I have, however, recently run across a book that supports my point of view. This is ‘Battle: A History of Combat and Culture’, by John A Lynn (2004, Westview: Cambridge MA). The author’s name I was already aware of, as he is an expert in the army of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and I had heard of this tome as well, although I had shied away from it as often a period specialist writing outside of their specialism is not worth the effort of reading.
Lynn’s argument is that there are two aspects to warfare. The first is the reality of combat, and the second is the way of thinking about it, in sociological terms the ‘discourse’ of war. He suggests that sometimes the discourse and the reality do not match. For example, the discourse of the combatant nations in 1914 was not matched by the realities of battle, and so the discourse had to modify itself very rapidly. So the reality can modify the discourse of battle, but the discourse of battle can also modify the reality.
The first case study that Lynn examines is that of the ancient Greeks. He notes that V. A. Hanson, in his books ‘The Western Way of War’ and ‘Carnage and Culture’ argues that the western (European and North American) way of warfare is distinct from other (Oriental, South American) warfare, in that the westerners seek decisive battle, while the others use subterfuge, ambush and battle avoidance to win. Hanson argues that this predilection for decisive battle dates back to the Greeks, and that there is a continuity in attitude to warfare from the Greeks to the present day.
Lynn attacks Hanson’s thesis in a fairly direct manner. He examines Greek warfare and concludes that it is the product of a distinctive mind set or world view, one in which the citizen soldier (the Hoplite) of a given Greek polity both is involved (in principle, at least) in making a decision for war and in fighting as a consequence of that decision. Thus the typical soldier has a vested interest in the fighting as a consequence of his involvement in the decision making process. Lynn points out that due to the increasing pressure of warfare during the later Greek and Hellenistic periods, this model broke down and later forces were, essentially, mercenary. A similar pattern was followed in Rome where the Republican citizen militia was replaced by professional soldier (a circumstance which led to the downfall of the Republic) and ultimately to a situation where either the Emperor controlled the army or vice versa.
Thus, Lynn argues, the concept of a citizen soldier was not revived until the late 18th Century and early 19th, when French revolutionary armies stormed across Europe. These were explicitly citizen armies, and did, in fact, seek decisive battles, a circumstance which, Lynn suggests, led to Clausewitz’s various theses about warfare and politics. These have been extremely influential in Western thought about warfare, but that does not necessarily make them applicable outside Clausewitz’s particular historical context.
The gap between the Greek citizen soldier and the French Revolutionary one is, to be generous, around 2000 years. On a timescale from the Greeks to us of 2500 years, a continuity with a gap of over eighty per cent of the time in it has some explaining to do. Lynn’s argument is thus that there is no such continuity and no such thing as a distinctively ‘western’ way of war.
The issue for us as wargamers, of course, is that we do often regard our soldiers as being part of a continuous tradition dating back thousands of years, or at least, we consider one man with a pointy stick to be the same as another, 1500 years later. This is technological determinism, the idea that the methods of warfare are determined by the weapons and not by the culture from which the soldiers come.
The problem with technological determinism is that it simply does not work. The Greeks, for example, fought battles on the relatively few flat bits of Greece that were available, with weapons and soldiers that were not typical of the landscape or inhabitants. One would imagine that they would have gone for a more fluid, ambushing from hills and cover sort of warfare, but they did not. The reason for this was described above: they were citizens of a polis and this (full frontal phalanx battles) was how the polis went to war. The nature of the battle was determined by the discourse, not by the technology or landscape.
As I said above, I think this argument adds to mine that we should not develop rules to which are then bolted on bits of chrome to give other periods. They cannot work as a historical rule set, because they are, ultimately, buying into technological determinism. This is a form of absurd reductionism, which suggests that, say, a musketeer is ‘nothing but’ a souped up crossbow man, and a crossbow man is ‘nothing but’ a souped up archer, and so on. All these nothing buts land us up in a situation where all we take account of are the weapons (which themselves get collapsed into a single group of, say, ranged weapons), not the mind sets and world view of the people who fought and commanded the real armies we are trying to model.
Lynn’s argument is that there is no such thing as a universal soldier; each soldier, unit and army is the product of a culture, society and discourse (and impacts on the culture, society and discourse). My suggestion is that we try to avoid imposing universalism on our models of historical armies, and that we dispose of the convenient, but incorrect, notion of technological determinism.