War Made New
Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to Today

Author: Max Boot

Gotham Books

Max Boot

Max Boot

My interest here is mainly in a couple of Max Boot's historical overviews, not his foreign policy strategies.

The Gun Powder Revolution

Boot writes of Europe's old feudal order having been based upon heavy cavalry. The estates of noblemen produced and supported mounted warriors. Then came the use of infantry, which took battlefield dominance away from men on horseback. "English longbowmen and Swiss pikeman" writes Boot, "proved to be more than a match for cumbersome cavalry." He writes that war began to be democratized during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) and that "politics and society would soon follow."

Then came gunpowder and firearms. These, writes Boot, ended the power of Mongol archers on horseback. Cavalrymen with bow and arrows were no match for infantrymen with firearms. A part of the gunpowder revolution was artillery, which could knock down castle walls – the nobility's power center. In response to aggression with artillery, low-slung earthen defensive barriers were built, with artillery positioned to fire at an enemy from different angles. These were fortresses that an aggressor could overpower only with an army of great size, the kind of army that the "petty lords of Europe" could not afford. Monarchs put together these larger armies, and they expanded territorially. The modern state came into being. Boot quotes Charles Tilly: ''War made the state, and the state made war."

With artillery (and improved sailing technology) the state of Portugal established forts and trading stations on the coasts of Africa, India, China, East Indies and South America. The Spanish "carved out out a large empire in the New World." The Habsburgs of Spain expanded on the European continent, and during the 1500s, writes Boot, "religious rivalries melded with dynastic ones to produce a particularly bellicose age." He quotes the historian Frank Tallet: "Between 1480 and 1700, England had 29 wars, France 34, Spain 36, and the [Holy Roman] Empire 25." Boot writes:

The ensuing battle for control of Europe and eventually the entire world would be decided in substantial measure by mastery of the tactics and technology of the Gunpowder Age.

Boot sums up his description of the British victory of the Habsburg fleet, the Spanish Armada:

The Spanish lost for a simple rason: They were outgunned. The English fleet had one-third more firepower, and the English were better able to utilize what they had because they had better-trained crews and more efficient gun carriages. 

Boot describes Europe as having been transformed by methods of warfare, with war becoming nationalized, the role of privateers and mercenaries reduced, and the discipline required of big armies affecting governance: namely the rise of absolute monarchs. He writes again of war requiring a lot of money and of monarchies spending a good percentage of it on their military:

 75 percent in the case of Louis XIV, 85 percent for Peter the Great, 90 percent for Frederick the Great.

In Part One of his book, "The Gunpowder Revolution," Boot describes warfare between the British and Maratha Confederacy in India. He describes the Maratha Confederacy as "the last major power that could challenge the British for mastery of India." He gives his reasons for Britain's success. The Marathas had plenty of guns – more field guns, actually, than the British - and they had 30,000 cavalry against 1,200 for the British. But the British had the "edge in tactics and discipline." He describes the Marathas as handicapped by warrior tradition:

From a traditional warrior's standpoint, there was little sense in fighting anonymously in the ranks where no one could see your feats of courage. If you did fight, it should be to gain loot or to protect your clan. Why risk your neck for an abstract cause or a distant ruler? Especially if the odds of getting killed were so high. 

Despite the British being vastly outnumbered, the British won against the Marathas, suggests Boot, because of what historian John Lynn calls their "battle culture of forbearance." Much of the Maratha military remained traditional. Some had not given up the bow and arrow. Their hit and run tactics did not work against a resolute line of British infantry and guns. They were uncoordinated. Rather than a single commander giving direction the Maratha chieftains acted at cross-purposes. Moreover, the Maartha chieftains lacked a system for supplying their troops. Most of their soldiers were not paid regularly. The individual Indian soldier was brave, but soldiers in general had reason to be less than confident.

The British, writes Boot, had advanced their military organizationally because of their curiosity, rationalism and desire for efficiency, not an innate superiority perhaps but part of a development in an age of expanding trade and the liberalism that accompanied free trade. "Staying abreast of the latest developments in military technology requires a certain amount of intellectual freedom and scientific inquiry," writes Boot "which would have been incompatible with the absolute rule of the Maratha nobility." Boot adds:

Even if the Marathas had had more officers schooled in Western tactics...overall control still would have been exercised by tribal chiefs who were more influenced by reading chicken entrails than by reading any treatise on strategy.

Germany's Invasion of France in 1940

First an aside, which Boot writes about concerning industrialization and war. The average number of soldiers deployed per square kilometer of frontline had declined, from 100,000 in ancient times to 3,883 during the American Civil War, to 404 in the First World War, and to 36 in the Second World War. Increases in firepower had made this possible and necessary. (If infantrymen are bunched up, one shell destroys more of them. Combat forces are shown bunched up in wars between industrialized powers largely for photographic purposes other than the actualities of their subject matter.)

Following the First World War, military strategists considered tanks and aircraft --  part of the industrialization of warfare. The British led the way in tank design and warfare strategy, led by J.F.C. Fuller, who joined Britain's fascists after he left the army. The British military and government, before Churchill became Prime Minister, lost interest in tanks. In France, Captain Charles de Gaulle was interested in fast-moving mechanized warfare, but the French military favored defensive warfare and firepower. The United States also devoted little interest in armored warfare. Writes Boot:

The U.S. had deployed a Tank Corps in World War I, but it was disbanded in 1920 over the anguished objections of two of its leading officers -- Colonel George S. Patton and Major Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It was the Germans who were most interested in fast-moving mechanized warfare. Writes Boot:

Around 1934, Colonel Heinz Guderian, chief of staff of the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops, gave the Fuehrer [Adolf Hitler] a short tour d'horizon of tank warfare. "Hitler," Guderian wrote, "was much impressed by the speed and precision of movement of our units, and said repeatedly, "that's what I need! That's what I want!'"

In 1939 Hitler had a three-hour parade of mechanized forces. Fuller was there, invited because of his fascist sympathies, Hitler said to him, "I hope you were pleased with your children." Fuller replied:

Your Excellency, they have grown up so quickly that I no longer recognize them.

The First World War began on the Western Front, in my opinion, with defensive warfare having the advantage -- thus the stalemate. The French were putting their hopes on defensive warfare, and, in 1940, Hitler's armored units went around France's fortified Maginot Line. France was conquered in six weeks. In those weeks, writes Boot, "France lost an estimated 124,000 men killed and 200,000 wounded, more than the American casualties in the Korea and Vietnam Wars combined over the course of many years."

Boot continues:

The prevailing impression of the time – that the Allies were outnumbered -- is false... The Allies enjoyed an advantage in the overall number of divisions, tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces.... The problem, in sum, was not how many aircraft the Allies had but how they were utilized.

Nor did the German have superior weapons. According to Boot, The best tanks belonged to the French, not the Germans and the best Allied aircraft were as good as the best German models. Where the Germans had a major technical edge, according to Boot, was their widespread use of radios, "which gave them operation flexibility and an ability to concentrate their mechanized forces and warplanes ..." This made up for the fact that "the vast bulk" of German troops walked to the front. "Out of more than one hundred German divisions mobilized for the campaign in the West," writes Boot, "only ten were tank divisions and another ten were motorized."


In his epilogue Boot follows his writing about the "Information Revolution," including warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the comment that there is no guarantee that the U.S. can continue its military dominance. But he writes that powers have often recovered from humiliations. "Defeat," he writes, "has often been a spur to innovations, from the Prussians in the Napoleonic Wars, to the Germans' humiliation in World War I, to the Americans' humiliation in the Vietnam War."

One point that Boot makes that I would like to question is his description of Britain's failure to move from battleships to aircraft carriers and this having "hastened the fall of the British Empire." I doubt that the British would have defended their empire much better with aircraft carriers than they did without them. Empires were on their way out after the Second World War for reasons other than limitations in naval power.

The Author

The book is 478 pages with 127 pages of bibliography and notes. Boot is an award-winning historian, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to the journal Weekly Standard. He has a B.A. in history from U.C. Berkeley and a master's degree in diplomatic history from Yale. According to the book's jacket, he lectures at numerous military schools and advises the Department of Defense on transformation issues. The book was published in 2006.

home | book summary index | selected macrohistories index