Thursday 21 September 2006

Battlefield: Decisive Conflicts in History

Richard Holmes (editor)

I approached this book with a faint sense of dread. Military historians - with some notable exceptions - are not noted for their careful situation of conflicts in the broad social, economic and political frameworks necessary to understand their true importance. Sadly, despite remarking in the preface that conflicts ‘reflect political, social, and economic developments’ and disparaging ‘the dictionary of battles’ as ‘conceptually weak’, Richard Holmes’s Battlefield commits the usual errors of military history: Eurocentric in scope, technologically determinist in explanation, and reactionary in emphasis.

Which is a great pity: warfare has played a crucial role in the social and political development of human communities and the discipline is crying out for integrated accounts that demystify humanity’s past by showing connections, rather than producing endless splitting and ‘micro histories’. As Churchill, who is quoted in the preface, said, battles are ‘the punctuation of history’. But who wants to read a story solely composed of punctuation?

Battlefield has a vast historical scope, extending from antiquity to the present day, so it may seem unfair to criticise it for failing to be comprehensive. Nevertheless, the selectivity Holmes deploys says more about him and his vision of history than it does about ‘what essentially happened’, as the German founding father of professional history, Leopold von Ranke, insisted was the object of historical inquiry. Holmes’s Eurocentrism is stark. From 357 pages, over a third is devoted solely to European developments, and another third to the two World Wars, which began effectively as European civil wars. Within the chapter on WWII, the traditional imbalance between the Western Front and Eastern Front is replicated, with 75 per cent more material on the Western Front, despite the fact the conflict was largely won and lost in the East. The chapter on the Americas begins only in the eighteenth century with European colonial wars and the American war of independence. Chapters on Asia and the Middle East (lumped together) and Africa are tiny, and made worse by the fact that, for instance, all of the wars covered in the African chapter are imperial wars of conquest, with absolutely nothing after the Boer War, ignoring, for instance, Britain’s brutal post-WWII colonial war in Kenya (see Frank Füredi’s Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism), Africans’ struggles for national liberation, such as Algeria’s war of independence against France where up to 1 million Algerians were killed and tens of thousands kept in concentration camps, or South Africa’s US-backed Cold War imperialism in Angola and Namibia. If you are looking for ‘decisive conflicts’, one excellent example must be the humiliating Cuban-Angolan defeat of South Africa’s 1987-88 invasion of Angola at Cuito Cuanavale, which Nelson Mandela credited as the beginning of the end for the Apartheid regime.

The second traditional problem with military history replicated by Battlefield is the technological determinism of its explanations. Any attempts to locate conflicts in their socio-economic or political contexts, which are more often than not extremely important, are brief and secondary. For instance, the triumph of the Spanish conquistadors in South America is not treated outside of a brief introduction to the otherwise European-dominated chapter on the Americas, but it is taken for granted that ‘technological imbalances’ - ie, the Spaniards’ possession of steel and gunpowder - are virtually sufficient to explain their victory. This is simply not sustained by the facts. Pizarro, for instance, was able to conquer the Incas - an advanced empire of at least 6 million inhabitants - in 1533 with just 180 Spaniards, 1 cannon and 27 horses, thanks not simply to better technology, but largely to his successful exploitation of socio-political crisis. A smallpox epidemic - carried westwards by a single Spanish slave long before Pizarro arrived - had claimed the life of the Inca emperor and his heir apparent, causing political chaos, civil war and socio-economic catastrophe. Pizarro’s Indian allies did most of the fighting.

The lack of insight into the role political and societal factors play in the causation, outcome and consequences of wars is the biggest failure of Battlefield, which treats such issues only briefly if at all. There is never any really detailed sense of what is at stake, politically or philosophically in any given conflict, or where wars come from. This is remarkable, given the nature of the conflicts under discussion - the Hussite Wars, the French Wars of Religion, the English Civil Wars and of course the French Revolutionary Wars were all struggles over power between parties with competing visions of how society should be ordered. The social revolution implicit in Hussite heresy - which explains the ferocity of the reaction against it - is no more considered than is the fragmented nature of political authority in France at the time of the Hundred Years War. A great opportunity to think about the relationship between war, revolution and society is missed. Holmes simply remarks, for instance, that ‘it is the deepest irony that the French Revolution, with its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, led to a quarter-century of bloody war’ (p97). There is nothing ironic about this at all: these are things human beings have always had to fight for. The 1793 Prussian-Austrian invasion of France, an attempt to throttle the revolution in its cradle ironically mentioned on the same page, reveals precisely why violence has often been a necessary component of progressive change: the forces of reaction have often been prepared to crush it.

This is not merely a political criticism: the failure to consider the social context of conflict also deprives Holmes of an important explanatory factor. For instance, the defeat of Napoleon’s advance into Russia is explained in purely military terms: he faced a formidable Russian foe, and his forces were undersupplied and exhausted after marching across scorched earth (pp122-3). In fact, Napoleon’s advance ground to a halt at least partly because the liberal forces that had welcomed France’s revolutionary armies in Western and Southern Europe simply did not exist in Eastern Europe or Russia. Napoleon’s victories had never been solely about martial qualities but relied on social forces to make good the revolutions he facilitated. Without such forces, the burden of war fell too heavily on France itself to be sustainable. Similar criticisms can be levelled at the long chapter on WWI, a clichéd litany of endless trench warfare: such an account is ultimately mystifying, making us wonder why the to-and-fro of the Western front eventually resulted in German defeat, an outcome inexplicable without considering the effects of attrition, such as the starvation caused by the blockade of German ports, and social unrest, partly inspired by the Russian Revolution, itself partly an outcome of the socio-political impact of war.

The Eurocentrism and limited focus of Holmes’s book add up to a third characteristic failure of military history: its reactionary emphasis. There is, for instance, no consideration whatsoever of the political impact of the end of ‘decisive conflicts’, whether ancient or modern. Rome’s political coherence began to decline precisely because of its eventual defeat of Carthage. And in the twentieth century, the defeat of France (1940), Singapore (1942), the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu (1954) and the American defeat in Vietnam (1972) all get brief mentions, but their importance in shocking and demoralising imperial powers while encouraging and radicalising third world anti-colonial movements is totally ignored.

Worst of all, perhaps, is Battlefield‘s coverage of WWII. The firebombing of Dresden is described as ‘cruel necessity’, the only ‘meaningful contribution’ Britain could make to the war effort. The deliberate targeting of civilians was not only a colossal crime against humanity, it also had virtually no impact on the outcome of the war: as Robert Pape’s Bombing to Win persuasively argues, no strategic bombing campaign ever has. This betrays both Holmes’s ignorance of contemporary historiography, and his happiness to repeat clichéd apologias for the conduct of Allied warfare. Reviews carried out by the Allies during the war revealed a similar conclusion, but the US went on to firebomb Japan anyway - a fact not even mentioned in Battlefield but covered extensively in Ronald Schaffer’s Wings of Judgment, published over 20 years ago. Unsurprisingly, Holmes repeats the tired old lie that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ‘proved decisive’ in convincing Japan to sue for peace. Far from seeking to ‘play down’ the significance of the first bombing, Tokyo was unaware of the full scale of the catastrophe even as the second bomb struck. And, as Pape demonstrates in his book, the imperial government still did not surrender until the Soviets declared war and began to advance through Manchuria.

It is not at all clear what use Battlefield is. As a technological history of warfare, it is too broad; as an attempt to identify ‘decisive conflicts in history’, it falls flat due to its selectivity and narrow analysis. It is little more than an encyclopaedia of warfare, a handy reference work if you are keen to find out how a particular battle was fought and won, but useless for anything else. It is not even particularly revealing about warfare in the present age. A relatively lengthy section on Afghanistan covers the Anglo-Afghan wars of 1838-42 and 1878-81, but draws no parallels with the present conflict, and there is no coverage at all of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the present US-NATO occupation. It is almost as if the Cold War never happened for Holmes - American interventions in Central and South America and the Caribbean and Cuban-Soviet interventions in Africa are completely absent (see Odd Arne Westad’s excellent Global Cold War). Worse still is the coverage of Iraq: both the first and second Gulf Wars are covered, but, though he reserves definitive judgement on the latest Iraq war, he seems to side with Bush and Blair, claiming Saddam was ‘edging ahead’ in his brinkmanship with the West by 2000 and trailing his account of the invasion with references to the pursuit of ‘those responsible’ for 9/11. Most absurdly of all he claims the ‘sheer scale of coalition victory’ in Iraq was the ‘ultimate payoff’ for the post-Vietnam ‘doctrinal and psychological regeneration’ of US forces. It should be obvious to the most casual observer that the chaos in Iraq - which even Holmes grudgingly acknowledges - is taking the US army right back to where it started.


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