Book Summary: “The Pursuit of Power” by William McNeill

Title: The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society since A.D. 1000
Author: William H. McNeill
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
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Topic of Book

McNeill, one of the world’s most influential historians, overviews European and Asian military history from 1000 to the 20th Century.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Before the Industrial Revolution, the availability of food and fodder for animals was a critical constraint on military power. Armies were forced to campaign in the summer when food was plentiful and return before the harvest.
  • The first dominant weapon system was the chariot of the Bronze age.
  • The Assyrians created the first ancient army with standardized weapons, units, logistics system and a chain-of-command.
  • Riding horses, particularly while firing arrows from a bow, gave Steppe herding societies of Central Asia a decisive military advantage over their agricultural neighbors.
  • They also forced Agrarian societies to adopted heavy cavalry in defense.
  • Modern armies evolved in northern Italy in 1300s. Starting first as individual mercenaries, they evolved into paid professional soldiers.
  • Military innovations in Italy in weaponry, armor, fortifications and organization spread into northern Europe starting with Spain and the Netherlands.
  • The invention of bronze and later iron cannon gave a decisive advantage to centralizing kings over the old feudal lords riding heavy cavalry.
  • As the centralizing monarchies competed with each other, armies grew rapidly in size, training, logistics and organization. Weapons technology accelerated faster than in the rest of the world. Historians often call this the “Military Revolution.”
  • Monarchies needed to raise vast amounts of money to pay for these growing armies, leading to changes in taxation and debt financing.
  • The French Revolution and World Wars of the 20th Century led to mass mobilizations in war.

Important Quotes from Book

Hence the availability of food constituted the principal limit upon military action and the size of armies.

But if the ruler and his bodyguard had to reside at least part of the year in a capital city, then a march of more than about ninety days from the capital became risky. Transport and provisioning were, therefore, the principal limits ancient rulers and armies confronted.

The first such horizon point…: the introduction of bronze weapons and armor at or near the very beginning of civilized history, starting in Mesopotamia about 3500 B.C.

Mobility and firepower were raised to a new level with the invention, soon after 1800 B.C., of light but sturdy two-wheeled vehicles that could dash about the field of battle behind a team of galloping horses without upsetting or breaking down. The critical improvement that made chariots supreme instruments of war was the invention of the spoked wheel with a friction reducing hub-and-axle design… The compound bow—short but strong—was a scarcely less important part of the charioteers’ equipment, and its construction also required a high level of craftsmanship.

The population best able to take advantage of the possibilities of chariot warfare were steppe dwellers, whose way of life assured an easy access to horses. Accordingly, waves of barbarian conquerors equipped with chariots overran all the civilized lands of the Middle East between 1800 and 1500 B.C. The newcomers established a series of feudal states.

Assyrian kings were the most successful practitioners of the art of bureaucratic management of armed force in the early Iron Age. They developed an army in which ascribed rank defined who should command and who obey. Standard equipment, standard units, a ladder of promotion open to talent: these familiar bureaucratic principles of army management all appear to have been either introduced or made standard by Assyrian rulers. A parallel civil bureaucracy proved itself capable of assembling food stocks for a proposed campaign, of building roads to facilitate military movement across long distances, and of mobilizing labor for the erection of fortifications.

The enduring consequences of the cavalry revolution in Eurasia were far-reaching. Steppe populations, once they had mastered the arts of horsemanship and acquired the skills to make bows, arrows, and all necessary accoutrements from materials available to them locally, had a cheaper and more mobile armed force at their command than civilized peoples could easily put into the field. Steppe warriors could therefore raid civilized lands lying to the south of them almost with impunity, unless rulers were able to replicate barbarian levels of mobility and morale within their own armed establishments.

A second pattern also asserted its power over steppe populations. Both temperature and precipitation diminished from west to east across the steppe… The result of this geographical layout was that tribesmen, given a choice, preferred to leave Mongolia, pushing towards better pasture by moving either east or west.

The rise of heavy armored cavalry in western Asia and in western Europe constituted a reprise of the impact of chariotry on social and political structures some eighteen hundred years earlier. Whenever superior force came to rest in the hands of a few elaborately equipped and trained individuals, it became difficult for central authorities to prevent such persons from intercepting most of the agricultural surplus and consuming it locally. “Feudalism” was the result,  it is the hypothesis of this book that China’s rapid evolution towards market-regulated behavior in the centuries on either side of the year 1000 tipped a critical balance in world history. I believe that China’s example set humankind off on a thousand-year exploration of what could be accomplished by relying on prices and personal or small-group (the partnership or company) perception of private advantage as a way of orchestrating behavior on a mass scale.

Wherever knightly conquests outran the moldboard plow, social patterns differed from those of the west European heartlands. The resulting political regimes were often unstable and short-lived, as in the Levant or Balkans.

The merging of military enterprise into the market system of Italy passed through two distinguishable stages. By the 1380s self-constituted “free companies” had disappeared. Instead it became usual for cities to enter into contracts with captains who promised to hire and command a body of troops in exchange for agreed payments of money.

But commercialization soon required standardization of personnel and equipment… In this way a regular standing army of known size and capability emerged in the better governed cities of Italy during the first half of the fifteenth century.

The way around this sort of inefficiency was for civil administrators to enter into contractual relationships with smaller and smaller units, down to the single “lance.” This practice became increasingly common in both Venice and Milan by the 1480s. Civil officials thereby acquired a far greater control over the state’s armed forces, since they now could appoint whomever they wished to command an appropriate number of assembled “lances.” The effect was to promote the emergence of a corps of officers whose careers depended more on ties with civic officials who had the power of appointment and less on ties with the particular soldiers who from time to time might come under a

given officer’s command. Such a pattern of subordination assured effective political control of organized force. Coups d etat ceased to be a serious threat.

A remarkably flexible and efficient system of warfare, relating means to ends according to financial as well as diplomatic calculations, thus came into being in the Po valley by the end of the fifteenth century. Its establishment constituted a second stage in the institutional adjustment to the commercialization of warfare by Italian cities.

Put differently, efficient tax collection, debt-funding, and skilled, professional military management kept peace at home, and exported the uncertainties of organized violence to the realm of foreign affairs, diplomacy, and war.

Italians invented a new and distinctively European pattern of diplomacy and war.

The system maintained strong incentives for continued improvements of weapons design. When many different purchasers entered the market, and many different artisan shops produced arms and armor for the public, any change in design that cheapened the product or improved its performance could be counted on to attract prompt attention and propagate itself rapidly. Accordingly an arms race, of the kind that has often manifested itself among European peoples subsequently, broke out in the fourteenth century. It centered mainly in Italy. The effect at first was to confirm and strengthen the formidability of Italian armed forces; before long, however, new weaponry began to favor larger states and more powerful monarchs.

As long as the race lay between ever more efficient crossbows and more and more elaborate plate armor, Italian workshops and artisan designers kept the lead. This was the agenda of the fourteenth century.

In the short run the effect on the French countryside was often disastrous; in the long run armies and their plundering expanded the role of buying and selling in everyday life.

As a result, by the time the French monarchy began to recover from the squalid demoralization induced by the initial English victories and widespread disaffection among the nobility, an expanded tax base allowed the king to collect enough hard cash to support an increasingly formidable armed force. This was the army which expelled the English from France by 1453 after a series of successful campaigns… The kingdom of France thus emerged on the map of Europe between 1450 and 1478, centralized as never before and capable of maintaining a standing professional army of about 25,000 men year in and year out, with an extreme upper limit of 80,000 available for mobilization in time of crisis.

Mere numbers, however, do not tell the tale. The French army that drove the English out of Normandy and Guienne, 1450–53, did so by bringing heavy artillery pieces to bear on castle walls, one after another, whereupon previously formidable defenses came tumbling down in a matter of hours.

The clumsy bombards of 1453 had already altered the balance between besieger and besieged, but the resulting disturbance to established power relationships was enormously magnified by the French and Burgundian invention of mobile siege guns between 1465 and 1477. Wherever the new artillery appeared, existing fortifications became useless. The power of any ruler who was able to afford the high cost of the new weapons was therefore enhanced at the expense of neighbors and subjects who were unable to avail themselves of the new technology of war.

In Europe, the major effect of the new weaponry was to dwarf the Italian city-states and to reduce other small sovereignties to triviality.

By the 1520s, fortifications on the new Italian model were again quite capable of resisting even the best-equipped attackers. But their cost was enormous. Only the wealthiest states and cities could afford the scores of cannon and the enormous labor of construction required by the trace italienne, as this type of fortification came to be called beyond the Alps.

As a result, the so-called Spanish tercios emerged from the Italian wars as the most formidable field force in Europe. A tercio comprised a mass of pikemen who protected a fringe of musketeers posted around the central square of pikes.

The tactics of the Spanish tercios gave a decisive battlefield role to infantry, not only in defense but in attack as well.

The extent of the Mughal, Muscovite, and Ottoman empires was defined in practice by the mobility of their respective imperial gun parks. In Russia, the Muscovites prevailed wherever navigable rivers made it possible to bring heavy guns to bear against existing fortifications. In the interior of India, where water transportation was unavailable, imperial consolidation remained precarious.

But in each of these states, even in those immediately abutting upon western Europe, once a decisive advantage accrued to central authorities through the use and monopolization of heavy guns, further spontaneous improvements in gunpowder weapons ceased.

There was little incentive to experiment with new devices.

In western Europe, on the contrary, improvements in weapons design continued to be eagerly sought after. Whenever anything new really worked, it spread from court to court, shop to shop, and camp to camp with quite extraordinary rapidity. Not surprisingly, therefore, the equipment and training of European armed forces soon began to outstrip those of other parts of the civilized world.

On land, the mingling of mercenary and military motives never worked as smoothly as on the sea. Noblemen, disdainful of pecuniary calculations in principle if not always in practice, played the leading role in European armies. Their ideals of prowess and personal honor were fundamentally incompatible with the financial, logistical, and routine administrative aspects of military management. On the sea, prowess was firmly subordinated to finance because before a ship sailed it had to be fitted out with a rather complicated assortment of supplies which could only be gathered together by payments of money.

The hope that an army might somehow manage to pay for itself by bringing new taxpayers under the victor’s jurisdiction nearly always failed. European states were too evenly matched for easy conquests to bring in such windfalls. Only occasionally, and on the periphery, where European armed establishments encountered less militarily sophisticated societies, was the exercise of force at all likely to become a paying proposition. The Russians in Siberia, thanks to furs, and the Spaniards in the Americas, thanks to silver, were the two empire builders to profit conspicuously from their frontier position in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The self-supporting character of European seafaring was, in considerable part, an example of pay-off resulting from collision between superior armed force and less well equipped rivals. To the land empires of Siberia and the Americas should therefore be added a sea empire of the Asian coastline, initially dominated by Portuguese and later by Dutch and English ships. It was thus not merely the financial organization of marine enterprise but also its “frontier” character that made it self-supporting.

Eventually, therefore, fiscal limitations asserted their sovereign power over the regal majesty of even the greatest king of Europe… In Asian lands, where monarchs ruled over territories less extensive than those that obeyed Philip II’s commands, no cobweb of credit spun by calculating bankers restrained the will of the rulers or limited their military initiatives. The reason was that in Asia, when goods and services were needed to put an army in the field, the rulers’ commands sufficed to mobilize whatever was, or could be, mobilized. If adequate supplies were not forthcoming from taxes and free market sale to the government, officials felt free to seize the goods and money of the subject populations.

Rough-and-ready command mobilization of this sort had its price, of course. By making large-scale private accumulation of capital difficult and precarious, the pace of economic development and technological innovation was restricted to things that small-scale artisans could undertake…  Asian regimes accordingly fell behind European military and technological development in a way that cost them dearly in the long run.

Why did not command mobilization also prevail in Europe?.. Perversely, from a Spanish official point of view, it was exactly in places where the king’s will was not sovereign that economic activity and arms production concentrated. Private enterprise systematically located large-scale undertakings where taxes were low and prices could be freely adjusted to what the market would bear.

Under these circumstances, command simply could not prevail against the market as a way to marshal men and resources. As long as no single political command structure could reach out to every corner of Latin Christendom, and so acquire the capability of nipping capitalist accumulation in the bud, the sovereignty of the market over even the greatest ruler of the age remained an ultimate reality.

Philip II would have found it hard to believe, but in the long run European states actually were strengthened by their involvement in the fiscal web spun by international bankers and suppliers. First of all, the tax base grew because the scale of production in Europe as a whole tended to increase as private firms accumulated resources for largescale trade and industrial activity. Regional specialization developed economies of scale running across political boundaries. Technological advance was hastened by the coexistence of multiple suppliers and multiple purchasers. Loans from private sources to finance extraordinary governmental expenditure.

Paradoxically, the mix of managerial opposites—kings and ministers struggling against and collaborating with bankers and merchant suppliers—hurried along an ever deepening penetration of market relationships into European society. Each increase in taxation brought additional segments of Europe’s wealth into circulation, for states spent all they received.

In Asia similar sentiments were effective because the market for goods and services remained relatively weak, being confined to an artisan level. In Europe, once a few self-governing cities in Italy and the Low Countries had demonstrated the enhanced wealth and power that a more enthusiastic unleashing of market incentives could create, market articulation of human effort gained the upper hand.

The effectiveness of commercialized war as developed in Mediterranean Europe between 1300 and 1600 was attested by the sporadic spread of what may appropriately be dubbed the “military-commercial complex” to new ground thereafter. A parallel change was the bureaucratization of military administration. By slow degrees tax collection for the support of standing armed forces began to conform to bureaucratic regularity over wider and wider areas of the European continent. The internal administration of armies and navies moved in the same direction. Then, in the seventeenth century, the Dutch pioneered important improvements in military administration and routine. In particular, they discovered that long hours of repeated drill made armies more efficient in battle. Drill also imparted a remarkable esprit de corps to the rank and file, even when the soldiers were recruited from the lowest ranks of society.

Three significant efforts at drastic reorganization for war came to the fore during the struggle. The first of these was the remarkable military entrepreneurship of Albrecht von Wallenstein.

The second remarkable power structure of the Thirty Years War was that created by the Swedish king, Gustav Adolf (r. 1611–32).

As a result, by the end of the Thirty Years War, European armies were no longer a mere collection of individually well-trained and bellicose persons, as early medieval armies had been, nor a mass of men acting in unison with plenty of brute ferocity but no effective control once battle had been joined, as had been true of the Swiss pikemen of the fifteenth century. Instead, a consciously cultivated and painstakingly perfected art of war allowed a commanding general, at least in principle, to control the actions of as many as 30,000 men in battle… European armies, in other words, evolved very rapidly to the level of the higher animals by developing the equivalent of a central nervous system, capable of activating technologically differentiated claws and teeth.

The third notable military-political structure which emerged from the Thirty Years War was French.

At first, French generals were inferior to the battle-experienced commanders of Spain and Germany; but by 1643, when the French defeated the Spaniards at Rocroi, the French too had achieved a level of skill in the art of war equivalent to the best in Europe. Thereupon the larger resources that the French king had at his command gave the Bourbon monarchy the capacity to eclipse any rivals, simply by putting larger and better-trained armies into the field. The political history of the second half of the seventeenth century turned on this elemental fact.

The successful suppression of the Fronde, as this final round of old-fashioned civil disorder in France was called, marked a significant turning-point in the history of European war and statecraft. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it marked the time at which transalpine states finally caught up with the level of administrative management and control over armed force that had been attained in Venice and Milan two centuries earlier. The fact is that nearly every aspect of French and Austrian management of their armed establishments in the second half of the seventeenth century had been anticipated by Venice and Milan. Civilian control of supply, regular payment of the soldiers with money derived from tax revenues, along with differentiation and tactical coordination of infantry, cavalry, and artillery all were shared between fifteenth-century Italian city-states and seventeenth-century transalpine monarchies.

By Louvois’ time two generations of European commanders had discovered that drill made soldiers both more obedient and more efficient in battle. The person principally responsible for developing modern routines of army drill was Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange (1567–1625), captain-general of Holland and Zeeland between 1585 and his death.

Maurice’s third reform both made drill more effective and was itself made effective by repeated drill: to wit, he divided his army into smaller tactical units than had been customary before, in imitation of the maniples of the Roman legion. Battalions of 550 men, further subdivided into companies and platoons, made convenient units for drill, since a single voice could control the movements of all the men. Primary personal ties, extending from commanding officer to newest recruit, could also establish themselves among the members of units of this size. They could move nimbly on a battlefield, acting independently yet in coordination with each other, since an unambiguous chain of command extended from the general in charge of the battle to the noncom in charge of each rank of each platoon. Commanders at each level in the hierarchy, at least in principle, responded to orders coming from above, transmitting them to appropriate subordinates with whatever additional specification the situation might require.

In this way an army became an articulated organism with a central nervous system that allowed sensitive and more or less intelligent response to unforeseen circumstances. Every movement attained a new level of exactitude and speed.

Social bonds among soldiers were strengthened further by the fact that from the age of Louis XIV standing armies encouraged long-term enlistment and reenlistment. Once assigned to a particular unit, a soldier might therefore spend many years in the ranks, sharing experiences with long-time comrades who disappeared more often through death than from choice. This allowed sentiments of group solidarity to become firmly fixed, and transformed small army units into effective primary communities.

The creation of such a New Leviathan—half inadvertently perhaps —was certainly one of the major achievements of the seventeenth century, as remarkable in its way as the birth of modern science or any of the other breakthroughs of that age.

Maurice organized a military academy for the training of officers in 1619—another first for Europe. A graduate of Prince Maurice’s academy subsequently took service with Gustav Adolf of Sweden and brought the new Dutch drill to that army. From the Swedes the new drill (variously modified of course) spread to all the other European armies with any pretension to efficiency. Protestant states accepted the innovation first; from them it spread to the French, and last of all to the Spaniards, whose attachment to their own long-victorious tradition was naturally very great. But after the Battle of Rocroi (1643), when a French army defeated the Spanish tercios in open country, informed military men of Europe all agreed that the new drill had definitely proved superior to Spanish practices.

As tax income became sufficient to meet military payrolls more or less punctually, the profound disturbances that the commercialization of war had introduced into Europe in the fourteenth century seemed finally to have been brought under control. Ravaging soldiers no longer had to sustain themselves by forcibly recirculating the movable wealth of a country. Regular, predictable taxes did the trick instead, transferring money from civilians to officials who used it to support an efficient military force as well as themselves. It seems safe to suggest that only the continuance of interstate rivalries prevented this Old Regime pattern of society and government, which emerged after 1650, from settling down to centuries of routine.

For standardized drill presupposed standardized weapons.

The short-run effect of such standardization was to reduce military costs significantly. Even artisan suppliers could cut the price of their product if assured of steady work manufacturing identical items indefinitely into the future. Supply in the field was also eased when only one caliber of musket ball was required. And since each soldier could be trained to the precise movements of standardized drill, reinforcement of the depleted personnel of any given unit became almost as simple as replacing spent musket balls. Soldiers, in short, tended to become replaceable parts of a great military machine just as much as their weaponry.

We may sum it up as follows: things started to change in the twelfth century with the rise of infantry forces capable of challenging the supremacy of mounted knights on Italian battlefields. Town militias gave way to hired professionals in the fourteenth century, and a pattern of political management of standing armies swiftly evolved within the context of the emergent city-states of Italy during the first half of the fifteenth century, only to be upset by the irruption of French and Spanish armies after 1494. Then a reprise of the Italian development on a territorially larger scale began in transalpine Europe, achieving a pattern reminiscent of Italian city-state administration by the midseventeenth century, when tax income and military-naval expenditure came into more or less stable relation to each other in such countries as France, the United Provinces, and England. But the northern Europeans improved on Italian precedents in two important respects: by developing systematic, oft-repeated drill, and by constructing a clear chain of command that extended from the person of the sovereign— usually a king—to the lowliest noncommissioned officer.

European statecraft throughout the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. The victories Europeans regularly achieved in conflicts with other peoples of the earth during this period attested the unusually efficient character of European military arrangements; and such successes, in turn, facilitated the steady growth of overseas trade which helped to make the costs of maintaining standing armies and navies easier for Europeans to bear. Hence European rulers, especially those located towards the frontiers of European society, were in the happy and unusual position of not having to choose between guns and butter but could instead help themselves to more of both, while their subjects—at least some of them—were also able to enrich themselves.

In England after the 1640s and in France after the 1660s rulers ceased to struggle against the constraints of the market in the fashion Philip II of Spain and most of his contemporary rulers had done. Instead a conscious collaboration between rulers and their officials on the one hand and capitalist entrepreneurs on the other became normal.

Instead of looking upon private capital as a tempting and obvious target for confiscatory taxation, as rulers in other parts of the world regularly did, the political masters of western Europe came to believe, and acted on the belief, that by setting precise limits to taxation and collecting designated sums equably, private wealth and total tax receipts could both be made to grow.

The superior flexibility of market behavior in making room for technical innovation eventually allowed Great Britain, and western Europe generally, to steal a march on the Russians by raising economic and military efficiency to a level that eclipsed Russian and east European achievements. This did not become clear until after 1850, however.

By the mid-eighteenth century, four limits in existing patterns of military organization had become apparent. One of these was the difficulty of controlling the movements of an army of more than about 50,000 men.

Supply constituted a second and very powerful constraint on European armies. The perfection of their drill gave European armies unique formidability and flexibility at short range and for a few hours of battle. But at longer range, force could be brought to bear in a new location only by slow, sporadic stages. Available transport simply could not concentrate enough food to support thousands of horses and men if they kept on the move day after day.

An amazing fact of world history is that in the nineteenth century even small detachments of troops, equipped in up-to-date European fashion, could defeat African and Asian states with ease. As steamships and railroads supplemented animal packtrains, natural obstacles of geography and distance became increasingly trivial. European armies and navies therefore acquired the capacity to bring their resources to bear at will even in remote and previously impenetrable places. As this occurred, the drastic discrepancy between European and local organization for war became apparent in one part of the world after another.

France, more than Britain and far more than America, became the arsenal of democracy in World War I.

Scientific collaboration remained sporadic and marginal during World War I except, perhaps, in the field of airplane design.

World War II was different… scientists, technologists, design engineers, and efficiency experts were summoned to the task of improving existing weapons and inventing new ones on a scale far greater than ever before.

If you would like to learn more about history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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