Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Reading :: War Made New

Originally posted: Tue, 14 Nov 2006 21:35:15

War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today

by Max Boot

Max Boot, a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, really has the perfect name for a war historian. (I expected his dust cover photo to look like Nick Fury; instead, he looks like a bookish Cary Elwes.) He also has a strong background for the work: senior fellow in national security studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, advisor to the DoD on transformational issues, lecturer at military schools. And here, he pulls off the impressive feat of writing nearly 500 pages (not including footnotes) on war history and making it both interesting and accessible to lay readers.

Why would lay readers be interested? More specifically, why would scholars in rhetoric and technology studies be interested? Yes, the book is certainly about warfare, something that affects us all. But more broadly, it's about the relationships among technology, organization, and society that have been debated in fields such as science and technology studies (STS). Boot provides a short discussion of technological determinism, but the real contribution is in the examples he draws from 500 years of warfare, which demonstrate that superior technologies don't usually carry the day -- they have to be mobilized with appropriate organizational structures, deployed with appropriate doctrines, strategies, tactics, operations, and logistics.

Such changes have quickened considerably. At the beginning of the history Boot presents, technological and organizational changes were slow: the British used "Brown Bess" muskets for 150 years, for instance. But the pace quickened considerably: not surprisingly, half of the book is devoted to the changes in the last 50 years, and three chapters recount just the last 15 years. For those who have been following current events avidly, these chapters are fascinating, providing a detailed and even-handed analysis of how the military has been transformed to meet different threats.

In particular, Boot points out that the United States' current military research budget is larger than the total budget of any other country, and argues that the current unparalleled supremacy of the US military is what makes the global economy possible, by ruling out most conventional warfare and therefore giving people faith in the stability of nations, national relations, and infrastructure. But Boot also warns that, as he showed earlier in the book, military and technological supremacy can be easily undermined by new technological, organizational, tactical, and strategic developments. He points to al Qaeda as one example, and China's "unrestricted warfare" as another. And he drives home the lesson of Iraq: a military that is configured to win conventional wars may not be well adapted to win asymmetric wars.


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