Nervos belli, non revolutionem sed pecuniam

The nerves of war are not revolution, but money. Seriously, Cicero’s dictum that “the sinews of war are money” remains accurate. If you doubt it, just read analysis of DoD’s new budget. From an historian’s perspective, I think that we often forget this basic fact when trying to assess military innovation. One of emphasis of my 14th-century research has been that we need to distance ourselves from the phrase “the rise of infantry,” which tells us little and obscures the fact that there were many periods throughout “medieval” history in which infantry was an important or even dominant combat arm. To my mind, Stephen Morillo, in Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings, basically wins the argument when he says on page 181 “[M]oney strengthens central authority, strong central authority tends to favor good infantry.”  (I’ve been reading Morillo’s work for a small project I’m trying to wrap up over break.) Now, whether the pursuit of war leads to new ways of accumulating money is still debated. Recent works such as David Parrott’s outstanding The Business of War suggest that the relationship is more complicated that we thought.

Thankfully, I think we have moved past “revolution in military affairs,” discussion of which seems to have dropped off after 2010. Interestingly, there have been a couple important articles this month on the RMA phenomenon, one from the always-interesting War on the Rocks titled “Top 10 Failed Defense Programs of the RMA Era.”  The other is a fascinating review of Krepinevich and Watts’ new biography of Andrew Marshall, director of the Office of Net Assessment and the person largely responsible for introducing the RMA theories that many historians have used in Parzival-like wanderings for the last thirty years. It’s possible we might be seeing a new resurgence of the concept, which I don’t think would be a good thing. Lt. General H. R. McMaster has expounded in multiple venues on the intellectual bear-traps posed by the RMA, and I think the director of ARCIC has been proven right far more often than wrong.

This isn’t to contest Emile Simpson’s recent talk at the IISS, regarding the trends in current and future conflicts. I think in this, as in much else, Simpson’s work is fascinating and on track. But as an historian, I would say that as a general rule it is societies that make war, not militaries. If you want to understand a given conflict, study the societies waging it. Don’t be so focused on bellum that you forget the pecuniam, and by extension the societatem, that keeps the gears of war turning.

2 Replies to “Nervos belli, non revolutionem sed pecuniam”

  1. So may I ask why you say “thankfully” we have moved beyond the RMA? Do you mean that thankfully writers have stopped using the RMA as a framework for other periods or that you don’t think there *was* an RMA in the 80s and 90s?

  2. The former, mostly. I don’t find the RMA structure actually works for other time periods, not least because, for the Middle Ages at least, it assumes certain relationships between military power, cultures of innovation, and technology that didn’t exist. As far as the 80s and 90s go, I’ll sort-of concede an RMA for the sake of argument, but I think a lot of people read what they wanted to read in Desert Storm, and subsequent events, albeit heavily influenced by rapidly evolving technology, did not cooperate with what RMA theorists’ projections of what future war should look like . That’s basically the thrust of several of McMaster’s public presentations.

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