THE MILITARY REVOLUTION IN GLOBAL HISTORY East Asian perspectives
Is the military revolution a useful paradigm for global history? The model was developed primarily in a European context, and scholars have suggested that it’s an “artificial construct” that “expresses Eurocentric assumptions as opposed to being based in historical proof.”1 This chapter assesses the military revolution model in light of evidence from East Asia, arguing that although that evidence does present challenges, the model remains useful and robust because it helps focus our comparisons of Europe and East Asia, drawing scholarly attention to phenomena such as infantry drills, fortification techniques, and state centralization. It also draws our attention to the vital role that sustained interstate warfare plays in stimulating military and social innovation and, perhaps paradoxically, intercultural adoption. Military revolution theorists have focused on interstate warfare in Europe, but sustained levels of warfare between competing states also took place in other areas, and when we turn our attention to various “warring states” periods in East Asia, we find that levels of military innovation correspond with levels of warfare. Indeed, it may even make sense to speak of military revolution as a global process, which began in East Asia during the warlike 1100s, 1200s, and mid 1300s and redounded to Europe in the 1300s and 1400s, where the process of military innovation accelerated and then ramified thence throughout the rest of the world, as Europeans brought their technologies and techniques to colonies and trading posts. Throughout this period, gun-based warfare stimulated the cross-cultural transfer of military technologies and techniques in many parts of the world, particularly during times of greater sustained warfare. The Portuguese maritime empire played a key role in this process.
What is the Military Revolution? A historiographical reconnaissance
What do we mean by “military revolution”? There are nearly as many variants of the military revolution thesis as there are scholars who discuss it, but most of these variants contain some version of the same core argument: in Europe during some period between 1300 and 1800, there took place momentous military changes, which affected not just military affairs but also society and politics more generally. These changes were associated with the ever-increasing use of gunpowder weapons, especially guns. Beyond this general framework, there is little agreement. Scholars disagree about the timing, the causation, and even many of the particular phenomena themselves.
The idea that gunpowder caused deep changes in European society, politics, and culture has deep roots, going back to Francis Bacon, with variants of the idea espoused by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, among others.2 The military revolution model in its current form, however, was first introduced by historian Michael Roberts (1908-96), whose 1955 inaugural lecture at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, was titled “The Military Revolution: 1560-1660.”3 It was published the following year and might not have had much influence if not for Sir George Clark, who lauded it in his seminal book War and Society in the Seventeenth Century (1958), helping establish Roberts’s military revolution concept as part of the canon of early modern European history.4
Roberts focused on tactics, arguing that the spread of firearms - primarily muskets - led to new types of infantry formations. Previously, infantry units tended to march in thick squares, such as the famous Spanish tercio or the Swiss pike square. The spread of firearms, on the other hand, selected for formations that spread soldiers out in wider and thinner lines, because such formations allowed more gunners to shoot at a time and thereby concentrate fire on the enemy.
Key to this development were countermarch techniques. There were many types, but in essence, the practice allowed groups of gunners to compensate for the fact that early guns were slow to load (it could take up to two minutes to reload after firing) by taking turns shooting and loading. In this way, they could keep a constant hail of projectiles flying at the enemy. Generally, the technique called for a soldier to fire, march in good order to the back of their file, and then reload while the next soldier in the file fired, a cycle that they repeated. (The term file refers to the row of soldiers in which the soldiers march, with a number of side-by-side files making up the complete formation.) The idea is that the first soldier will be ready to fire again once the rest of his file has fired and he finds himself once again at the front of the line.
The idea seems simple, but it was difficult to implement in practice. For one thing, there were many choices to be made, each of which affected the efficacy of the technique. Once a soldier fires, should he march to the back of his individual file? Or should the soldiers of each file march together to one side or the other and then to the back? Or is it better if they divide in half, one half marching to the left and one to the right? How far apart do the files need to be? How many soldiers should each file contain?
The distance between idea and execution can be glimpsed in the rich records that Dutch armies left during the period that they were working out the details, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These sources have allowed us to reconstruct in detail the birth of the Dutch countermarch technique - which many historians believe to be the first modern European countermarch technique.5 It was a long process.
Even once the details of the technique had been worked out, one still had to train soldiers to implement it properly, which was far more difficult than one might guess. Plans and intentions tend to dissolve under fire, and it’s one thing to understand a plan and another to practice it when someone’s shooting at you or cavalrymen are thundering toward you with naked swords. Practice fields rarely look like battlefields, and orders conveyed during battle are rather less clear than orders conveyed in a rehearsal. For this reason, one had to train gunners strictly and obsessively.
This required constant practice, so commanders drilled soldiers regularly, using music: soldiers were supposed to march, fire, and reload in strict rhythm, moving to the beat of drums. Critics made fun of the idea of soldiers’ moving in time like dancers. In a letter in which one of the early European champions of the technique described it to his cousin, he asked that it not be shown around too widely “because it may cause and give occasion for people to laugh.”6
The ridicule was worth it, as an early historian from the Netherlands noted:
The beginnings were very difficult, and many people felt, because it was all so unusual, that it was odd and ridiculous [lacherlich]. They were mocked by the enemy, but with time the great advantages of the practices became clear . . . and eventually they were copied by other nations.7
Of course, to train an army day after day, one needs that army to stay together day after day, rather than being disbanded after a war or campaign, as frequently happened in the European medieval period. Therefore, a permanent standing army is likely a precondition for the effective use of firearms in battle.
Alternately, one might argue that firearms exerted selective pressure on governmental forms that could sustain standing armies. Roberts argued that guns haphazardly led to larger and more-permanent armies, which selected for larger and more-centralized state apparatuses. He believed that a key period for this process was the century between 1560 and 1660, primarily in northern Europe and particularly in the Netherlands and Sweden.
Michael Robert’s military revolution model was carried forth by Geoffrey Parker. Whereas Roberts focused primarily on Sweden, Parker studied the armies of Habsburg Spain, in its war with the United Provinces of the Netherlands. He found that some of Roberts’s arguments didn’t jibe with the evidence in his sources. He included these criticisms in a draft of his dissertation, and it turned out that one of his dissertation readers was Roberts himself, which caused Parker some anxiety.8 But Roberts was generous, advising Parker to develop his critique and publish it as a standalone article.9 That article eventually became a series of lectures on the Military Revolution, delivered at Cambridge’s Trinity College in 1984. The lectures in turn became a book: the seminal Military Revolution.'0
Geoffrey Parker’s take on the Military Revolution is different from Roberts’s. Although Parker agreed that new firearm tactics were vital - specifically the countermarch (or, as Parker often referred to it, “volley fire”) - he places more emphasis on cannons. To him, a key development in European warcraft was the emergence of mobile field artillery, which began to be adopted on a mass scale in the late 1400s and the early 1500s. These cannons made it possible, due to their lightness and power, to quickly direct destructive firepower at medieval walls. Previous cannons were far larger, and although they too could destroy walls, they were much more difficult to transport, and their rate of fire was lower because they took so long to cool. Mobile artillery made it possible for an army to quickly deploy guns against a fortification, changing the balance of military power from defence to offence and making forts and strongholds far more vulnerable than before.
In response, as Parker showed, leaders began building new fortresses. The artillery fortress, or trace italienne, is at the heart of Parker’s argument. With its thick earth-filled walls and angled bastions, it allowed defenders to create a dense web of crossfire, eliminating the so-called dead zones where attackers could shelter from guns. The trace italienne was highly effective, and the balance of power shifted back to defenders.
More importantly for Parker, artillery fortresses caused the cost of warfare to rise. Not only were they expensive to build and garrison, but they were also expensive to capture, as swifter bombardments were replaced by longer sieges. Attackers required larger forces to surround the enemy fortress and drive away reinforcements. These armies also frequently had to remain in position for many months.
Thus, for Parker, the dramatic increase in the size of armies and the expense of war was due less to the tactical revolution that Roberts outlined and more to the revolution in fortification. The artillery fort was the primary driver of the trend towards larger army sizes, which was in turn a driver of state centralization, not to mention fiscal innovations such as those that allowed the Dutch state to borrow at interest to fund its war against the Habsburgs.
There have been major debates about the extent to which Parker was right about this and whether army size was correlated with the spread of the artillery fortress, but for our purposes here, another issue is more significant: the impact of the Military Revolution on European expansion.11
Parker’s book was subtitled “Military Innovation and the Rise of the West,” and his focus on the role of European military prowess in European colonialism is one of the reasons his book was so influential. His thesis is that techniques and technologies that developed during the European military revolution gave Europeans a significant edge beyond Europe, arguing that they help explain how Europeans managed to conquer thirty-five percent of the world’s land by 1800, before industrialization revolutionized travel and warfare.12
Parker made three specific arguments. First, he argued that European drilling practices - in particular the countermarch technique - provided an edge in field battles: “The combination of drill with the use of firearms to produce volley fire, perfected through constant practice, proved the mainstay of western warfare - and the key to western expansion - for the next three centuries.”13 Second, he argued that the European ship of the line, sturdy and filled with heavy artillery, provided an advantage on the seas. Third, he argued that the artillery fortress allowed Europeans to effectively defend land against their enemies, both on the borders of Europe, where they helped stop the “Islamic tide,” and overseas, where they allowed Europeans to create enduring coastal footholds, which gave them local power, attracting alliances and traders:
The invention and diffusion of the “Italian style” of fortification thus represented an important step in the West’s continuing - perhaps unique - ability to make the most of its smaller resources in order, first, to hold its own and, later, to expand to global dominance.14
Parker’s model for the Military Revolution has been extremely influential, generating debate and inspiring new scholarship. Much of the debate has centred on the timing. For instance, Jeremy Black has argued that the most revolutionary aspects of the military transformation of Europe took place later than Parker argues: 1660—1710, when, Black argues, tactics changed most dramatically.15 Black has also suggested that the Military Revolution is not an effective explanation for European expansion, because warfare is quite context dependent: in many circumstances, European techniques offered little help.16
In a more satisfying critique, Clifford Rogers argued that there were five separate military revolutions:17
- (1) an infantry revolution in the fourteenth century;
- (2) an artillery revolution in the fifteenth century;
- (3) a fortifications revolution in the sixteenth century;
- (4) a fire weapons revolution between 1580 and 1630;
- (5) a dramatic increase in the size of European armies between 1650 and 1715.
There are major debates about when and why army sizes increased. And there are significant debates about causation: did the military innovations associated with Parker’s military revolution cause the rise of the centralized state, or did the centralized state make possible those innovations?
But for our purposes here, the most intriguing recent debates focus on the Military Revolution in Asia. Scholars such as Gabor Agoston,18 Peter Lorge,19 Kenneth Chase,2" Hyeok Hweon Kang,21 and I myself,22 among others, have widened the scope of the Military Revolution, suggesting that phenomena associated with the
Military Revolution in Europe were also present in Asia.23 A particularly instructive case is East Asia.