War and Conquest

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Jeremy Black

War has been central to European history and to the history of the European world. It is not a sphere separate from social history, remote in the details of operational activities, but rather an integral part of it, and the military itself has been a society of great interest and importance. Furthermore, military organization is an aspect of wider social patterns and practices, with which it intersects and interacts. Attitudes toward hierarchy, obedience, and discipline and the readiness to serve all partake of this interaction. The first crucial dimension of the dynamic of social change in and through war occurred when the military ceased to be coterminous with society, more specifically with adult male society. The origins of this process of specialization varied over time. The society of modern war can be understood primarily as a force of trained troops under the control of sovereign powers, with those powers enjoying a monopoly of such forces; the chronology and explanation of this development varies greatly from place to place depending on social and political circumstances.

The absence of developed statehood and powerful sovereign authority across much of the world from the beginning of the Christian era to about the year 1500 was such that it is generally more appropriate to think of tribal and feudal organization rather than a state-centric pattern. Yet, in areas of developed state power, such as imperial Rome and China, professional, state-controlled forces that reflected a functional specialization on the part of a portion of the male population were in place long before 1500. The relatively low productivity of agrarian economies was not incompatible with large forces at the disposal of such states, while the constraints that primitive command-and-control technology and practices placed on centralization did not prevent a considerable measure of organizational alignment over large areas. Thus, sophisticated military systems did exist in Europe prior to the second half of the second millennium, and there is no clear pattern of chronological development such that modernity can offer an appropriate theory or description. Aside from the analytical problem of assessing capability and change, there is also the more general moral issue, for the notion of "progress" toward a more effective killing and controlling machine is not one with which modern commentators are comfortable.

Any understanding of military organization must be wary of a state-centered, let alone Eurocentric, perspective, whether in definition, causality, or chronology. Many military organizations have not been under state control. Caution is advised before assuming a teleological, let alone triumphalist, account of state control of the military. It is questionable how far such a monopolization should be seen as an aspect of modernity.

Furthermore, modernity itself is a problematic concept, whether descriptive or prescriptive. Aside from the role of modernization as a polemical device in political debate, there is, in analytical terms, a difficulty in determining how best to define and dissect the concept. A series of critiques, from both within and outside the West, has eroded the triumphalist view of modernity as the rise of mass participatory democracy, secular or at least tolerant cultures, nation-states, and an international order based on restraint. Such critiques have a direct bearing on the understanding of military organization. Thus, for example, conscript armies could be seen in progressive terms in the nineteenth century as an adjunct of the extension of the male franchise. Both symbolized a new identification of state and people in countries such as France, Germany, and Italy, but not in Britain or the United States. Conscription was also important in the ideology of communist states; and after 1945, as a new politics was created in what had been fascist societies, conscription was seen, for example in Germany and Italy, as a way to limit the allegedly authoritarian and conservative tendencies of professional armies, particularly their officer corps.

In the more individualistic Western cultures of the 1960s, however, conscription as a form, rationale, and ideology for the organization of the military resources of society seemed unwelcome. Military service was presented less in terms of positive images, such as incorporating ideology and social mobility, and more as an unwelcome chore and a form of social control. Conversely, in Latin America, conscription had a more (though far from universal) positive image, in part because military service was seen as a means for useful training and for economic opportunity and social improvement, both for individuals and for society.

That the purpose of the military is to win wars is no longer a self-evident proposition; nor is the notion that military organization—the social systematization of organized force—is designed to improve the chances of doing so. Such propositions fail to note the multiple goals of military societies. Even if the prime emphasis is on war-winning, it is necessary to explain the processes by which such an emphasis affects the operation and development of such organizations.


Military organizations and societies serve a number of functions, some of which are publicly defined and endorsed, while others are covert, implied, or implicit. One public function is national security, while an implied function is employing people and providing possible support for policing agencies. These functions did not develop uniformly, but rather varied, in an objective sense, by state, period, and branch of the military, and, in a more subjective sense, with reference to the views of leaders, groups, and commentators within and outside the military. Thus French army operations against large-scale smuggling gangs in the frontier region of Dauphiné in 1732 could be classed as policing or national security or both. The instrumentality of the military is not only a matter of defining its purposes but extends to the character of the military organization in a particular society. In other words, its purpose may not be that of achieving a specific military outcome; the prime objective of the creators of the organization may be the pursuit of certain domestic sociopolitical goals.

Political objectives. Military organization has two aspects: the internal structure and ethos of armed forces, and the relationship of the armed forces to the rest of society, specifically with reference to recruitment and control. Politicians may be more concerned to ensure "democracy" in the armed forces, or republican values, or revolutionary zeal, or commanders who will or will not automatically obey the government, than they are to consider the war-making potential and planning of the armed forces. Indeed the latter may be left to the professional military, provided the desired control culture and value system are in place.

The central feature of British military organization arising from British society was that it answered to civilian control and did so in war as well as in peace. Similarly, in 1924 the left-wing government that gained power in France was more concerned about the ideological reasons for shortening conscripts' terms of service than about preparing for war with Germany. In the modern West operational military control and political direction are largely disaggregated, although the distinction is hard to maintain, as was discovered in peacekeeping work, for example in Bosnia.

Opposite armies. A consideration of the chronological development of military society must be prefaced by a discussion of the sociology of different military systems. The evolution of specialized forces—of trained regulars under the control of states—occurred initially against the background of a world in which there was a general lack of such specialization. As has been noted, before 1500 there was an absence of powerful sovereign authority. A tribal pattern of organization lent itself particularly to a system of military membership, such that male membership in the tribe meant having warrior status and knowledge and engaging in training and warrior activity. Diversity was evidence of the vitality of different traditions rather than an anachronistic and doomed resistance to the diffusion of a progressive model. Diversity owed something to the interaction of military capability and activity with environmental constraints and opportunities. For example, cavalry could operate easily in some areas, like Hungary, and not in others, like Norway.

The prestige of imperial states, especially Rome and China, was such that their military models considerably influenced other powers, especially the successor states to the western Roman Empire. However, much of the success of both imperial states rested on their ability to co-opt assistance from neighboring "barbarians." Any account of their military organization that offers a systematic description of the core regulars is only partial. Indeed, both imperial powers deployed armies that were in effect coalition forces. Such was the case with most major armies until the age of mass conscription in the nineteenth century, and even then was true of their transoceanic military presence. Such co-option could be structured essentially in two different ways. It was possible to equip, train, and organize ancillary units like the core regulars, or to leave them to fight in a "native" fashion. Imperial powers, such as the British in eighteenth-century India, followed both methods.

The net effect was a composite army, and such an organization has been more common than is generally allowed. The composite character of military forces essentially arises both from different tasks and from the use of different arms in a coordinated fashion to achieve the same goal: victory on the battlefield. Such cooperation rested not so much on bureaucratic organization as on a careful politics of mutual advantage and an ability to create a sense of identification. In imperial Rome the native ancillary units commonly provided light cavalry and light infantry to assist the heavy infantry of the core Roman units. The Ottoman Turks were provided with light cavalry by their Crimean Tatar allies, their Russian enemies by the Cossacks and, in the nineteenth century, by Kazakhs also. Thus, cavalry and infantry, light and heavy cavalry, pikemen and musketeers, frigates and ships of the line, tanks and helicopter gunships combined to create problems of command and control that affect organizational structures. Indeed, "native" forces operated as a parallel force with no command integration other than at the most senior level. The frequent combination of "native" cavalry and "core" infantry suggests that, in part, such military organization bridged divides that were at once environmental and sociological. This linkage complemented the symbiotic combination of pastoralism and settled agriculture that was so important to the economies of the preindustrial world.


The period 1490–1700 was one of increased interaction among areas of the world. Most active in this process were the Atlantic European powers, along with a number of other expansive powers, including in Europe the Ottomans and Russia. Military success was as much a matter of political incorporation as of technological strength, and incorporation depended on the successful allocation of the burdens of supporting military structures. The raising of men, supplies, and money was the aspect of military organization most important to the states of the preindustrial world, and the ease of the process was significant to the harmony of political entities and thus to the effectiveness of their military forces. Organization must be understood as political as much as administrative, and indeed the political nature was paramount. Rulers lacking political support found it difficult to sustain campaigns and maintain military organization. This was a problem for Charles I in his conflicts with Scotland in 1638–1640.

The use of agencies and individuals outside the control of the state to raise and control troops and warships was so widespread that it cannot be seen simply as devolved administration. This point lessens the contrast between a medieval warfare based on social institutions and structures and an early modern system based on permanent organizations maintained and managed by the state. The notion of war and the military as moving from a social matrix—most obviously feudalism—to a political context—states in a states system—is too sweeping. In both cases the bellicose nature of societies was important, as was the accentuated role of prominent individuals that was the consequence of dynastic monarchy. A habit of viewing international relations in terms of concepts such as glory and honor was a natural consequence of the dynastic commitments and personal direction that a monarchical society produced. That view reflected traditional notions of kingship and was the most plausible and acceptable way to discuss foreign policy in a courtly context. Such notions also matched the heroic conceptions of royal, princely, and aristocratic conduct in wartime. Past warrior-leaders were held up as models for their successors: the example of Henry V was a powerful one at the court of Henry VIII of England, Edward III's victories over France were a touchstone, and Henry IV of France was represented as Hercules and held up as a model for his grandson, Louis XIV.

Similarly, aristocrats looked back to heroic members of their families who had won and defended nobility, and thus social existence, through glorious and honorable acts of valor. These traditions were sustained both by service in war and by a personal culture of violence in the form of duels, feuds, and displays of courage, the same sociocultural imperative underlying both the international and the domestic sphere. This imperative was far more powerful than the cultural resonances of the quest for peace: the peace-giver was generally seen as a successful warrior, not a royal, aristocratic, or clerical diplomat.

The pursuit of land and heiresses linked the monarch to his aristocrats and peasants. As wealth was primarily held in land, and transmitted through blood inheritance, it was natural at all levels of society for conflict to center on succession disputes. Peasants resorted to litigation, a lengthy and expensive method, but the alternative, private violence, was disapproved of by state. Monarchs resorted to negotiation, but the absence of an adjudicating body, and the need for a speedy solution once a succession fell vacant, encouraged a decision to fight. Most of the royal and aristocratic dynasties ruling and wielding power in 1650 owed their position to the willingness of past members of the family to fight to secure their succession claims. The Tudors defeated the Yorkists to win England in 1485, the Bourbons fought to gain France in the 1580s, the Austrian Habsburgs to gain Bohemia in 1621, the Braganzas to gain Portugal in the 1640s, William III to gain the British Isles in 1688–1691, and the Romanovs to hold Russia in the 1610s.

More generally warfare created "states," and the rivalries between them were in some fashion inherent to their very existence. Examples include the importance of the reconquista of Iberia from Islam to Portugal, Castile, and Aragon; of conflict with the Habsburgs for the Swiss Confederation and with England for Scotland; and the importance to the Dutch Republic of the threat from Spain and then France. State-building generally required and led to war and also was based on medieval structures and practices that included a eulogization of violence. War was very important, not only in determining which dynasties controlled which lands or where boundaries should be drawn but in creating the sense of "us" and "them," which was so important to the growth of any kind of patriotism.

From 1490 to 1700 professionalization and the rise of standing (permanent) forces on land and sea created problems of political and military organizational demand. Structures had to be created and cooperative practices devised within the context of the societies of the period. It is unclear how far professionalization and the rise of standing forces created a self-sustaining dynamic for change, in an action-reaction cycle or synergy, or to what extent effectiveness was limited, therefore inhibiting the creation of a serious capability gap in regard to forces, both European and non-European, that lacked such development. This is an important issue, given modern emphasis on organizational factors, such as drill and discipline, in the rise of the Western military.

Another important factor in change and professionalization was the development of an officer corps responsive to new weaponry, tactics, and systems and increasingly formally trained, at least in part, with an emphasis on specific skills that could not be gained in combat conditions. Although practices such as purchase of military posts limited state control (or rather reflected the nature of the state), officership was a form of hierarchy under the control of the sovereign. However, most officers came from the social elite, the landed nobility, and, at sea, the mercantile oligarchy. An absence of sustained social mobility at the level of military command, reflecting more widespread social problems with the recruitment of talent, was an important aspect of organization and a constraint on its flexibility.

European forces were not the only ones to contain permanent units and to be characterized by professionalism, but the degree of development in this direction in different parts of the world cannot be readily compared because of the lack of accurate measures and, indeed, definitions. Furthermore, it is necessary to consider how best to weight the respective importance of peacetime forces and larger wartime establishments.

In accounts of global military history, the early modern period is generally presented in terms of a European military revolution defined by the successful use of gunpower weaponry on land and sea. The onset of late modernity follows either in terms of greater politicization and resource allocation and an alleged rise in determination beginning with the French Revolution, or in terms of the industrialization of war in the nineteenth century, or in both. Such a chronology, however, due to its failure to heed change elsewhere, is limited as an account of European development and flawed on the global scale.


In searching for periodization, it is best to abandon a Eurocentric chronology and causation. The period 1700–1850, the age before the triumph of the West, closes as the impact of the West and Westernization was felt in areas where hitherto the effect was limited: Japan, China, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, inland Africa, and western interior North America. Beginning the period in about 1700 distinguishes it from that of the initial expansion of the "gunpowder empires." It also focuses on the impact of flintlocks and bayonets, which were important in India, West Africa, Europe, and North America. Furthermore, the socio-political contexts of war after the seventeenth-century general crisis affected much of the world's economy, with accompanying sociopolitical strains.

The study of war in the period 1700–1850 generally focuses on war within Europe under Charles XII (king 1697–1718), Peter the Great (tsar 1682–1725), the Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722), Frederick the Great (king 1740–1786), and Napoleon (1769–1821). However, conflict within Europe was less important in raising general European military capability than the projection of European power overseas, a projection achieved in a largely preindustrial world. To this end it was the organizational capacity of the Atlantic European societies that was remarkable. The Duke of Newcastle, secretary of state for the British Southern Department, claimed in 1758, "We have fleets and armies in the four quarters of the world and hitherto they are victorious everywhere. We have raised and shall raise more money this year than ever was known in the memory of man, and hitherto at 3 1⁄2%."

Warships themselves were the products of an international procurement system and of what were by the standards of the age massive and complex manufacturing systems. Their supply was also a major undertaking, as was their maintenance. Neither was effortless, and any reference to the sophistication of naval organization must take note of the continual effort that was involved and the problems of supplies. Naval supply and maintenance required global systems of bases if the navies were to be able to secure the desired military and political objectives. Thus, the French in the Indian Ocean depended on Mauritius and Réunion, the British on Bombay and Madras, the Portuguese on Goa, and the Dutch on Negapatam. When in the 1780s the British considered the creation of a new base on the Bay of Bengal, they acquired and processed knowledge in a systematic fashion and benefited from an organized process of decision making.

The globalization of European power was not solely a matter of naval strength and organization. The creation of powerful syncretic Western-native forces, especially by the French and then the British in India, was also important. A different process occurred in the New World. There the Western military tradition was fractured with the creation of independent forces. Their organizational culture and practices arose essentially from political circumstances. Thus, in the United States, an independent part of the European world, an emphasis on volunteerism, civilian control, and limited size, for both army and navy, reflected the politics and culture of the new state. This could be seen in Jefferson's preference for gunboats over ships of the line.

Within Europe there was also a process of combination. Armies were largely raised among the subjects of individual rulers, but foreign troops, indeed units, were also recruited; alliance armies were built up by a process of amalgamation. Furthermore, recruiting, in some cases forcible, extended to foreign territories. The Prussians were especially guilty of this process, forcibly raising troops for example in Mecklenburg and Saxony. Amalgamation could involve subsidies and could also be motivated by operational factors, specifically the recruitment of light cavalry from peoples only loosely incorporated into the state, such as Cossacks for Russia and Crimean Tatars for Turkey.


A notion of different and distinctive European and non-European military societies, and of their related effectiveness, is visually encoded in the art and imagery of (European) empire. The image of the "thin red line," an outnumbered and stationary European force, drawn up in a geometric fashion and ready to fire, is meant to suggest the potency of discipline and the superiority of form. Charging the line—or, as the case may be, the square—of the European force is a disorganized mass of infantry or cavalry, lacking uniform, formation, and discipline. Such an image is central to a teleology of military society, a notion that organization entails a certain type of order from which success flows. As an account of the imperial campaigns of the second half of the nineteenth century and of European success, such an image is less than complete and is in some respects seriously misleading. The error is even more pronounced prior to the mid-nineteenth century. European forces won at Plassey, in India (1757), and the Pyramids (1798), but they lost on the Pruth River, then in Romania (1711). The organization of forces on the battlefield was only one element in combat; some non-European forces had sophisticated organizational structures, both on campaign and in battle, and European armies themselves frequently did not fulfill the image of poised, coiled power.

Organization and tactics. The nature of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic battle was traditionally presented by British historians as an object lesson in the superiority of disciplined organization. The traditional view of Wellington's tactics in his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 is that his infantry, drawn up in line, simply blasted away at the oncoming French columns and stopped them by fire alone—in short that an organization geared to linear formations was most successful on the battlefield. The history of successful military organization in the nineteenth century is thus in part an extension of similar formations and practices of control by the Europeans to other parts of the world and emulation by local powers, although later in the century in Europe such formations were abandoned as they represented easy targets for opposing fire.

The conventional view of the interaction of organization, discipline, and tactics on the Wellingtonian battlefield has been revised. Wellington's favored tactic was for his infantry to fire a single volley, give a mighty cheer, and then charge. The key was not firepower alone but a mixture of fire and shock. This tactic was not as uncommon elsewhere in the world as might be believed. The role of morale comes into focus as an important element of shock tactics (and also, of course, where there is reliance upon firepower). Shock tactics were not simply a matter of an undisciplined assault in which social and military organization played a minimal role, as is evident from the columnar tactics of European forces in the period. They can be presented as the organizational consequence of the levée en masse, the addition of large numbers of poorly trained conscripts to the army of Revolutionary France.

Columns could also be employed on the defensive, a deployment on the battlefield that required a more controlled organization. The formation was appropriate in several ways. First, it was an obvious formation for troops stationed in reserve. Thus, infantry brigades and divisions stationed in the second line would almost always have been in column, this being the best formation for rapid movement, whether it was to plug a gap, launch a counterattack, or reinforce an offensive. Columns, it can be argued, were not merely the product of a relatively simplistic military organization, a regression from the professionalism and training of the army of Frederick the Great, but an effective improvement over what had come before. A sudden onslaught by a line of columns on an attacking force, and particularly an attacking force that had been shot up and become somewhat "blown" and disorganized, was likely to have been pretty devastating. Furthermore, columns could still fire, while they could also be placed side-by-side to present a continuous front. Columns gave a defender weight, the capacity for local offensive action and solidity, for troops deployed in line came under enormous psychological strain when under attack by columns.

The danger in presenting one form of tactical deployment as necessarily weaker than another is of obscuring what actually happened in combat. Organizational structure was clearly related to tactical deployment, although the extent to which there was a causal correspondence varied. Moreover, sources reveal the limitations of effective diffusion of tactics and weaponry, both within Europe and farther afield.


From the mid-nineteenth century the world was increasingly under the sway of the West, directly or indirectly. The organization of the Japanese army, in response first to French and then to German models, and of the navy, under the inspiration of the British navy, was a powerful example of this impact. Such emulation, however, was more than a matter of copying a successful military machine. There was also a sociopolitical dimension that focused in particular on the impact of nationalism but also on other aspects of nineteenth-century "modernization."

Nationalism and conscription. Although systems of conscription did not require nationalism, they were made more effective by it. Nationalism facilitated conscription without the social bondage of serfdom because conscription was legitimated by new ideologies. It was intended to transform the old distinction between civilian and military into a common purpose. Although the inclusive nature of conscription should not be exaggerated, it helped in the militarization of society and, combined with demographic and economic growth, provided governments with manpower resources such that they did not need to turn to military entrepreneurs, foreign or domestic. The political and ideological changes and increasing cult of professionalism of the nineteenth century also made it easier for the states to control their officer corps and to ensure that status within the military was set by government.

Nineteenth-century national identity was in part expressed through martial preparedness, most obviously with conscript armies. These in turn made it easier to wage war because the states were always prepared for it, or at least less unprepared than in the past. The scale of preparedness created anxiety about increases in the military strength of other powers and a bellicose response in crises. The process of mobilizing reservists also provoked anxiety, for mobilization was seen as an indicator of determination, and once it had occurred, there was a pressure for action.

These factors can be seen as playing a role in the wars begun by Napoleon III of France, Bismarck's Prussia, and the kingdom of Sardinia during the Risorgimento (the nineteenth-century struggle for Italian unification). These regimes had policies they considered worth fighting for but that were to some degree precarious; it was hoped that the successful pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy and war would lead to a valuable accretion of domestic support. The regimes of nineteenth-century Europe were operating in an increasingly volatile milieu in which urbanization, mass literacy, industrialization, secularization, and nationalism were creating an uncertain and unfamiliar world. The temptation to respond with the use of force, to impose order on the flux, or to gain order through coercion was strong. A growing sense of instability encouraged the use of might to resist or channel it and also enabled "unsatisfied" rulers and regimes to overturn the diplomatic order.

Nationalism was both a genuinely popular sentiment and one that could be manipulated to legitimize conflict. It encouraged a sense of superiority over others. Politicians and newspapers could stir up pressure for action. In societies where mass participatory politics were becoming more common, public opinion played a role in crises; in 1870 in France and Germany it helped create an atmosphere favorable for war. A political leader profited from a successful war by gaining domestic prestige and support, although the desire for such support ensured that realpolitik was generally less blatant than in the eighteenth century. Napoleon III found it easier, more conducive, and more appropriate to seek backing by waging wars or launching expeditions in Russia, Italy, China, and Mexico rather than by broadening his social support through domestic policies. These expeditions coincided with a period of domestic peace after 1848; civil war in France, in the shape of the Paris Commune, did not resume until after serious failure in foreign war. Having demonstrated and sustained a role by leading the Risorgimento, Vittorio Emanuele II, king of Sardinia and then of Italy (1861–1878), found it useful to declare war on Austria in 1866 in order to head off pressure for reform from left-wing politicians. Similar domestic problems encouraged Wilhelm I of Prussia to press for war that year and had the same effect on Franz Joseph of Austria.

Indeed, Austrian policy can in part be viewed in terms of the relationship between domestic politics and war. Success in the latter encouraged a more authoritarian politics, as in 1849 and 1865. War in 1866 seemed the only solution to the domestic political and financial problems of the Habsburg state and the sole way to tackle fissiparous nationalism, most obviously in Venetia. In the case of Prussia, but not Austria, success in war encouraged a reliance on force, a repetition of the situation in France under Napoleon I.

In the twentieth century, because of nationalism and the attendant increase in the scale of mobilization of resources, war became a struggle between societies rather than simply armies and navies. This shift affected military organization. If society was mobilized for war, as was indeed the case in both world wars, then large sections of the economy were directly placed under military authority and became part of the organization of the militarized state. Other sections were placed under governmental control and regulated in a fashion held to characterize military organization. The ministry of munitions that was created in Britain in World War I was as much part of the military organization as the artillery. Other sections of society not brought under formal direction can be seen as part of the informal organization of a militarized state. World War I saw the expansion of universal military training and service, with conscription introduced in Britain (1916), Canada (1917), and the United States (1917). This pattern of military organization not based on voluntary service was central to the armed forces of the combatants in both world wars.

SINCE 1945

An account of military organization as a product of politics is not intended to demilitarize military history; but the notion and understanding of "fit for purpose" are essentially set by those who control the military. In some situations this control is vested in the military. That is the case when the political and military leadership are similar. This is true of military dictatorships, both modern ones and their historical progenitors, such as those Roman regimes presided over by a general who had seized power, such as Vespasian, and the regime of Napoleon I.

In some societies, such as those of feudal Europe, it may not be helpful to think of separate military and political classifications of leadership. In addition, in wartime generals may be able to gain control of the definition of what is militarily necessary, both in terms of means and objectives. On the whole, however, they have had only a limited success. In dictatorial regimes, such as those of the Soviet Union and Germany during World War II, the generals were heeded only if their views accorded with those of the dictator. In democracies generals have also been subject to political direction, although with less bloody consequences.

The demise of compulsion. The situation altered after World War II, largely in response to the impact of individualism in Western society. Other factors were naturally involved in the abandonment of conscription, not least cost and the growing sophistication of weaponry, but they would not have been crucial had there not been a major cultural shift away from conscription. This shift is the most important factor in modern military organization because it has opened up a major contrast between societies that have abandoned conscription and those where it remains normal. Again, however, it is necessary to avoid any sense of an obvious teleology. Thus the pattern in Britain was one of a hesitant approach toward conscription, even when it appeared necessary.

In the West, war in the twentieth century became less frequent and thus less normal and normative. Instead, war is increasingly perceived as an aberration best left to professionals. There has also been a growing reluctance to employ force in domestic contexts. Governments prefer to rely on policy to maintain internal order, and the use of troops in labor disputes is less common than earlier in the century. Britain phased out conscription in 1957–1963, and the United States moved in 1973 to an all-volunteer military that reduced popular identification with the forces.

It has become unclear whether a major sustained conflict in which such states were attacked would lead to a form of mass mobilization. That seems unlikely, for both political and military reasons; but were another world war to occur it might lead to mobilization designed to engender and sustain activism as much as to provide military manpower. The abandonment of conscription reflects the determination of the size and purpose of the military by political factors that are subject to political debate.

Control and the military. Any theory of military organization must take note of problems of internal and external control. Organization is not an abstraction: the armed forces are too important in most societies to be left out of political equations. From 1500 to 2000 in the West, external control became less of a problem. The military became an instrument of the state, most obviously in the United States. There, the most powerful military in world history never staged a coup and had relatively little influence on the structure, contents, or personnel of politics. A cult of professionalism was central to the ethos of the American officer corps, and their training is lengthy. This model was influential in Western Europe after 1945, in part due to the reorganization of society (and the military) after World War II, especially in defeated Germany and Italy, and in part thanks to the influence of the American model through NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and American hegemony.

Eighteenth-century intellectuals struggling to create a science of society, or to employ what would be termed sociological arguments so as to offer secular concepts for analysis, understood the importance of political control over the military. The character and disposition of force within a society is integral to understanding that society's dynamics. In 1776, for example, the Scottish economist Adam Smith offered, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, an analysis of the sociology of warfare in which he contrasted nations of hunters, shepherds, husbandmen, and the "more advanced state of society" in which industry was important. These were seen as providing a hierarchy of military organization and sophistication in which "a well-regulated standing army" was vital to the defense of civilization (Smith, 1976, p. 699). Smith argued that firearms were crucial in the onset of military modernity:

Before the invention of fire-arms, that army was superior in which the soldiers had, each individually, the greatest skill in dexterity in the use of their arms. . . . Since the invention . . . strength and agility of body, or even extraordinary dexterity and skill in the use of arms, though they are far from being of no consequence, are, however, of less consequence. . . . In modern war the great expense of fire-arms gives an evident advantage to the nation which can best afford that expense; and consequently, to an opulent and civilized, over a poor and barbarous nation. In ancient times the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern times the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized. (p. 708)

Smith exaggerated the military advantages of the "opulent and civilized," but he captured an important shift. Those he termed "civilized" were no longer on the defensive.

See alsoMilitary Service (in this volume);The Military (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


Scholarly interest in war has come to be seen as unsuitable, especially in the United States. This reluctance to engage the topic accounts for the limited number of works listed here. War may be repellent, but it is impossible to understand history without considering its nature and its impact on society, politics, economics, and culture.

Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe 1618–48. New York, 1997.

Black, Jeremy. Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: Renaissance to Revolution 1492–1792. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. Historical atlas and supporting text.

Black, Jeremy. European Warfare, 1660–1815. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Black, Jeremy. War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 1450–2000. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Black, Jeremy. Why Wars Happen. London and New York, 1998. Historical survey. Black, Jeremy, ed. European Warfare, 1453–1815. New York, 1999.

Black, Jeremy, ed. War in the Early Modern World, 1450–1815. Boulder, Colo., 1999. Puts Europe in global context.

Blanning, T. C. W. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787–1802. London and New York, 1996.

Downing, Brian M. The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford, U.K., and Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Ertman, Thomas. Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997. Valuable account from perspective of a comparative-historical political scientist.

Glete, Jan. Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies, and State Building in Europe and America, 1500–1860. Stockholm, 1993. Best study of the naval dimension.

Howard, Michael. War in European History. London and New York, 1976.

Lynn, John. "The Evolution of Army Style in the Modern West, 800–2000." International History Review 18 (1996): 505–545.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West 1500–1800. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Porter, Bruce D. War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics. New York and Toronto, 1994.

Tallett, Frank. War and Society in Early-Modern Europe: 1495–1715. London and New York, 1992.

Tilly, Charles. Coercion, Capital, and European States, a.d. 990–1992. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Thomson, Janice E. Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

Wilson, Peter H. German Armies: War and German Politics, 1648–1806. London, 1998.