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Book Review


Wayne E. Lee, Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xix + 538. Index. $44.95 (paper).


     Wayne Lee, one of the small handful of experts working at the intersection of world history and military history, has written a solid, useful synthesis of global military history built around the theme of innovation. That is, how have societies through time innovated to meet military challenges? What shapes innovation, and what impact has military innovation had on broader patterns of societal development? Lee's theme, therefore, places military history right at the heart of world historical questions.

     He does not take, however, a simplistic approach to these questions, and makes clear that military history, in turn, is simply a part of broader historical patterns that are the context for societies waging war. He analyzes innovation, therefore, through the lenses of capacity, calculation, and culture. Capacity refers to the resources—not just material but also administrative and more broadly organizational—that societies can deploy for war and ties the history of military innovation firmly to an account of conflict and the development of increasingly complex social structures, especially state building. Calculation refers to the ability of human societies to assess the challenges they face and consciously attempt to create solutions. This factor carries the danger of leading historical analysis into materialist, Realpolitik assumptions about what counts as "rational". But Lee's third factor, culture, makes explicit the fact that calculations by historical actors of threat, capacity, and possible responses are crucially shaped by the cultural outlooks and attitudes of the calculators. Lee's attention to culture sets his analysis apart from most broad surveys of military history, though I will argue below that he might have pushed this factor even harder at times.

     A brief survey of the chapters into which Lee divides his study will provide context for more detailed analysis of the strengths (many) and weaknesses (few) of this book and its potential usefulness for scholars, readers of World History Connected, and teachers of world history.

     Lee opens with a chapter on the origins of war, correctly identifying armed conflict itself as the first innovation in military history. This is a contentious topic, and Lee takes special care to walk through the various arguments about war as innate to human nature versus war as a cultural invention (a dichotomy that is to some extent inherently false, of course, given the central role of culture, broadly conceived, in hominin evolution from a very early date). The result is perhaps the most successful chapter of the book. His balancing of biological and cultural inputs into the development of armed conflict and his careful attention to the intimate connection between the potential for conflict between human communities and the rising potential for cooperation within (and ultimately between) human communities, and thus to questions of social organization and the evolution of hierarchical state structures, is masterful. One central conclusion, that "lethal conflict between human groups … has existed at all times and in all places, but not all the time" (25), seems to this reviewer (who went into reading this chapter somewhat inclined to a more cultural constructionist view) as just about right. This chapter alone is worth the price of admission.

     In the next three chapters—on the development of chariots and true cavalry, arising from the innovation of domesticating horses and using them in war (Ch. Two); on the rise of disciplined mass infantry displaying communal cohesion, which Lee calls "men in line with spears" in the title of Ch. Three; and the deployment of mass, state-raised infantry in combination with fortifications by sedentary empires (Ch. Four)—Lee walks the reader through the fundamental innovations that shaped almost every pre-gunpowder military force, and indeed many gunpowder armies before industrialization. Lee's de-emphasis of technological factors (e.g., "The Bronze Age" and "The Iron Age") is refreshing and on target. Chapter Five, on the armored social elite of medieval European horsemen and the horse archers of steppe nomadic armies, elaborates aspects of the relationship of social organization and military force within the standard pre-industrial matrix. Finally, Chapter Six traces the invention of naval warfare, with a predictable but defensible focus on the Mediterranean. It is only here that Lee's theme of innovation, with a concomitant focus on technology in naval warfare, leads to a regrettable omission: the naval equivalent of steppe horsemen, what I have elsewhere called "predatory sea peoples" such as the Vikings, Cholas, and Srivijaya, whose sometimes significant impact on patterns of history did not depend on innovative technology. But the lacuna is hardly fatal.

     These six chapters take the story roughly down to about 1300, at least in the most advanced areas of the world. The next three deal with the pre-industrial world of gunpowder weaponry and the contentious historiography of the so-called "Military Revolution". Chapter Seven covers Europe and the Ottoman Empire, which competed with each other and led the way in the development of effective gunpowder weapons. Chapter Eight examines gunpowder weaponry in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, emphasizing the varied uses and impacts of the new technology, variations that depended heavily on the different contexts of state capacity (often shaped by environmental factors), calculations about the effectiveness and political effects of guns, and above all cultural attitudes about the meaning of war and the proper roles of warriors. Chapter Nine focuses in on East Asia, above all China and Japan, and comes back to Europe in the latter part of this period, between 1660 and 1800, to connect gunpowder use with developments in state capacity and culture characterized by trends towards professionalization, bureaucratization, and institutionalization. Lee stresses that even these "modernizing" trends in capacity were not deterministic, as the different paths followed by China, Japan, and Europe in this period again were shaped heavily by calculations of political as well as military advantage within already established cultural frames.

     Lee then sets up Chapter Ten as a major turning point by analyzing the broad impact of industrialization on all areas of human activity, an impact that was felt indirectly on military affairs even more than it was directly. Lee's emphasis here on big context is exactly right: too often, the 19th century gets short shrift in accounts of military turning points or "revolutions" because it was characterized not by one specific military innovation, but by an ever-growing wave of small, incremental innovations across the board. Nevertheless, as Lee clearly shows, the cumulative effect of this (still growing) wave was utterly revolutionary for demographics, economics, social structure, technology, and even culture, all areas forming the inescapable context of military history.

     In the next three chapters, Lee focuses in again on more specifically military developments. First, the massive growth in firepower that became so catastrophically obvious in World War I (Ch. Eleven). Innovations in mobility—especially tactical and operational mobility, adding to the strategic mobility already enhanced by steamships and railroads—then balanced the increases in firepower (Ch. Twelve). Next, he surveys the promise and problems of air power, including nuclear weaponry and the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), modern historians' twentieth-century counterpart to the earlier Military Revolution (Ch. Thirteen). Finally, Chapter Fourteen analyzes the growth of sub- and non-state warfare, including guerilla warfare and terrorism, and the challenges they pose to conventional, state-to-state oriented warfare.

     The chapter outline makes several points about Lee's approach to his topic clear. First, the innovation theme leads to a greater emphasis on the last five hundred years (and particularly the last two hundred, when innovation became built into calculation, capacity, and even culture): six chapters on everything to 1500, three chapters between 1500 and 1800, and five since 1800. One perhaps unintended result of this for Lee's analysis is that his "culture" factor increasingly becomes more narrowly defined as "military culture" in the twentieth century chapters, losing some focus on the wider cultural contexts of war. Even before the industrial turning point, Lee's cultural analysis tends not to emphasize grand strategy, or what societies thought warfare was for at a political (or cultural!) level; in the last four chapters such analysis is unfortunately even more muted, and his focus on American military culture becomes almost overwhelming in the last two chapters.

     Thus (and second), from a truly global and chronologically balanced perspective, this is not exactly a balanced world history survey; for example, the pre-Columbian Americas virtually disappear. But it isn't designed to be and Lee is open and honest about that, so one shouldn't count this as a weakness, just a feature. Lee is also clear about those places where his analysis of some societies' military systems is partial, with a focus only on those parts of the system that fit into the theme of the chapter—his look at medieval European warfare is one of those places. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, as long as the reader heeds Lee's warning that he has not given a comprehensive introduction to a system.

     In summary, this is an excellent synthesis and exploration of world military history, whose focus on innovation serves well as an organizational tool and intellectual lever to pry open the topic. Lee's conclusions about often complicated and contentious historiographical points are always balanced and well-argued, carrying on the strength of the first chapter throughout the book. He is, from this reviewer's perspective, rightly skeptical of "revolution" arguments, including both the "Military Revolution" and the RMA. His emphasis on the role of culture in mediating military change, as well as on calculation and capacity, help mute others' "revolution" arguments that are often way too technologically determinist. My own specialist disagreements with Lee's presentation are almost never a matter of his having omitted a crucial point or misread a case, but of emphasis—my worst negative reactions consisted of thinking, "Gee, I would have stressed that more" or "Hey, he forgot… no, there it is, just a bit too late."

     Finally, the book is clearly written and does not rely on the reader knowing a lot going in, and so should be accessible to general audiences and students. It could be used in introductory world military history courses, though it is only here (in classroom use) that its lack of a comprehensive "narrative" and its selective emphasis on certain aspects of some military systems might prove problematic. The latter, especially, would complicate the teaching task to avoid students getting unbalanced impressions. All in all, however, this is an impressive achievement and I recommend it strongly.

Stephen Morillo teaches world history, military history, and medieval history at Wabash College. His research is in the social, cultural and institutional history of warfare and warrior elites from a global comparative context, focusing on the period between 1000 and 1800.  You may contact him at


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