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Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power by John France (review)
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Reviewed by
John France, Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. 438 pp.

This is an original, interesting, and thought-provoking book. Others have attempted to pinpoint the origins of Western military superiority, often placing it so far in the past as to make it appear almost God-given. Some, notably Victor Davis Hanson in The Western Way of War (2009), have traced it all the way back to ancient Greece with its frontal battles between phalanxes of heavily armed hoplites. John France, a professor emeritus of medieval history at Swansea University and the author of previous works on crusader warfare, strongly disagrees. A specific Western way of war, he suggests, has never existed; rather, Western warfare was a subspecies of the "agro-urban" style of war whose chief characteristic is a combination of heavy, slow-moving infantry and smaller, mobile units of missile forces and cavalry. That combination, from the time it was first invented in Mesopotamia around 3,000 B.C., has been characteristic of all settled societies on the Euro-Asian continent.

During most of the five millennia that have passed since then, by far the most important rivals of "agro-urban" warfare were the steppe people. Relying first on chariots and then on hordes of light cavalry armed with the composite bow, at various times they overran the materially far superior empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. As late as 1241 the Mongols invaded Europe. They got as far as Poland and Silesia and finally retreated only because of internal divisions. Still, a century later Timur's hordes devastated the settled civilizations of Mesopotamia, Persia, and northern India Only during the second half of the seventeenth century was the situation finally changed. Thanks to the new combination of firearms and discipline, Westerners (or, to be precise, non-Westerners such as Peter the Great who had adopted their military methods) started making real progress. Even so, the great non-European "steppe empires"—a term that is surely something of an oxymoron—in the Middle [End Page 134] East and India remained largely immune to European penetration until 1750 or so. China held out longer still, beginning to open its doors only after the Opium Wars of 1839-1860.

True, military technological progress is nothing new. However, "before the nineteenth century . . . in general [changes] were introduced so slowly that nobody got a decisive advantage" (p. 13). So gradual was tactical change that even late-seventeenth-century war was "remarkably like that which had dominated warfare since ancient times" (p. 186). Quite often, as under the Dutch commander Maurice of Nassau, the link to antiquity was made explicit. Only around 1800, and then as a direct result of the Industrial Revolution, did Western warfare, having finally abandoned the traditional combination of heavy infantry with missile-throwers and horsemen, really start forging ahead. By 1900, following a mighty "military revolution"—a term more often applied to the second half of the seventeenth century—it had left all the rest so far behind that it was no contest. As Hillaire Belloc, whom France quotes, famously put it in his 1898 volume The Modern Traveller: "Whatever happens, we have got/the Maxim gun, and they have not." Concrete proof of this advantage came in the form of the battle of Omdurman, which was fought in the same year.

Perhaps even more important are the conclusions France draws from the processes he traces. He calls European military superiority "perilous" precisely because it is relatively recent. Unless the necessary steps are taken, and soon, he argues, it may well disappear as quickly as it emerged. Specifically, France wants Westerners to forget "their cultural disposition to pursue happy ideals, like free-range chickens or a carbon-free world, to contemplate illusions like the 'peace dividend', and to turn away from the nasty realities like the face of war" (p. 388). Instead, they should "sharpen their perception of threats and steel themselves to the unpleasant task of doing something about them"; the need to do so is "the central concern of this book."

That, in essence, is France's argument. How well does it hold...