Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 160-163
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The subtitle of The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare will set off Eurocentrism alarms for readers of this journal. Unfortunately, such alarms are not false. The volume editor, Geoffrey Parker, acknowledges the Eurocentrism problem in his preface, but claims that space constraints and the fact of Western dominance in the past two centuries justify a focus on Europe. The problem, however, is not with the focus but with the method. The book argues that Western dominance was based on unique aspects of the continuing military tradition of the West—that continuity of Western military developments from classical times through the eighteenth century created the dominance of the last two centuries. But lack of comparative data make this claim difficult to prove from a purely European perspective. Further, the thesis suffers from problems in conceptualizing "the West" and "dominance." In the end, this is not a book without value, but it must be approached cautiously.
From the subtitle and the title of the introduction ("The Western Way of War") on, the authors tell us that this is a history of war in the West. But they never make clear what "the West" is, or where it is, or what defines it. Claiming that it constitutes those areas that practice this way of war would be circular and at some point very confusing. (Is Japan part of "the West"?) But geography is not crucial either, for the wars between Rome and Carthage are portrayed as stuggles between East and West—with Rome (geographically east of Carthage) as the Western power. Byzantium, an heir of Rome, and its heir Russia slide uneasily in and out of "the West" depending on the context. Ultimately, the lack of a clear conceptualization of "the West" obscures some crucial issues: the divisions and complexities within the "Western" world, "the West" as a postclassical construc-tion (with implications for the question of continuity discussed below), and the difference between "Western" and "modern," pivoting [End Page 160] on the industrial revolution and its effects. All needed to be clarified.
This lack of clarity also taints what could be a defensible focus, for reasons of space, on European military history, because it leads to some very odd choices in terms of geographic scope, especially after 1500. The Americas and India are given a fair amount of space, clearly as fields of European conquest, not in their own right. But the history of World War II is written with barely a reference to China, though sure-ly China was, similarly, the victim of a "Westernized" military power. What this shows is a pervasive and often not even subtle triumphalism about "the West"—meaning, in this context, western Europe and later North America—that shows up in the subtitle, various parts of the text, and especially the epilogue. This triumphalism is not only inherently grating but also inconsistent with some very perceptive commentary about the costs in the world wars of "the Western way of war." There is a Eurocentric tone here, and it compares unfavorably with, for example, the global sweep and humanist conclusions of John Keegan's History of Warfare (New York, 1993).
The book is also somewhat inconsistent about conceptualizing Western dominance. When did it happen? Some sections seem to date it as early as the 1500s—surely too early, as any treatment of China or Japan would have shown. And why did it happen? Was it really as purely a military phenomenon as the authors argue? The record of the late twentieth century looks more mixed than this thesis allows, with a slipping economic dominance and a military record of mixed success —victory in Iraq, but failure in Vietnam, for example.
But for the sake of argument, let us accept the authors' point of view, problematical as it is. Does the case stand on its own merits? The thesis, again...