War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to Today

by Max Boot, Gotham Books, New York, 2006, $35.

Warfare in the 21st century has been turned on its head—“made new,” to use Max Boot’s phrase.

But it’s not the first time. In 1494 the French invaded Italy, sparking the Gunpowder Revolution. Castles, which until then had been able to withstand most sieges with impunity, were battered into paving stones by artillery. War was made new, for it was the first time what we would come to call technology—gunpowder and mobile, aimable barrels—had won a war.

In intriguing and often obscure detail, Boot traces this trend through the great battles of the gunpowder age (the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the raging progress of the Swedes through northern Europe in the 17th century, the initial British incursions against the great maharajahs’ Indian armies), and then the bloody confrontations of the Industrial Revolution, including Japan’s stunning defeat of the Russian imperial fleet at Tsushima, in 1905.

What the author refers to as the Second Industrial Revolution slid into place when oil replaced coal at the end of the 19th century. Easily portable and seemingly abundant liquid fuel led to the introduction of tanks and aircraft, and once again armed conflict was reinvented.

At the end of the 20th century, we awaited the Information Revolution and, to an extent—though not the extent predicted by endless PR films of invincible high-tech weapons rolling across proving grounds or blowing elderly drones out of the sky—it became reality. It was smart bombs, Predators, stealth, spy satellites, the terrible swift sword of Desert Storm, FACs on horses in Afghanistan calling down the wrath of B-52s upon the Taliban.

But then an odd thing happened. The most powerful army in history was brought to its knees not by technology but by improvisation—IEDs, improvised explosive devices—war made new.

Max Boot is a historian (and much more) and a splendid communicator, and his new book is a remarkable compendium of information, detail and informed opinion about conflicts as different—yet in many ways as similar—as the assault of Muslim Dervishes against machine guns at Omdurman in 1898 and the thunder runs of U.S. tankers into Baghdad in 2003.

 

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here