Book Summary: “War in World History (Vol 2)” by Morillo, Black and Lococo

Title: War in World History: Society, Technology and War from Ancient Times to the Present Volume 2
Author: Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black & Paul Lococo
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The authors overview war in human history. This second volume covers from 1450 to the present. The first volume covers from ancient times to 1450.

My Comments

I believe that this book (in two volumes) is the best overview of world military history ever written. The authors do an excellent job explaining military history, but they also integrate in political, economic and cultural factors.

Important Quotes from Book

Europe 1450-1720           

Whatever we call them, the military transformations of 1450–1720 in western Europe seem to occur in two major stages. From 1450 to 1660, there was a period of experimentation in which many new techniques and technologies were introduced, changes whose potential, for one reason or another, was not fully realized. Then, between 1660 and 1720, came a period of consolidation in which states finally harnessed the changes of the previous period and moved them forward decisively.

The relationship between political development and military change was a central aspect of the European transformation, one that acted normally as a positive feedback loop. That is, states that created more efficient administrations and more effective ways to raise money found that they could deploy those resources to create bigger, better-controlled armies. In turn, richer states could replace unpaid part-time soldiers with paid professionals; they could also retain already mercenary forces for longer periods and in greater numbers. Any state that managed to do so raised the stakes for its neighbors. And the cost and administrative problems associated with bigger, more expensive armies stimulated further measures to reform and improve government. The search for money led states into the business of promoting trade and commerce, as urban merchant wealth became an increasingly important source of finance through loans and taxation. Bigger and better armies also became more responsive tools of state power, as states moved toward a more complete monopoly over the use of armed force.

But money shortages kept the true standing cores of most states’ armies quite small.

Contract troops, or mercenaries, thus came to form the bulk of all European armies from 1450 to 1660.

We can probably say that western European warfare was revolutionarily different and effective, by world standards, by sometime in the eighteenth century, but no single revolutionary period or episode can be isolated as decisive. Rather, the revolutionary result was the end product of a seven-century evolution of a western European socio – military system whose major elements had been in play since the mid-eleventh century.

The fundamental limitation, however, was that the disruptions of the religious wars prevented the consolidation of state power. Schismatic aristocrats resisted central control and so diffused efforts at imposing discipline and standardization.

The logistical constraints that had shaped strategy since ancient times continued in force in this period: Transport was slow, and no army could travel very far or survive for long just on carted supplies. Armies on campaign had to live off the land by pillage, and plunder.

Changes in siege warfare were central to the military developments of this period in Europe. The gradual appearance of effective siege guns beginning in the early fifteenth century initiated the transformation… Suddenly, over a thousand years of accumulated wisdom about fortification was rendered irrelevant.

By 1500, the size of armies had grown dramatically, and virtually all of the growth, in terms of both numbers and tactical innovations, had taken place in the ranks of the infantry.

The age of pike and shot reached its apogee during the Thirty Years War in the Swedish army of Gustavus Adolphus. The Swedish army adapted and enhanced many of the developments of the first phase of the European transformation.

Their potential, measured in global terms, was to a great extent unrealized due to limitations of logistical and administrative support and a lack of consistent discipline and unit continuity. European armies had no clear advantage over other gunpowder armies such as the Ottomans, and the techniques of European warfare were still readily exportable with the technology. But the end of the Wars of Religion allowed a reconsolidation of political power around the traditional royal-aristocratic partnership.

The main thrust of Louis’ military reforms was to make the army into a responsive instrument of royal power. Mercenary companies were turned into official state regiments, with private contracts replaced by standardized terms of service. Many formerly independent mercenary captains ceased being private entrepreneurs and became officers of the state. Military rank and paths of promotion, though still subject to political influence, were regularized.

Finance would, in fact, be the Achilles heel of absolutist armies, especially in France, a problem inseparable from the political and social structure of absolutist states. The more the formal mechanisms of power were concentrated in royal hands, the less incentive the aristocracy had to pay for a power they had little formal say over, despite their role as social leaders and military officers. France’s inability to tax its aristocrats continued to prove a crippling handicap, one shared to some extent by all the emerging absolutist states. It was thus left to England, with its odd political system sheltered on its island, to create what would prove to be the most significant breakthrough in military administration and finance in the era.

The invention of deficit financing and a secured national debt allowed England, with a population much smaller than that of France, to more than match its great rival’s military expenditures and to exploit the increasing wealth of its overseas trade and empire (won largely during wars with France) for military purposes. In short, Britain implemented a thoroughly modern fusion of capitalism, government, and military power.

Cannon and Calvary 1500-1750

The spread of guns seems to have created an even larger and more immediate revolution in the rest of Eurasia… by 1750 most of the steppe peoples had lost both their independence and their ability to threaten their settled neighbors in a serious way.

Trapped between new, expensive forms of military force and old forms of revenue raising and social structure, the Safavids, like the Ottomans and Mughals, achieved a period of power but not a lasting transformation of their world.

Large imperial armies were expensive to maintain, and none of these empires, bound to traditional agrarian patterns of economic organization, proved capable of sustained military success. Often, success depended on expansion, but there were limits to how large an empire could be before it became ungovernable given the communications technology of the time. And expansion itself often exacerbated problems with regionalism and factionalism that could also become acute if expansion stopped and the flow of plunder that kept factionalism at bay ceased.

European Empires 1500-1700

Europeans for the most part were confined to small coastal enclaves established to facilitate trade rather than as launching points for large-scale territorial conquest.

[Even in the Americas] apart from the Spanish takeover of the Aztec and Inca empires, the pattern of European impact in the Americas, on closer inspection, resembles that found elsewhere: coastal (that is, dependent on naval power and connections) and limited.

Europeans’ most decisive technological advantage was their ships… Ships thus allowed Europeans, once they gained a foothold in the new lands, to deploy their massive demographic and economic advantages over native civilizations, an advantage obscured by the small size of the initial invading forces. Ships were also the key technology for Europeans’ edge over other Eurasian peoples in exploiting the Americas, given Europe’s geographical proximity to the new lands.

Further, ships were a secure technology: They could not be copied or adopted and used by Indian groups, unlike the other European technologies.

The brute fact is that far more soldiers died of disease than from enemy action in every war until the Russo- Japanese War of 1904–5 on the Japanese side and until World War I in general terms.

Large concentrations of men and their camp followers created unavoidable problems of sanitation and breeding grounds for the spread of infections; dysentery may be the biggest killer of soldiers in history.

Most significantly, diseases that affected men and horses blunted the impact of armies from temperate regions and of horsed nomads on tropical and subtropical areas.

The chief limitation on Aztec armies was logistical. With no pack animals or wheeled transport, all supplies had to be carried by porters, generally one for every two soldiers. This meant that Aztec armies could march only about three days beyond friendly territory to fight a battle and that sieges were very rare.

The great Inca weakness in the face of the Spaniards, however, was their weaponry. Though they knew the use of bronze, almost all their weapons were of stone, wood, and bone and were designed for crushing blows, delivered by club or sling. They lacked slashing and cutting weapons such as the Aztec obsidian swords, and they underutilized the archery skills of jungle peoples on the fringes of the empire. Shortages of good wood, another consequence of high elevation, also kept the length of Inca spears down.

In short, this was an age not of European dominance, but of European participation on a global scale. That participation was itself new and significant, but it was not a sign that a military revolution had transformed Europe’s place in the global power structure.

Japan and China 1500-1750

The Japanese and Chinese virtually dictated the terms of their contact with Europeans. This was a result, not just of the distance between East Asia and Europe, but of the strength of East Asian governmental and military traditions. Both Japan and China—the latter the original home of gunpowder—adopted gunpowder weapons readily, because their military and political structures were evolving or had already evolved in directions compatible with the use of guns. Their experience cautions against interpretations of early modern military transformation based too heavily on new technology: Social technology mattered as much or more in changing patterns of warfare.

China’s experience with the Mongols under the Qing shows that in at least one sphere the gunpowder age had wrought a decisive change in the global balance of military power: not (yet) toward Europe, but toward all settled civilizations and away from the horsed nomads of Central Asia.

Age of Sail 1500-1750

The same is not true of naval warfare. Here, unequivocally, is a military revolution of the greatest magnitude, one that fundamentally altered the nature of naval warfare in ways that had a tremendous global impact. It is not an exaggeration to say that changes in naval warfare and maritime activity generally were the most important developments of this age.

Heretofore, military commanders engaged in naval warfare only as an adjunct of land warfare. Ships generally had to stay close to shore, tied to ports by limits of logistics, navigation, and ship strength. A warship was usually little more than a merchant ship loaded with soldiers—not marines—untrained for fighting onboard ship.

The world’s oceans became highways instead of barriers, drawing whole new continents into an emerging global economy. European navies, capable of cruising for months with only minimal contact ashore, became the first in world history to exercise control of the seas, at least in some sense.

European ability to exploit the seas in new and revolutionary ways were a product not just of new technology—the cannon-bearing, full-rigged ship—but of unusual forms of social and economic organization. In fact, these socioeconomic structures preceded and gave rise to the technologies that were their instruments.

No state in 1500 could afford to maintain a standing navy of more than minimal size, and most had none at all.

Over the course of this period, however, clearer lines emerged separating the use of force at sea, which governments attempted to monopolize, and trade, which fell to private merchants. This separation coincided with the rise of standing, bureaucratic navies beginning in the late seventeenth century…  And ultimately, the bond between state and private interests reached its greatest strength near the end of this period in the complex of state and private manufacturing, financial, and political institutions and concerns that built and sustained the Royal Navy after 1688. Given that warships were probably the most complex, sophisticated, and expensive technology of the age, it is not surprising that their creation stimulated the most advanced expressions of institutional organization known to that time in Europe.

The centerpiece of naval warfare in this age was the technologically complex, cannon-bearing, full-rigged ship.

The full-rigged ship was a labor-efficient merchant vessel, requiring a relatively small crew while providing ample cargo space. And the same characteristics made it a labor-efficient warship, especially when cannon replaced masses of infantry as its chief armament. One result was a ship that could stay at sea for far longer periods than any previous vessel because it could carry plenty of supplies relative to its crew size.

The breakthrough came in 1501 when a Frenchman invented the hinged gun port. Now large cannon could be mounted on the sturdy lower decks of the ship, creating the possibility of broadside volleys.

The solution came in the 1620s or 1630s—the origin of the invention is unclear—with a block-and-tackle system rigged to the wheeled gun carriage.

British seamen had more practice and training, and more real experience, than any of their rivals, and this factor told consistently in the heat of action. Their sailing was more practiced, and their gunnery was more consistent, accurate, and effective.

Unlike its land warfare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was already a product of a complex socio-economic formation and set of practices that were foreign to the structures of most other civilizations. As a result, potential competitors found it difficult to reproduce the range of activities and materials needed to sustain competition at sea. Further, almost none had any interest in doing so… The Europeans dominated the seas in large part because no one else cared about them.

What emerged is what can be called a coastal entrepôt empire.

The logical conclusion [of Mercantilism] was that, to improve its balance of trade, a country had to aggressively seize a bigger slice of a static pie. The tools for accomplishing this turned out to be a combination of chartered merchant trading companies backed by well-armed navies.

The middle decades of the seventeenth century saw a rapid evolution, away from the ad hoc organization and heterogeneous collections of ships that characterized navies up to that point, and toward standing navies of royally owned ships backed by a permanent bureaucratic infrastructure.

Having in effect established the sovereignty of Parliament within the central government—no taxes could be raised nor any army maintained without parliamentary consent—the landed and mercantile interests who controlled Parliament proved willing to pay for the state they now controlled. Thus, unlike almost everywhere on the Continent, every class in England contributed to paying taxes, including those who could afford it most.

Two themes stand out in the military history of 1500–1750. First, this period witnessed the reversal of the military superiority of nomads that had lasted for two millenia. Now, for the first time, settled civilizations gained a decisive edge against their steppe rivals. Second, the world’s oceans saw the rise of new forms of naval power linked to the emergence of truly global trade networks, with a consequent globalization of warfare (as well as other forms of cultural contact). receded.

Fundamental to the direction of this trend was the growing population and resource base of settled civilizations. Ever-more farmers and the merchants, bureaucrats, priests, and soldiers they supported meant ever-more land brought under cultivation and an increasing disparity in the numbers of people and goods of all types that civilizations could bring to bear against their nomadic neighbors. Constrained by the environment that shaped their military skills, there could be no such growth among the horse people. After 1500, this general trend was magnified by a specific type of good available only to settled armies: guns.

With the nomads tamed, the engine of renewal and deadly competition was stilled, and a major incentive for military inventiveness was removed. In the event, none of the major Eurasian empires were fully prepared to meet a new form of competition coming from the Eurasian periphery.

But the second reason for European dominance of the seas was that they faced little if any organized or determined opposition. The major states outside of Europe had little interest in the seas or maritime trade… They were land-based empires. The significant threats to their security, such as the nomads discussed above, and the political and economic interests of their elite classes, were in landholding and agriculture, as they had always been.

Europe 1680-1789

The foundation for the increasing military power of many European countries was an increasingly systematized and rational connection between governments and their war machines, on the one hand, and the economy, on the other.

Many of the growing industries had direct military connections: European output of muskets, cannon, gunpowder, and ammunition rose steadily, as did production of boots, cloth made into uniforms and sails, and the other varied equipment needed to outfit an army or navy. The manufacturers were mostly private firms, but they benefited from the steady and assured stream of government contracts.

Therefore, the ability of states to tap their economies directly became a key measure of military potential.

Continental powers under absolutist monarchs imitated British developments as best they could, but they were consistently crippled by the tax-exempt status of most continental aristocrats.

But the second main pattern was that major changes [in weapon innovation] were in reality very limited. Expense and still significant technological limitations were the key brakes on the creation and adoption of significantly different weaponry. The large royal armies that had emerged by the beginning of the eighteenth century strained their states’ resources just in terms of manpower and basic equipment. Once they were armed to a certain level, with the standard kit of smoothbore muskets and artillery, most states could not afford to reequip them in any major way.

The new weapons developed included the socket bayonet and the flintlock musket in the late seventeenth century, the elevating screw for cannon in the eighteenth, and paper cartridges.

For one of the most significant changes from mid-seventeenth-century warfare was the greater size of individual field armies that the states and economies of the eighteenth century could support.

What increasingly set the European way of war apart from that of other areas of the world in this period was not, fundamentally, technology. Rather, it was the whole range of techniques used to employ armed force, techniques extending from battlefield tactics

to the institutional and bureaucratic structures necessary to raise, train, and command European-style armies. These techniques were linked organically to European social structure, governmental practices, and economic activity: Technique was a product of an entire sociomilitary system. While in a broad sense this had always been true of every military system, the general similarities between most preindustrial civilizations had meant that large disparities in the effectiveness of ways of war had heretofore been difficult to achieve. The great disparity prior to the age of gunpowder had been between civilizations and nomadic societies, with the nomads enjoying a general superiority based on an entire way of life foreign to settled peoples. What European developments produced by the middle of the eighteenth century was a similar disparity based on an entire way of life. But this time, it was a difference between settled peoples.

In brief, the effective independent use of European weaponry required the ability to produce such weapons.

The mass infantry armies that employed the weapons could only be created by strong central governments with professional bureaucracies and secure tax bases. Such armies and governments threatened the roles and privileges of traditional elites, so that the political will to create such forces was rarely uncontested even where it existed. As a result, the European way of war became increasingly more difficult to copy because its set of practices required the support of a social system that was steadily becoming more foreign to traditional modes of organization. In other words, non- Europeans who wished to defend themselves against European intrusion now faced the problem of having to “become European”—adopting European ways at odds with their own traditions—in order to develop European-style armies.

The end result of this development was a growing advantage for European forces. Technological innovation, though slow and incremental, was steady in Europe by now because it was a product of a socioeconomic system with a capitalist core.

In general, large land-based powers’ independence was not threatened by European contact in this period.

But two vital factors were still missing from the equation that would make Europe dominant: First, the expansion of politics beyond a monarchical scope by the creation of national armies motivated by nationalist ideology; and, second, industry, and the range of technological breakthroughs (including medicine), economic muscle, and impetus to expansionism it would bring.

Revolution and Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815

The meritocracy of French command proved one of the hardest aspects of French innovation for France’s foes to copy, as it was tied so deeply to the social and political implications of the revolution.

There was no major technological transformation leading to new means of conflict during the wars of this era.

Europe 1815-1914

The Industrial Revolution ranks with the taming of fire and the invention of agriculture as a fundamental turning point in human history.

The century from 1815 to 1914 in Europe and North America saw a transformation of armies and warfare far more radical and complete than any before in history, a transformation that propelled the West to world dominance but left everyone uncomprehending of and unprepared for the results of this revolution.

Military and economic competition, combined with powerful national governments as buyers, guaranteed an increasing range of new and improved war machinery, as well as spurring the growth of companies such as the German Krupp armaments works into a network of military-industrial complexes. The biggest changes affected transport and firepower.

Railroads were the first step in an ongoing revolution in army mobility.

A concurrent revolution in firepower began with the invention of easy-to-load rifled muskets in 1830.

[1815-70] Armies were almost universally constructed with social control as their primary mission.

This meant moderately sized armies of long-term professionals, enlisted for terms ranging from seven to twenty years.

Prussian victory in 1870–71 moved foreign competition ahead of internal security for every European state, and the era of mass conscript armies began in earnest… All the major European states except Britain, and most of the minor ones, moved quickly after 1871 to copy the Prussian system.

The key to Prussian military success in 1864–71 at the strategic level was sequential warfare: The Prussians fought their opponents separately, avoiding the two-front wars that were to bedevil Germany in 1914–18 and 1941–45. At the operational level, the key factor was the development by Prussia of a General Staff system that provided the basis for effective and rapid decision making.

Planning and preparation were the keys to modern warfare. As Western militaries became more institutionalized and professional, so planning came to play an ever-greater role. Military education was emphasized.

Like China in the late nineteenth century, the Ottomans discovered that forming a modern military system able to both defend the empire and maintain order within it would require reform of society itself, including an industrial revolution.

Three-way split similar to that found in many areas of the world facing Western intrusion. At one extreme were those who, completely impractically, wanted to “expel the barbarians,” as the emperor ordered, and maintain isolation. At the other extreme were those who wished to abandon all Japanese traditions and westernize totally. Finally, some took a middle position, advocating adoption of Western scientific, military, and technological advances in the context of Japanese ethics and culture. One oddity about Japan’s response to the West is that the middle position in effect won out.

From Sail to Steam 1750-1914

The industrialization that revolutionized warfare and vaulted western Europe and the United States to world dominance in the nineteenth century contributed equally, if not more radically, to transformations of naval warfare. Indeed, naval power was often the key to the successful projection of Western military force around the globe, from steam-powered riverine gunboats in China in the Opium Wars, to American steamships forcing open Kamakura Japan, to the even more important but often unseen maritime supply lines that connected European capitals to their far-flung imperial possessions. Technological transformations were at the heart of changes in naval warfare, but as with land warfare, modern naval technology came inseparably tied up with political, social, and economic structures that generated and supported the technological breakthroughs.

Yet in some ways, the age showed a curious continuity. The last half of the eighteenth century saw Great Britain cement its naval dominance in the climax of the age of sailing ships and smoothbore cannon.

At the most basic level, naval power, both actual and potential, through the century increasingly reflected the industrial capacity of maritime nations… Each transformation of ship technology saw this same pattern repeated, with Britain rapidly outproducing most of its rivals even if when it did not innovate first.

Unlike early gunpowder weapons, whose technology proved simple enough to transfer with relative ease and so gave no area a lasting advantage, the military technologies of the industrial age were based in a far more complex and extensive set of social and economic systems and relations. These proved difficult for many societies to adopt, and the Industrial Revolution and its military advantages remained confined almost exclusively to Europe throughout the nineteenth century. The United States, a European outpost, also industrialized, but as most of Latin America shows, a European population alone was not sufficient to create an industry-compatible environment. Japan was the only non-European power to join the industrial world, and it proved its military competence in 1905 against Russia.

A vast technological and organizational disparity between the industrial and nonindustrial worlds thus opened up. This disparity laid the basis for an unprecedented age of competitive imperialism that saw a handful of European states dominate world politics and build global empires.


We find affirmed one of the recurring themes of this work: that technology is essentially a dependent variable in the equation of warfare. In other words, the uses to which particular technologies are put vary significantly depending on the social and cultural contexts in which they are deployed. In terms more directly relevant to conditions of modern warfare, there is often a significant difference between output and outcome, between the sheer productive capacity of a state’s military-industrial infrastructure, qualitatively and quantitatively, and the ability of that state to achieve its grand strategic and political goals… Technological determinism is a historiographical nonstarter.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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