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

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Military History Seminar: Here Come the Cannons

Makers of Modern Strategy
From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age
Edited by Peter Paret

These days I'm endangering my spine by carrying around "Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age," edited by Peter Paret. It's a weighty collection of essays by about 30 historians and
experts. I knew I was in for it when I opened to the introduction, which began: "Carl von Clausewitz defined strategy as …"

Crap, I thought. I've already done this. I've read Clause's "On War." Don't make me go back!

But the book is actually pretty valuable. Step by step, essay by essay, "Makers" leads us from medieval Europe to the Cold War. I'd just finished two Civil War books (the novel "The Killer Angels" and the nonfiction "Battle Cry of Freedom") and I was looking for someone to explain to me why these Civil War generals did so many crazy
things. If that meant going back to Machiavelli rubbing his greedy little hands together in 16th-century Italy, so be it.

In Mach's time, warfare moved away from knights and castles to guns and armies. The development of gunpowder rendered the knight's armor useless. The new money economy made raising armies much easier. Everyone went on the offensive.

This prompted Mach to write his book, "The Art of War," which harkened back to Roman times, because back then, if anything was Classical, then it must be great. Mach wasn't promoting chariots and bronze swords, but he did like ancient Rome's discipline and use of a citizen militia.

So I'm reading along, and Mach is this great genius, busy "transcending his time" or whatever, and then the essayist Felix Gilbert throws a wrench into the whole thing on page 28.

"However," Felix tells us sternly, "Machiavelli misjudged what was possible and feasible in his own day."

So instead of Mach's notion of a citizen militia, Europe's rulers went on using paid mercenaries for the next two centuries. Mach also didn't consider the rising costs of warfare, since somebody had to pay for those shiny
new cannons. But Felix insists that all subsequent military thought proceeded on the foundations that Mach laid.

And therefore (insert drumbeats here) warfare Enters A New Age. It's always nerve-wracking when that happens. Somebody is bound to get pounded, and probably more efficiently than ever. Mighty thinkers declaim grand ideas; then narrow-minded pinheads do everything totally wrong. Nobody can think clearly about what they're doing, and the next thing you know, some crazed Civil War general is leading an infantry charge up Cemetery Ridge,

But I'm getting ahead of myself, of course. It's time to leave Mach behind and march into the seventeenth century.

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