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Is military history really that useless?

Discussion in 'World History' started by Tahuti, Sep 19, 2017.

  1. Tahuti

    Tahuti Writing Deity

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    We had some time ago a thread opened by Phrossack in which he pondered whether history, and military history in particular, are useless.

    I honestly think this may not be the case. Weapons and military tactics - or the lack thereof- may actually be of massive importance of macrohistorical scholarship.

    Consider Machine Guns: These effectively made horse cavalry obsolete. The result was trench warfare, followed by the usage of tanks and airplanes, in part to counter machine guns as a tactical challenge to an offensive. This mobilised warfare to the point that by WWII, nations could be overrun in months if not days. Then came nukes - perhaps worth noting oceans seperate the United States from Germany, Japan and the USSR. We see nukes as a unique threat to humanity which they very possibly are, though ultimately a result of a process that has been in the making since wars have been fought among humans. The infantry revolution in around the 1300s may have prepared the seeds for the modern concept of the nation-state, in the same vein.

    Is military history really that useless?
     
  2. innonimatu

    innonimatu Deity

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    Military history is useless to get the big picture of any era. But such specialized histories remain useful for creating that overall picture! It's a piece of the puzzle. Just as with all older sciences, history has specialized...
     
  3. Ajidica

    Ajidica High Quality Person

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    It isn't useless, it is just that it is very narrow and idiots get too wrapped up in it because reading about panzers breaking through British lines is far sexier than wartime German crop yields.

    That said, one of the best books on the Cold War I have read was a military history focusing on 1945 to 1962. Unlike a lot of Cold War books it didn't get wrapped up dull philosophy comparing the grand political/strategic aims of "the West" and "the Soviets". Rather it focused on how different countries approached -and more often than not, encouraged- conflicts around the world with a special focus on the Greek Civil War and the Malaya Emergency.
     
  4. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    It's difficult for me to conceive of any history being useless.

    Fundamentally, I think that trying to explain macrohistorical developments in terms of military technological changes is a flawed approach. It usually turns out that the technological change simply didn't mean as much as certain authors thought it did. This was shown most spectacularly with Lynn White's claim that stirrups caused feudalism (which is a simplification of the thesis, but not by much). They didn't. They didn't have the effect on military tactics, troop organization, or social structure that White thought that they did. Most similar claims are, well, similarly flawed. The "military revolution" thesis, that the development and refinement of chemical-propellant explosives caused the creation of advanced fortifications to defend against them, which required much vaster numbers of troops to man them, which caused states to develop modern methods of fiscal and manpower mobilization, was also deeply flawed, to the point that it has been modified by Glete, Frost, and their successors into nothing like the original assertions. There were problems with each link in that particular chain, which made the whole thing rather easy to break. And even your claim, that "machine guns" (more realistically, the entirety of the firepower revolution in military affairs) caused the effective end of horse cavalry, yada yada yada, you get World War II, tanks, and nukes, is kind of dubious.

    The problem is that while technological change may have a dramatic impact on tactics, it rarely has the same sort of impact on the totality of the experience of war. Machine guns did not cause trench warfare - or, more specifically, the operational and strategic stalemate on the Western Front in the Great War - by themselves. That required extremely powerful nation-states that could effectively mobilize industrial, financial, and human resources to throw uncounted blood and treasure into a geographically restricted furnace, combined with military contingency, and, of course, the specific characteristics of military technology in 1914-18. And the inability by any party on the Western Front to employ cavalry in operational depth after 1914 had to do with a lot more than just "machine guns > horses", a calculation that somehow didn't seem to hold true in Eastern Europe, either during the Great War or during the Russian Civil War afterward.

    Warfare isn't important because it causes all history, or something. But it's fair to say that warfare has always been one of the primary functions of the state (if not the primary function of the state), and that the history of states matters, because like it or not the state has always impacted the lives of most people in the world ever since it became a Thing. So it's useful to know about warfare for macrohistorical purposes - not solely about technology, but about everything that conditions the nature of militaries and the way in which they fight, or don't fight. Warfare is integral to many of the disasters of human history, like the General Crisis and the World Wars, which resulted in the ends of millions of lives and the permanent alteration of millions more. And for any other purposes - well, if one of the greatest cultural histories ever written can make its cornerstore the tale of a small group of urban Parisian laborers in the eighteenth century, I see no reason to say that the tale of a small group of Rwandan Patriotic Front soldiers in the 1990s can't be equally as valuable. After all, one of the most valuable primary sources for the seventeenth century in Europe is the diary of the soldier Peter Hagendorf - a text that since its discovery in 1993 has changed much, and confirmed much else, about what we think about the lives of everyday humans across what used to be the Holy Roman Empire. It also contains a justly celebrated entry for his experience in the Battle of Nördlingen that consists chiefly of a baroque barrage of swear words.

    War porn is dumb, but ignoring an entire sector of human experience just because of shooty-shooty and stabby-stabby things is dumb, too.
     
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  5. Tahuti

    Tahuti Writing Deity

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    That's true: Machine guns existed at least back until the Crimean War, yet it wasn't until WWI that these were used to the massive extent necessary for trench warfare. So there is economics and industrial technology involved still.

    However, there is potentionally a good case to be made that cannons and the infantry revolution may have played a role in ending Feudalism, or more specifically, done their share in allowing commoners to overpower military drawn from the aristocracy.
     
  6. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    Did they, though? The so-called "second serfdom" in Eastern Europe long postdated the introduction of gunpowder weapons. In many countries, the military aristocracy was strengthened, e.g. the mestnichestvo "service nobility" of the Romanov state, or the Junker of Prussia. The Old Regime in France lasted until the late eighteenth century; the Holy Roman Empire lasted just about as long.

    As military technology changed, the way in which the military aristocracy managed it also changed. The rise of military entrepreneurship in the early modern era simply meant that many nobles became colonels and proprietors, or organized groups of regiments under their own aegis. When recruiting and provisioning was taken up directly by the agents of the state (a slower process than most people think it was), the nobility simply transitioned to direct service of the state. They didn't just go away, and when they did drop out of the military they usually did so awfully slowly. There's a reason so many German officers from the World Wars have 'von' in their names.

    At what point did this stop being 'feudalism'? That would require a definition of 'feudalism', and that's an awfully weedy discussion.
     
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2017
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  7. Tahuti

    Tahuti Writing Deity

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    Why is it a second serfdom, despite the scarequotes?

    Case in point: The French revolution was ultimately a revolution onto the French state, not the French nation, which popped out of it. Louis XIV de-facto abolished feudalism by centralising France's governance and made France into the Westphalian state of today, more or less. This allowed underrepresented parts of French society to win influence by taking control of the state's monopoly on violence. The French election system of the King, now called a President, at one point an Emperor, simply changed.
     
  8. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    Um, it was a second serfdom because it re-tethered peasants to specific lands and landlords? And it happened starting with the General Crisis in the seventeenth century, which is way after your time period. Cannons and the "Military Revolution" went hand-in-hand with a much stronger aristocracy in these particular cases, and certainly did not improve the political position of "commoners".
    Um...what?

    Even if I were to agree with what you're saying here, and I'm not sure that I do, how is this a case in point on the subject of military technology-driven macrohistorical change?
     
  9. Tahuti

    Tahuti Writing Deity

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    In what respects are the circumstances in Eastern Europe and Russia in particular (If I'm correct that's the situation of which you are describing) different from say the Netherlands or France, if we leave techonology out of the equation?

    France centralised roughly in the same timeframe after the Netherlands became independent, and (former) HRE states began to assert their independence. I seriously doubt Louis XIV's decision to force the entire upper nobility to live in Versailles could have been enforced four hundred years earlier by one of his predecessors, though you are welcome to challenge that notion.
     
  10. Lexicus

    Lexicus Deity

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    Hell, even in World War II the Soviets were using cavalry formations to very good effect (and occasionally they would actually fight from horseback instead of acting as mounted infantry, which they did most of the time). They had enough space that hit-and-run tactics in the Axis rear were quite viable. And their horses were more mobile than vehicles under a lot of conditions common on the Eastern Front particularly during the winter.
     
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  11. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    I'm confused as to what you're getting at, here.

    I'm saying that a situation very similar to 'feudalism' existed in Eastern Europe - not just Russia, but in Prussia, much of the Habsburg hereditary lands, and the Commonwealth - after the Military Revolution, and in fact many peasants lost rights compared to before. Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg tied most peasants in East-Elbian territories to the land, when before the Thirty Years' War the movement of labor had been much more free. Similarly, Tsar Aleksei agreed to certain noble demands when he issued Article 11 of the Ulozhenie of 1649: he formally forbade any peasant from legally leaving the domain of his lord, made both the peasant and anything owned by the peasant the personal property of the lord, and eliminated the time limit for landowners to recover their fugitive serfs. This was rather different than what had obtained before, when the tsars usually upheld the relatively free movement of labor as an inducement for settlers to move to Siberia.

    Both of these things reduced the rights of 'commoners' rather than extended them, despite the fact that gunpowder weapons were a Thing and therefore, according to your original formula, ought to have allowed commoners to 'overpower' the militaries of the landed classes.
    Well, first of all, the absolutism thesis has been heavily modified in the last several decades. Scholars have increasingly recognized how many accommodations the Louisian regime had to make with local interests, and they have noticed how the Louisian military was still generaled and officered by members of the military aristocracy - often many of the same soldiers who fought against the regime during the Fronde and the war with Spain. That didn't mean that the ideology of absolutism was meaningless, but rather that it was more cleverly upheld than usual: instead of attempting to impose new taxes, for the most part, the government altered its tax collection methods. This allowed Louis to avoid running foul of the Parlements, in sharp contrast to Mazarin's failure in 1648. Since Louis no longer attempted to tax previously-exempt groups, for the most part, he avoided pushing the nobility into rebellion - again in contrast to Richelieu and Mazarin, whose innovative taxes had compelled soldiers and aristocrats to throw their lot in with "commoners" (e.g. as in the rebellion of the Croquants). He managed the nobility better than before - rarely did he need to crush it or intimidate it.

    Secondly, it's not clear to me that this state of affairs had anything to do with cannon or infantry revolutions. The French Wars of Religion and the Fronde both occurred after the Military Revolution began, after all, and in both cases the aristocracy put up quite a fight leading to an ambiguous outcome. Centralization certainly did not follow on the Military Revolution in the eastern Habsburg hereditary lands, or in the Iberian monarchy. The story of the absolute monarchy in France is a great deal more complex than invoking gunpowder and calling it a day. You've got your claim, but you're missing a warrant.
     
  12. Traitorfish

    Traitorfish The Tighnahulish Kid

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    Not only didn't hold true, but...



    So it seems plausible that Russia just exists in a parallel universe and doesn't count.
     
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  13. Dachs

    Dachs Hero of the Soviet Union

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    Quite. The Germans also possessed such wagons for their MG 08 machine guns, and used them to improve mobility in August 1914. The Jägerbatallione and the Höheres Kavalleriekommando, as formations that were specifically designed to be mobile, even were permitted to have their MG companies fire directly from the wagons instead of dismounting them to a covered or concealed location before firing, as the regular infantry had to do. It's remarkable that, in the engagements at Mons and Le Cateau, the Germans were able to deploy their machine guns very quickly despite being on the offensive. This undoubtedly made it easier for the Germans to win both engagements and inflict high losses on the BEF.

    EDIT: altered the acronym expansion for HKK
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2018
  14. r16

    r16 not deity

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    random reading of a book ı have downloaded like in like 2015 and guess what it studies exactly the thread subject . A section penned by Paul K. Van Riper . A Marine , possibly the one that retired after some exercise the Iranians won while just as Dabya had ordered an invasion of the same . Though he mentions a twin brother in the text . First paragraph relates before Vietnam in that people stressed modern stuff over "experiences" . Like WWII didn't matter in the age of people travelling to Moon and stuff .



    Admiral Stansfield Turner had recognized the harm done to professional military education in the pre-Vietnam era, and upon assuming presidency of the college in 1972, he had completely revamped the curriculum. History became the mainstay of all war-related instruction. At the start of the academic year, students read Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War from cover to cover with the expectation that they would understand the significance of this ancient text and its relevance to the present day. The admiral believed in the value of the humanities and demanded students cover a minimum of 900 pages of assigned reading each week.

    I always sensed that officers with a specialty that potentially brings them closer to an actual fight – infantrymen, pilots, artillerymen, etc. – most appreciate the study of history. A study done by a fellow student at the Army War College in 1982 that found combat arms officers “most likely to view military history as highly valuable” supports this thesis.




     
  15. Tahuti

    Tahuti Writing Deity

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    It is perhaps worth noting that charging horse cavalry against machine guns is a bad idea, though it doesn't preclude from having machine guns carried by horses.
     
  16. Kyriakos

    Kyriakos Alien spiral maker

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    Xenophon's Anabasis will always be a classic :)
     
  17. Verbose

    Verbose Deity

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    I'd add an apparently here so far overlooked aspect of the early MGs — very useful for colonial warfare. No coincidence that the British deployed the best MG tech money could buy in their colonial venture, and that already before the advent of the Maxim and that old chestnut: "Whatever happens we have got / the Maxim — and they have not".
     
  18. Yavid

    Yavid Chieftain

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    IMO, studying military history is not useless. Governments time and time again throughout history and search for an easier way of winning the last war. In doing so it gives us clues on how the next one will be fought. The side that figures out how to win the last war but also adapting to the changing battle field is given a huge advantage in winning the next war.
     

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