THINGS THAT GO BANG

War: cold, hot or total, guerrilla, global or local - a new book tells hard truths about society as well as weaponry really be a very lovely book indeed characters alone in the really expansdark. Jan Dalley
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The Independent Culture
In recent decades, military history has metamorphosed from the description of battles into the integral analysis of war and society. Charles Townshend's comprehensive and strikingly illustrated team effort, The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War, fully reflects this development, although one of the best and most imaginative chapters is by Richard Holmes on the experience of combat. The book is broadly divided into the evolution and elements of modern warfare.

According to the article by John Childs, the transition to modern warfare was the result of gradual administrative, ideological and technical changes between 1500 and 1800, rather than of a dramatic "military revolution" between 1550 and 1650. As he concedes, many developments were prefigured in the Middle Ages: feudal cavalry was marginalised by bodies of infantry using guns, while standing armies necessitated ever more elaborate arrangements to arm, feed and pay them.

Another academic dictum to hit the dust is that the French Revolutionary Wars ushered in a commensurately revolutionary way of warfare. In his chapter on the wars of the 18th century, Jeremy Black argues that there was a plurality of types of war, rather than conservative stagnation, before the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. Alan Forrest, writing about these "French Wars", in turn questions whether the ideological commitment allegedly evinced by the French was more than rhetorical. Zealous Jacobin volunteers were rapidly replaced by sullen farm-boys unlucky enough to draw the wrong number in ballots used to fill quotas of conscripts.

On the opposing side, the Iron Duke had a less high-flown view of human motivation: "People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling - all stuff - no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children - some for minor offences - many more for drink." It was Napoleon, the human equivalent of 40,000 men, rather than the way the Grande Armee was constituted, who made the difference. When he was not present, things fell apart. Military disaster led his opponents to reappraise their own efforts, with major reforms in Prussia and Russia which paid off at the battle of Leipzig.

The 19th-century transformations culminating in "total war", such as the spread of mass militarism and bellicose nationalism, are ably analysed by David French, a prominent historian of the British way of warfare. Ironically, the more war was studied as a science in general staff colleges, the more inaccurate proved the predictions of how it would develop. The Wars of German Unification suggested that future victory would go to those who most rapidly mobilised armies of short-service conscripts who would knock out their opponents with a few boldly conceived blows. Few reflected on the US Civil War, where over 600,000 men died in a ferocious war of attrition involving huge industrial effort, economic blockade, deliberate devastation, terrorisation of civilians, and battles that still make Americans weepy. As John Bourne argues in his chapter on the Great War, Gettysburg rather than Sadowa or Sedan proved paradigmatic in 1914- 18. All generals proved depressingly equal to the task of throwing thousands of men across ground pitted by artillery, meshed with barbed-wire and raked by machine guns. We have to turn to Richard Holmes's brilliant chapter on the experience of battle for what this meant for participants. Charles Carrington saw an NCO die on the Somme: "He was alive, and then he was dead, and there was nothing human left in him. He fell with a neat round hole in his forehead and the back of his head blown out." Those hit by shells were picked up in pieces. In France alone, the blind or limbless could have populated whole towns. An Australian at Gallipoli in 1915 caught the experience very well when he described going to war as "the key being turned in the lock of the lid of hell".

Total war reached its nadir between 1939 and 1945, the subject of two complimentary studies by Richard Overy, our leading international historian of that conflict. Learning from 1914-18, the Germans used tactically integrated air and armour to punch holes for the mass of infantry moving by rail, foot or hoof. In 1941 they went a blitzkrieg too far. Recovering from initial catastrophe, exceptionally talented commanders such as Zhukov picked their battlegrounds carefully - Kursk was the size of Wales - bringing to bear multi-functional air armies.

The German army was demodernised and destroyed by the Soviets. But this was a war of rival economies as well as soldiers. The Soviet slave economy (the reality behind the Stalin's dazzling production statistics) and fanatical Stakhanovites churned out simple weaponry such as the T-34 tank from grim trans-Urals fastnesses. American free enterprise demonstrated its awesome power, producing Liberty ships in eight days, a bomber at the rate of one every 63 minutes, and all with an average 70 per cent wage rise for the workforce. The German war economy oscillated uneasily between these two models, mastering neither. Writing on air warfare, Overy shows how the Allies used tactical airpower to wreck Hitler's tanks at Normandy, while the bombing campaign disrupted communications, diverted fighters and anti-aircraft crews, and killed or massively inconvenienced German or Japanese civilians.

In a less operational mode, Mark Roseman, one of the few contributors to address the impact of war on society, heretically wonders whether two world wars made much of a difference in terms of real social change, as distinct from the perception of it, a theme which used to exercise historians of Nazi Germany. The contours of the welfare state were visible before 1914; the interwar Depression, not war, spurred Keynes-style interventionism. War damage and population losses were rapidly reversed; American and Soviet hegemony resolved many of the factors that made for interwar economic instability. This substitution of economic for sociological determinism will seem novel to East European readers ill-versed in the postmodernistic interplay of memory and perception.

Philip Towle, Townshend and Martin van Creveld are useful guides to, respectively, the Cold War, "people's wars", and what might be in store in the next century. Towle's chapter on the Cold War is striking for its paradoxes. Weapons systems became so destructive that politicians were progressively loath to use them: during the Korean War, Truman contemplated using the Bomb against the Chinese, and then backed off on the grounds that it would not be tactically effective, and would weaken its overall deterrent value.

According to Creveld's chapter on "Postmodern War", the nuclear reductio ad absurdum in turn contributed to the development of precision and smart weaponry, bombs and missiles used to destroy command centres, bridges, water-pumping or electrical grid systems, as demonstrated in the Gulf War. The military was thoughtful enough to provide video footage giving the missile's-eye view, just to reassure everyone that they were not massacring civilians.

But, as these three contributors constantly stress, high-tech weaponry is useless in wars of insurgency. Despite Agent Orange or mines disguised as toys, the Americans and Russians left Vietnam and Afghanistan with little to show for it, except one and a half million American veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Russians with major heroin problems. Israeli blitzkrieg tactics juddered to a halt amid the complexities of Lebanon. Both Creveld and Townshend are sceptical of the value of conventional high-tech armies in the low-intensity ethnic or religious struggles, or terrorist campaigns, that seem to be the way things are going. What use are tanks or Cruise missiles against car-bombers in Beirut or the Bogside, especially when the former are willing to die smiling in the process?

But here, the military-history approach, fascinated with things that go bang, begins to reveal its limitations. Both NATO and the UN conspicuously failed to mitigate the atrocities committed by the Serbs in former Yugoslavia, because of political irresolution rather than any failure on the part of the military. The Oxford international-relations specialist Adam Roberts, writing on the containment or prevention of war, is a much more convincing guide to the rules of the current complex game than historians over-tantalised by military hardware. The future may hold no more than the ugly Peninsular scenes depicted by Goya in his "Disasters of War" series, but Professor Roberts's sanguine account of how we are slowly learning to avoid, contain and limit war should not be discounted. The International Tribunal in the Hague may not raise the dead of Bosnia, but it is a step in the right direction.

Inevitably, a book such as this cannot cover everything. It is weak on the triangular conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Second World War, where it was not uncommon for partisans to be fighting the Nazis, Soviets and each other simultaneously, or for non-Russian nationalities to be better represented in the Wehrmacht than the Red Army. There is nothing about how fighting is mediated to the domestic public by war correspondents, a matter of some relevance now that satellite dishes can show mortar shells exploding at a Bosnian funeral or Cruise missiles turning at the traffic lights in Baghdad. There is nothing on the role of policemen, rather than soldiers, in containing terrorism. And we have no sense of how cheap Schwarzenegger or Stallone videos may be "informing" the minds of adolescent boys with Kalashnikovs the world over. In a sense, we needed more on how societies have changed.

The copious illustrations are also not without problems. We see sturdy bastions at Berwick-on-Tweed; delicate frigates puffing smoke at Porto Bello; stringy biplanes duelling over the Somme; and Harriers whooshing off carrier decks in the Falklands, for all the world like a trade advertisement. The effect is akin to one of Andy Warhol's roseate car crashes, where the colour and shapes abstract from human disaster. These reservations apart, this is an excellent introduction to what is clearly a thriving field of studies, even if it engenders gloom about wars that may be waiting around the corner or in far-off places.

'The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War', ed Charles Townshend, pounds 25.

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