I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but modern military theorists, occasional generals and historians are currently debating the revolution in military affairs which is supposed to be happening at the moment. Quite what this is, I’m not sure. I suppose that it is related to the demise of the Cold War, the reduction in the perceived threat of mutual nuclear annihilation and the emergence of the United States as the military superpower, at least in so far a global projection of force is concerned. A few other factors, such as the emergence of global terrorism, the deployment of pilotless aircraft and the huge asymmetry in firepower deployed probably also make an impact.
So why are historians interested and involved? I think it is because they have a role in identifying previous revolutions in military affairs and, thus, are firstly sensitized to them and, secondly, hope to find something useful that may illuminate our current tactical and strategic situation.
When you start to look at the historiography, though, military revolutions proliferate. Leaving aside (probably foolishly) the twentieth century, there are still a fair number. Napoleon, it is said sparked one. So did Frederick the Great, although that is arguable. Gustavus Adolfus of Sweden was the original military revolutionary, with Maurice of Nassau coming up hard behind. Edward III of England is described as another, and, much further in the past, Iphicrates is another.
With so many military revolutions, it is perhaps hardly suprising that some sceptics have emerged, as well. The first issue is to as ‘what makes a military revolution?’ A number of suggestions have been made, such as advances in technology, for example the use of muskets or longbows over what came before, and of tactics, such as charging cavalry rather than caracoling cuirassiers. I’ve tackled the caracole issue before, I think, so I won’t rehash it here.
The problem is that what looks like a revolution from one perspective doesn’t from another. Muskets, for example, had been of increasing use over a century before Gustav Adolf appeared on the scene. I’d guess the Swiss pikemen at Biocca (1522) and Pavia (1525) would probably have conceded that firearms were quite useful. The sudden appearance of successful Swedish armies in the 1630’s seems to be less due to a military revolution and more to do with a funded, disciplined force under a commander of talent appearing in something of a power vacuum.
Another claimant for the title of military revolutionary is Iphicrates. It is claimed that he invented a whole new style of warfare when his peltasts mauled a Spartan more near Corinth in 390 BC. Now, granted, Iphicrates won great fame for this exploit, and based a career as a major military and political figure on it, but it was hardly unprecedented. Peltasts had been around since at least Pylos, according to Thucydides, in 425 BC, where they had proved their worth against Spartan hoplites. Indeed, assorted lighter troops, some of which may well have been peltasts, are often hanging around of the edge of Thucydides’ forces, but he only names peltasts specifically at this point. Did Iphicrates cause a military revolution? It would seem not, on balance.
So, was there ever a military revolution?
I can’t really think of one, and the problem, of course, lies in the definition of the word ‘revolution’. From some perspectives, a decade or so can be revolutionary. But actually, as lived reality, a decade is quite a long time. Things seen from the perspective of a century can make a decade seem rapid, but not to those involved.
I suppose the most obvious candidates for military revolutions are the coming of gunpowder, and the tank. However, the first cannon were around from about the 14th century, but did not really become effective enough, in England at least, to displace the bow until the mid-sixteenth century. 250 years of evolution does not make a revolution.
The tank is perhaps more interesting. There is little doubt that the blitzkrieg tactics of 1939-40 caught everyone by surprise, including the Germans. As you probably know, however, they had been anticipated in military theory of the 1920s, and also tested in battle at Cambari (1917) and in the allied advance in late 1918. While the evolution of tank tactics was more rapid than that of gunpowder, 20 years or so is a fair time, so from the perspective of a single life, it was hardly a revolution.
In fact, the most likely cause of anyone crying ‘military revolution’ is ignorance of what passed before. Histoprians of the 17th century come over all vague when it comes to sixteenth century armies, while those of the sixteenth century are equally bemused by that fifteenth and so on. Therefore, the cry of revolution goes up whenever something that looks new appears on the battlefield. I have little doubt that the users of said technology or tactics would be bemused by the label.
So, as wargamers, where does this leave us? I’ve already grumbled extensively about excessive periodization and trying to pitch thousands of years into one rule set. The above may well sound like an argument to the contrary. I’m not sure it does, but we need not to look for revolutions, but to see how far evolution has gone. The British army in 1914, for example, was very different from that in 1916, and that was different from 1918. The royal army in 1642 was different from that in 1645. So we need to keep an eye on this, and not try to stretch our rule sets too far, while accepting that they can, and must be able to stretch a little as the armies of our period evolve.