Friday, December 3, 2010


This book has got too much going on in it for me to just dive head-first into a review of it without sitting back and trying to organize it in some fashion--hence the headings. So, I'll begin with the purpose of the book, Lynn's model, and round it out with some of the interesting claims that he makes regarding a variety of hot topics throughout his work.

The Premise
John Lynn set out with this book to refute the idea of the "universal soldier" (with direct reference to the Buffy Sainte-Marie song). In addition, his research brought him into conflict with a number of other premises and theories regarding military history, especially Victor Davis Hanson's idea of a Western Way of War, as espoused in his Carnage and Culture (my thoughts on that work are here).

Hanson's argument is that a number of characteristics are consistent in Western military culture throughout history, from the Greeks to the modern age. These include technological superiority through free-market capitalism, individualism, enfranchisement in society, discipline, a desire for decisive shock combat, rationalism, open debate, and democratic ideals. As I stated in my commentary on Carnage and Culture, I think Hanson overplayed his hand. Well, Lynn zeroes in on this, specifically, and presents an attempt at refuting Hanson throughout this book.

The Model
Thoroughly outlined in his Appendix, Lynn describes a model for analyzing military culture at any point in time and space. He essentially divides culture into a relationship between the discourse of war (the ideals, rhetoric, and concept of what a culture envisions as war and how to conduct it) and the reality of war (the actual waging of a war). These two aspects of military culture are in a constant dialogue with one-another, and each has an impact on the other.

For example, Lynn discusses the medieval period as a great example of the discourse on war being different from the reality. The discourse on war envisions a romantic, chivalric form of armed contest between knights. The reality is the raiding of civilian targets to force the enemy out of his castles and into the field--behavior brought about by the difficulties in logistics and payment of the armies. When the two forms of warfare come into dialogue with one-another, the reality of war is found to be so repugnant that a "perfected" form of war is created--the tournament.

Similarly, the Napoleonic discourse on war clashed with the reality of war at the opening of the 20th century. Decisive, frontal assaults were useless in the face of trench warfare and machine-guns. As Bloch predicted, wars turned into great sieges. Maneuver had to be introduced into warfare, which eschews decisive frontal shock and attrition in favor of penetrating a weak point, bypassing strong points, and tearing apart the enemy from the inside.

The Strengths
Lynn tackles a number of Hanson's poorly held assumptions, such as the idea that the "Western Way of War" has been constant. This needed to be directly confronted, and Lynn does a good job at meeting it head-on. He certainly points out a great many instances where specific characteristics that Hanson attributes to Western warfare were absent, such as among the chivalric nobility during the medieval period, the Enlightenment armies of the 17th century, and the rigid model of Greek warfare.

Lynn also takes to task a number of other vital issues in military historiography, most notably the controversial analyses of racism in the conduct of the Second World War in the Pacific. This chapter is probably Lynn's best and most vital, since it is a case study of two vastly different cultures with irreconcilable discourses on warfare engaged in a merciless struggle. Lynn annihilates a number of charges regarding racism in the American decision to drop the atomic bomb, and addresses the controversies regarding the casualty projections for Operation Downfall.

Most important, however, is Lynn's application of his theoretical model to the conduct of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his insistence that our discourse on warfare be altered to adjust to the realities of combat against terrorism in those countries. His advice is vital--Lynn sees our rejection of terrorism as a form of warfare to be a weakness in our ability to effectively combat it. This plays into the American failure in Vietnam a great deal. Hanson chalks up our loss in Vietnam to the media and discontent at home, citing battlefield victories, the swift recovery of our losses during the Tet Offensive, and massive numbers of Viet Cong and NVA casualties to our ability to adapt to guerrilla warfare, as evidence of our ability to have won that war. Lynn doesn't directly tackle Vietnam, although he clearly sees our inability to adapt our discourse on war to the reality of the Vietnamese people's situation as a major factor in the American defeat. In my opinion, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The Weaknesses
Lynn's weakness, however, is that Hanson's thesis actually manages to hold true, regardless of the discourse of war. The reality of war usually favors the side with the greatest number of Hanson's "Western Warfare" characteristics. For example, Lynn fails to take into account the actual reality of the Battle of Crécy, which was won by a shield-wall of dismounted knights and the yeoman farmers of rural England wielding longbows--i.e. the enfranchised members of different strata in English society won the battle against the "noble, aristocratic, chivalric cavalry charges" by the "flower of French chivalry. This would repeat itself at the Battle of Poitiers and the Battle of Agincourt.

Lynn's examination of the Second World War also avoids Hanson's thesis when dealing with the reasons the Japanese discourse on war was less effective than the American discourse on war. While the chapter is a fantastic refutation of a number of arguments regarding the dropping of the atomic bomb and the impact of racism on American conduct in battle, it fails to address the strengths that Hanson ascribes to American military forces in comparison to the weaknesses of the Japanese in the American battlefield victories.

Lynn's treatment of the sepoy in British India actually misses Hanson's point entirely. The sepoy married his own culture's ideals of the kshatriya warrior-caste to more "Western" methods of discipline, shock infantry, high technology, enfranchisement, etc. Lynn has no explanation for why the British sepoy overcame similar units raised and equipped in the European style with similar technology and trained by European advisers, but commanded by native Indian regimes. Although I am not an expert, I would venture to guess that Hanson's argument for a Western Way of War holds more water than Lynn would like to believe, and it is the infusion of a Western military methodology into a native Indian ethos which adapted the kshatriya to Western war that enabled the East India Company to conquer the continent with the sepoy.

Most personally aggravating was Lynn's cursory examination of ancient Greek warfare. The Greeks practiced a limited form of warfare that was guided by principles of duty and honor laid out in The Iliad and The Odyssey, yes. But it was also a hedgehog meant to defend the yeoman farmer against barbarians and mounted nobles during the Greek Dark Ages, an anarchic period that followed the Mycenaean feudal era and preceded the rise of the polis. The warfare was limited because the stakes were limited, as was the technology. When the technology advanced and the stakes were higher, the discourse was by-and-large abandoned in favor of reality. The Athenians did not behave according to the Greek discourse very often during the Peloponnesian War, as is evidenced by their defeat of Spartan forces at Sphacteria.

To this end, Lynn doesn't seem to recognize that nations will fight wars at a level of intensity based on what is at risk. The Greek city-states were absolutely cut-throat and ignored rules whenever their entire polis was in jeopardy, for example. An examination of Geoffrey Blainey's The Causes of War may have benefited Lynn; it is quite possible that the decision to go to war not only effects the conduct of the war and the discourse of the war, but the reasons for fighting may even explain why wars can be limited in their scope and conduct. Compared to World War II, the Korean War was not fought realistically by either side. The war aims were not total victory, but themselves limited as a reflection of the nuclear threat. Thus, if the stakes between two Greek city-states are not survival, but a strip of farmland, limiting the scale of the conflict and the methods of combat is perfectly acceptable and reflects the reality of the situation at hand. Lynn doesn't tackle the issue of limitations-on-warfare-due-to-war-aims. The aims of a war have a great deal to do with the discourse, conduct, and reality of that war.

My Conclusions: Lynn vs. Hanson
The point I'm trying to make here is, simply, that Hanson's concept of a universal Western discourse on war illuminates a number of vital points regarding how, exactly, armies can effectively win wars--Hanson's Western Way of War seems to play more to the reality of war than to the discourse on war. In short, the army that is most adapted to the reality of war is the most likely to be victorious. And, if we adopt Hanson's characteristics as the most effective forms of discourse when compared to reality, Western militaries are more likely to adapt their discourses on warfare to the reality of the situation.

Consider--the Enlightenment armies of the 17th century were largely disenfranchised peasants who had no individual initiative and were not permitted to question their officers. Compare this to the sudden reformation of the French Army during the Revolution, and their astounding victories against old Enlightenment-style armies of the passing era. Why did the Revolutionary armies win? Because they exemplified a number of Hanson's lauded Western characteristics; they were comprised of newly-enfranchised citizens, officers trusted their subordinates, and individuals took initiative when they saw opportunities to advance their forces to victory. The reality is that enfranchised "peasant armies," if disciplined and motivated, will fight better than similarly equipped and disciplined conscripts and disenfranchised dirty infantrymen that are despised by their own officers.

Hanson is correct in his analysis from a specific perspective--the most effective armies in history have been the ones that display the traits he describes. It also just so happens that those traits crop up most often in Western militaries. The truth is, many of these traits were laid down for us by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and although Lynn is correct--time, technology, and space alter military discourse--I think Hanson's claim that these are a part of our overall Western heritage is 100% correct as well, for the simple fact that Hanson's traits constantly resurface in the most effective militaries. Hanson simply overplayed his hand by implying that these traits are axiomatically omnipresent throughout Western militaries across space, time, and technology. Lynn rightly attacks this idea of a military continuum--there is a vast amount of cultural disconnection between the Graeco-Roman discourses on warfare (which themselves evolved and shifted due to changing socio-political and economic situations) and the discourses of the medieval period (which were more a product of the ancient Germanic warrior-codes and bardic saga with a strong infusion of Christianity).

Lynn's discourse-reality model is a vital contribution to the field of military history. In my opinion, it fails to unseat Hanson's concept of Western military strength, but it does pinpoint a great many flaws in Hanson's argument that must be addressed and accounted for. What honestly needs to occur is for Hanson to go back to the drawing board and revise his own theory in light of Lynn's scholarship. I'm not advocating for a Hegelian dialectic, here, however, I do believe that Hanson's theories need to be taken on socratically, in order to purge them of error. Hanson's theory holds a lot of water, and Lynn doesn't refute it entirely successfully. What Battle does, however, is demand a revision of Hanson's theory that is much more solid and reflective of reality.

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