Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Pursuit of Power I: Deadly Germs in Poofy Pants

"The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces and Society since A.D. 1000" by William H. listing

I’ll admit, I picked up my library copy of William H. McNeill’s “Pursuit of Power” with some trepidation. The book was yellowed and waterstained and the cover showed some weird guy in a teeny feathered hat and poofy red pants.

As usual, I skipped the preface. I can’t stand prefaces, where an author describes the epiphany that led to the book (“… and so I wondered, why hasn’t a thorough discussion of nickel-iron octahedrites been attempted?”). Then the author spends two pages thanking everyone but their dry cleaner. (“… To my Uncle Mervin, who offered many helpful suggestions when he wasn’t drunk.”)

So I turned to chapter one: “Arms and Society of Antiquity.”

And stopped dead.

I didn’t understand a word of it. What’s all this about the “industrialization of war”? Why is he talking about bronze? Who cares where tin was mined? This is ridiculous, I thought, I could be watching “America’s Got Talent.”

I sighed. Perhaps I should read the preface after all. It was only two pages, not counting the acknowledgements (“Thank you Hugh, for piloting me through the intricacies of Chinese historiography.”)

Thank heavens I read it. This book had a point, and McNeill wasn’t afraid to clearly lay it out in the preface. He’d published a book a few years before called “Plagues and Peoples,” dealing with the interactions between people and microparasites. A creepy topic really. I dislike reading plague books, which leave me twitchy and prone to examining my tongue in the mirror.

In “Plagues and Peoples,” McNeill addressed the abrupt changes that occur in organisms due to a mutation or a change in environment, changes that briefly allow them to escape previous limits. The most important microparasites affecting people were disease germs, so he wrote about those.

In “Pursuit of Power,” McNeill turned his attention to macroparasites. The most important macroparasites affecting people were other people, violent conquerors who snatched all the good food, shelter and pretty girls without contributing anything.

Therefore, macroparasitism among people turns into a study of the armed forces, with special attention to war equipment. Changes in armaments resemble the genetic mutations of microorganisms; they break down old limits or explore new geography.

To take this analogy further (and McNeill stretched it to the limit), well-equipped and organized armies meeting a more backward society act like deadly germs attacking a patient. The advanced guy almost always wins.

And where does this leave us? In real trouble, according to McNeill. As war became more advanced, increasingly dependent on industrial might, muscles and courage became less important. But our “ancient, inherited psychic aptitudes” remain the same. We still want to beat our breastplates and rattle our spears, but now our spears are rockets and nuclear missiles.

Now, isn’t that just jolly. Aren’t you glad I read the preface? Well, it had to be done. I returned to that first paragraph in chapter one, “Arms and Society in Antiquity,” and it made a little better sense now. A little.

“The industrialization of war is almost as old as civilization,” McNeill said. Privileged fighting men used bronze weapons and armor made by specialists. This wasn’t really industrialization, though, because it was so small-scale. It took a ton of painstaking work to make a warrior’s full panopoly and the stuff lasted forever.

But things change. McNeill says. “One can detect in the historic record a series of important changes in weapons systems resulting from sporadic technical discoveries and inventions that sufficed to change preexisting conditions of warfare and army organization.”

In other words, as germs mutated to cause ever more dangerous diseases, new weapons were invented to cause more destructive wars. In both cases, the old limits no longer held, and wholesale craziness broke out for a while until an equilibrium was established.

And what were these changes? The first was our old buddy bronze, not because it made pretty armor, but because it led to improved designs for war chariots. The new designs meant lots of guys could have chariots now, not just the rich ones. Whole armies could roll around the battlefield, shooting arrows. That meant populations with lots of horses could kick some serious butt.

The next change was iron, which meant every guy could get his own armor and wreak a little havoc. Then came what McNeill called “the cavalry revolution.” Guys learned to ride and shoot their bows at the same time. The steppe nomads loved this, and the next thing you knew, you had Genghis Khan in your backyard.

For the last big change in antiquity, we can thank the Iranians, who bred bigger horses, horses big enough to carry a guy in full metal armor. Armored horsemen cared less about arrows and could wave their maces and swords around. With that discovery, the age of antiquity was over and we could get into all that fun medieval stuff.

By the end of chapter one, I was OK with the book. McNeill’s writing was a little involved (I mean, look at the quote about weapons, and that was one of the simpler sentences). But he had a nice, organized mind and could reduce an insanely complicated topic into something I could wrap my head around. I was prepared to read on. Maybe I’d learn something about the weird guy in the red poofy pants.

No comments: