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How the Western military dynamo developed


by Geoffrey Parker

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New York: Cambridge University Press. 234 pp. $29.95

HISTORIANS have long dealt with war in - seemingly - contradictory ways. Most viewed it through the prism of World War I, as an irrational aberration and bloodletting, demanding condemnation, not study. A few scholars - often Germans - saw war as a fact of life and soldiers as rational beings, but nationalism and the warrior ethos required celebration, not calm appraisals of the interaction between war and society. War as a process, as a mirror of society, and as part of ``the intercourse of the human race'' (to quote Clausewitz) was ignored in both camps: Generals give orders, men obey, battles result, and that's it.

That's not it, as Geoffrey Parker of the University of Illinois demonstrates in this beautifully crafted and illustrated book. Mixing careful generalizations with homely details and comments by men of the day, he shows how the immense growth of military power brought by gunpowder weapons to 16th-century Western and, eventually, Central Europe affected every citizen, from peasant and tax collector to contractor and military architect, by turning warmaking into the highest priority of the state. Wars became longer, more intense, far more costly, and inconclusive and exhausting. They also created an immense military dynamo that enabled the naval powers - Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands - to bite into the Americas, and Southeast Asia as well. Here was ``the military revolution,'' which marks the 16th century no less than the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Parker knows the specialized literature and the archives from his earlier works on the wars between Spain and the Netherlands; he is quick with telling details. The Spanish captain Bernardo de Vegas Machuca wrote in 1599 that - as in Vietnam and Afghanistan - linear formations and battles were useless against Indians in the Americas; long-range patrols achieved much more. Exhausting their ammunition, Turkish Janissaries hurled oranges and lemons during the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571; any Turk captured was killed by the Venetians, coolly, as a matter of policy.

Without forcing the allusions, Parker tacitly raises issues relevant to our day. The fragility of horses in war - ``One rainstorm, one cold night, or one frost is enough to kill a horse not under cover'' - helped weaken the cavalry arm, until quartermasters learned how to keep a steady supply of replacements in the pipeline. Only steadiness and consistency, not such lopsided military buildups as Americans have recently experienced, yield solid results.

Parker also deepens our understanding of the debate about teeth and tail: too many men in the rear, too few trigger-pullers up front. Anyone with delusions about the austerity of pre-modern armies should consider the Bavarian regiment in 1646 whose 480 men marched with 391 women, children, and servants. Men regularly facing death expected a semblance of family life.

Parker is part of a growing cadre of Anglo-American historians (he began at Scotland's University of St. Andrews) who follow Fernand Braudel and the Annales group by focusing on the texture and underlying forces of war, rather than on battles and ``great captains.'' His heroes are thoughtful men who try to understand what is happening and why.

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Part of that was the deployment of a tiny fraction of European military power to assault the non-Western world. The European powers controlled 35 percent of the world's landmass in 1800, and fully 84 percent by 1914. Parker's goal is ``to illuminate the principal means by which the West acquired that first 35 percent between 1500 and 1800.''

This is the Vasco de Gama era, which began with Columbus in 1492 and ended as the last British gunboat left Shanghai in 1949. Americans feel little responsibility for those 450 years, although they should: What was the Vietnam intervention but an attempt to extend Western dominance long after Asians had acquired the military and political skills needed to evict it?

The key question - which Parker fails to address - is why it took them so long to do so. But that would require another book; let us be content with this excellent one.

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