Reviewed by James Carafano (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, D.C)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2002)
The Evolution of Revolution
The Evolution of Revolution
A decade ago, military history seemed all but a dead academic art. Traditional combat narratives (the stuff of battles and generals) appeared to be as obsolete as crossbows and cavalry. Americans, in the wake of the Cold War, proved particularly apathetic about the subject. American power, let alone the United States' military prowess, was unchallenged and unchallengeable. Studying past struggles had little relevance when the prospects for future wars seemed remote. If there were conflicts, clashes would inevitably end in lopsided U.S. victories. Military history's presence in academia became anemic. Course offerings and the number of dissertations on military matters declined. Professorships grew scarce. If there was any spark of interest in the military past, it was in the area of "new military history," the study of the long neglected aspects of warfare such as race, gender, memory, and identity. This mini-boom had little to do with the interests of military professionals and students of public policy. Rather, it was an effort to extend the techniques of social history and postmodern theory to the far corners of the discipline. History as a tool to help people think about the challenges of fighting and winning future wars became a quaint, archaic notion. A modest guild of historians is attempting to buck the trend, arguing that historical analysis has something important to say about the current debate over the form that military competition will take in the twenty-first century. In this respect, MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray's The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050 is bellwether scholarship. Through ten essays drafted by eight distinguished military historians, they craft an argument that concludes that dramatic changes in the ways wars will be fought are likely in the years ahead; the United States, despite its tremendous technological advantages, may not lead the way; and the form and results of these changes will be difficult to predict or control, but once they are underway they could proliferate widely, being adopted by powers great and small. These provocative findings and the book's case studies provide a needed context for current debates.
As Knox, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Murray, a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C., point out in an introductory essay, the very notion underlying current policy debates on the future military is, in part, built on the historian's craft. The evolution of the military revolution rests on three conceptual branches (pp. 2-4). The first is an influential 1956 essay by historian Michael Roberts on the military innovations of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. Roberts argued Gustavus's reforms gave rise to the military systems that allowed the European nation-state to thrive over the course of the seventeenth century. Roberts's interpretation remained the historical orthodoxy for decades until challenged by historians like Geoffrey Parker. A lively dispute ensued. While there is a general consensus that a seventeenth-century military revolution did occur, early modern historians continue to differ over the origins, nature, and importance of the changes it wrought in society and the nature of warfare.
The second contribution to the conceptual foundation of the current debate is the writings of Soviet military theorists in the 1970s, who believed that the introduction of precision-guided munitions was ushering in equally dramatic change. These Russian writings popularized the term "revolution in military affairs," which theorists in the West co-opted to describe the even more dramatic changes in warfare they anticipated would result from the application of information technology and space systems to military organizations.
The third influence is perhaps the most obscure, but arguably the most important in shaping American military thinking, stimulated by a small, little-known office in the Pentagon. The Department of Defense's Office of Net Assessment, directed by Andrew Marshall, closely analyzed the Soviet writings and built on them with its own analytical rigor. The objective of a net assessment, as perfected by Marshall's office, was to provide an even-handed look at both sides of complex military competitions, examining the long-term trends and present factors that govern the capabilities of the United States and its potential enemies. In particular, Marshall had a penchant for historical case studies which proved especially useful for highlighting the political, social, cultural, and ideological dynamics that affect military developments. Studies sponsored by his office were highly influential in shaping opinions in the defense, intelligence, and foreign policy communities.
Today, few contest the notion that military affairs are on the precipice of historic change, an idea popularized by Alvin and Heidi Toffler as "third wave warfare." A nuance added by Knox and Murray's introductory essay is to distinguish between a "military revolution" and a "revolution in military affairs," or as they are commonly called "RMAs." In their ontology, military institutions change to adapt or anticipate changes in society. Thus, military revolutions "recast society and state as well as military institutions" (p. 11). Knox and Murray list five: the rise of the seventeenth-century state system, the French revolution, the industrial revolution, World War I, and superpower nuclear competition (p. 13). In contrast, an RMA is a "complex mix of tactical, organizational, doctrinal, and technological innovations in order to implement a new conceptual approach to warfare or to a specialized sub-branch of warfare" (p. 12). What distinguishes an RMA from ordinary innovation is a dramatic leap in military effectiveness. The authors might well have added the term "transformation" to their lexicon, since it too has been frequently bandied about by proponents for innovation. Transformation encompasses the process of creating RMA capabilities. Transformation is innovation on a grand scale that results in providing a major competitive advantage.
Knox and Murray find that the current thinking on military revolution is deeply flawed because it over-emphasizes the role of technology. They are particularly critical of the work of Admiral William Owens, the retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (p. 178). Owens's vision, they argue, asserts that technological innovation can overcome the unknowns and ambiguities of war by providing near-perfect information which allows generals to instantly out-think and out-act their enemies. In contrast, Knox and Murray believe that confusion in battle, as described by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, is an immutable part of war. They are also critical of RMA proponents who over-emphasize the importance of technology in driving revolutionary change. They argue that leadership along with institutional, organizational, and intellectual initiative are equally, if not more, important than technological innovation. In part, RMA advocates are being set up as straw men. Owens, for example, never argues in his book that generals will always erm ""perfect"gal hi if noieve h] A nunged the unkatiodesentstinguesult froon in fiel ensNdoxyotrug of tmisshasize the importan, and intelletions cthinkbellwhNet:resent fanionies. Traare ll as military institveness.es onioKosovoStates, deaping AistoryMA at importan superthinre RMAnstane wer- tha miaMA , meoursestuditanen. Thrieve that confnowns and ambig,proved particulcontestexusnguish beg the polrthinrfect militof premay thinf wartrals rmatdus ushmajoA pro sidesere co.[8are.
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