Book Review: War Made New by Max Boot

The hot topic in military history and military doctrine development circles since the early 1990’s has been the concept of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  An RMA is defined as a development, generally technology, which alters the conduct of war so thoroughly that warfare becomes unlike what it was before.  In science this is called a paradigm shift.  The most common examples of RMA’s that are bandied about are gunpowder, steam ships, breech loading rifles, tanks, aircraft carriers, the modern staff system, and information technology.  There are others but those are the most common.  As a military historian, I am skeptical of the whole notion though plenty of folks who are in positions of power and authority buy into it.  War Made New is an examination of RMA’s from 1500 to the present.

The book itself is a fairly formidable tome with 480 pages of text separated into 13 chapters comprising 5 topical parts.  There is an extensive bibliography and almost 100 pages of endnotes.  The 5 parts of the book cover the gunpowder revolution, the first industrial revolution, the first industrial revolution, the information revolution, and an epilogue.  Max Boot is also the author of The Savage Wars of Peace, which I reviewed last year.

One of the things I was disappointed in was the uncritical assumption that revolutions in warfare do occur.  I hoped to see a critical discussion of the merits of the RMA theory in the introduction to the book.  That is not there, what is there is a 12 page discussion of why the RMA notion is correct and he essentially dismisses those that do not hold with those views.  Unfortunately, this reviewer is one that does not necessarily hold with the idea of the RMA.  I especially do not like the notion of the gunpowder RMA regardless of how neatly it can be used as an explanation.  The main reason I discount the RMA idea is that most transformational changes in warfare are rapid and unexpected by one side or the other in a conflict.  I believe that the historical record shows that is just not true.  Most supposed RMA’s were not only foreseen by just about everyone, but they were also often rejected by some decision makers or nations to their later chagrin.

The gunpowder RMA is an excellent case in point.  Gunpowder was introduced to European warfare over a period.  In fact, it took almost 400 years for gunpowder weapons to supplant traditional edged weapons and the bow, 700 if you count the fact that the Polish army deployed mounted lancers in 1939, although there is no record of them charging German tanks as you sometimes hear.  Given a period of 400 years before almost universal adoption of gunpowder weapons how can the claim be made that gunpowder revolutionized warfare.  Yes gunpowder changed warfare; profoundly transformed it in fact, but it was not a revolution by any means.  It took several centuries for gunpowder weapons to be developed to the point where their effectiveness and lethality made it logical for them to replace the sword, pike, and bow.  It sounds good but the idea just does not hold water, at least in this reviewers mind.  The first and second industrial ages are also cases where the RMA notion falls apart.  In neither case was it that the opposing sides had no knowledge of developments in technology, just that one side generally chose the less effective implementation of said technology.

Take the tank for instance, if the tank were going to be revolutionary it would have been so in 1916-1918 when only the allies had it but it was not.  In 1939-40 it was not the tank that was revolutionary, it the way the tank was used.  As Boot even makes clear in the book, both the British and French had tanks that outclassed the German tanks it was the german doctrine and employment of tanks that was more sound.  Further, the german predominance in armored tactics only lasted for a few years before the Allies were beating them.  I found it curious that Boot dragged out the tired argument that Germans were just better soldiers than the Allies on a man-for-man basis.  I have not heard that argument for years since I read some German apologetics.

Warfare is a fluid pursuit and it is rare that one group or individual dominates warfare for an extended period of time.  The RMA is a neat idea that seems to explain some historical events.  “Seems to” is the problem though, as an explanation it is too pat and it is easy to use the RMA to prop up any argument, indeed, the RMA in today’s environment can be used to stop debate as the RMA cognoscenti use the concept as a hammer to shut down people like me who do not accept the conventional wisdom.

War Made New is an interesting book and the narrative accounts of the individual battles are flawless.  Max Boot is an excellent historian and the last work of his that I read,The Savage Wars of Peace is an excellent history of small American interventions abroad.  He misses the mark here though.  The entire idea of the RMA is flawed because it seeks to reduce a complex process into a form too simplistic to be explanatory, at least in my opinion.  War Made new is still a decent read and if you take the pr forma acceptance of RMA’s as explanatory with a grain of salt this is still a work worth reading.  I reccomend this work for those interested in RMA’s with the caveat that this is a strictly pro-RMA book and there is zero discussion of the shortcomings of the theory.