International Security 28.2 (2003) 149-191
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Making Military Might:
Why Do States Fail and Succeed?
A Review Essay
Kenneth M. Pollack, Arbs at War: Military Effectiveness Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam III, Democracies at War Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Throughout history, states have exhibited a puzzling degree of variation in their capacities to create military power. Some consistently excel at warfare. Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, has long been singled out for its military's exceptional tactical proficiency, especially in the battles of both world wars. Others—such as Italy in those same conflicts—often perform poorly, demonstrating endemic weaknesses in their abilities to generate military force. 1 Yet a third category of states exhibits curious variation in military effectiveness over time. Most analysts, for example, count Egypt's performance in the 1967 Six Day War against Israel among the most dismal of contemporary military history. They also tend to agree, however, that in the 1973 October War Egypt was able to dramatically improve its effectiveness, manifest most vividly in the military's textbook crossing of the Suez Canal.
Why are some states, at some times, better able to translate their basic material and human strengths into military power? Sociologists and military historians have long been interested in this question, often focusing on the human relations among soldiers and quality of leaders that make some militaries exceptional. More recently, political scientists have evinced growing interest in [End Page 149] exploring the sources of states' military effectiveness. In the 1990s Stephen Rosen, for example, analyzed how colonial India's caste system, and states' social structures more broadly, influence the capacity to mobilize and utilize the armed forces in war. 2 Stephen Biddle and Robert Zirkle explored how differences in Iraqi and North Vietnamese civil-military relations affected assimilation of new military technologies. 3 Others wrote on the effects of culture and technology on effectiveness, and a more recent generation of scholars has investigated the effects of ideology and nationalism on fighting motivation. 4 This complements a more established literature on military change, innovation, and politico-military doctrine, which at times addresses (tangentially) issues of military effectiveness. 5 The common focus in all this scholarship is on how social, political, and cultural factors shape the capacity to use material or other resources to create military power.
This attention to military effectiveness by political scientists is arguably long overdue. The study of military effectiveness is central to the discipline's academic [End Page 150] and practical concerns. Most fundamental are its implications for measuring and conceptualizing state power—a (if not the) basic variable in the study of international relations since its inception. Traditionally, assessments of power have been heavily materialist and crude in conception. 6 They often ignore the complex social, organizational, and political processes that affect how states and militaries prepare for and employ force in war. Yet those factors may be as important as any indicator of industrial capacity or population size in determining how (well) force is likely to be used in any given war, and therefore the actual balance of power among states in the international arena.
Equally important, military effectiveness has major ramifications for practical debates about defense planning and net assessment. Analysts working on the applied arm of combat analysis—and especially in military-related operations research—often compare states' material resources (such as weapons' firepower and technological attributes) in predicting how states will fare in war, with much less appreciation of the diverse, intangible factors that may affect their capacities to use these resources effectively. If the social scientists discussed above are right, however, this heavily materialist approach may be fundamentally flawed. A major correction in how policy analysts measure military power may be in order.
Given the academic and practical issues at stake, the appearance of two recent works on military effectiveness provides a welcome contribution to debate about the origins of states' military power. Kenneth Pollack's text, Arbs at War, and Dan Reiter...