Artillery Row

Rethinking Military Revolutions

Professor Black discloses the themes and thoughts of his upcoming, final, pre-retirement lecture

After a thirty-nine year academic career Prof Jeremy Black will give his final pre-retirement lecture on 30 January. For this auspicious occasion he has broken a habit of a lifetime and has prepared an outline.  After retirement he plans to return to giving all lectures without notes.

All lectures on concepts in military history face the problem of reconciling the discussion of the literature in a particular area with consideration of the possibilities of the concept itself. This is very much so with the idea of the, or a, military revolution, or, indeed, military revolutions, for there is an impression in usage, an impression that throws light on conceptual, methodological and historiographical confusion. Yet, in both cases, those of the discussion of the literature and the consideration of the possibilities, we also need to face a more fundamental issue, one seen with all processes of conceptualisation, categorisation and analysis, namely what is the purpose of this approach, and why it was framed and developed.

This point can be taken further, if historical work is treated, at least in part, as a branch of political thought (or, if you prefer, as a politicised branch of social science analysis), for that both helps in this consideration, and, more profoundly, anchors it in the context of the period in which the discussion took place. Thus, if we look at the military revolution, the period in question is not 1500-1800, that of the putative revolution, but that from the 1950s, for the most significant texts were those by Michael Roberts and Geoffrey Parker. Roberts’ lecture, published as The Military Revolution, 1560-1660 (1956), was followed by Parker’s longer book, on the period 1500-1800, published in 1988, and, in turn, by a collection edited by Clifford Rogers, The Military Revolution: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe (1995). There were also efforts to link that revolution to other areas, for example in Weston Cook’s The Hundred Years War for Morocco: Gunpowder and the Military Revolution in the Early Modern Muslim World (1994); other periods, notably in Peter Lorge’s excellent The Asian Military Revolution: From Gunpowder to the Bomb (2008), and an instructive collection, The Medieval Military Revolution: State, Society and Military Change in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by A. Ayton and J. Price (1998); as well as work taking the idea to the present, as with Rogers’ ‘Military Revolutions and “Revolutions in Military Affairs”: A Historian’s Perspective,’ in T. Gongora and H. von Riekhof (eds),Towards a Revolution in Military Affairs? Defense and Security at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century (2000). Indeed, delivering a plenary lecture at the 2019 conference of the Society for Military History, Parker was able to present the frequency with which the Military Revolution was referred to in book titles in order to claim that it was generally accepted; although in referring only to book titles, he ignored completely the way in which much of the argument, for example by Lorge, challenged both concept and content.

Prior to the period from the 1950s, there are obviously earlier instances of contemporaries writing about major change in warfare in the early-modern period, and indeed in others. Whether or not they implicitly used the concept of a military revolution, as opposed to making remarks about major change, is a matter for discussion; but the modern discussion of the concept does not depend on what are often stray remarks in the past. Indeed, the misleading nature of the evidence is indicated by the degree to which, while it is easy to put together an impressive number of such quotations, the impact in fact is very different if considered at the rate of quotation per year, per country.

Returning to the situation with Roberts, Parker and others, it is therefore pertinent to ask why they described the changes they discussed in terms of a revolution. This question can be approached conceptually, methodologically and historiographically. To take the last, the mature approach, which is to suggest that you work on a matter of interest to yourself which you believe of some importance to understanding an issue in the past, is not, in fact, the way to launch a career, or obtain research grants or key plenary lectures, or, to be harsh but all-too-accurate, to display, and sustain, self-importance. This is true across life as a whole, and it is no surprise that academic life, which tends disproportionately to collect those of fractured personality and a precarious self-confidence, should be no different.

If the early-modern military revolution is a weak concept poorly-applied, what about the notion of military revolution as a whole?

That does not explain the traction of this particular approach in a specific period. A lot probably rests on the analytical appeal of the idea of revolution. If everything else, from finance to sex, agriculture to art, can have one, why should war miss out? Moreover, as I have tried to show in a number of works, the concept appeared to unlock a number of important issues, notably those of the development and significance of war, its relationship with state and society, and the separation of the past, both into a number of periods, and with a causal relationship between them. Thus, the Military Revolution was much cited as an explanatory device by specialists in other fields.

The usefulness of a concept, however, does not demonstrate its accuracy, and, indeed, vice versa. This is even more the case given the tendency to run together the variety of events and developments in a given period of military history in order to establish a thesis and then, apparently, demonstrate this. In my Beyond the Military Revolution, and the volumes in the series before and after, covering in total 1450-1800, I tried to show that Parker’s use of evidence had been highly selective, and that much of the world in the period did not match his narrative nor support the argument. Unfortunately, his 2019 lecture did not display any willingness to engage with this criticism of the methodology, criticism that invalidates, both chronologically and geographically, the idea of a military revolution and the use of it.

So also with Parker following Rogers in taking refuge in borrowing a scientific metaphor, that of punctuated equilibrium. That is done in order to suggest that the subject on which he has particular knowledge, the Low Countries in the 1590s and 1600s, can serve as a paradigm for the entire world, and, indeed, to privilege the particular as a way to explain the general, an understandably favoured technique of many historians. That argument, in practice, does not work in order to support Parker’s global narrative. For example, the campaigns in Korea or Hungary in the 1590s were as significant as those in the Low Countries, but, again, can be unpicked in different ways, and, at any rate, do not serve as a paradigm for the entire world. Moreover, there is in this paradigmatic approach a marked tendency to underplay the complexity of war and the multifaceted character of the understanding, use and effectiveness of capability. Recent work on the significance of ‘small war’ is but one instance of the problems posed by a focus on battles and sieges, whether or not it can be expanded from the small
sample that is deployed.

If the early-modern military revolution is a weak concept poorly-applied, what about the notion of military revolution as a whole? Here, again, we have the problem that a concept may be arresting, notably if you attach the term revolution to it, but that does not necessarily help. Indeed, the term revolution may well take away attention from the significance, or otherwise, of the changes in discussion. The term, indeed, is part of the argument by assertion that is such a troubling aspect of academic processes at present.

Revolution tends to mean a lack of attention to incrementalism, as well as to the significance of interaction between a variety of factors including contextual elements. In military terms, it is the ‘magic bullet’ approach, and that approach, whatever the matter in focus, tends to be misleading. So, for example, the nuclear age saw major defeats for the nuclear powers and, indeed, their limited capability in the face of those they could not overcome was readily apparent. The relationship between capability and impact is always a complex one, not least in terms of the ability of powers to devise and implement anti-weapons, anti-tactics, and anti-strategies, to cope with capability gaps. Moreover, the extent to which political factors can counter capability advantages is a constant, indeed helping to centre military history within general history, rather than seeing it as a different branch which should require a separate analysis.

Talk of revolutions lastly served the modern agenda of military affairs. It is no accident that the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) advocates from the 1990s and early 2000s were particular advocates of the (early-modern European) Military Revolution, because they sought to place the RMA in a historical process that threw light on the significance of their own supposed development. This was understandable but also misleading, and, by the mid-2000s, as the RMA ran into the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, so it appeared less credible to consider the analysis as a helpful paradigm. Here we might, instead, break down the situation into component parts and suggest that it is possible to have a transformative change in possibilities, for example steam power or manned flight, without that necessarily altering other, let alone all, aspects of the situation. Whether or not that situation constitutes a revolution underlines the extent to which that is not necessarily a helpful term. Nor is the application of it in modern policy terms anything other than misleading.

These points, however, do not address the extent to which a thesis of limited intellectual value can in practice still be of considerable pedagogic or political value, not least because of its very catch-all imprecision. Military history is particularly prone to this situation due to the character of its stakeholders, notably the general public and the services, and this contributes to its under-theorised character. Yet, there is also need for the re-evaluation that new concepts can offer. One from the 1950s of dubious value should be retired and others offered in its place. ‘Fitness for purpose’ appears to me to have more to offer as it returns attention to contingent and contextual factors, and notably those of tasking. The last is key to the evaluation of both capability and effectiveness, and thus to the consideration of change and development in both.

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