Published by H-War@h-net.msu.edu (March, 2005)

John Lynn. _Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece
to Modern America_. New York: Westview, 2003. xviii + 431 pp.
Illustrations, notes, maps, notes, select references. $34.95 (cloth),
ISBN 0-8133-3372-5.

Reviewed for H-War by Wayne Lee, University of Louisville.

Let's get a couple issues out of the way quickly. First, I come to praise
John Lynn's _Battle_, not to bury it. In the nature of things much of the
rest of my comments will sound critical (that is after all what we do!),
but fundamentally I am deeply appreciative of this work. It is insightful,
wide-ranging, compelling, and it pushes the debate in the right direction.
Among other things, I suspect that it is the seed of many a dissertation
to come. A number of my comments are in fact "additive" or even suggested
by Lynn's analysis; they are not (necessarily) intended to point up
shortcomings. Second, anticipating the possible criticism of others, let
me suggest that one of the reasons I enjoy military history as a
profession is its generally welcoming attitude to this kind of synthetic
work. _Battle_ is not a monograph. It leans heavily on the work of others,
but brings them together in new and interesting ways. Such synthesis has
tremendous value. The point of doing detailed studies is to help reshape
broader generalizations and interpretations, and _Battle_ puts those
detailed works to excellent use.

Lynn confronts two historiographical pendulums that he feels need pushing
back. The first is the older, even long dominant, emphasis on the
determinative role of technology in military history, especially in the
story of western dominance. The best technology wins out, and the nature
of the technology shapes the battlefield. There have always been
subtleties to this line of argument, but Lynn strongly feels that
determinative technology needs to take another beating. In what is perhaps
a signature phrase, Lynn argues that "Armies made choices within menus of
possibilities consistent with necessity and technology" (p. 124). For Lynn
those choices were shaped by "culture." More specifically, Lynn defines
culture as the complex of values, expectations, and preconceptions about
war, which he sums up in the word "Discourse." While discourse may seem an
odd word choice, it is fair enough: we would _like_ to know what a
society's values were, but all we have are their texts, and thus their
"discourse." (Lynn departs from his reliance on texts in Chapter 8,
inferring conception from action).

The other historiographical pendulum in play here is that created by
Victor Davis Hanson, and furthered by John Keegan.[1] I assume that this
forum is broadly familiar with Hanson's characterization of a "western way
of war;" its popularity and influence at the moment are extraordinary.
Lynn appreciates the cultural approach taken by Hanson and Keegan--that
ideas, values, and social structures matter in shaping military
behavior--but he is vehemently opposed to the universalism and continuity
asserted in their argument. Lynn doesn't reject all of their conclusions,
only that there has been a constant "western" style opposed to a constant
"oriental" or eastern style, and that the western way has been successful
nearly universally. For Lynn culture is highly idiosyncratic--not
"peculiar," but more in the original Greek sense of the word, a blend
specific unto itself. People are creatures of their context, and thus so
is their style of war. To make his point, Lynn provides eight chapters of
idiosyncratic war-making. In the remainder of my comments I will try to
briefly summarize the thesis of each of the first six chapters, with
case-specific comments or critiques, and then at the end I will make some
more general comments about Lynn's overall model. I will leave commentary
for the two twentieth-century chapters for other commentators.

In Chapter 1 Lynn essentially accepts Hanson's argument that the
ritualized style of Greek phalanx combat was a deliberate creation
designed to fight short decisive battles, allowing their citizen-soldiers
to return home. In Lynn's terms, for the Greeks Discourse virtually
dictated Practice (rather than merely shaping it, as in later cases).
Hanson's argument has always been the most compelling for the Greeks; it
_is_ his specialty. But even for the Greeks there are problems. I will
avoid the technicalities of evidence here, but I would like to point out a
circularity in the argument. Lynn accepts and repeats the idea that the
shift to phalanx warfare begat wider political rights. The later Athenian
emphasis on the fleet begat even wider democracy. But then how did they
get to the decisive phalanx battle in the first place? Part of Hanson's
argument is that widespread citizen participation in the army meant that
battles had to be fought (to defend their farms) and that they had to be
decisive (so the war would be contained in time). Part of the evidence for
this argument are the peculiarities of the phalanx battle itself. But
without the phalanx battle (and all its peculiarities) one does not get
widespread political power, and without widespread political power, one
does not get the ability of the citizen soldiers to dictate the style of
the phalanx battle. Which came first? Who wanted short decisive battle in
the first place, and thereby empowered the citizens by making them
soldiers, who then wanted short decisive battle? Is there no sense here
that the hoplite phalanx might in part have been a calculation of military
effectiveness? I do not know the answer to this question, and the sources
will not help us much more than they already have. It is surely true (as
Lynn and Hanson point out), that the topography of Greece would seem to
make the choice of phalanx warfare an odd one from an effectiveness point
of view. I might suggest that we could push the culture argument even
deeper: the phalanx did not create political participation, rather a
profound sense of collective solidarity inherent in the _culture_, not the
political structure, of the polis, created the phalanx.

For the rest of this chapter Lynn properly questions the continuity of
Hanson's thesis past the Romans, although accepting the idea that the
Romans did inherit the "western way of war," adding to it the invention of
total war. Here of course is a major opportunity to refute Hanson that
Lynn has missed. The true inventors of total war were hardly the Romans,
but the Assyrians. For those who might question the issue of continuity
from the Assyrians, I would respond: "Exactly! and the same applies to
Greece." But the Assyrians certainly do not fit the "oriental" model of
avoiding decisive clashes through indirect strategies either.

In Chapter 2 Lynn embarks on a much more speculative exploration of early
South Asian and Chinese warfare. Here he is confined mainly to examining
discourse, having very little solid evidence on practice for those periods
and places. His main point is to deconstruct the unitary vision of an
eastern way of war. The Indian and Chinese discourse and method differed
profoundly, and the Chinese in particular developed an ability to fight
large-scale battles with disciplined close-order infantry not unlike the
supposed western way of war. Furthermore, Lynn asserts that "early"
societies progressed through "stages" of military development. Early
Greek, Indian, and Chinese conventions were very similar because they were
in the same stage. The problem comes, Lynn says, when one compares the
early Greek to later Indian (Mauryan) or Chinese (Warring States era)
discourse and practices. These are, as Lynn says, apples and oranges. The
better comparison is Vegetius, writing during an equivalent "stage" in
western military development. There is a teleological quality to this
"stage" business that makes me uncomfortable at times, especially when one
is comparing hundreds, if not thousands, of years of development and still
referring to it as "early," but it is a worthy point to note that
Vegetius's works are not unlike Chinese ideas in the advocacy of indirect
strategies. And in support of Lynn's take on Vegetius and his later
interpreters (which he deals with again in Chapter 4) I offer the comments
of Robert Monro, a Scottish mercenary commander serving in the Thirty
Years' War, who wrote, praising Gustavus Adolphus, "we see his Majesty
with clemency doth follow the example of the ancient Romans, who, of all
victories, thought that victory best, which least was stained with bloud,
having given quarters and service to three thousand Emperiall Souldiers,
without drawing one drop of blood."[2]

With Chapter 3 Lynn really begins to come into his own in the development
of his model. The basic argument is that the Practice/Reality of war in
the late middle ages so diverged from the idealized chivalric Discourse,
that an alternative, "perfected" reality was developed in the tournament.
Meanwhile the church's appalled reaction to the reality of war led them to
offer a substitute reality in the Crusades, which could be made to fit the
discourse more closely. Lynn is careful to show that even here the
discourse could shape reality, despite its frequent divergence, but the
primary causative agent in this chapter is psychological disjuncture. "The
way we fight is SO different than the way we talk about it, and fighting
is SO important to our conception of ourselves, that we must create an
alternative universe in which we can actually act out our values (rather
than actually change the way we fight)."

In chapter 4 Lynn turns to enlightenment warfare, or as he styles it:
linear war. Here he sees cultural values very strongly patterning the
nature of war, in an era where practice usually has been explained by
reference to developments in gunpowder technology. Lynn focuses on early
modern aesthetics, the theoretical literature of the "Military
Enlightenment" which advocated a scientific approach to war rooted in
universal principles, the development of international codes or laws of
war regulating behavior, and finally, aristocratic honor. This is Lynn's
home turf, and there are a lot of subtleties here; I will wrestle with
only one of them. Lynn argues that the military enlightenment avoided
battle because of its bloody indecision. Enlightenment rationalism sought
to deemphasize luck, and thus their cultural vision preferred the
engineered predictability of siege. I would suggest, however, that a
better interpretation is that there existed a kind of mental tug-of-war,
between believing in and _wanting_ decisive battle, but fearing that
achieving one was profoundly difficult to do. Battle was _believed_ to be
decisive, and for that reason was usually avoided. Risktakers like
Frederick and Marlborough tried it, and their inability to achieve
decision has convinced us in hindsight that battles were in fact not
decisive. Furthermore, Lynn hints that one preference for siege was to
avoid the heavy losses of expensively trained troops in battle. Here I
would like to see a comparison of how many troops were lost in a siege;
not just in a storm or in the approaches (although that could be bad
enough), but by dying of disease in camp.

Chapter 5 is a fascinating return to India. Lynn examines how the European
colonial powers overwhelmed native rulers, not with technology (which Lynn
argues was a tide floating all boats in eighteenth-century India), or with
a western way of war, but with a unique combination of western techniques
with Indian values of duty, loyalty and honor made manifest in the Sepoy
troops, and resting on the stability and longevity of the European
bureaucracies to whom they remained loyal. This is a very convincing
argument, but the one aspect that needs elaboration is this last phrase.
When Lynn confronts the issue of why native rulers using western style
troops continued to repeatedly lose to European administrators using
primarily Sepoys (thus both sides using native men trained in western
techniques), the difference between them, he suggests, was bureaucratic
stability. Indian rulers suffered through constant internal political flux
and thus never built up the dedicated loyalty Lynn argues for the Sepoys.
That is the crux of the question, but it gets only a short treatment here.

Chapter 6 addresses the shift from a Military Enlightenment to Military
Romanticism in the years after the French Revolution. Lynn suggests that
the French Revolution provided a kind of blank slate opportunity to impose
a developing idea of the motivated citizen soldier (modeled on antiquity)
onto reality. Here he again fronts the "menu of choices" aspect of
cultural influence (or as I have preferred to phrase it in the past: the
"horizon of possibles"). Revolution and military necessity mean change,
but what kind of change? It would be interesting to compare here the
choices made by George Washington and the American colonies in a similar
situation. They too held a mental template of the effective citizen
soldier as a replacement for the presumed ancien regime automaton, but
their enactment of it followed a very different course (also, I would
argue, for cultural reasons). The new French citizen army proved to be
tactically "freer" from relying on individual initiative, capable of huge
expansion, and also more willing to absorb the heretofore fearful
casualties brought by battle. To this patriotic mix Napoleon brought
professionalism and consequent success. Here Lynn dodges, I think, the
question of what role patriotism continued to play (or not) in French
military success under the empire. But Lynn's larger concern is how
perceptions and interpretations of Napoleon's success were colored by the
ongoing Romantic intellectual currents. He finds Clausewitz both an
exemplar of Romanticism (although not a unique one), and rising above it.
In Clausewitz's theory, heavily influenced by Romantic thinking, will,
psychology, and passion reassert their position within war. The supposed
timeless principles of war suggested by enlightenment thinkers are in fact
time-bound (I would be interested to hear Lynn's explanation of why the
"principles of war" nevertheless continue to hold such currency in the
modern military). I think this is a much better reading of Clausewitz than
Keegan's dry, state-bound, emotionless version, but it raised an
interesting question in my mind. Consider how discourse (using Lynn's
terminology) sets the level of "decision" in war. In the Enlightenment,
where all sides' discourse focused on tactics, a tactical loss had
decisive implications. Tactical failure meant overall failure. In the
maturing Romantic era (post- Napoleon), the discourse a la Clausewitz
shifted the center of gravity to a higher level: "will." Under this kind
of thinking the conflict must become more all-consuming and
all-destructive, because to destroy the will requires a great deal more
destruction than merely to destroy an army. This is the era, and the
thinking, that produces attacks on the will like that of Sherman, Grant,
and Douhet.

I have now gone on for much too long, and I have a great deal less to say
about chapters 7 and 8 (as interesting as they are), so let me conclude
with a few comments about Lynn's model. Lynn's model conceives of war as a
dialectic between thinking about war and the actual fighting of war. This
is an important insight, and keeping it in mind can help clarify
historical thought, but I would like to make a couple of suggestions.
First, it would be helpful to remember that it is a _punctuated_ or
episodic dialectic. Unlike other potentially dialectical processes
(economics, class relations, race relations), war is not continuous. In
one sense this makes his model even more functional: first we examine
pre-war discourse, then wartime reality, then post-war discourse and
voila, we can see causation at work. The model also demands, however, that
cultural analysis be very attentive to the details of "Reality." In Lynn's
formulation Reality is a little bit like a black box: discourse enters in
and comes out stunned and shaking its head. Lynn is too careful a scholar
to allow it to be a truly inexplicable black box--he shows us the details
of a medieval _chevauchee_ so we can see how it differed from discourse.
But consider as an example the debate between Gerald Linderman and James
McPherson over the nature (or question) of discourse/value shift in the
minds of Civil War soldiers during the war. For Linderman the reality of
war exerted a profound shift in soldiers' values, separating them from the
home front where values remained more static.[3] For McPherson, the
soldiers remained true to their discourse throughout the war.[4] To choose
between these arguments requires a very careful study of the ongoing
process of discourse _during_ the reality of conflict. All of which is to
suggest that Lynn is right about the dialectic process of discourse and
reality, but also to suggest that historical investigation of how it works
requires great care, and enormous archival attention. This is especially
true, as Lynn points out, because there is frequently more than one
discourse on each side, separated by class, gender, and eventually,
profession. Each discourse would then have its own influence on practice.

Furthermore, it would seem that one must ask what gives
values/discourse(s) staying power in the face of the seemingly overriding
"military necessity"? It has often been argued that calculations of
necessity lead to the discarding of pre-war conceptions and values--this
is particularly true when speaking of restraints on violence within war.
Lynn repeatedly argues, however, that values retain their ability to shape
the practice of war even within the cauldron of war. I obviously think he
is right, but we should investigate each context to determine why those
values retain their salience--surely it is more than cultural inertia? In
my own work I have suggested that the need for legitimacy provides a
practical impulse to the retention of values of restraint in war. Waging
war according to expectations (i.e., according to the discourse) helps
keep the uncommitted on your side, or at least keeps them on the fence.[5]
As Lynn himself advises in the war on terror: "the task is to defeat the
terrorists with as little harm as possible to those who are sympathetic to
their cause and to the usually far larger neutral population" (p. 327).

Finally, in the end technology may get too short a shrift here. Again, I
think Lynn is pushing the debate in the right direction, and he may be
overstating his case to make a point, but one still gets the nagging
feeling that western dominance in technology at certain key points made
the crucial difference. William McNeill's formulation in _Pursuit of
Power_ seems at least partially right: western capitalist development
accelerated technological development beyond the capacity of many
non-western societies.[6] There seems little doubt of its significance,
for example, in many of the continental conquests of the late 19th

But I had come here to praise, not bury. _Battle_ stands as a challenge to
the rest of us to work more carefully in building links from thought to
tool to action. That has always been the challenge, and Lynn has helped
provide a useful new model for the task.

[1]. Victor Davis Hanson, _The Western Way of War_ (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1989); Victor Davis Hanson, _Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles
in the Rise of Western Power_ (New York: Doubleday, 2001); John Keegan, _A
History of Warfare_ (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

[2]. William S. Brockington, ed., _Monro, His Expedition With the Worthy
Scots Regiment Called Mac-Keys_ (Westport: Praeger, 1999), p. 202.

[3]. Gerald F. Linderman, _Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in
the American Civil War_ (New York: Free Press, 1987).

[4]. James McPherson, _For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil
War_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[5]. Wayne E. Lee, _Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina:
The Culture of Violence in Riot and War_ (Gainesville: University Press of
Florida, 2001).

[6]. William H. McNeill, _The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force
and Society Since A.D 1000_ (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,

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