Tag Archives: John Lynn

Pre-modern military revolutions

Back in December, I was asked whether, given my criticisms of the medieval military revolution theories, I thought there WERE any good examples of pre-modern military revolutions.  The question gave me pause, as I’ve grown so used to critiquing military revolution theory from the Middle Ages forward that for a while now I haven’t given much thought to potential revolutionary candidates before c. 1250.

Mons Meg, at Edinburgh Castle; constructed in 1449. Photo from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mons_Meg

Now, on the whole I’m skeptical of “military revolution” as an historical concept.  Folks who know my dissertation and work in general have probably detected this character flaw. That is, I don’t think the concept helps us much to understand historical causation or change, or, in many cases, how contemporaries viewed the military events of their times. I think it encourages us to prioritize paradigm over process, simplicity over complexity, and a-priori patterns over the chaos of human existence, and thereby to create patterns of agency that either didn’t exist in the minds of contemporaries, or else functioned in non-replicable contexts. Of course, “military revolution” in the broad sense of “major change in military affairs that impacts human affairs” isn’t necessarily inaccurate or out of place, but in my opinion once we start to define and apply the term, we wind up putting a lot of carts before horses. And at that breadth of definition, the term stops being particularly useful. Continue reading Pre-modern military revolutions

The Clausewitz Chronicles: Part 1. Clausewitz and Medieval Warfare

I hadn’t meant to start my series  “The Clausewitz Chronicles” with a post of this nature. Linear, progressing through the book, that was my thought.  But certain passages scattered throughout parts of the volume began to coalesce into a discrete topic, and the sprawling thoughts below are nearly a short article in length.

Clausewitz seems to be as popular today as he has ever been. Which is something, if you stop to think about it. After all, for a theorist’s work to be valued as highly as is Clausewitz’s, to be used as the basis of so many operational and professional platforms nearly two centuries after it was first written, is remarkable. Please note, I’m not referring, in the main, to historical studies that aim to read Clausewitz in terms of his contemporaries (which would be my approach should I ever have to teach a course on the subject). I’m referring to works such as Willmott and Barrett’s Clausewitz Reconsidered (2009), which asks if On War is still relevant to current military planning; to Sumida’s Decoding Clausewitz (2008), which values the text for treating of “important military questions,” and which has advocates a particular relationship between theory and history which has heretofore proved elusive.[1] I’m referring to van Creveldt’s article, decrying Clausewitz for discounting the “laws of war” in his lengthy discussion of war itself, and Howard’s  “Very Short Introduction,” which however does treat Clausewitz in a more historical vein. The Prussian theorist himself has come under fire more recently from CGSC professor and career soldier Stephen Melton, whose book The Clausewitz Delusion (2009) credits to a misguided affection for On War many of the U.S. military problems in Iraq and Afghanistan (not sure how much I buy that, though there are some points in favor of that thesis). Whether you love him or hate him, Clausewitz is not going away.

[Note: My edition of On War is the Everyman’s Library edition of the Howard/Paret/Brodie translation, and has a different pagination than the older editions]

As a military historian whose first area of specialization is medieval warfare, however, I have wondered at the applicability of On War to medieval warfare in particular, and to pre-Napoleonic conflicts in general.  Gillingham perhaps said it best, when, in concluding his analysis of Richard I’s generalship, he said that “[i]n these circumstances a Napoleonic or Clausewitzian Niederwerfungsstrategie made little sense.”[2] Of course, Gillingham prefaces this sentence with some remarks on the superiority of defense over offense in medieval warfare, which as we all know is a basic premise of Clausewitz’s study (VI:chapters 2  and 3).  Many would be quick to point out that this factor alone is a great example of Clausewit’z utility in analyzing past conflicts—Rogers, for example, invokes Clausewitz’s idea of the “positive aim” in his discussion of Vegetian warfare.[3] But a multiplicity of accurate observations does not justify a text’s use as a paradigm of evaluation. Continue reading The Clausewitz Chronicles: Part 1. Clausewitz and Medieval Warfare

Report from West Point, part 1

Ok, time is getting on, and I really need to give some summary of what I’ve been doing for the past week or so.  First of all, the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History is everything it is cracked up to be.  No question.  The schedule is intense…in just the kind of way I like to make things for myself, except now someone else has spared me the trouble.  Meticulous planning from our leaders, and we do cover a remarkable amount per lesson.  Amazing in its own right is the number of really elite scholars who have addressed us day after day–beginning with Cliff Rogers, and continuing through John Lynn, Brian Holden Reid, to name but two.  And there’s more to come.  Also, the emphasis on pedagogy is refreshing.  And by that I mean real pedagogy, not the busy-work, nonsensical kind I’ve had to deal with off and on for the last couple years (somewhere on the River Campus…I’m naming no names).  The History Department at West Point takes teaching seriously (naturally), and so far the pedagogy lessons I’ve found to be tremendously valuable.  Actually having a compact overview of the topic, and a series of concrete detailed exercises to teach the topic, means that I quickly know it better.  The detailed reading lists in the course packet are invaluable as well, and I have a lot of reading to do in the next couple years!

Speaking of reading material…The amount of free stuff we get is truly remarkable, and to a chronically cash-starved grad student like myself a gift from above.  So far, I’ve received Sears’ books on Antietam and Gettysburg, the West Point atlas series, the two-volume War in the Western World overview, various maps, charts, handouts, Gaddis’ book on the Cold War, Citino’s study on operational warfare, and Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War.  And more…Books I’d never really bother spending the money on, things being what they are.

The overall package is amazing, too.  The only expenses we have to bear are food (and even then not always) and whatever we want to blow at the various gift shops…And laundry money, let’s not forget that.  Fortunately, everything we need is within easy walking distance from the hotel, which itself is a nice 15 minute walk to our classroom in the heart of the school.  Most mornings, it’s a beautiful walk long the “parapet”, so to speak, overlooking the Hudson Valley several hundred feet below.  At least for myself, all of this just reinforces the desire to perform well, to learn as much as I can and produce good work at the end of it (yeah, we all have to do a small project and submit it for inclusion in the take-away disk we all get).

As for people, I couldn’t have asked for a better crew.  Major Bradley and Major Warren are first-class chaps, dynamic and a heck of a lot of fun to be around.  The other officers and professors are the same–Cliff Rogers, Sam Watson, Tom Rider, and John Stapleton among them.  My colleagues are 18 in number, and come from around the country, as well as Great Britain, Scotland (there is a difference, believe me), Canada, Australia, and Switzerland.  Three professors, I believe, and the rest of us are graduate students or some level of post doc.  All types of personality and professional interest.  And three Ohio State folks…they do have a large program, that’s for certain.  And after Rogers, John Guilmartin was the next to address us, so it was basically Ohio State people, and we were guests (Major Warren is an alum, so that doesn’t help!).  I’m joking, of course.  They’re great people, and a lot of fun.

Given the work load–reading, writing up things, and trying to get some of my own work done–I’m finding that I’m not always down with big dinners and such.  In fact, at the moment these words are being written, I’m sitting in the hotel lobby at Frederick, Maryland, with a good deal of work to do for my Gettysburg role as General Meade.


So, here’s what I’m thinking…I need to keep people up to speed with what’s going on, so each report will be in two parts, one to catch up the material and happenings, and the other to report on the day’s occurrences.  We are now at part 2.

Today we left West Point and went to the U.S. Army Heritage and      Education Center in Carlisle.  On the way, we passed Morristown,    where my dad was born, and a lot of exit signs, the names of which looked vaguely familiar…as if at some point I’d spent time in the area…funny that.  Brief lunch stop at Quiznos, and I’m actually quite a fan.  The Italian Classic is recommended.  We pulled into the Center around 2/2:30.  I have to say I was quite surprised, although my friend Jeremy had told me basically a while back what to expect.  The last time I’d been to the archives was about 15 years ago, and now they’re not even on post (well, technically, yes, but it’s out there).  The whole building is out in the countryside, and quite huge.  The outdoor exhibit was impressive, though I didn’t go.  I’d ordered the Patton boxes, but there wasn’t much in them; 3 of 5 were taken up with the Blumenson Papers manuscript.  So as quickly as I could regroup I turned my attention  to my Panzer Battles project (always on the back burner these days), and ordered a bunch of the Foreign Documents Series.  Good stuff, including some articles about horses and horse transport on the Eastern Front.  Some good stuff on the capture of Sevastopol, too…and things I can’t remember.  Oh, a comparative report on German and American staffs.  An American HQ typically had twice as many personnel as a German one, which explains some things about both sides’ military functionality (and that’s not necessarily a criticism of the Americans).  Of course, they didn’t actually manage to bring me the series catalog, so I couldn’t plan my next trip, but there will be a next trip, never fear.

So now we’re in Frederick, Maryland, and do Harper’s Ferry and the Antietam battlefield tomorrow.  And I would like to go to bed, but I have to do some more work prepping for my role as General Meade in the Gettysburg staff ride on Saturday and Sunday.  Ooooooh, boy…Wake me up when June ends!!!