Max Boot Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Max, welcome back to Berkeley.
Thanks for having me back.
What was your goal in writing this book?
My goal was to help people understand the period of revolutionary change we're going through right now in military affairs, the information revolution which has had a profound effect on warfare over the course of the last fifteen years. There's been an awful lot written about it but very little that sets it in historical perspective. I try to provide some perspective on the changes we're seeing today by looking not only at the information revolution but at three other revolutions of military affairs over the course of the past 500 years, going to the gunpowder age, the first industrial revolution, the second industrial revolution, and now the information age, and looking at how all those transformations changed not only the face of battle but also what happens to the international balance of power.
How long did it take you to write the book?
Talk about the circumstances under which you conceived the idea and saw its importance.
I conceived it in the summer of 2002 after my last book, The Savage Wars of Peace, came out. I was looking around for a new book to write. I had even more impetus to write it because at that point I was being hired by the Council on Foreign Relations from my previous job at the Wall Street Journal. I had to come up with a major project to work on while I was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was essentially the same process that I used with my previous book, which was an attempt to shed historical light on an ongoing controversy in military affairs. The Savage Wars of Peace was about small wars, these low-intensity conflicts where we were engaged in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and so forth, and so I tried to look at those kinds of conflicts going back over two hundred years of American history. Now with War Made New, the controversy that I'm trying to shed light on is this debate over military transformation and how should we transform the military to adapt to the changes of information age warfare. To shed light on that, I go back 500 years and look at the whole world and everything that's happened, to try to put into perspective what we're seeing today.
The format you're using is to discuss each of these revolutions and look at a critical battle where one party successfully implemented what was then a revolution in a particular technology. Give us an example of that. Let's go back to the first age. As you said a moment ago, you divide the book into four segments and the first is the gunpowder revolution. Talk a little about that.
Sure. Gunpowder began to transform the battlefield around 1500, and advantage went to states that were able to mobilize effective gunpowder armies and navies. Some did, some didn't. The very first battle that I started writing about is the French invasion of Italy in 1494 where the French were pioneers in artillery. They had field artillery that they were able to wheel into Italy and to destroy old-fashioned fortresses that had protected Italian city-states for centuries. All of a sudden their walls were getting knocked down and the French were rampaging through Italy. The Italians didn't know what hit them because the French had jumped out ahead with this key technology.
As you look through this history, is it the case that the weaker adversary didn't know about the technology, or is it rather that they hadn't figured out how to configure it and implement it in their plan?
It's more that they couldn't configure it properly. In fact, the pattern that I see throughout this history is that very often the same technology is available to both sides but only one side figures out how to make use of it, and that [points] to having the right organizational structures, the right management culture, the right leadership training, all these human factors that are necessary in order to take advantage of technology. One case of that, again from the gunpowder age, is the Spanish Armada in 1588. Spain in 1588 was much bigger, much richer than England, and yet why was the Spanish Armada defeated by the Royal Navy? It wasn't because the Spanish didn't have access to galleons and cannons, and all the other technologies that the English had. It was because they didn't make very good use of it. Spain had an underdeveloped bureaucracy. King Phillip II basically tried to run the whole state himself. He was a micromanager. Whereas Queen Elizabeth had the makings of a nascent government bureaucracy that had the origins of the admiralty and these other boards that came together to provide very effective warships, and also the right crews and the right leadership, leaders like Drake and Hawkins, and others, who were tremendously adept at sail and shock tactics in a way that the Spanish simply were not.
You mention leadership and personality. Let's look at another age, say, the first industrial revolution. Is it the personality and the individual skills of the grunt coming together with the military commander, coming together with the political leaders? I mean, in looking at this whole sweep of history, and especially that period, is it one of these that's more important or is it all of them together?
I tend to think that the most important levels of leadership are at the higher ends of the military and political chain. You obviously need brave soldiers to fight battles, but all countries produce brave soldiers, there's nothing unusual about that. The question is, are you going to have soldiers who are well led and well armed and well trained for the kind of warfare that they face? Because if you don't, simply being brave isn't enough. A classic example of that is one of the battles I look at from the first industrial revolution, which is the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, where the British were facing a jihadist uprising in the Sudan. These jihadists, these Mahdists in the Sudan, were tremendously brave, just as jihadists are today, often brave to the point of being suicidal. But it wasn't enough to triumph over the British, who had a modern army, who had machine guns, who had repeating rifles, and used them tremendously effectively. The Mahdists didn't have a tactical scheme to make effective use of all of their bravery. And so, in early September of 1898, thousands of these Sudanese dervishes charged across open ground in front of their capitol in Omdurman right into entrenched British positions, and they were mowed down by the thousands because all they had were rusty rifles and spears and swords against these British with their repeating rifles and machine guns. It was no contest. It wasn't because the British were braver, it wasn't because the British had better warriors per se, it was because they had a better organizational structure to harness the technology of the day and to make use of it in a way that the Sudanese were unable to do.
The bottom line is that, for example, when you talk about the West's conflict with the Islamic world, the Ottoman empire, the adoption of succcessful battle technology ultimately changed the course of history and decided who's up and who's down.
These revolution of military affairs have been tremendously consequential in determining who wins and who loses in the struggle for global primacy. All you have to do is look at the period before the gunpowder revolution, around 1400 or 1450, and look at who were the great powers of the world at that time. It wasn't the Europeans, it was the Chinese and the Mongols. The Europeans in 1450 controlled only 14% of the land's surface, yet by 1914 the Europeans controlled 84% of the world, largely because of their mastery of gunpowder technology and industrial technology, which allowed them to go everywhere around the world and essentially to defeat everybody that they met. This was the big story of the last 500 years, the rise of the West, and was made possible largely by the greater success that westerners had in harnessing military technology in the period between 1500 and 1900.
Throughout these revolutions, what is the relationship of innovation and that particular event to the currents within the broader society? Technological innovations such as gunpowder don't arise necessarily just out of military needs, right? Is it an adaptation of what's going on in the broader society?
Oh, in fact, if you look at the histories, I would argue the most important military inventions of the last 500 years were not military inventions, were in fact inventions that sort of came out of left field and did not come out of any administrative defense or any armed force, starting with gunpowder, which came out of China and migrated its way westward. Nobody knows who invented it or why. Or if you look at three-masted sailing ships, or steam engines, railroads, steamships, telegraphs, radios, internal combustion engines, automobiles, airplanes, microchips, all of these key technologies of the last 500 years were not military in nature. The Wright brothers were not thinking, "We've got to come up with a new way to kill millions of people." They were thinking, "It'd be cool to fly." But out of that basic impulse, "It would be cool to fly," came the dominant weapon system of the twentieth century. That's very often been the case, that inventions kind of come out of left field and the trick for militaries is not so much making the inventions themselves but figuring out how to harness these inventions, which are available to everybody, and figuring out how to harness them better than their adversaries do.
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