- Reviewed by
Some seven years ago in this journal, John Lynn, a prominent specialist on French military affairs from the Age of Louis XIV to Napoleon, expressed his fears that an "embattled academic military history" was becoming increasingly isolated and in danger of becoming extinct. He recommended employing the "new" cultural history approach to explore connections between the evolution of society and war. Of course, fears about the demise of military history were somewhat premature and except for purely operational history, a field hardly ever taught in the academy, most course work in military history already included substantial social-political and cultural components.
Since then John Keegan in his A History of Warfare (1993) and Victor Davis Hanson's recent Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (2001) have tried to establish the evolution of a specific culturally determined western way of war. Originating from the Greek hoplite battle, the western way, they maintain, has remained basically different from non-western approaches to fighting. Lynn's Battle does not agree with either of these two authors. As described in a special appendix, its methodology is based on the interaction between an idealized conduct of war and the realities of combat, influenced and limited by political and social circumstances and dominant intellectual patterns. Lynn rejects the common belief that warfare responds only to the universal demands of tactics and technology. Instead, he asserts that the ideas and ideals of different cultures influenced the way they have fought. He borrows, he claims, from the methodology of cultural history "without being guilty of its excesses" (p. xix). Indeed, Battle is rarely burdened by theory or jargon, but this raises the question why the introduction of cultural history terminology was necessary at all in an intelligent, broad, well-informed, challenging, and frequently provocative study. [End Page 943]
Spanning three continents and with a time frame from Ancient Greece to the present, the book is organized into eight self-sustaining case studies. The first, "Written in Blood: The Classical Greek Drama of Battle and the Western Way of War," expounds differences with Hanson and to a lesser degree with Keegan. Lynn denies Hanson's basic thesis that a continuous and superior Western Way of War, "civic militarism" as he calls it, based on discipline and law, has provided the foundations enabling western armies to overcome larger and sophisticated non-western forces. Pointing to major gaps and deviations from this theory, Lynn refutes the idea of an innate cultural western superiority. His second chapter, "Subtleties of Violence" dismisses the concept of a specific "Oriental Way of War." His discussion of the ancient military writings of China and India notes that though mass armies were not unknown, these cultures rejected the bloody slogging of western armies in favor of a more sophisticated indirect approach, attrition and stratagems. In addition, in these two, as well as the following chapters, Lynn clearly wants to make the case that the "universal soldier" shaped by war and combat, a staple concept for many writers, never existed. Lynn argues that the values and assumptions of soldiers from different cultures differed and continue to differ from each other in fundamental ways, an assumption not shared by the reviewer.
Chapter 3, "Chivalry and Chevauchée," is an exposition of the contrast between the ideals of chivalry and the brutal reality of medieval war, especially the merciless raids devastating the countryside. The next chapter, "Linear Warfare: Images and Ideas of Combat in the Age of the Enlightenment," the era of the author's recognized expertise, suggests that the parameters of limited war were, at least in western Europe, conceptual rather than imposed by resource limitation. Again, keeping in mind central and Eastern Europe, the reviewer dissents. But he liked Chapter 5, dealing with the influence of European military practices in India, successfully amalgamating concepts of class and caste with the regimental system to form effective fighting forces. Chapter 6, "The Sun of Austerlitz: Romantic...