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Europe in 1914

(i) Out of the Blue
(ii) The Importance of the Question
(iii) A Summer to Remember





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David Fromkin is Professor of International Relations, History and Law at
Boston University. He has written six other books, including A Peace to

End All Peace, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in New
York City.


The Way of the World
Sarajevo Crossing

In the Time of the Americans
A Peace to End All Peace

The Independence of Nations
The Question of Government

David Fromkin


Why the World Went to War
in 1914

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For Alain Silvera—

The peremptory transition from an apparently profound peace to violent
general war in a few midsummer weeks in 1914 continues to defy attempts
at explanation.

—JOHN KEEGAN, The First World War



(i) Out of the Blue

Shortly after eleven o’clock at night on Sunday, December 29, 1997, United
Airlines Flight 826, a Boeing 747 carrying 374 passengers and 19 crew, was
two hours into its scheduled trip across the Pacific from Tokyo to Honolulu.
It had reached its assigned cruising altitude of between 31,000 and 33,000
feet. Meal service was about to be completed. It had been an uneventful

In a terrifying instant everything changed. The plane was struck, without
warning, by a force that was invisible. The aircraft abruptly nosed up; then
it nosed down into a freefall. Screaming bodies were flung about
promiscuously, colliding with ceilings and with serving carts. A thirty-two-
year-old Japanese woman was killed and 102 people were injured.
Regaining control of the jumbo jet, the captain and cockpit crew guided
Flight 826 back to the Japanese airport from which it had taken off hours

What was so frightening about this episode was its mysteriousness. Until
the moment of impact, the flight had been a normal one. There had been no
reason to expect that it would be anything else. There had been no warning:
no flash of lightning across the sky. You could not see it coming, whatever
“it” may have been. Passengers had no idea what had hit them and airline
companies were in no position to assure the public that something similar
would not happen again.

Experts quoted by the communications media were of the opinion that
Flight 826 had fallen victim to what they called “clear air turbulence.” They
likened this to a horizontal tornado, but one that you could not see. Some of
the experts who were interviewed expressed the hope that within a few

the experts who were interviewed expressed the hope that within a few
years some sort of sensing technology would be developed to detect these
invisible storms before they strike. Transparency, the public learned from
this episode, signifies little; a pacific sky can rise up in wrath as suddenly as
can a pacific ocean.

Something like such an attack of clear air turbulence is supposed by some
to have happened to European civilization in 1914 during its passage from
the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The world of the 1890s and 1900s
had been, not unlike our own age, a time of international congresses,
disarmament conferences, globalization of the world economy, and schemes
to establish some sort of league of nations to outlaw war. A long stretch of
peace and prosperity was expected by the public to go on indefinitely.

Instead, the European world abruptly plunged out of control, crashing and
exploding into decades of tyranny, world war, and mass murder. What
tornado wrecked civilized Old Europe and the world it then ruled? In
retrospect, it may be less of a mystery than some of those who lived through
it imagined. The years 1913 and 1914 were ones of dangers and troubles.
There were warning signs in the early decades of the twentieth century that
catastrophe might well lie ahead; we can see that now, and military and
political leaders could see it then.

The sky out of which Europe fell was not empty; on the contrary, it was
alive with processes and powers. The forces that were to devastate it—
nationalism, socialism, imperialism, and the like—had been in motion for a
long time. The European world already was buffeted by high winds. It had
been traversing dangerous skies for a long time. The captain and the crew
had known it. But the passengers, taken completely by surprise, insistently
kept asking: why had they received no warning?

(ii) The Importance of the Question

In the summer of 1914 a war broke out in Europe that then spread to Africa,
the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. Known now,
somewhat inaccurately, as the First World War, it ended by becoming in
many ways the largest conflict that the planet had ever known. It deserved
the name by which it was called at the time: the Great War.

the name by which it was called at the time: the Great War.

To enter the lists, countries of the earth ranged themselves into one or
another of two worldwide coalitions. One, led by Great Britain,* France,
and Russia, was called the Triple Entente;† the other, led by Germany and
Austria-Hungary, was known at first as the Triple Alliance.§ Between them
the two coalitions mobilized about 65 million troops. In Germany and
France, nations that gambled their entire manhood on the outcome, 80
percent of all males between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine were called
to the colors. In the ensuing clashes of arms they were slaughtered.

*Beginning in 1801, the official title of Great Britain was the “United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”; for short, the United Kingdom.

† Called “the Allies” during the war.

§ with Italy as the third member in peacetime. Called “the Central Powers”
during the war.

More than 20 million soldiers and civilians perished in the Great War, and
an additional 21 million were wounded. Millions more fell victim to the
diseases that the war unleashed: upwards of 20 million people died in the
influenza pandemic of 1918–19 alone.

The figures, staggering though they are, fail to tell the whole story or to
convey the full impact of the war on the world of 1914. The consequences
of the changes wrought by the crisis of European civilization are too many
to specify and, in their range and in their depth, made it the turning point in
modern history. That would be true even if, as some maintain, the war
merely accelerated some of the changes to which it led.

On August 8, 1914, only four days after Great Britain entered the war, the
London Economist described it as “perhaps the greatest tragedy of human
history.” That may well remain true. In 1979 the distinguished American
diplomat and historian George Kennan wrote that he had “come to see the
First World War, as I think many reasonably thoughtful people have learned
to see it, as the grand seminal catastrophe of this century.”

Fritz Stern, one of the foremost scholars of German affairs, writes of “the
first calamity of the twentieth century, the Great War, from which all other

calamities sprang.”

The military, political, economic, and social earthquakes brought about a
redrawing of the map of the world. Empires and dynasties were swept
away. New countries took their place. Disintegration of the political
structure of the globe continued over the course of the twentieth century.
Today the earth is divided into about four times as many independent states
as existed when the Europeans went to war in 1914. Many of the new
entities—Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are examples that come to mind—
are countries that never existed before.

The Great War gave birth to terrible forces that would plague the rest of
the century. To drive Russia out of the war, the German government
financed Lenin’s Bolshevik communists, and introduced Lenin himself into
Russia in 1917—in Winston Churchill’s words, “in the same way that you
might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or of cholera to be poured
into the water supply of a great city.” Bolshevism was only the first of such
war-born furies, followed in years to come by fascism and Nazism.

Yet the war also set in motion two of the great liberation movements of
the twentieth century. As Europe tore itself apart, its over-lordship of the
rest of the planet came undone, and over the course of the century, literally
billions of people achieved their independence. Women, too, in parts of the
world, broke free from some of the shackles of the past, arguably as a direct
consequence of their involvement in war work—jobs in factories and in the
armed forces—beginning in 1914.

Another kind of liberation, a wide-ranging freedom from restraint, came
out of the Great War and has expanded ever since in behavior, sex life,
manners, dress, language, and the arts. Not everybody believes it to be a
good thing that so many rules and restrictions have gone by the way. But
whether for good or ill, the world has traveled a long way—from the
Victorian age to the twenty-first century—along paths that were blasted out
for it by the warriors of 1914.

In searching for the origins of any of the great issues that have faced the
world during the twentieth century, or that confront it today, it is
remarkable how often we come back to the Great War. As George Kennan
observed: “all the lines of inquiry, it seems to me, lead back to it.”

Afterwards the choices narrowed. The United States and even Great Britain
had a choice, for example, of whether or not to enter the First World War—
indeed disagreement has persisted ever since as to whether they were wise
to do so—but, realistically, the two countries had little or no choice at all
about whether or not to join battle in the Second.

There was nothing inevitable about the progression from the earlier
conflict to the later one. The long fuse could have been cut at many points
along the way from 1914 to 1939, but nobody did cut it. So the First World
War did in fact lead to the Second, even though it need not have done so,
and the Second, whether or not it needed to do so, led to the Cold War. In
1991 historians Steven E. Miller and Sean M. Lynn-Jones maintained:
“Most observers describe the present period of international politics as the
‘post–Cold War’ era but in many ways our age is better defined as the ‘post–
World War I’ era.”

From the start, the explosion of 1914 seemed to set off a series of chain
reactions, and the serious consequences were soon apparent to
contemporaries: In the Introduction to The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas
Mann wrote of “the Great War, in the beginning of which so much began
that has scarcely yet left off beginning.”

Nor has it entirely left off today. On April 21, 2001, the New York Times
reported from France the return to their homes of thousands of people who
had been evacuated temporarily because of a threat from munitions left over
from World War I and stored near them. These included shells and mustard
gas. The evacuees had been allowed to return home after fifty tons of the
more dangerous munitions had been removed. But a hundred tons of the
lethal materials remained—and remain. So munitions from the 1914 war
may yet explode in the twenty-first century.

Indeed, in a sense they already have. On September 11, 2001, the Muslim
fundamentalist suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City
destroyed the heart of lower Manhattan and took some three thousand lives.
Osama bin Laden, the terrorist chieftain who seemingly conjured up this
horror and who threatened more, in his first televised statement afterwards
described it as vengeance for what had happened eighty years earlier. By
this he presumably meant the intrusion of the Christian European empires
into the hitherto Muslim-governed Middle East in the aftermath of—and as

a consequence of—the First World War. Bin Laden’s sympathizers who
hijacked jumbo jets had smashed them into the twin towers in pursuance of
a quarrel seemingly rooted in the conflicts of 1914.

Similarly, the Iraq crisis that escalated in 2002–03 drove journalists and
broadcast news personalities to their telephones, asking history professors
from leading American universities how Iraq had emerged as a state from
the embers of the First World War. It was a relevant question, for had there
been no world war in 1914, there might well have been no Iraq in 2002.

It was indeed the seminal event of modern times.

What was the First World War about? How did it happen? Who started it?
Why did it break out where and when it did? “Millions of deaths, and
words, later, historians still have not agreed why,” as the “Millennium
Special Edition” of The Economist (January 1, 1000–December 31, 1999)
remarked, adding that “none of it need have happened.” From the outset
everybody said that the outbreak of war in 1914 was literally triggered by a
Bosnian Serb schoolboy when he shot and killed the heir to the Austrian
and Hungarian thrones. But practically everybody also agrees that the
assassination provided not the cause, but merely the occasion, for first the
Balkans, then Europe, and then the rest of the earth to take up arms.

The disproportion between the schoolboy’s crime and the conflagration in
which the globe was consumed, beginning thirty-seven days later, was too
absurd for observers to credit the one as the cause of the other. Tens of
millions of people could not be losing their lives, they felt, because one man
and his wife—two people of whom many of them had never heard—had
lost theirs. It did not seem possible. It could not, everyone said, be true.

Because the Great War was so enormous an event and so fraught with
consequences, and because we want to keep anything similar from
happening in the future, the inquiry as to how it occurred has become not
only the most challenging but also the biggest question in modern history.
But it remains elusive; in the words of the historian Laurence Lafore, “the
war was many things, not one, and the meanings of the word ’cause’ are also

• • •

In the 1940s and 1950s scholars tended to believe that they had learned all
that there was to be known about the origins of the war, and that all that
remained to be disputed was interpretation of the evidence. Beginning in the
1960s, however, sparked by the research of the great German historian Fritz
Fischer—of whose views more will be said later—new information has
come to light, notably from German, Austrian, and Serbian sources, and
hardly a year goes by now without the appearance of new monographs
adding considerably to our knowledge. Fischer inspired scholars to comb
the archives for what was hidden. What follows in this book is an attempt to
look at the old questions in the light of the new knowledge, to summarize
the data, and then to draw some conclusions from it.

When and where did the march toward the war of 1914 begin? Recently,
in a Boston classroom, I asked university students to pinpoint the first steps
—before 1908—along the way. From their responses, the following may
illustrate how many roads can be imagined to have led to Sarajevo.

The fourth century A.D. The decision to divide the Roman Empire between
the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East had lasting
consequences. The cultural divide that ramified into two different branches
of Christianity, two calendars, and two rival scripts (the Latin and the
Cyrillic) persisted. The Roman Catholic Austrians and the Greek Orthodox
Serbs, whose quarrel provided the occasion for the 1914 war, were, in that
sense, fated to be enemies.

The seventh century. The Slavs, who were to become Europe’s largest
ethnic group, moved into the Balkans, where the Teutons already had
arrived. The conflict between Slavic and Germanic peoples became a
recurring theme of European history, and in the twentieth century pitted
Teuton Germans and Austrians against Slavic Russians and Serbs.

The eleventh century. The formal split between Roman Catholic and Greek
Orthodox Christianity generated a conflict of religious faith along the same
fault line as those of ethnic group, alphabet, and culture—Roman versus
Greek—a fault line that threatened the southeast of Europe and was
followed by the political earthquake that struck in 1914.

The fifteenth century. The conquest of Christian eastern and central Europe
by the Muslim Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire deprived the peoples of the

Balkans of centuries of experience in self-government. That perhaps
contributed to the violence and fractiousness of that area in the years that
led up to the 1914 war—and perhaps contributed to bringing it about.

The sixteenth century. The Protestant Reformation split Western
Christendom. It divided the German peoples politically, and led to the
curious relationship between Germany and Austria that lay at the heart of
the crisis of July 1914.

The seventeenth century. The beginning of the centuries-long Ottoman
retreat from Europe meant that the Turks were abandoning valuable lands
that the Christian Great Powers coveted. Desire to seize those lands fed the
rivalry between Austria and Russia that set off war in 1914.

1870–71. The creation of the German Empire and its annexation of French
territory in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War made another
European war likely as soon as France recovered sufficiently to try to take
back what it had lost.

1890. The German emperor dismissed his Chancellor—his prime minister
—Prince Otto von Bismarck. The new Chancellor reversed Bismarck’s
policy of allying with both Austria and Russia to keep the peace between
them. Instead, Germany sided with Austria against Russia in the struggle to
control the Balkans, which encouraged Austria to follow a dangerously
bellicose policy that seemed likely to provoke an eventual Russian

1890s. Rebuffed by Germany, and seeing no other alternative, reactionary,
monarchical Russia was drawn into an alliance with republican France. This
convinced Germany’s leaders that war was inevitable sooner or later, and
that Germany stood a better chance of winning if it were waged sooner
rather than later.

1900s. Germany’s attempt to rival Britain as a naval power was seen in
London as a vital threat.

1903. In a bloody coup d’état in Serbia, army officers belonging to a secret
society butchered their pro-Austrian king and queen and replaced them with
a rival dynasty that was pro-Russian. Austrian leaders reacted by planning
to punish Serbia—a plan that if carried out threatened to lead to a

dangerously wider conflict.

1905. The First Moroccan Crisis was a complicated affair. It will be
described in Chapter 12. In it Germany’s aggressive diplomacy had the
unintended effect of unifying the other countries against it. Britain moved
from mere friendship with France—the Entente Cordiale—to something
closer to informal alliance, including conversations between the two
governments and military staff talks, and later to agreement and
conversation with France’s ally Russia. There was a hardening of European
alignments into rival and potentially enemy blocs: France, Britain, and
Russia on one side, and an isolated Germany—with only halfhearted
support from Austria-Hungary and Italy—on the other.

To some extent all of these were right answers. Other dates—among them
1908, which is discussed in the pages that follow—also served as the
starting points of fuse lines that led to the explosions of 1914. All of them
can be said to have contributed something to the coming of war.

Yet, in a sense all of them are wrong answers, too, to the question of why
the conflict came. Thirty-seven days before the Great War the European
world was comfortably at peace. Europe’s leaders were starting their
summer vacations and none of them expected to be disturbed while away.
What went wrong?

All of the fuse lines identified by my students had been as dangerous to
the peace of Europe in 1910 and 1912 as they were in 1914. Since they had
not led to war in 1910 or 1912, why did they in 1914? The question is not
only why war came, but why war came in the European summer of 1914;
not why war? but—why this war?

Why did things happen as they did and not otherwise is a question that
historians have been asking ever since Herodotus and Thucy-dides, Greeks
of the fifth century B.C., started to do so more than twenty-five hundred
years ago. Whether such questions can be answered with any accuracy
remains debatable; often so many tributaries flow into the stream that it is
difficult to say which is its real source.

In its magnitude and many dimensions, the First World War is perhaps a
supreme example of the complexity that challenges and baffles historians.
Arthur Balfour, a prewar British Prime Minister, longtime Conservative

statesman, philosopher, and named sponsor of the Jewish state in Palestine,
is quoted somewhere as having said the war was too big to be

Not merely, therefore, is the explanation of the war the biggest question in
modern history; it is an exemplary question, compelling us to reexamine
what we mean by such words as “cause.” There were causes—many of
them—for Europe’s Great Powers to be disposed to go to war with one
another. There were other causes—immediate ones, with which this book is
concerned—for them to have gone to war when and where and how they

(iii) A Summer to Remember

To the man or woman in the streets of the Western world—someone who
was alive in the vibrant early years of the twentieth century— nothing
would have seemed further away than war. In those years men who
dreamed of battlefield adventure had been hard pressed to find a war in
which they could participate. In the year 1901, and in the thirteen years that
followed, the peoples of western Europe and the English-speaking
Americas were becoming consumers rather than warriors. They looked
forward to more: more progress, more prosperity, more peace. The United
States at that time (commented an English observer) “sailed upon a summer
sea,” but so did Great Britain, France, and others. There had been no war
among the Great Powers for nearly half a century, and the globalization of
the world economy suggested that war had become a thing of the past. The
culmination of those years in the hot, sun-drenched, gorgeous summer of
1914, the most beautiful within living memory, was remembered by many
Europeans as a kind of Eden. Stefan Zweig spoke for many when he wrote
that he had rarely experienced a summer “more luxuriant, more beautiful,
and, I am tempted to say, more summery.”

Middle-and upper-class Britons in particular saw themselves as living in
an idyllic world in which economic realities would keep Europe’s Great
Powers from waging war on one another. For those with a comfortable
income, the world in their time was more free than it is today. According to

the historian A. J. P. Taylor, “until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding
Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the
state.” You could live anywhere you liked and as you liked. You could go
to practically anywhere in the world without anyone’s permission. For the
most part, you needed no passports, and many had none. The French
geographer Andre Siegfried traveled all around the world with no
identification other than his visiting card: not even a business card, but a
personal one.

John Maynard Keynes remembered it, with wonder, as an era without
exchange controls or customs barriers. You could bring anything you liked
into Britain or send anything out. You could take any amount of currency
with you when you traveled, or send (or bring back) any amount of
currency; your bank did not report it to the government, as it does today.
And if you decided to invest any amount of money in almost any country
abroad, there was nobody whose permission had to be asked, nor was
permission needed to withdraw that investment and any profits it may have
earned when you wanted to do so.

Even more than today, it was a time of free capital flows and free
movements of people and goods. An outstanding current study of the world
as of 2000 tells us that there was more globalization before the 1914 war
than there is now: “much of the final quarter of the twentieth century was
spent merely recovering ground lost in the previous seventy-five years.”

Economic and financial intermingling and interdependence were among
the powerful trends that made it seem that warfare among the major
European powers had become impractical—and, indeed, obsolete.

American Soldiers


Theodore A. Wilson
General Editor

Raymond A. Callahan
J. Garry Clifford

Jacob W. Kipp
Allan R. Millett

Carol Reardon
Dennis Showalter

David R. Stone
Series Editors

American Soldiers
Ground Combat in the
World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam

Peter S. Kindsvatter

Foreword by Russell F. Weigley

University Press of Kansas

© 2003 by the University Press of Kansas
All rights reserved

Published by the University Press of Kansas (Lawrence, Kansas 66045), which
was organized by the Kansas Board of Regents and is operated and funded by
Emporia State University, Fort Hays State University, Kansas State University,
Pittsburg State University, the University of Kansas, and Wichita State

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Kindsvatter, Peter S.
American soldiers : ground combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam /

Peter S. Kindsvatter; foreward by Russell F. Weigley.
p. cm. — (Modern war studies)

Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 978-0-7006-1416-6 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-0-7006-2659-5 (ebook)
1. Combat—History—20th century. 2. United States. Army. Infantry—

History—20th century. 3. United States. Marine Corps—History—20th century.
I. Title. II. Series.

UA28 .K55 2003


British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available.

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

The paper used in the print publication meets the minimum requirements of the
American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library
Materials Z39.48-1984.

Materials Z39.48-1984.


Foreword, Russell F. Weigley



1. Rallying to the Flag

2. The Environment of War

3. Immersion in the Environment

4. Coping with the Environment of War

5. For Comrades and Country

6. Failing to Cope with the Environment of War

7. The Joys of War

8. Closing with the Enemy

9. Leadership in Combat

10. Dwellers Beyond the Environment of War

11. Equal Opportunity in the Foxhole

Conclusion: Don’t Expect Too Much from War




Photo Gallery


John Keegan introduced his classic study of the experience of combat, The Face
of Battle, with the lament that no military historian had hitherto succeeded in
conveying that experience realistically.* Just what it felt like to place yourself in
the way of numerous deadly missiles, blade strokes and bayonet thrusts, and
clubbing weapons of various kinds and to persist in moving forward into the
storm had, he believed, eluded previous historians. Keegan set out to offer a
corrective, and he did so impressively, keeping sight of the simple, central point,
amid a good deal of complex exposition, that the dominant emotion and
experience in battle is to be scared.

Notwithstanding the classic stature of Keegan’s book, there is an element of
the self-serving in his introductory remarks about how writers before him had
failed to get matters right regarding combat. Disappointed by that apparent
attitude, I myself initially put The Face of Battle aside. It required insistent
friends to persuade me to pick it up again, conquer my distaste for what proved
to be a small part of it, and discover that on the whole it is a great book. Putting
aside, however, the self-satisfaction of Keegan’s contrasting his own work with
other historians’ accounts of the nature of combat, his position is not without
merit. It is exceedingly difficult to capture in writing the chaos of events and
emotions that occur in combat. All descriptions of the climactic events of war
dilute them.

A great virtue of the present volume by Peter Kindsvatter is that, by reading
and passing on to us his findings in an extraordinary number of American
soldiers’ narratives of combat during the four major conscript-army wars of the

twentieth century, he has identified a surprisingly large number of writers who
have in some measure overcome this difficulty and who actually tell us what it is
to be in battle. He presents generous samplings of such writings within his own
interpretive analysis to create a major addition to that slim body of literature that
does convey a sense of the reality of battle. Kindsvatter’s book is based firmly
on the firsthand accounts of combat written by twentieth-century American
soldiers and marines of the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Its author acts as a
sensitive, skillful mediator between the writers and us.

One of the merits of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle is that Keegan
provides so much insight into the social history of the British soldiers with
whom he is concerned because he knows that without understanding whence the
soldiers came the reader will not be able to comprehend properly how they
behaved in combat. Similarly, Peter Kindsvatter leads up to the combat
experience with detailed examinations of his writers’ accounts of the entire
process of living in the armed forces, from induction through basic and advanced
training. Through the soldiers’ writings he sympathetically explores their
ambivalent relationships with their families and friends back home to whom they
knew they could not adequately communicate what they experienced, and their
less ambivalent, more often hostile attitudes toward the rear echelons of men
who wore military uniforms but did not share the trials at the cutting edge.

Yet it is experiencing combat and how men could enter and endure it with
which Kindsvatter is principally concerned. Similar issues of why men were able
to enter the hell of combat and why they stuck to it have been addressed recently
for the American Civil War by James M. McPherson in For Cause and
Comrades.* As his title implies, McPherson found that the writings of Civil War
soldiers indicate that they fought first for ideological reasons—for their cause
and country—and secondarily for their comrades—for motives having to do with
the bonding of friends and with unit solidarity. Kindsvatter finds the same scale
of motivational values among his twentieth-century soldiers, which will cause
some of us to rethink accustomed beliefs. We have had a tendency, drawn from
impressionistic and insufficient evidence, to believe that the more worldly wise
soldiers of the century just ended were more likely than the romantic rustics of
the Victorian era to fight simply and cynically just to get an unpleasant job over
with. Kindsvatter shows that combat motivation remained rooted in the same
kind of ideological, patriotic, and comradeship values in twentieth-century
American mass armies as in our first mass army, even if less sentimentally

Kindsvatter has used more self-consciously literary sources than McPherson;
where the latter relied mainly on unpublished letters and diaries, Kindsvatter has
drawn from published fiction, memoirs, and histories by combat veterans.
Fiction and nonfiction have been of nearly equal value for his purposes, but if
there is an edge, fictionalized memories of combat seem to come a bit closer to
presenting a cogent version of the experience of battle. Perhaps feeling obliged
to adhere to what can be confirmed as the literal truth interferes with capturing a
fuller truth, even in memoirs, let alone in the work of historians, thus reaffirming
the degree of accuracy within John Keegan’s complaint about military historians
who preceded him.

We can hope that by introducing these literary sources—that approach about
as closely as words are able toward conveying what it is like to be part of war—
Kindsvatter will bring us all to a better appreciation of that uniquely intense
experience. We can hope, too, that Kindsvatter will succeed in sending his
readers to examine the best of his sources for themselves. Perhaps a better
comprehension of the realities of war will help us stay away from warlike
policies, but I do not intend this Foreword to convey any such simpleminded
antiwar message, nor is that by any means the purpose of Kindsvatter’s book.
Through the book, however, we learn that those soldiers who approached combat
informed by the best literary descriptions of it, though they could not fully be
prepared for what they were entering—nothing could accomplish that—were at
least more ready than those who came only with romantic images from the
movies. If we are to continue to engage in combat, as we will, even that slight
advantage for those new to it might make them better soldiers. More than that, it
surely must be of some value for policymakers and for those who vote for
policymakers to possess a modicum of understanding of what war is. Peter
Kindsvatter gives us more than that modicum.

—Russell F. Weigley

*John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking Press, 1976), pp. 15–54, 72–78.

*James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). McPherson deals with similar themes, although with more
emphasis on why men enlisted in the first place and somewhat less on why they continued fighting, in What
They Fought For, 1861–1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994).


This book, substantial as it is, started out as an even longer dissertation that
required considerable refining. The dissertation and resulting book would not
have been possible without the help of my devoted and talented wife, Marty. She
not only typed the dissertation and the revised manuscript that followed but also
applied her editing skills and common sense to make them better. She did these
tasks while working full time to support us.

That this dissertation had publication potential in the first place owes much
to my committee at Temple University. I was yet another student fortunate
enough to have his work receive the thoughtful criticism and close attention of
Dr. Russell F. Weigley, who supported and encouraged me during the entire
Ph.D. process, right through the job-hunting stage. Dr. Richard H. Immerman, a
skillful editor, went beyond the call of duty to carefully read and thoughtfully
edit my dissertation. Dr. David Alan Rosenberg added his considerable breadth
of knowledge to the process. My outside reader, historian and retired U.S. Army
colonel Dr. Henry G. Gole, shared my interest in the study of the soldier in
combat, provided thoughtful insights, and shared his personal experiences as a
combatant in two wars.

I must also thank Dr. Dennis E. Showalter, who not only read the manuscript
I sent to the University Press of Kansas, twice (the long and longer versions), but
also provided constructive criticism and comments while remaining steadfastly
supportive. Finally, I want to thank Dr. Jack Atwater, the director of the U.S.
Army Ordnance Museum, and his staff, Ed Heasley, Alan Killinger, Tim
Tidwell, Judy Garrett, and Elmer Wymer. They have assisted me in my official

duties as the Ordnance Corps historian in myriad ways and have also provided
moral support while I finished this project.

What it is that makes a man go out into dangerous places and get
himself shot at with increasing consistency until finally he dies, is

an interesting subject for speculation.
And an interesting study.

—James Jones, WWII: A Chronicle of Soldiering


What, indeed, motivated novelist James Jones and his fellow GIs in World War
II, or American soldiers in World War I or the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to go
out into dangerous places? And once there—in the combat zone—what enabled
them to persevere until all too often they did die, or were wounded or
emotionally broken? These questions generate more than just interesting
speculation. The answers are critically important. Men facing battle or charged
with leading troops need to understand the nature of these “dangerous places” to
be better prepared to deal with them. Civilian leaders who order American
soldiers into harm’s way need to appreciate the potentially devastating effect that
combat can have on those soldiers. The American people must realize how vital
their unequivocal support is to soldiers trying to endure war’s hardships and
dangers. Too often in the twentieth century novice soldiers, leaders, and citizens
alike did not comprehend these basic realities.

Gaining an appreciation for the nature of combat involves an examination of
why the citizen joined, or at least consented to serve in, the U.S. Army or Marine
Corps; the role of training in converting the recruit into a soldier; the physical
and emotional hardships and dangers of combat; how soldiers coped, or failed to
cope, with the combat environment; what motivated them to carry the fight to
the enemy; and the soldiers’ relationships with the home front.

Speculation on James Jones’s “interesting subject” thus encompasses a wide
range of topics. The scope of this book, therefore, is necessarily broad but
remains manageable because of several constraints. The discussion is limited to
the experiences of American soldiers and marines. This experience certainly

invites comparison with soldiers in other armies, but such a comparison would
be a book in itself. The focus is on ground combat at the individual and small-
unit level. Central to this approach is the American infantryman and, to a lesser
extent, other combatants such as tank crewmen, artillerymen, and engineers. The
perspectives of noncombatants who were close to the fighting, such as war
correspondents, medical personnel, and chaplains, are also included. This book
is neither a combat history nor a tactical treatise but an examination of what the
combat envronment was like and how soldiers reacted to it.

The American soldier is examined through the course of four wars—the
world wars, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The soldiers’ experiences in
these wars certainly varied in important ways, but these wars, despite their
differences, also encompass a distinct period of American military history. They
are the wars of the draft era, fought primarily, though by no means exclusively,
by the conscripted citizen-soldier. They are also modern wars, largely fought
conventionally, and of sufficient duration and violence to have a serious impact
on the physical and emotional well being of those who fought them. These
characteristics distinguish them from the wars that preceded or followed.

Where best to learn about the soldier’s experience in the wars of the draft
era? From what the veterans themselves have to say. This book draws upon
memoirs, novels, and oral histories. A few of these works were written by war
correspondents, but most reflect the experiences of enlisted men and junior
officers. Works by marines and soldiers have been consulted, and the term
“soldiers” in this study includes marines, unless otherwise specified. Each war,
and in the case of World War II the Pacific theater and Mediterranean/European
theater, is represented by twenty-one to thirty works.

A wide range of secondary sources in military psychiatry, military sociology,
literary criticism, and history supplements the direct testimony of the veterans.
This secondary literature is invaluable for several reasons. The psychiatrists,
psychologists, and sociologists provide useful insights, often based directly on
their work with soldiers or veterans, concerning the causes of stress in combat,
how men try to cope with that stress, and what motivates them to “stick it out.”
The sociological studies and surveys also provide statistical support, at least
from World War II on, for many claims made by the soldiers in their memoirs
and novels. The literary critics, many of whom are also veterans, provide
recommendations as to which memoirs and novels are most significant. More
important, some critics go beyond matters of style and structure to assess the
themes, or messages, contained in these works. The historical studies either

provide a narrative combat history told from the soldier’s perspective or
specifically address soldier behavior.

As for the primary sources, the vast majority are soldiers’ memoirs or
firsthand accounts written by war correspondents. Some of these books are based
on thoughts and experiences recorded shortly after the fact, as in the case of
memoirs based on diaries and letters and the accounts written by the
correspondents. Historian William L. Langer explains that such contemporary
accounts can be refreshingly straightforward and unaffected, as was his
combination memoir and unit history, written immediately after the Armistice in
November 1918: “As I reread this simple narrative after a lifetime spent in the
teaching and writing of history, I found its immediacy rather appealing. It has
nothing of the sophisticated rationalization that invariably creeps into

reminiscences recorded long after the event.”1

Soldiers’ diaries and letters may possess this virtue of immediacy, but men in
combat did not have much time to record their thoughts and experiences in
detail, and they often had little pocket space for more than a small notebook. Not
surprisingly, most memoirs were written after war’s end, sometimes many years
after, and the authors relied on recollections. Even memoirs based on diaries and
letters were often fleshed out with added-on commentary. Critics argue the pros
and cons of these after-the-fact recollections. The most obvious problem, as
historian Ronald Schaffer points out, is the potential for distortion: “Postwar
reconstructions of what happened were subject to distortions of memory and
reflected not simply immediate wartime experiences but later thoughts and

occurrences as well.”2

Another concern, voiced by James Jones, is that memories fade with time,
especially memories of war’s unpleasantries: “Thus we old men can in all good
conscience sit over our beers at the American Legion on Friday nights and recall
with affection moments of terror thirty years before. Thus we are able to tell the

youngsters that it wasn’t all really so bad.”3

Jones’s conventional wisdom aside, however, the reality is that long-term
memory of traumatic, unusual, or dramatic events remains vivid and constant.
One memoir in this book is unique in doubling as a research device to measure
memory. Alice M. Hoffman, an oral historian, interviewed her husband,
Howard, an experimental psychologist who had been a mortarman in World War
II, about his wartime experiences. A series of interviews, conducted in 1978 and
1982, were checked against unit histories, photographs, and corroborating

testimony from other unit veterans. The Hoffmans discovered that Howard’s
memories about “unique happenings” or the “first occurrence of an event” were
remarkably clear and accurate: “The forty-year-old memories that Howard
retains are extraordinarily resistant to change. They appear to have been
protected from decay by rehearsal and reinforced by salience so that they have

become fixed in the mind.”4

Put in less clinical terms by Paul Boesch, a veteran of the bitter fighting in
the Huertgen Forest in World War II, memories about details may fade, but
traumatic events remain indelibly etched in the mind: “It is difficult to recall the
sequence in which events occurred. Each episode appears to claim precedence
over the others. But though it is hard to recall exactly when a thing happened, it
is impossible to erase the events themselves, for the sheer, stark, exhausting

terror burned them inextricably in our memory.”5

Given this book’s focus on the soldier’s experience in combat, it is exactly
these sharply recalled events, not the details of date, time, and place, that are
important. Nevertheless, the nagging suspicion remains, as literature professor
and onetime combat pilot Samuel Hynes explains, that veterans’ memoirs
contain “failures of observation . . . , the confined vision of witnesses, the

infidelities of memories after the events, the inevitable distortions of language.”6

Thus the only sort of truth that can be gained from after-the-fact accounts is
collective. Hynes takes this approach in his own excellent study, The Soldiers’
Tale, the plural “soldiers” indicative of his use of multiple experiences to
reconstruct memory. This book proceeds in a similar vein, citing numerous
examples in the text and notes to support a point.

This book also draws upon war novels in the search for collective truth. The
use of fictional works in a historical study is bound to raise eyebrows, but these
novels were included for two reasons. First, although some of them are obscure,
others are well known, such as the works of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos
Passos, Norman Mailer, and James Jones. In any discussion of the influence of
war literature on successive generations, a topic addressed in the conclusion,
these popular fictional works cannot be left out. Second, and more important,
these fictional works speak directly and eloquently to the soldier’s condition in
war. Every author whose fictional work is included is a veteran or seasoned war
correspondent, and many of these works are semiautobiographical. In short, they
are realistic, or “mimetic” to use a term common to literary criticism, meaning
they accurately imitate or represent human behavior. These novels, to paraphrase

the literature professor Stanley Cooperman, dramatize rather than invent

historical reality.7 Historian and veteran Henry G. Gole believes that this
literature is as important to seeking the truth about man’s condition in wartime as
is historical analysis:

The historian’s attempt at detachment stands in sharp contrast to the artist’s
passionate personal involvement and raises the question of truth and who
comes closer to it—the historian or artist. We are well advised to rely upon
both the artist and the historian, one for “essential truth” produced by the
creative imagination so the reader has a sense of being there, and one for
analysis of known facts available. It should be clear that both artist and
historian demand from us a leap of faith as the former invents the plausible,
while the latter ultimately uses analysis to take us from what is known to

what is probably true.8

Nevertheless, though novels are valuable for their portrayal of soldiers’
responses to war, they should be used with caution concerning matters outside
the human experience. For example, war-novel plots tend to be tactically
illogical, often involving the physical isolation of a small unit to an unrealistic
degree. This technique allows the author to keep his cast of characters within
reasonable bounds and free from outside interference. As historian Roger A.
Beaumont points out, these plots are not only unrealistic but also leave out many
aspects of the military picture: “The fiction writer . . . is faced, as is the historian,
with shaping meaning. It is not surprising that the dullness of mass bureaucracy
is ignored in favor of colorful if improbable microcosms. . . . Fictional accounts
most often fall flat treating the complexities of command, logistics, and
organization, and show a vague sense of the administrative realities of military


While the microcosms established by the novelist may sometimes be
improbable, within that microcosm, the reactions of the characters to the stress
and hardships of combat usually ring true. But there can be a problem here as
well, not in the portrayal of specific incidents, but in cumulative effect. Some
novelists have heavily weighted their presentation of events in the direction of
brutality, negativity, and immorality to support an antiwar theme. Thus it is
possible to have a novel, like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, that
provides powerful and plausible examples of soldier behavior in combat, yet the
overall effect is sharply, and unrealistically, skewed to the negative. Literature

professor and Vietnam veteran Tobey C. Herzog notes that Mailer’s novel is
“devoid of heroes”: “Values—personal and religious—crumble; positive actions
result in failure; integrity, concern for others, noble struggles for survival, and
heroic actions are absent; and rare moments of personal insight are quickly


Mailer’s novel is every bit as negative in overall theme as Herzog’s
assessment indicates, yet The Naked and the Dead has provided valuable
excerpts, and eloquent ones at that, for this book. The problem of imbalance in
any one novel can be avoided by using multiple examples from different sources
to illustrate a point and by not relying solely on fiction—in sum, the collective
memory approach.

A final issue raised by historians concerning memoirs and novels involves
representativeness. Soldier-authors tend to be better educated and from a higher
social standing than the average soldier and hence are potentially
“unrepresentative.” Though this observation has validity, some of the memoirists
in this study are not atypical, in that their education and social backgrounds are
modest. Their accounts are not polished, and often someone has assisted in
editing their memoirs or diaries. In other cases, authors may have gone on to
successful careers in business, journalism, or academia, but they were relatively
young and unsophisticated, and hence fairly typical, soldiers when they recorded
their experiences. Thus, the memoirs are probably not as unrepresentative as
some critics suggest. In any case, twelve oral histories have been included to
help ensure representativeness. Veterans who were neither sufficiently educated
nor motivated to write down their war experiences were often at least willing to
talk about them to oral historians.

The more important, though generally overlooked, issue concerning
representativeness is not that these soldier-authors are somehow different from
the average soldier but that they represent only the successful soldier. Deserters,
soldiers who inflicted wounds on themselves to escape combat, or men who
broke down in their first firefight did not write memoirs. Some of the soldier-
authors cited in this book were unenthusiastic draftees or only average
performers, or they suffered bouts of combat fatigue, but on the whole they
acquitted themselves satisfactorily. The secondary sources, especially the
sociological and psychiatric studies, are thus essential for providing insight into
desertion, self-inflicted wounds, and psychological breakdown.

Ultimately, although the use of memoirs, novels, and oral histories raises

legitimate questions about representativeness, accuracy of memory, and
objectivity of perspective, the fact remains that this written and oral testimony is
the primary available source for learning about the combat experience. Hynes,
after raising typical concerns about distortions in memory that could
compromise after-the-fact recollections of battle, concedes that these accounts
are essential: “What other route do we have to understanding the human
experience of war—how it felt, what it was like—than the witness of the men

who were there?”11 Whatever their shortcomings, these eyewitness testimonies,
including those recreated in fictional form, reveal a great deal about what
prompted men “to go out into dangerous places” and what enabled them to carry
on in the face of danger and grievous hardships. This book synthesizes and
assesses what those testimonies have to say.

Beyond the issue of the general relevance of memoirs, novels, and oral
histories is the question of which specific works to consult from the hundreds
available. Certainly the number of sources used in this book is not sufficient to
satisfy any scientific criteria for a statistically significant sample. There …


China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History


Copyright © 2016 by Princeton University Press

Published by Princeton University Press
41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540

In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press
6 Oxford Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1TW
Jacket art: Edward Duncan, ‘Nemesis’ destroying Chinese junks in Anson’s Bay, 1841, aquatint, 486 mm × 650


© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
All Rights Reserved

ISBN 978-0-691-13597-7
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015935955

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
This book has been composed in Charis SIL

Printed on acid-free paper ∞
Printed in the United States of America

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

who understands both sides with love


The Military Pattern of the Chinese Past



The Crucible: The Song Warring States Period


Early Gunpowder Warfare


The Mongol Wars and the Evolution of the Gun


Great Martiality: The Gunpowder Emperor



The Medieval Gun


Big Guns: Why Western Europe and Not China Developed Gunpowder Artillery


The Development of the Classic Gun in Europe


The Gunpowder Age in Europe


Cannibals with Cannons: The Sino-Portuguese Clashes of 1521–1522



The Frankish Cannon


Drill, Discipline, and the Rise of the West 144

The Musket in East Asia


The Seventeenth Century: An Age of Parity?


A European Naval Advantage


The Renaissance Fortress: An Agent of European Expansion?



The Opium War and the Great Divergence


A Modernizing Moment: Opium War Reforms


China’s Modernization and the End of the Gunpowder Age


A New Warring States Period?


Acknowledgments 307

Appendix 1: Timeline 311

Appendix 2: Datasets 312

Abbreviations 317

Notes 319

Bibliography 379

Index 421



“China is a sleeping lion. When it wakes, the world will tremble.”1 These words,
attributed to Napoleon, are quoted often these days, usually followed by the
observation that the lion is now awake.2 China’s leaders promise that their
country’s rise will be “peaceful, pleasant, and civilized,” but there is much
trembling.3 Napoleon’s prophecy seems to be coming true.

Yet he made his prediction in 1816. Why did the lion take so long to wake?
And why was it sleeping in the first place? China was once the wealthiest, most
technologically advanced, most powerful country in the world. How did it lose its
lead to the upstart countries of Western Europe? Or, to put it another way, how
did the once marginal states of Europe surge to global power and predominance
after 1500?

These are key questions of world history, and in recent years they’ve
generated a flurry of answers, and much debate.4 Nearly all of this literature
focuses on economics.5 So today we know a great deal more about Chinese and
European wage levels, fertility rates, and agricultural productivity than we used
to, but we still know relatively little about what Napoleon was really talking
about: war. He made his famous prediction in response to a question from his
Irish surgeon, who wondered whether it was a good idea for the British to attack
China. No, Napoleon replied, because the Chinese, once roused, “would get
artificers, and ship-builders, from France, and America, and even from London;
they would build a fleet, and in the course of time, defeat you.”6 Eventually the
British did attack China, and China did acquire artificers and advisors. Its
subsequent path to modernization was longer than Napoleon would have
expected, but throughout the journey reformers were always focused on military
matters. They still are.

This book examines the Great Divergence between China and the West by
concentrating on warfare. It suggests that there is a military pattern to the
Chinese past that can help us make sense of China’s periods of strength, decline,
and resurgence. But it doesn’t focus on China alone. It’s aim is to bring Asian and
European military history into conversation, asking not just how China diverged
from the West but also how the West diverged from East Asia.7 Europe’s is not
the normalizing trajectory; each case illuminates the other.8

The unifying theme is gunpowder warfare. Historians have long studied
gunpowder’s revolutionary effects, but they’ve paid most attention to the West.
Indeed, you’ve probably heard the saying, false but often repeated, that the
Chinese invented gunpowder but didn’t use it for war. This meme is still widely
circulated, appearing in scholarly works, and even in China itself.9 But in fact the
Chinese and their neighbors explored gunpowder’s many uses, military and
civilian, for centuries before the technology passed to the West. These Asian

origins are often glossed over, and most studies of gunpowder warfare focus on
the early modern period (ca. 1500–1800).10 This was, historians have argued,
when the first gunpowder empires were born and when the “gunpowder
revolution” and the “military revolution” helped transform Europe’s feudal
structures, laying the groundwork for Western global dominance.11

But the gunpowder age actually lasted a millennium, from the first use of
gunpowder in warfare in the late 900s to its replacement by smokeless powder
around 1900. Examining its full sweep can help us answer—or at least clarify—
the question of the rise of the West and the “stagnation” of China.

One of the most enduring explanations for Europe’s dynamism and China’s
supposed torpor is the “competitive state system” paradigm. Antagonism between
European states, so the theory goes, exerted a selective pressure on European
societies, driving them to improve their political, economic, and military
structures. China, on the other hand, had a unified imperium, which impeded
experimentation and led to stasis. This idea is as old as social science itself, going
back to Montesquieu and animating the works of Karl Marx and Max Weber.12
Today it’s nearly ubiquitous, found among authors as different as Jared Diamond,
Immanuel Wallerstein, David Landes, and Geoffrey Parker.13 China experts, too,
rely on the model, suggesting that China, being a unified state, lacked the
dynamism of a more competitive Europe, although some believe that lack of
competition also conferred economic benefits.14

Of course, as any student of Chinese history knows, China’s past is filled with
war and interstate competition. Indeed, the very term “China” presupposes a
unity that was absent for much of history.15 The most famous period of division is
the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), which many scholars have explicitly
compared to Europe’s early modern era, arguing that both periods saw similar
military and political developments.16 For instance, the great Geoffrey Parker
begins his book The Military Revolution with a discussion of the Chinese Warring
States Period, arguing that in both that period and Europe’s early modern period,
constant warfare drove state centralization and innovation in military tactics,
technology, organization, and logistics.17

Yet there were many other periods of warfare and interstate competition in
China’s long history, and scholars have tended to neglect those times and
exaggerate China’s imperial unity. The hypothesis of this book is that such
periods are vital to understanding world history.

Consider the Late Imperial Age (1368–1911), a period during which China
was supposedly unified and, according to many authors, stagnant. It’s true that
both the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties oversaw periods of
great unity. Yet there were also periods of intense warfare, particularly around
the dynastic transitions (1368 and 1644). This is no shock, but nonspecialists
may be surprised to learn how long those transitions were, and how warlike. The
transition from the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) to the Ming dynasty lasted nearly

a century, from around 1350, when statelets emerged and began fighting,
through the bloody interstate wars of the famous “field of rivals” (1352–1368),
through the violent campaigns of consolidation by the first Ming emperor (r.
1368–1398), through the bitter succession war that erupted after his death,
through the reign of his bellicose son, the famous Yongle Emperor (r. 1402–
1424), who launched huge expeditions into Vietnam and Mongolia, and, finally,
through a period of intermittent warfare that ended only in 1449. In total the
warfare around the Ming dynastic transition lasted a century, from around 1350
to around 1450. The wars were frequent, intense, and of a scale far exceeding
anything in Western Europe at the time, with armies of hundreds of thousands
clashing throughout East Asia, armed with guns, bombs, grenades, and rockets.

The next dynastic transition was of similar length and intensity. Interdynastic
warfare erupted in the 1610s and continued until 1683, when the last holdouts of
the Ming dynasty finally fell to the Manchu Qing dynasty. Afterward, warfare
continued into the early eighteenth century, when the famous Kangxi Emperor (r.
1661–1722) carried out campaigns of consolidation in Northern and Central Asia.
In fact, this is a conservative periodization: intense warfare actually began
around 1550 and included the Korean War of 1592 to 1598, the most destructive
Sino-Japanese conflict before World War II. Scholar Sun Laichen has called the
period 1550 to 1683 the most warlike in East Asia’s history, pointing out that
warfare extended well beyond China itself, engulfing all of Eastern Eurasia,
including Southeast Asia.18

It’s no surprise that dynastic transitions saw intense warfare, but the length of
these periods is significant. They lasted generations. Of course not all this warfare
was of the type that is considered to have contributed to European dynamism,
that is, sustained interstate conflicts. Some scholars have argued that China
engaged in too much of the wrong sort of warfare, focusing on defense against
nomads and rebels rather than on external conquest, a preoccupation that
supposedly sapped China of European-style dynamism.19

Yet these periods of warfare did indeed stimulate rapid and deep-seated
military innovation. Napoleon well understood that a country, when challenged
militarily, responds with innovation. Historians call this the “challenge-response
dynamic.”20 During the intense wars of the Yuan-Ming transition, from 1350 to
1450, there were a lot of challenges and a lot of responses, and China’s infantry
forces became increasingly focused on firearms, which were used far more
frequently and effectively than in Europe at the same time. In the early Ming
period, policies prescribed that 10 percent of soldiers should be armed with guns;
by the last third of the 1400s, the figure rose to 30 percent, a rate not seen in
Europe until the mid-1500s.21 Historians have labeled the Ming dynasty the
world’s first “Gunpowder Empire.”22

It seems, however, that around 1450 the military pattern of the Chinese past
diverged from that of Europe. For a guide to the chronology underlying this

book, see Appendix 1: Timeline, p. 311. From 1450 until 1550, China engaged in
fewer and less intense wars, and military innovation slowed. This happened to be
a period when military innovation was speeding up in Europe, fueled by
increasingly violent and large-scale warfare. By the 1480s, all types of European
guns had become better, so much so that when Portuguese mariners brought
them to China in the early 1500s, Chinese acknowledged their superiority and
began copying them. We might call this period, from 1450 to 1550, the first
divergence, or the little divergence.23

It didn’t last. Starting in the 1550s, warfare increased throughout East Asia,
and military innovation accelerated. Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans mastered
the manufacture of European cannons and muskets, improving them and
deploying them with advanced tactics, such as the famous musketry volley
technique, which, as we’ll see, was probably first used not in Europe or Japan or
the Ottoman Empire, as scholars have suggested, but in China.24 During this
period of rapid innovation—1550 to 1700—East Asians maintained military
parity with Western nations. Whenever trained military forces from East Asia met
those of Europe, the former won decisively. There has been little study of such
conflicts, but they suggest that the military balance was relatively even during
the Age of Parity (1550–1700). Europeans did have advantages in deep-water
naval warfare and fortress architecture, but East Asians fielded dynamic and
effective forces, defeating European troops not just by superior numbers but also
by means of excellent guns, effective logistics, strong leadership, and better (or at
least equivalent) drill and cohesion. Nor was this parity limited to East Asia; it
may have obtained through much of Asia.25

The Age of Parity, however, gave way to a Great Military Divergence, which
became manifest during the Opium War of 1839 to 1842, when British forces
consistently outfought the Qing. Why did China fall so far behind?

Partly, of course, the answer lies with Britain’s industrialization, a process
unprecedented in human history, but as we’ll see, Britain’s military advantage
cannot be reduced to steamships and mass production alone. We must also
recognize that the Qing dynasty had become militarily stagnant. Why? A lack of
practice. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Qing had succeeded in doing
something that had eluded previous dynasties of China: it subdued the Mongols
and Turks of Central and Northern Asia.26 Since it had also cowed the Russians,
the Qing no longer had to fear invasion from the north. Its sea borders were also
secure, so China faced no serious external threats for several generations, from
around 1760 until 1839. There were internal threats—rebellions and revolts—
some of which were quite significant, but compared to earlier periods in China’s
history, this period was extraordinarily free of warfare. China’s armies atrophied,
and military innovation slowed.

GRAPH I.1 Warfare by year in Western Europe and China.

The solid line represents China, the dotted line Europe. For more information on this graph, its dataset,
and other corroborating data, as well as for caveats about their use, see Appendix 2. Data from Zhong guo
jun shi shi bian xie zu, Zhong guo li dai, vol. 2; and Dupuy, Encyclopedia of Military History.

The Great Qing Peace can be seen visually in Graph I.1, which charts the
frequency of warfare in China and Western Europe between 1340 and 1911.
Tabulating wars is a very difficult business, of course, and one must be cautious,
but when corroborated with other sources, qualitative and quantitative, charts
like this can help us make some significant observations.27 (For more information

on this and other datasets used in this book, see Appendix 2.)

The first thing to note is how similar Chinese and European patterns of
warfare are for the period from 1350 through 1700. Although China’s patterns
show peaks around the dynastic transitions at 1368 and 1644, the entire period
from 1350 to 1700 is nonetheless marked by frequent wars on both sides of
Eurasia, with a relative lull in China between 1450 and 1550.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, the patterns
diverge markedly: Europe saw repeated bouts of intense warfare while China saw
warfare fall to the lowest sustained levels in the series. This relative lull in
warfare—which we can call the Great Qing Peace—stretched from the mid-
eighteenth century to 1839, and it happens that Korea and Japan, too, saw few
wars during this period. Experts in Qing history will rightly point out that this
period saw significant armed conflicts, with particularly destructive ones during
the years on either side of 1800. Yet external wars were largely nonexistent, and
records suggest that even armed rebellions were relatively less common during
the Great Qing Peace than most other periods in China’s history post-1200.

In contrast, although Europe saw longer periods of peace in the eighteenth
century than in the seventeenth century, Europe’s eighteenth-century warfare
was becoming increasingly intense, culminating in the Revolutionary and
Napoleonic Wars that convulsed the subcontinent at the turn of the nineteenth
century. So it’s no surprise that during the Great Qing Peace, military innovation
slowed in China even as it accelerated in Europe, with the development of
powerful new artillery, firearms, organizational structures, and tactics.

The period of the Great Military Divergence—from the mid-eighteenth
through the early nineteenth century—also happens to be the period when
Westerners acquired the image of China as stagnant, monolithic, and mired in its
ways.28 Charles Dickens had this to say after touring a Chinese ship: “thousands
of years have passed away since the first Chinese junk was constructed on this
model, and the last Chinese junk that was ever launched was none the better for
that waste and desert of time.”29 Immobile and ancient, China seemed to present
the negative image of a dynamic, modernizing West. Today, some scholars still
express this notion nearly as contentiously as Dickens did a century and a half
ago. Example: “There was no cumulative innovation [in China] after the
precocious Tang and Sung dynasties [618–1279 CE].”30

As we’ll see there was plenty of cumulative innovation in China after 1279,
but the point is not to discard the stagnation idea entirely, just to deploy it more
precisely. From a military perspective, it works only for two periods: mildly for
1450 to 1550, and significantly for 1760 to 1839.

More importantly, we must be careful about how we explain these periods of
military stagnation. Scholars of a traditionalist bent tend to blame deep-seated
cultural and institutional characteristics. China, they argue, was stymied by

conservatism, closed-mindedness, civilizational arrogance, and Confucianism.31
Perhaps we should expect views like this from conservative scholars, many of
whom believe that “multi-culturalism is an effort to destroy the uniqueness of
Western nations,” but similar perspectives are widely prevalent in works on
military history.32 For example, the author of a recent and otherwise excellent
book on gunpowder writes, “The denizens of the Chinese court looked on
gunpowder technology as a low, noisy, dirty business. The fact that guns were
useful did not matter, usefulness lacking the overriding value that it held for
occidentals.”33 Another author, an expert in renaissance military history, has
written that “China’s ruling bureaucrats … remained essentially aloof; the
mechanics of warfare were beneath their interest.”34 Even scholars writing from a
global historical perspective express such views. The book Warfare in World
History tells us that “China preferred not to experiment too much with the new
technologies for fear of disrupting the Confucian order of society and state,” and
the book World History of Warfare contains similar language.35 We find the same
perspectives expressed in other genres as well, including journalism.36

Yet as we’ll see, imperial China’s leaders and bureaucrats were fascinated by
gunpowder and gunpowder weapons and worked hard to invent, adapt, and
innovate. Among them were the most prominent Confucian scholars of their day.
These men studied gunpowder weapons, tested them, experimented with their
manufacture, developed tactics and strategies for deploying them, and wrote
about all of this in detail. When foreigners had effective technologies—
Vietnamese, Portuguese, Dutch, British—they studied and adopted them, often at
considerable expense in time and treasure.

It’s just that some periods in Chinese history called for less military
innovation, particularly the Great Qing Peace of 1760 to 1839. During this time,
Confucian scholars understandably tended to focus on nonmilitary matters. When
war came to China again in 1839 (and the wars of the mid-nineteenth century
were among the most destructive in Chinese history) Confucian scholars were
once again at the forefront of military innovation. Their efforts were also more
fruitful than was once believed.

It’s not my intention to reduce the puzzle of China’s nineteenth-century
weakness to the frequency of warfare. War is just one variable among many:
ethnic tensions, unwieldy political structures, factionalism, the fact that China
had unusually powerful enemies, and so on. Nor should we discard the many
other models China experts have proposed to explain the puzzle of China’s
apparent stagnation: Mark Elvin’s famous model of agricultural stagnation; Kent
Deng’s sophisticated model of structural equilibrium; the classical idea that China
lacked an activist bourgeoisie (an idea held by the great historian of Chinese
science, Joseph Needham); R. Bin Wong and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal’s brilliant
model of geopolitical competition, capital, and wage labor; and many others.37

By the same token, we should not discount all of the cultural explanations

that traditionalist scholars are fond of, particularly when it comes to science.
Although many scholars currently downplay the significance of experimental
science in the Great Economic Divergence (they are found on both sides of the
revisionism debate), the evidence has convinced me that science played a key
role in the Great Military Divergence.38 Traditionalists are thus right to focus on
science, and we shouldn’t dismiss the other cultural and social elements they
highlight: legal systems, fiscal structures, financial systems, municipal
governance, educational institutions, and so forth. We need more comparative
work on these questions, and specialists in East Asian history are conducting
fascinating research along these lines.

Nonetheless, levels of geopolitical instability—warring states periods, if you
will—help explain military aspects of the rise of the West and the decline of
China in world history. Europe’s state system may have been unusually stable
and long-lasting, but patterns of military competition had significant effects in
China as well.

Indeed, one of the fascinating points that emerges out of a global warring
states perspective is that modernization—the systematic adoption of more
advanced technologies and techniques—is not something that arrived suddenly in
Asia in the 1800s. As other scholars have suggested, it’s a long, deep process. The
first gunpowder weapons evolved in a process of mutual interadoption during a
period of warfare in East Asia from 900 to 1300. They spread beyond East Asia—
probably carried by warring Mongols and their allies—and took root in Europe
by 1320 or so, where they evolved quickly, only to be reexported in turn. The
Ming adopted Portuguese cannons in the early 1500s, Japanese and Portuguese
arquebuses in the mid-1500s, and advanced Western artillery in the 1600s. One
scholar argues that China’s adoption of such artillery was China’s first “self-
strengthening movement.”39 And it was effective. Chinese artillery technology
became in some ways superior to European artillery.40 Guns helped the forces of
China defeat Europe’s two great seventeenth-century imperial powers: the Dutch
and the Russians.41 Nor were the Chinese alone—from Marrakesh to Edo, states
adopted and innovated, passing techniques and technologies back and forth.

This perspective on deep modernization illuminates China’s attempts to
modernize in the modern age. China’s nineteenth-century self-strengthening has
generally been viewed as a failure, but in fact China and Japan were, in the
second half of the nineteenth century, the most successful modernizing powers of
Asia. It’s easy to think of Asian modernization as a matter of “catching up,” as
though the Asians were closing a static gap. But in fact, Europeans themselves
were modernizing. All were trying to catch up with Britain, and then, as the pace
of change increased, each state struggled to stay abreast of rivals. Even Great
Britain, the most technologically advanced of the nineteenth-century powers, was
undergoing revolutionary change.

To be sure, the European powers had a head start, but China and Japan

caught up quickly in military capacity, and Japan’s greater success, manifested in
its defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, was due not so much
to its superior ability to understand steam power or build guns and battleships
(Chinese made steam engines first and built better battleships into the 1880s) but
to China’s political dysfunction. The Chinese had an old, creaky state; the
Japanese had a new, effective one. Ten years after defeating China, Japan
defeated another rusty state: Czarist Russia. Among the ships in the Japanese
fleet were Chinese-made vessels Japan had captured a decade before.

China’s modern weakness—apparent not just in its loss to Japan in 1895 but
in the debilitating and nearly constant warfare that afflicted it from 1850 to 1949
—may best be viewed not as a symptom of a failure to modernize but rather as
the most recent variation on an ancient theme: the tumult of dynastic transition,
which is invariably accompanied by frequent and intense warfare, rebels from
within, invaders from without. Dynastic transitions are also associated with
military, technological, and political innovation.

In any case, the dynamics of military modernization shouldn’t be reduced to
Westernization. The process marked global history for all of the gunpowder age,
and not just on the far western and eastern sides of Eurasia. The lands in between
played a key role as well, although not one that will be examined in this book.
Our purpose here is to outline a binary framework, in the hope that it will be of
use in developing a truly global military history.

Our story begins in one of the most fascinating periods of Chinese history: the
divided and dynamic Song dynasty.


Chinese Beginnings


The Crucible

In 1280, an explosion rocked the city of Yangzhou. “The noise,” wrote one
resident, “was like a volcano erupting, a tsunami crashing. The entire population
was terrified.”1 The shock wave—or, as people called it, the “bomb wind”—
hurled ceiling beams three miles and rattled roof tiles thirty miles away. At first,
residents thought it must be an attack—war had seized their world for
generations—but they soon realized it was an accident. Yangzhou’s arsenal had
recently dismissed its experienced gunpowder makers, and the new ones had
been careless when grinding sulfur. A spark escaped and landed on some fire
lances, which began spewing flames and jetting about “like frightened snakes.”
This was amusing to watch, until the fire reached the bombs. The entire complex
exploded. A hundred guards were killed, completely obliterated. The crater was
more than ten feet deep.2

At the time of the blast, gunpowder was almost unknown in the Europe. The
first Western description had been written by the scholar Roger Bacon (1214–
1292) a bit more than a decade before, and it would take another fifty years
before the substance was used in Western warfare in any significant way.3 Yet by
1280, the inhabitants of what is today China had been living in the gunpowder
age for centuries.

Most people, even professional military historians, know little or …