Warfare in Western Eurasia in the third and early second millennium bc

In the September 9, 2009 issue of The New Republic Edward Luttwak reviewed two books on Attila and the nomads of central Asia. In the course of his review Luttwak noted that Attila’s meteoric success has attracted relatively little scholarly attention, and he observed somewhat sourly that for most academicians military history of any kind is not of much interest:

There is almost no place, and almost no prestige, for anyone who wants to research and teach how and why battles and wars were won or lost—that is, military history strictly defined—as opposed to social history, economic history, and some forms of political history, including newly rehabilitated biographical approaches but excluding “kings and battles.” Even research on “presidents and wars” is unwelcome unless there are cognitive or psychological pathologies to be studied. And there is the added impediment that military historiography is an arcane field, requiring serious archival research, often in languages other than English. While scholarly readers have an insatiable demand for military historiography, and students are very keenly interested in battles and wars, the faculties at our universities prefer to scant both. Appoint a military historian? The eminent Chicago Byzantinist Walter Emil Kaegi has explained why it almost never happens: tactics cannot matter, weapon techniques cannot matter, operational methods cannot matter, theater strategies cannot matter, because wars do not matter—as a subject of their own, rather than as epiphenomenal expressions of other causes and realities. Given the academic consensus that wars are almost entirely decided by social, economic, and political factors, there is simply no room for military history as such.1

It is not surprising that academics today are less interested in military history than were academics 100 years ago. One of the important trends in historiography since the 1950s has been the increasing focus on the longue duree and a corresponding neglect of histoire evenementielle. The crucial factors in human history, as seen by Fernand Braudel and the Annales School, are the environmental or socio-economic conditions that operate over centuries or even millennia. These are the subjects that serious historians are encouraged to study, leaving narrative history to popular writers, authors of text-books, and story-tellers.

War itself has made military history more of a pariah than it was 100 years ago. Since the advent of chemical and nuclear weapons we have come to recognize that unless war itself becomes obsolete we will destroy ourselves and render the earth unlivable. The writing of military history easily veers into the justification or even the glorification of war, toward which few historians wish to contribute. Even while we see the suicidal character of what war has become, however, and begin to de-glorify what it once was, historians must continue to learn what they can about the evolution of warfare. Wars have shaped much of what we are and what we are not, as historians beginning with Herodotos have been well aware.

Warfare in pre-classical antiquity is especially in need of critical study. Ancient warfare is treated regularly by commercial presses and now by websites on the Internet, because the public appetite for it is almost inexhaustible. Such presentations may be correct enough on warfare in Greek and Roman antiquity, but on earlier periods they often leave much to be desired. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, military historians—Clausewitz and Delbrnck more broadly, Kromeyer and Veith in detail—described what warfare was like in classical Greece and Rome. From the war monographs of Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Caesar and Sallust they drew pragmatic lessons about the winning of battles and wars. Warfare in the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, however, was so obscure—estimates depended mostly on the Iliad and the Bible—that the military historians had little use for it.

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