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Western Way of War (Introduction)

 

Every culture develops its own way of war. Societies where land is plentiful but manpower scarce tend to favour a ritualized conflict in which only a few 'champions' actually fight but their fate decides that of everyone. The 'flower wars' of the Aztecs and the 'amok' combats of the Indonesian islanders caused relatively little bloodshed because they aimed to seize people rather than territory, to increase each warlord's available manpower rather than waste it in bloody battles.

 

In China, too, strategy aimed to achieve victory without battle: according to the most revered military theorist, Sun-Tzu (writing in the fourth century BC), 'To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill' (although the rest of his book in fact deals with how to win by fighting).

 

Many non-western military traditions have displayed great continuity over time: thus even in the 1960s anthropologists could study the wars of the highland peoples of Irian Jaya in Indonesia who still settled their disputes in the same ritualized way as their ancestors. By then, however, most other military cultures had been transformed by that of the West-of Europe and the former European colonies in the Americas.

 

The western way of war, which also boasts great antiquity, rests upon five principal foundations. First, the armed forces of the West have always placed heavy reliance on superior technology, usually to compensate for inferior numbers.

 

That is not to say that the West enjoyed universal technological superiority-until the advent of musketry volleys and field artillery in the early seventeenth century, the recurved bow used by horse archers all over Asia proved far more effective than any western weaponry-but, with few exceptions, the horse archers of Asia did not directly threaten the West and, when they did, the threat was not sustained.

 

Nor did all the advanced technology originate in the West: many vital innovations, including the stirrup and gunpowder, came from eastern adversaries.

 

Now military technology is usually the first to be borrowed by every society, because the penalty for failing to do so can be immediate and fatal; but the West seems to have been particularly receptive to new technology, whether from its own inventors or from outside.

 

Technological innovation, and the equally vital ability to respond to it, soon became an established feature of western warfare. Indeed, since the Persian wars in the fifth century BC, few periods can be found during which the West proved unable to muster forces with a fighting potential superior to that of its immediate adversaries.

 

The Primacy Of Technology And Discipline

A 'technological edge', however, has rarely been sufficient in itself to ensure victory. As the Swiss military writer Antoine-Henri Jomini wrote in the early nineteenth century: 'The superiority of armament may increase the chances of success in war, but it does not of itself win battles.

 

'Even in the twentieth century, the outcome of wars has been determined less by technology than by better war plans, the achievement of surprise, greater economic strength and, above all, superior discipline.

 

Western military practice has always exalted discipline - rather than kinship, religion or patriotism - as the primary instrument that turns bands of men fighting as individuals into soldiers fighting as part of organized units.

 

Naturally the other factors play their part: many military formations, even in the eighteenth century, came from the same area and served under their local leaders almost as an extended family; the 'Protestant cause' proved a potent rallying cry for much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in northern Europe; and 'Your country needs you,' and similar slogans, have assisted recruiting down to our own days.

 

Nevertheless, these elements have always been eclipsed in the West by the primacy of discipline, in the twin forms of drill and long-term service.

 

Even the hoplites of fifth-century Greece, who were farmers first and soldiers second, turned out so regularly for battle in their phalanxes that they perfected a high degree of combat effectiveness. For the critical element of discipline is the ability of a formation to stand fast in the face of the enemy, whether attacking or being attacked, without giving way to the natural impulses of fear and panic.

 

Repeated group activities, whether directly related to combat (firing practice) or not (drill), all have the effect of creating artificial kinship groups - some of them, like the cohort, the company and the platoon, further reinforced by the creation of small fellowships within the unit in order to increase cohesion and therefore combat efficiency even further.

 

Once again, the crucial advantage lay in the ability to compensate for numerical inferiority, for whether defending Europe from invasion (as at Plataea in 479 BC, at the Lechfeld in AD 955 and at Vienna in AD 1683), or in subduing the Aztec, Inca and Mughal empires, the western forces have always been outnumbered by at least two to one and often by far more.

 

Without superb discipline as well as advanced technology, these odds would have proved overwhelming. Even Alexander the Great and his 60,000 Greek and Macedonian troops could scarcely have destroyed the forces of the Persian empire in the fourth century BC without superior discipline, since his adversaries probably numbered more Greek soldiers (fighting with much the same equipment) in their own armies!

 

Discipline proved particularly important for western armies in another way because, with surprisingly few exceptions, their wars were normally won by infantry. The long reign of the hoplites and the legionaries was followed by a millennium in which men fighting on foot won most of the battles (and of course bore the brunt of the more numerous sieges).

 

The rise of missile weapons - first bows and then firearms - only served to reinforce the trend. However, withstanding a full cavalry charge without flinching always required arduous training, strong unit cohesion, and superb self-control. The same was true of war at sea: whether resisting boarding parties on a galley or enduring a cannonade aboard a ship-of-the-line, discipline and training proved essential.