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The Military Revolution: Military Innovation…

The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West,… (1988)

by Geoffrey Parker

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211187,927 (3.88)4
This is a new edition of Geoffrey Parker's much-admired illustrated account of how the West, so small and so deficient in natural resources in 1500, had by 1800 come to control over one-third of the world. Parker argues that the rapid development of military practice in the West constituted a 'military revolution' which gave Westerners an insurmountable advantage over the peoples of other continents. This edition incorporates new material, including a substantial 'Afterword' which summarises the debate which developed after the book's first publication.… (more)



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Geoffrey Parker’s The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 posited the transformation of warfare in early modern Europe brought about by three major factors: “a new use of firepower, a new type of fortifications, and an increase in army size.” Parker offered this military revolution as one reason why Western Europe was eventually able to conquer more than a third of the world’s land mass. Parker was not the first historian to suggest such a revolution (nor is he the last), but he is responsible for promulgating the idea to a wide audience. As noted above, a large body of literature surrounding the military revolution in early modern Europe has arisen, much of which engages implicitly or explicitly with Parker’s work. This military revolution “subgenre” is useful, in part, because it links military history with much broader historical concerns, such as the formation of the state. Parker has been criticized for technological determinism, as well as a tendency toward generalization, lumping together many separate technological developments that occurred over a large geographic and chronological area into a single, unified revolution. Parker’s analysis is useful as a starting point for examining the rise of the modern European nation-state and empire because, rather than positing a simple model of causation, it suggested a complex set of interactions between military developments and state formation in which periods of relatively rapid military change have coincided with significant political developments.

In my opinion, Parker's views are interesting, and this is a much cited and discussed work, but a number of scholars have largely debunked the ideas presented here.

Some of the most important objections to Parker's work (courtesy of a friend -- who shall remain nameless -- who has really engaged with the military revolution historiography):

(1) It's doubtful that fortifications contributed to the rise of infantry armies or the growth of the size of armies; infantry had been important throughout the Middle Ages, was becoming even more so from around the 1450s before the 1494 campaign; and the number of troops needed to starve out a garrison stayed at around 20,000 throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

(2) Building the trace italienne artillery fortresses probably didn't put too much of a burden on state finances; they usually went up around wealthy (strategically important) localities, which contributed most of the labor and money themselves for their own protection; and because of that the fortresses most likely favored political pluralism (rather than concentrating power in the hands of powerful monarchies) because they made smaller states more difficult to overpower.

(3) Similarly, growing armies didn't favor the larger states, because the military contracting system allowed small powers like Italian and German princes to field decent field armies beyond proportion to their resources.

(4) Plus, field armies themselves never - even in the Thirty Years' War - got bigger than about 30-40,000 men until the wars of Louis XIV, meaning that a tiny state like Savoy could have as much striking power as France.

(5) Instead, most of the manpower of the 100,000-man armies was tied up in garrisons, which were mostly self-supporting (though that varies; the Spanish garrisons in the Netherlands were always in mutiny because they expected pay).

(6) Then, on a separate track, there's the issue of why people adopted the fortifications at all; so the design was meant to deal with artillery, true; but it's not clear that the building/updating of the new forts marked a systemic break from Medieval fortress-building; sure they were more expensive, but how much more in proportion to the expanding economy? And did it really take longer to starve out an early modern garrison than a medieval one?

(7) What WAS different was the political situation; wars were becoming more territorial, between more integrated political bodies willing to throw their weight behind campaigns, fused by new confessional solidarities; which goes back to army growth -- was it actually just a product of the fact that politics were becoming bigger?

(8) Which leads to strategic explanations; there are arguments that people built fortifications because wars were ideologically defensive . . . but again its unclear how that differs from the middle ages . . . And round and round it goes, chicken or egg. The sad thing about this debate is that each of the points I just made would be disputed by one or another of the bickering mil rev moguls . . . it makes the historiography of this topic a real pain, because aside from being complex, it's not sexy.

(9) With navies there's a much clearer link to state growth in the case of Spain and France, and England in the late-17th and 18th centuries, because of the huge capital investment needed for building specialized warships and naval yards. But the great naval-trading powers of the military revolution period didn't build specialized warships until the 18th century; instead they drew on their armed merchant-marine when they needed battlefleets, and otherwise used privateers. With respect to non-European powers, Europe was able to control the seas (mostly), but their military triumphs on land were actually pretty miniscule until the 19th century. The British East India Company thrashed the Indians in a couple battles in the 18th century. But in the Caribbean, local guerilla resistance in the islands beat the crap out of the British, French and Spanish until the second half of the 18th century . . .

It's an interesting sub-field of military history, but the point of all this is that one can't simply read Parker and be done with it. Others have had the final say on the subject.

Review copyright 2009 J. Andrew Byers ( )
4 vote bibliorex | Mar 26, 2009 |
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