. The way was now clear to begin the era of European world domination.
The world the Europeans would dominate was not “a passive world of decrepit states and undeveloped societies. Precisely because these societies were not decrepit, primitive, underdeveloped, or weak, the European success in conquering large areas represented a formidable military achievement.” (Black 185) European military superiority would not be clearly demonstrated in “India until the 1750s and most clearly, the 1790s and 1800s and in China until the 1830s and more clearly, 1860.” (*Black 84)
Two factors allowed the Europeans to display this superiority: naval technology and medicine. Steam technology allowed for the transportation of large numbers of troops and their supplies across oceans as well the ability “to operate in rivers and during bad weather.” (Black 167) European military operations in tropical areas during the first half of the nineteenth century took a devastating toll on their armies. “Developments in comprehension and engineering were both important in tackling disease. The germ theory and stress on prevention, rather than cure, provided the background for an emphasis on clean water, adequate nutrition and sewage disposal.” (Black 165) In addition “the invention of canned meat, dried milk powder, evaporated milk and margarine in the 1840s to 1860s changed the perishability and bulk of provisions.” (Black 165) This does not mean that Western armies could operate in the tropics without disease issues. At the turn of the twentieth century “the British lost 13,000 men to typhoid” in South Africa during the Boer War and “the Americans in Cuba lost over three times as many men through disease as in battle with the Spaniards” during the Spanish-American War. (Black 165)
Once the Europeans began to move into the interior of Asia, Africa, and North America, the telegraph and railroads made that movement faster and easier to control. Command and control of forces operating far from home and in various locations is vital to the success of military operations. The telegraph revolutionized military communications, allowing real time communication between troops in the field and command authorities far from the battlefield. During the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was directly contacting his field commanders from the White House telegraph office. (McPherson 116) In the 1854-56 Crimean War the telegraph allowed “William Russell of The Times to send home critical reports”, thus becoming the world’s first military correspondent. (Black 166)
The construction of railroads provided for the swift movement of troops and supplies (logistics). Again, the US Civil War was the first conflict to show this. Northern railroad lines were a critical factor in the ultimate Union victory. “By 1900 the British had constructed 20,000 miles of railways in India.” (Black 198) These railways extended and solidified British colonial control in India and supported overall British strategy in Central and South Asia. Interestingly and ominously, “no railways were built in Afghanistan, a country that was not brought under European control.” (Black 198)
Ultimately, European, and American firepower, tactics, and the cultural desire for decisive battle defeated the indigenous peoples of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Western Hemisphere. Once the West developed highly accurate, long range, repeating magazine rifles and began deploying machine guns in the 1880s, the indigenous peoples had little chance of military success. In addition, new rapid-fire artillery was applied with devastating effect. At the Battle of Omdurman, in the Sudan in 1898, “Sudanese casualties were 31,000; those of the Anglo-Egyptian troops only 430.” (Black 198) Tactically, “European forces relied on volley firing; hollow squares, and closely packed lines- the traditional response of infantry to cavalry.” (Black 199) Rarely did the indigenous warriors overcome these tactics and the accompanying firepower. On occasion, however, they were able to surprise their enemies.
During this time, Western armies did suffer some significant defeats. “These included ‘Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn, Montana Territory (1876) where a rashly led and outnumbered American force was wiped out by the Sioux; At Isandlwana, Natal, South Africa (1879), a 20,000 strong Zulu force defeated a British force of 1,800. The Zulus, who did not want rifles, referred to the British as cowards, because they would not fight hand-to-hand; at Adowa, Ethiopia, (1896) the Italians lost 10,000 men” (Black 183) in a crushing defeat that allowed Ethiopia to remain independent until the 1930s. These defeats, although significant, did little to change the ultimate outcome of the wars (except Ethiopia) “The resiliency of the Western system of war prevailed, allowing horrible disasters like… Isandlwana and Little Big Horn not to affect the larger course of the conflict or lead to a general Western collapse.” (Hanson 23)
Throughout the nineteenth century,Asian countries tried to westernize their military forces with various degrees of success. The most successful was Japan, which by “1868 … had a strong central government, a high level of literacy, and a well-integrated national economy.” (Archer et al 475) Japan decided to model its military forces on the West, even adopting Western traditions and uniforms. To create and train these forces, “Japan brought in training missions from the world’s best forces, the German Army and the. Royal Navy.” (Archer et al 476) As the twentieth century began, “Japan possessed a solid army, well equipped with modern weapons, and one of the best second-class fleets in the world – the first good navy that any non-western state had produced in three hundred years. Soon Japan smashed Russia in a major war, became a great power, and began to carve out an empire from its neighbors.” (Archer et al 476)
By 1900, The West had mastered technology, mass produced lethal weapons, and imposed a global economic system. “The West [had] achieved military dominance in a variety of ways that transcend mere superiority in weapons and [had] nothing to do with morality or genes. The Western way of war is so lethal precisely because it is so amoral- shackled rarely by concerns of ritual, tradition, religion, or ethics, by anything other than military necessity.” (Hanson 21) Now, from 1914 to 1945, the world would be plunged into the most deadly, costly, and bloodiest wars in history, which when they ended in 1945, created the world we live in today.
The factors that would lead to the First World War began falling into place as early as 1871, with unification of Germany. Nationalism, imperial rivalry, alliances, a naval arms race between Britain and Germany and “forgetfulness” all brought about the First World War. There had not been a general war in Europe between all the great powers since 1815 and what is in the past is usually forgotten. The Europeans saw war as a glorious adventure and this war would begin that way. However, all these countries fought the same way, and they would unleash the Western way of war on each other. Rifles and machine guns became even more deadly, artillery could now fire shells at distances of thirty miles, barbed wire, poison gas, submarines, and the airplane made this the most lethal war in history. The United States entered the war relatively late, in 1917, and tipped the balance for the Allies who “won” in November 1918; when an exhausted Germany gave up. The Romanov, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern dynasties ceased to exist, and the Ottoman Empire was broken apart. Britain and France were bankrupt and exhausted. They maintained their empires and pretended to be great powers, but their days of acting independently on the world stage were over. Russia had become the Soviet Union and would descend into a nightmare of famine, brutality, and totalitarianism. The United States brought its army home, disbanded it, and then turned its back on Europe and the rest of the world. The Americans slipped into a self-indulgent dream world; a false prosperity built on speculation and credit that rewarded those at the top of the economic ladder, while leaving farmers and the working poor behind. The middle class was deluded into believing that this was a good situation for them. Racial and religious minorities suffered from draconian measures designed to keep them line, sometimes under state- sponsorship. It all collapsed in October 1929.
Germany was left to fend for itself. With the war guilt clause and reparations payments to Britain and France, the Versailles treaty guaranteed that Germany’s experiment in democracy, the Weimar republic, would fail. Under pressure from the Left and the Right, that is precisely what happened. Hitler’s National Socialists won the majority in the Reichstag and then seized power. The fighting would resume with Japan’s brutal invasion of China in 1937. However, the official date commonly accepted for the start of the Second World War is September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Approximately sixty million people would die in the Second World War. More civilians would be killed then combatants. Total war made everyone a combatant. Strategic bombing, a concept born after the first war, took war into the heart of warring countries. Entire cities were bombed and burned to the ground. Ethnic cleansing became common place and in the case of the Holocaust, industrialized.
The science and technology that came out of the war included, among other things: radar, advanced wireless communications system, rudimentary computers and decoding devices, blood plasma and jet engines. The United States harnessed atomic energy and built a weapon that has changed the nature of warfare and the course of history: the atomic bomb. Two atomic bombs were used against Japan. The debate over the use of the atomic bombs remains heated to this day. The arguments on both sides have strong validity. From a western cultural standpoint, however, the bombs were available and military necessity required that they be used. Hindsight being what it is, we now know the horrific moral and scientific consequences of their use. The Japanese officially surrendered on September 2, 1945. On that day, the United States was probably the most powerful nation in recorded history. It had over fifteen million men in uniform (out of a population of 185 million), the largest navy that ever existed, an unchallenged air force, and the ultimate decisive weapon. The “Pax Americana” had begun.
Intellectual Property of John M. Lane Copyright @ J.M. Lane – Cannot be reproduced or copied without permission
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