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A Popular and "Brief" History of Technology in War
on July 11, 2009
There are many factors which combine to determine the outcomes of battles, some within man's control and others such as blind luck and the ineluctable fog of war residing firmly in the realm of fate. But to many, and for a large number of Americans particularly, the impact of technology has a special resonance in their imaginations. Max Boot's War Made New is a good, popular history of the impact of several technological revolutions in weaponry on the battlefield. Although over 500 pages long, it is not an exhaustive or comprehensive history. Instead it is an anthology of several battles for each of his identified revolutions, all occurring within the "modern" era of warfare defined from around the Renaissance forward.
Perhaps the two best features of this book are the caution with which Mr. Boot approaches the subject and the accessibility he gives it to readers not steeped in military history. War is a very complex and adaptive thing, a chameleon in Karl von Clausewitz's description. No two are alike, and the comparative impact of technology in each is unique, variable, and dependent on other factors which change with each new conflict in unpredictable ways. Mr. Boot thus prefaces his book with two fitting quotes to showcase the range of professional opinion on this fungible factor, one from the eccentric British Armor pioneer J.F.C. Fuller to the extent that technology is the exclusive determinant of battlefield success, the contrasting from Napoleon stating that it's impact is essentially non-existent.
The second very attractive feature of this book is that Mr. Boot is actually quite a good writer who truly makes history an interesting and quick read. His individual histories go into significant background matter to set up the battle, he delves into the bios of the major commanders on both sides, the political issues at stake, and the geography and terrain of the sites of the clashes. His accounts of the engagements themselves are raw, often exciting, and he performs a thorough after analysis action for each of his selected battles drawing out harsh lessons from the bloodshed and detritus.
Many have criticized what may at first glance seem like his eclectic selection of conflicts. This is perhaps understandable given the lack of representation of some major and politically important conflicts, Korea and Vietnam in particular being mentioned. However the author's purpose is to explore the slim slice of battles in which generally technology played a dominant role, and more particularly in which one side was pioneering or had mastered one of his identified revolutions in military technology while the other side was about to pay the price for its failure to adapt. Vietnam, although politically more important to America than many of the battles he showcases, was one in which the enemy fought successfully in a manner that nullified the impact of technology on the overall outcome of the war.
Mr. Boot summarizes his book with a preview of possible military revolutions to come and a recap of the lessons which have appeared repeatedly in his individual battle histories. Namely the constant changing of the technology of war, but a pace of change that is anything but, coming in fits and starts here and in giant and rapid bursts of innovation there. The unpredictability of when military revolutions will occur. The importance of mastering not just the technology behind them but the necessity of developing supporting tactics, training, doctrine, personnel policies, etc. to make the whole apparatus of war work in concert to deliver battlefield results. And perhaps most importantly the way military revolutions have restructured the geopolitical order in the past, leaving nations which did not adapt, often regardless of their previous size and power, on the decline, and smaller powers which did adapt the new masters of their domain.
All in all a recommended, but popular and not academic, book on technology in war which draws what appear to be very reasonable and illuminating conclusions.