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

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pursuit of Power II: Christine Meets a New Guy

Despite my best intentions, I abandoned McNeill’s “Pursuit of Power” after the first chapter and spent two evenings watching TV instead.

But Monday night, which offered a choice between reruns of "Hell's Kitchen," "Project Runway" and "Wife Swap," drove me back to reading. So I gave Chapter Two a try.

McNeill was yakking about the years 1000-1500, when Chinese advancements in industry and armaments anticipated European achievements by several centuries.

So why didn’t a Chinese Columbus discover America? China had the iron and the coal industries and the powerful sailing ships. They had paper money and crossbows and guns and gunpowder and Confucious knew what else.

The book’s answer was that to exploit such advancements, a society had to support lots of merchants and manufacturers. But China didn't want to do this. Their society had different values. Chinese merchants and manufacturers couldn't flourish. Instead of passing their crafts to their sons, merchants and manufacturers put their limited profits into education and land for their boys. The Chinese government controlled everything through Confucianism, and Confucianism didn't like the marketplace.

Europe could have gone the same way in those years, McNeill said. Christianity didn't think much of the marketplace either. If the Popes Innocent III and Boniface VIII had succeeded in uniting western Europe under a papal government (a true Holy Roman Empire), Europe might’ve been like China.

But the popes couldn't pull it off. Apparently God wanted Europeans to buy light artillery on a large scale. So Europe remained a puzzle of states and markets could flourish in the cracks, building increasingly powerful weapons. Gee, what a relief. Cuz the world really needed those cannons and muskets.

Meanwhile, back to Chapter Four. Military history books often remind me of small-town newspapers: the same people keep popping up again and again. If you’re studying the 12th century, you get Ghengis Khan; if you’re in the 1500s, you find Elizabeth of England and Philip of Spain.

Now McNeill was discussing the Thirty Year’s War in the 1600s, and the Swedish king Gustav Adolf promptly floated up like Banquo’s ghost. Oh, hi there, Gustav, how ya doing – still fighting the Battle of Breitenfeld? Go get ‘em, man.

But then a new guy marched onto page 126: Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, captain-general of Holland and Zeeland in the 1500s. How come nobody told me about this dude? I thought Zeeland was a boring town in west Michigan. (1)

Maurice was a drill sergeant – literally. Confronted by the Spaniards and their weird little tercios (2), he dreamed up the idea of systematic drilling to make his soldiers more efficient. He analyzed the complicated motions needed to load and fire a matchlock rifle and came up with the number 42. (3) He taught his soldiers to make each movement in unison, responding to a shouted command.

That’s where the guy on the cover of this book, the soldier in the red poofy pants, came in. Drillmasters used pictures showing each of the 42 motions, all displaying the same funny guy: he fired his musket, took down the musket, uncocked the match, blew on the pan, charged the musket, etc. They’re lovely pictures, made from engravings, although stick figures probably would have done just as well.

But Maurice did more than hand out pictures. He introduced regular marching and smaller tactical units and made his guys dig entrenchments with spades.

“Powess and physical courage all but disappeared under an ironclad routine,” McNeill said. “The old heroic patterns of military behavior withered and died.”


(1) The real Zeeland is a province in the Netherlands. Dutch settlers brought the names to Michigan, so now we have the thrilling locales of Holland and Zeeland, 5 miles apart on the highway to Grand Rapids. Yippee.

(2) The tercios were a formidable force in the 1500s: a crowd of pikemen (guys carrying long wooden poles) protecting a fringe of musketeers posted around a central square of more pikemen. The Spaniards loved their tercios and insisted on sending them out long after their usefulness had ended.

(3) The answer to life, the universe and Everything.

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