From Athens to Afghanistan: ‘Perilous Glory’ by John France questions the notion of a Western way of war

Perilous Glory

Perilous Glory

Last month Yale published a major new military history book that has already been praised as a ‘work of extraordinary breadth and ambition’. In Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power John France challenges accepted ideas about the development of military strength, the impact of culture on war and the future of Western dominance. Today we take a look at this exciting new title.

Why are Western powers so devastating on the battlefield? Historians have been attempting to answer this question for years. In 1997 Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies which cites the environmental and geographical advantages of Western countries as the main reason for their military dominance. In 2001 Victor Davis Hanson’s book Carnage and Culture rejected Diamond’s ideas, arguing that the military dominance of Western Civilization, beginning with the ancient Greeks, was the result of certain fundamental aspects of Western culture, such as consensual government, democracy and individualism.

Perilous Glory adds further fuel to the fire of this debate, arguing that styles of warfare are dictated not by cultural superiority but by material circumstances, social conditions, technology and other such factors. Taking into account wars waged by virtually all civilizations since the beginning of recorded history (from ancient Mesopotamia to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), France finds that despite enormous cultural differences, war was conducted in distinctly similar ways right up to the Military Revolution and the pursuit of technological warfare in the nineteenth century. Since then, European and American culture has shaped warfare, but only because these Western powers have achieved a sense of distance from it.

France warns that the present eminence of U.S. power is much more precarious and accidental than commonly believed. The notion that war is a distant phenomenon is only an illusion, and our cultural attitudes must change accordingly. These bold conclusions cast doubt on well-entrenched attitudes about the development of military strength, the impact of culture on warfare, the future of Western dominance, and much more.

In a recent review in the Telegraph, English historian, writer and columnist Noel Malcolm praised France’s ‘powerful book’, succinctly summing up France’s arguments about the fluid nature of military development, and his assertion that victory often owes more to serendipity than inherent cultural differences:

One of his basic distinctions is between two kinds of population: people of the steppe, and “agro-urban” societies. For elementary geographical reasons, the former flourished in the plains of central Asia, while the latter developed in both Europe and China. Agro-urban armies were based on infantry, supplemented by cavalry and artillery; steppe armies consisted essentially of mounted archers, with the advantage of rapid mobility and (often) huge numbers.

When steppe peoples took over agro-urban societies, as the Manchus did in China, the Mughals in India and the Ottomans in Asia Minor and Europe, they quickly adopted the military skills and technologies of their new subjects. The expansion of Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries was based not on any essential difference in its “way of war”, but merely on the lucky fluke that Western economic growth coincided with oriental political weakness.

Perilous Glory is one of those important books that manages to straddle the divide between military, world and social history, offering a panoramic view of Western military dominance, from Spartan warriors in ancient Greece to the US’s military industrial complex. With the West’s continuing military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, a proper understanding of Western warfare is certainly more relevant than ever.

John France is Charles Boal Ewing Professor of History at the United States Military Academy West Point, and Professor Emeritus, Department of History and Classics, Swansea University. He is author of The Crusades and the Expansion of Catholic Christendom, 1000–1714 (2005), among numerous other books and articles.

Perilous Glory: The Rise of Western Military Power is out now from Yale University Press.

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