Home Page



Media Centers

Richmond IndyMedia Live! Every Tuesday, 12:30 - 1PM on 97.3 WRIR LP-FM, and streaming online from wrir.org!

News :: [none]

Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050

Changes in the ways wars will be fought are likely in the years ahead; the United States, despite its tremendous technological advantages, may not lead the way; and the form and results of these changes will be difficult to predict or control, but once they are underway they could proliferate widely, being adopted by powers great and small.
Published by H-Diplo (at) h-net.msu.edu (August, 2002)

MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, eds. _The Dynamics of Military
Revolution, 1300-2050_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
xiv + 203 pp. Diagrams, tables, notes, index. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Diplo by James Jay Carafano
<carafano (at) csbaonline.org>, Center for Strategic and Budgetary
Assessments, Washington, D.C.

The Evolution of Revolution

A decade ago, military history seemed all but a dead academic art.
Traditional combat narratives (the stuff of battles and generals)
appeared to be as obsolete as crossbows and cavalry. Americans, in
the wake of the Cold War, proved particularly apathetic about the
subject. American power, let alone the United States' military
prowess, was unchallenged and unchallengeable. Studying past
struggles had little relevance when the prospects for future wars
seemed remote. If there were conflicts, clashes would inevitably
end in lopsided U.S. victories. Military history's presence in
academia became anemic. Course offerings and the number of
dissertations on military matters declined. Professorships grew
scarce. If there was any spark of interest in the military past, it
was in the area of "new military history," the study of the long
neglected aspects of warfare such as race, gender, memory, and
identity. This mini-boom had little to do with the interests of
military professionals and students of public policy. Rather, it
was an effort to extend the techniques of social history and
postmodern theory to the far corners of the discipline.[1] History
as a tool to help people think about the challenges of fighting and
winning future wars became a quaint, archaic notion. A modest guild
of historians is attempting to buck the trend, arguing that
historical analysis has something important to say about the current
debate over the form that military competition will take in the
twenty-first century. In this respect, MacGregor Knox and
Williamson Murray's _The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050_
is bellwether scholarship. Through ten essays drafted by eight
distinguished military historians, they craft an argument that
concludes that dramatic changes in the ways wars will be fought are
likely in the years ahead; the United States, despite its tremendous
technological advantages, may not lead the way; and the form and
results of these changes will be difficult to predict or control,
but once they are underway they could proliferate widely, being
adopted by powers great and small. These provocative findings and
the book's case studies provide a needed context for current

As Knox, a professor of international history at the London School
of Economics and Political Science, and Murray, a senior analyst at
the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C., point out in
an introductory essay, the very notion underlying current policy
debates on the future military is, in part, built on the historian's
craft. The evolution of the military revolution rests on three
conceptual branches (pp. 2-4). The first is an influential 1956
essay by historian Michael Roberts on the military innovations of
the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. Roberts argued Gustavus's
reforms gave rise to the military systems that allowed the European
nation-state to thrive over the course of the seventeenth century.
Roberts's interpretation remained the historical orthodoxy for
decades until challenged by historians like Geoffrey Parker. A
lively dispute ensued. While there is a general consensus that a
seventeenth-century military revolution did occur, early modern
historians continue to differ over the origins, nature, and
importance of the changes it wrought in society and the nature of

The second contribution to the conceptual foundation of the current
debate is the writings of Soviet military theorists in the 1970s,
who believed that the introduction of precision-guided munitions was
ushering in equally dramatic change. These Russian writings
popularized the term "revolution in military affairs," which
theorists in the West co-opted to describe the even more dramatic
changes in warfare they anticipated would result from the
application of information technology and space systems to military

The third influence is perhaps the most obscure, but arguably the
most important in shaping American military thinking, stimulated by
a small, little-known office in the Pentagon. The Department of
Defense's Office of Net Assessment, directed by Andrew Marshall,
closely analyzed the Soviet writings and built on them with its own
analytical rigor. The objective of a net assessment, as perfected
by Marshall's office, was to provide an even-handed look at both
sides of complex military competitions, examining the long-term
trends and present factors that govern the capabilities of the
United States and its potential enemies. In particular, Marshall had
a penchant for historical case studies which proved especially
useful for highlighting the political, social, cultural, and
ideological dynamics that affect military developments.[3] Studies
sponsored by his office were highly influential in shaping opinions
in the defense, intelligence, and foreign policy communities.

Today, few contest the notion that military affairs are on the
precipice of historic change, an idea popularized by Alvin and Heidi
Toffler as "third wave warfare."[4] A nuance added by Knox and
Murray's introductory essay is to distinguish between a "military
revolution" and a "revolution in military affairs," or as they
commonly called "RMAs."[5] In their ontology, military institutions
change to adapt or anticipate changes in society. Thus, military
revolutions "recast society and state as well as military
institutions" (p. 11). Knox and Murray list five: the rise of the
seventeenth-century state system, the French revolution, the
industrial revolution, World War I, and superpower nuclear
competition (p. 13). In contrast, an RMA is a "complex mix of
tactical, organizational, doctrinal, and technological innovations
in order to implement a new conceptual approach to warfare or to a
specialized sub-branch of warfare" (p. 12). What distinguishes an
RMA from ordinary innovation is a dramatic leap in military
effectiveness. The authors might well have added the term
"transformation" to their lexicon, since it too has been frequently
bandied about by proponents for innovation. Transformation
encompasses the process of creating RMA capabilities. Transformation
is innovation on a grand scale that results in providing a major
competitive advantage.

Knox and Murray find that the current thinking on military
revolution is deeply flawed because it over-emphasizes the role of
technology. They are particularly critical of the work of Admiral
William Owens, the retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff (p. 178). Owens's vision, they argue, asserts that
technological innovation can overcome the unknowns and ambiguities
of war by providing near-perfect information which allows generals
to instantly out-think and out-act their enemies.[6] In contrast,
Knox and Murray believe that confusion in battle, as described by
the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, is an immutable
part of war.[7] They are also critical of RMA proponents who
over-emphasize the importance of technology in driving revolutionary
change. They argue that leadership along with institutional,
organizational, and intellectual initiative are equally, if not
more, important than technological innovation. In part, RMA
advocates are being set up as straw men. Owens, for example, never
argues in his book that generals will always have "perfect"
information nor that chance and unknowns can be banished from the
battlefield. Nor does he dismiss the importance of intellectual
change and other human factors in transforming military
institutions. The war in Kosovo, despite America's preponderance of
power and monopoly on high-tech weaponry, offers proof enough that
confusion and ambiguities, particularly at the nexus between
political and military decisionmaking, are still an enduring
component of conflict.[8]

The three lead contributions in this book--Clifford Rogers on the
military innovations of England's Edward III during the Hundred
Years War, John A. Lynn's description of the seventeenth-century
French military, and MacGregor Knox on the French Revolution--all
echo the finding that technology is less important than RMA
proponents assume. Indeed, during this period, broad technological
innovation could be agonizingly slow. As Lynn points out, it took
forty-seven years to adopt the relatively modest innovation of
moving from a plug bayonet (a long knife stuck in the end of a
barrel which enabled a musketeer to also use his weapon as a pike)
to a socket bayonet (which was affixed to the outside of the barrel
allowing for both functions, simultaneously) (pp. 39-40). Still,
the case studies in these three essays are drawn from periods prior
to the Industrial Revolution when rapid, unprecedented, and swiftly
proliferating technological change was not a central feature of
society. It is little surprising that technology alone does not
account for dramatic military reform.

Mark Grimsley's essay on the American Civil War and Dennis
Showalter's examination of Prussian reforms during the
nineteenth-century German Wars of Unification offer much better
examples for dismissing the RMA as a process of technological
determinism. Grimsley, on the other hand, overstates the case for
the rise of "total war," an age in which societies were able to
mobilize the full capacity of society in pursuit of military efforts
(p. 75). Total war, as Grimsley admits, is an elastic,
unsatisfactory term that requires classification.[9] Showalter
provides an excellent overview of the scope of Prussian military
innovations. He demolishes the well-worn myth that the Prussian
needle gun overwhelmed the fledgling German Empire's less
technologically sophisticated opponents.

Covering the first half of the twentieth century, studies by Holger
Herwig, Jonathan B. A. Bailey, and Williamson Murray round out the
book. Herwig describes a failed military revolution, the reforms of
British First Sea Lord Sir John "Jackie" Fisher. Fisher proved
extraordinarily effective in converting Britain's naval force,
replacing a coal-fired fleet with oil-powered, armored battleships,
but he failed in his efforts to more broadly transform Britain's
approach to naval warfare. The climatic battle of Jutland during
World War I represented a culmination of the nineteenth-century
battle fleet rather than serving as the precursor of a military

Bailey examines the influence of indirect artillery fire on World
War I tactics and why military leaders failed to turn this new
capability into a war-winning weapon. Colonel Georg Bruchmüller
pioneered innovations in combined arms warfare that might have
broken the stalemate but too late for Germany, which was already on
the verge of strategic exhaustion.[11]

Murray credits Germany's postwar resurrection to visionary leaders
like General Hans von Seeckt. Seeckt never allowed a lack of
resources to constrain innovative thinking. Germany developed tank
doctrine even before it had any tanks. Intellectual change, Murray
argues, preceded technological capacity.[12]

Herwig, Bailey, and Murray each argues in his own way for the
pre-eminent role of leadership in promoting extraordinary change.
Bruchmüller was a brilliant innovator, but lacked the advantages
enjoyed by Fisher, Seeckt, and Admiral William Moffett, who
pioneered American naval aviation. Each had a vision; a long,
extended term of leadership; a penchant for innovative exercises and
experimentation; and political support that protected them from
detractors and second-guessers. While none single-handedly
instigated an RMA, they managed to develop intellectual and
institutional foundations that allowed their countries to rapidly
exploit emerging technologies.

While these essays make a strong case that technology alone does not
equal an RMA, its hard to conceive of a twenty-first-century RMA
without a technological precursor. Technology is an integral
component of every aspect of modern society. Can there be a new way
of war that is not based on new technology? A case can be made that
the most dramatic changes in warfare will not come from conventional
military forces, but from the "networks" and "netwars" as
by RAND analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt.[13] Netwars will
be fought by old fashioned criminals, extremists, and terrorists,
fueled by conventional class, religious, ideological, and ethnic
hatreds. But rather than employing traditional rigid, hierarchical
commands, they will be organized in loosely netted "networks,"
groups of small cells or individuals that can operate and sustain
themselves autonomously. Lacking readily identifiable infrastructure
or assets, they will present few targets that can be readily
attacked or held at risk with conventional military power. If
Arquilla and Ronfeldt are right, in future conflicts the primal
warrior ethos may best the twenty-first-century war machine. Even
in the case of netwar, however, technology is an important factor.
What makes these groups so potentially formidable are the
technologies that drive the modern world: global transportation
systems that give any organization worldwide reach, the internet
which facilitates the rapid flow of information, and the
proliferation of technical know-how that allows even small groups to
launch potentially catastrophic cyber and biological weapons

In a concluding essay, Knox and Murray posit that military
revolutions will have a profound influence on the century ahead.
Yet they are less than optimistic concerning the role America will
play. In addition to an unshakable fixation on technology, they
argue that military service cultures (with the possible exception of
the Marine Corps) are ill-suited to provide the intellectual
foundation for dramatic change.

While these essays provide needed context for understanding the
dynamics of military change, it is disappointing that they are drawn
almost exclusively from examples relating to the rise of the Western
powers and deal exclusively with conventional military operations.
Do the dynamics that govern revolutionary change in how armies and
navies fight also apply to unconventional combat, terrorism and
guerrilla warfare? Also, if military revolutions, RMAs, and
transformation are true historical phenomena, then why isn't the
study of non-Western military developments equally worthy of
analysis? Case studies that examined why societies like medieval
China and Japan turned their back on military innovations such as
naval power and gunpowder might make an interesting contrast to
European developments. Military innovation in African societies
could also be a fruitful topic for comparison.[14] Approaching the
subject of military revolution and transformation from the
straitjacket of a modernist, Western mindset might be exactly the
wrong perspective for thinking about the future of war in a
globalized world or for appreciating the forces that have shaped
present society.


[1]. Peter Paret, "The New Military History," _Parameters_ (Autumn
1991): 10-18; Jay Luvaas, "Military History: Is it Still
Practicable?" _Parameters_ (Summer 1995): 82-97.

[2]. Roberts's essay along with other key contributions in the
debate are reprinted in Clifford J. Rogers, ed., _The Military
Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early
Modern Europe_ (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995).

[3]. For an introduction to the net assessment process, see George
F. Pickett, James G. Roche, and Barry D. Watts, "Net Assessment: A
Historical Review," _On Not Confusing Ourselves: Essays in Honor of
Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter_, Andrew W. Marshall, J. J. Martin,
and Henry S. Rowen, eds. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991),
pp. 177-78.

[4]. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, _War and Anti-War: Survival at the
Dawn of the 21st Century_ (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993).

[5]. Knox and Murray's distinction between a military revolution and
a RMA draw on Clifford Rogers. Clifford J. Rogers, ed., _The
Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation
of Early Modern Europe_ (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995); Thierry
Gongora and Harald Von Riekhoff, eds., _Toward a Revolution in
Military Affairs: Defense and Security at the Dawn of the
Twenty-First Century _ (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000), p. 2.

[6]. William A. Owens, _Lifting the Fog of War_ (New York: Farrar
Straus and Giroux, 2000).

[7]. Clausewitz popularized the notion of ambiguity as a central
component of war with terms such as the "friction" and the
"fog" of
war. Carl von Clausewitz, _ On War_, Michael Howard and Peter Paret,
trans. and eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp.
75, 89. See also Christopher Bassford, _Clausewitz in English: The
Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945_ (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1995); Antulio J.Echevarria, II, _After
Clausewitz: German Military Thinkers Before the Great War_
(Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2001).

[8]. Michael Ignatieff, _Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond_ (New York:
Picador, 2001).

[9]. See footnote 4. A series of collected essays published by the
German Historical Institute provides a valuable source for gauging
the debate over the total war concept and relationship between
military and social, economic, and political change. See Roger
Chickering and Stig Forster, eds., _Great War, Total War: Combat and
Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914-1918_ (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000); Roger Chickering and Stig Forster, eds.,
_Anticipating Total War: The German and American Experiences,
1871-1914_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Stig
Forster and Jorg Nagler, eds., _On the Road to Total War: The
American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871_
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[10]. Keith Yates. _Flawed Victory: Jutland, 1916_ (Annapolis: Naval
Institute Press, 2000).

[11]. David Zabecki, _Steel Wind: Colonel Georg Bruchmuller and the
Birth of Modern Artillery_ (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994).

[12]. The German military's new thinking on modern mechanized
warfare was captured its 1933 doctrinal manual, _Truppenführung_.
This manual is now available in an English translation. See Bruce
Condell and David T. Zabecki, eds., _On the German Art of War:
Truppenführung_ (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2001). See also
Robert M. Citino, _The Path to Blitzkrieg: Doctrine and Training in
the German Army, 1920-1939_ (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1999).

[13]. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, eds., _Networks and Netwars:
The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy_ (Santa Monica: RAND,

[14]. See, for example, John Kelly Thornton, _Warfare in Atlantic
Africa, 1500-1800_ (London: Routledge, 2000).

Copyright (c) 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits
the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit,
educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the
author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and
H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses
contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks (at) mail.h-net.msu.edu.

This site made manifest by dadaIMC software

[Valid RSS]