- European Warfare in a Global Context, 1660–1815
Professor Black's latest book is a history of European warfare around the [End Page 1229] globe during the "long eighteenth century." It is not a standard monograph, but a synthesis of a generation of research by Black and others. Because the book engages so consistently with the works of other military and naval historians it will be most valuable to them—rather than to nonmilitary historians and lay readers—as an articulation of Black's current judgments on their findings and on the "metanarratives" of European military history and global expansion.
The most dominant metanarrative with which Black engages is the so-called "military revolution." As an interpretive model, the military revolution has enjoyed dizzying success over the past generation. Military historians, as well as other historians, military professionals, policy makers, and the general public have come to accept, thanks to the scholarship of Geoffrey Parker and his many followers, that an early-modern military revolution explains the surprising novelty of Europe's global ascendancy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has become the dominant explanatory model in early-modern military history. Jeremy Black, however, has always been a skeptic. He addresses himself to this concept again here, arguing that Europeans' critical advantages in conflicts with non-Europeans were financial, commercial, bureaucratic, and logistical, rather than purely military. In many cases, the clearest advantage in local military contests between Europeans and non-Europeans turned out to be the ability of imperial magistrates or corporate officials to entice locals into alliances or compliance.
Black is cautious with regard to the idea of "progress" as it relates to military technology. In contrast to the military revolution's focus on technological innovations as the engines of radical change in European armies, states, and economies, Black does not see a clear progression from old, less effective tools of combat to newer and better ones. Early cannons, for example, operated side by side for a time with Roman and medieval artillery pieces; their comparatively low cost, at least as much as their tactical effectiveness, was what gave primitive cannons the edge in their competition for space on the battlefield with established artillery technology. Black claims that certainty regarding "best practices" and best technology is much more common among modern military historians than it was among military practitioners at the time. He thus challenges the Roberts-Parker military revolution model regarding radical change during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as claims regarding the revolutionary impact of the French Revolutionary Wars on European warfare. Black tries to remain true to contemporaries' uncertainties and to illustrate the logic of their conservative assessments. Indeed he highlights "the strength of ancien régime structures, and the appropriateness of their tactics and operational and organisational characteristics, with reference to the parameters of the period" (p. 2).
The belief in linear progress, especially in relation to technology and its beneficial effects, is characteristic of the military profession and, according to Black, also of military history as an academic discipline. Perhaps it is a trait of academic history in general, since historians often dedicate themselves to seeking and documenting change, rather than the persistence of old forms and conventions. [End Page 1230]
Monocausal solutions have been foreign to Black's way of thinking for quite some time. In the past, he has expressed his doubts about the military revolution in his own province—Europe and its neighbors. Here Black expands the scope of his skepticism to match the global scale of the military revolution model. His verdict is that things look messy and complicated when one attempts to identify historical trends on a global level. Indeed the diversity of military cultures and experiences (even the diversity of military tasks within one military culture), which Black documents, arguably makes the quest for an effective and unified model explaining global phenomena such as European dominance a Sisyphean task.
Rather than trying to solve the problem of Europe's increased mastery...