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Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power

Jeremy Black reads a thought-provoking history of warfare that benefits from the author’s medieval background

Published: October 26, 2011 at 11:47 am
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Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: John France
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25


It is instructive to read a history of war written by a prominent medievalist, especially one interested in non-western military traditions. John France’s perspective provides a more balanced approach than the standard account of the rise of industrialised warfare.

This perspective is an invigorating one and is accompanied by insights on particular periods that are of great value. France is especially good on the continued value of cavalry, notably in Asia, and his analysis of Asian military developments offers a valuable perspective on those in Europe.

His discussion of the varied contexts in which cavalry operated demonstrates his point that culture was only so-important in determining the military forms that were adopted. Instead, France emphasises the role of environmental and political factors. These also emerge as central in naval history.

France goes on to discuss the development of infantry armies, notably, but not only, in Europe.

Discipline is central – not only tactical discipline but also the discipline of organisation. The latter is seen as a key theme in Manchu expansion against the Zhungars, the last major nomadic steppe confederation, as well as in the development of European armies.

Discipline and organisation, rather than improved weaponry, is regarded as crucial to the armies of the 18th century, with “a true Military Revolution” coming in the late 19th century thanks to an extraordinary technological revolution, first at sea, then on land, and lastly in the air.

The case is impressive, and the discussion advances to the present. There are, however, two question marks.

First, having warned about presentism, France concludes with a presentist account in which western society is castigated for failing to focus on hostile thrusts and to arm peoples both psychologically and practically. Secondly, France’s assumption is that future conflict will likely be primarily between western powers and insurrectionary elements.

A case can be made for both of these propositions, but the alternatives also require consideration. The first thesis is scarcely a new argument and might well encourage an authoritarian militarism that poses as many threats as those that France warns us of.

In 1932, Douglas MacArthur, as army chief of staff, claimed that toleration of pacifism and radicalism would lead America “to dust and ashes”. However, that year, in using troops in Washington against demonstrators whom he saw as revolutionaries, MacArthur violated
the direct orders of President Hoover.

Moreover, as far as mobilising society is concerned, it is unclear that militaries want conscription, and there is a long experience of the destabilising consequences of warfare.

In the second case, future conflict may focus on hi-tech weaponry rather than “wars among the people”. Such weaponry may feature in any conflict between the United States and China and is also central to an arms race in south-east Asia. France draws attention to continuing national conflict, but his emphasis is on insurrectionary conflict, and this may be misleading.

These points are advanced to show how France’s book encourages debate. Although the arguments are not especially original, the medievalist’s perspective is very rewarding. Moreover, France ranges widely and writes well.

His book is based on an enviable grasp of both subject and literature. This book deserves attention. 

Jeremy Black is the author of The Great War (Continuum, 2011) and War: A Short History (Continuum, 2009)

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