In the last article we spoke about the effect that a middling population of free landowning citizens has on a Nation-State’s capability to wage war; in this article we will move past that and consider the influence that the marriage between rationalism and capitalism has had on the West’s rise to military supremacy.
Was Western supremacy created through a series of random luck, geography, and natural resources? Or perhaps the rise of Western hegemony is due to the discovery and conquest of the new world (1492-1700)? Others would suggest that it is due to the Industrial Revolution (1750-1900).
An example of this line of thinking—made popular by Fernand Braudel and most recently by Jared Diamond—is that the Eurasian axis has an ideal a crop season and a different kind of animal husbandry. That the rise of urban population created a deadly mixture of diseases that would decimate outsiders. The geography of Europe itself prevented the easy access of invading nomads and promoted rival cultures in close proximity; which led to constant military innovation. Europe was blessed with abundant ores that allowed for the mass production of steel, etc…
It is my opinion that the efforts of those who seek to reduce history to biology and geography deprecate the power and mystery of culture, and that this line of thinking often leads to a desperation to explain the causes of Western hegemony as largely accidental.
A Marriage of Rationalism and Capitalism
Chinese civilization gave the world gunpowder and printing; this is a historical fact that no one can argue. However, the invention of technology without the prerequisite of a receptive cultural environment that would allow those discoveries to be used and altered freely by enterprising individuals, destroys the value of the discovery itself. It was not accidental that the cannon was first mass produced by Europeans; nor is it a quirk of geography or genes that allowed for the evolution of the firearm predominantly within Europe.
The Spanish Conquistadores that mercilessly conquered the Aztecs were not more cruel or more warlike than the Aztecs. If anything, I believe that a strong case could be made that the Aztecs were themselves a people more prone to the spilling of blood than the Spanish, even counting the barbarity of the Spanish Inquisition.
Also, it cannot be said that Spain was able to mass produce high quality cannons because of their long rivalry with the British Empire any more than it can be said that the organized divisions of the Zulu Empire relied upon the assegai because of their own rivalry with the other tribes in Africa.
The presumption by natural determinists that the firearm was not further developed by China because of China’s “chronic unity,” or as an effect of a “smooth coastline,” fails to take into account a set of complex conditions that favored imperial autocracy in a geographical landscape not all that different from the Mediterranean. A sharp contrast to this line of thinking is the continuous rule of Rome, whose period of domination was comparable in duration to many of the dynasties of imperial China, and was an especially innovative empire, drawing strength from its unity and the long periods of peace.
The Romans developed and then dispersed to millions of people sophisticated building techniques with cement and arches, pumps, screw presses, and factories that mass produced everything from weapons and armor to dyes and cloth; all with little governmental control over the dissemination and adaptation of technology.
The idea that stability within a geographical area hampers technological development, stands opposite to the historical fact that the Greeks of the Hellenistic age, during the Successor dynasties, applied scientific development in far greater strides than their counterparts of the classical period, when Greece was made up of hundreds of independent and quarreling polities.
In which period was there a greater leap in technology; the four centuries of “chronic unity” throughout the Roman Empire? Or the dark age of the small and bickering feudal states of Europe? It is without contest that we would agree that it was during the former period that the greater development occurred, and with that agreement, the destruction of the false idea that “chronic unity” is by itself a true explanation of a lack of scientific advancement within any given civilization.
Political unity has brought other cultures advantages as well as atrophy and neither the geography or political history of China can account for the nature of its culture. Farmland in America is as rich as Europe. China, India, and Africa are blessed in natural ores and have growing seasons superior to northern Europe. Rome and Greece both enjoyed a desirable placement in the Mediterranean, creating a nexus for traders arriving from Europe, western Asia, and North Africa—but so was Carthage, whose own placement was at least as favorable as that of Rome.
The precise reasons for the radically different development found in Western Civilization, compared to their Eastern neighbors, may never be fully understood; but to try and force an ill-fitting explanation of geographical determination is both misleading and unfair to the cultures on both sides, especially when considering that the geography of Greece and Italy are not that different from ancient Spain, southern France, western Persia, Phoenicia, or North Africa. Who is it that can accurately differentiate between a small isolated valley in Greece from a nearly identical one found in Persia or China?
What is clear though, is that once developed, Western Civilization, both ancient and modern, placed far fewer cultural, religious, and political impediments to natural inquiry, the formation of capital, and individual expression than did their Eastern counterparts, which were often theocracies, centralized monarchial dynasties, or tribal unions.
A Late Ascendancy?
It is argued that the rise of Western military power was caused by the late arrival and spread of gunpowder. What such an explanation fails to answer is why did the West produce such weapons in both quality and quantity and disseminate them into their militaries when the East did not?
Also of note, for nearly a thousand years (479 B.C. to A.D. 500) the military supremacy of Western arms was unquestioned, and that even in the dark ages, was militarily strong far beyond what its population and territory would otherwise indicate.
The fact that it was the West who developed the evolution of the firearm, and provided the vast dissemination of this technology among their people, not the East, can be explained by the scientific, technological, political, and cultural foundations that were born in Greece, grew to adulthood in Rome, and survived the period of darkness that held Europe until the Carolingian period and later the Italian Renaissance. It is a stance towards rationalism, free inquiry, and the dissemination of knowledge that is not bound to any specific period of European history.
It is no accident that the growth of firearms was curtailed in the East. Firearms are egalitarian in nature and destroy the hierarchy of the battlefield. They make the armored knight impotent, and make the carefully trained bowman irrelevant. Firearms are dangerous to despotic governments because they place power in the hands of any peasant. Japan banned the firearm because of the effect it would have on the ruling class of Samurai. Further, in the early stages of firearm development, when a smoothbore made it impossible to fire with any accuracy, the East lacked the foundation of Decisive Shock Warfare that allowed Western armies to train men to fire in controlled volleys. Such a style of warfare was also antithetical to the personal bravery of mounted warriors.
The critical point though, firearms did not suddenly give Western armies supremacy on the battlefield, rather, it was simply a continuation of such dominance that we have already seen, even during the somewhat backward era of 800 AD to 1200 AD, when Europeans fought off the invasions of northern and eastern nomads and Muslims.
The Mongols, despite their vast armies, had no understanding of siege warfare. It was the Muslims who were buying high quality cannons from European states, rather than Europeans buying a Muslim designed cannon that was superior to what they could produce in Europe.
After the tenth century, no Muslim army was able to successfully enter Europe, and as history shows, there was and is, a large gap between what the East was able to accomplish during their “Golden Age” and what the West was able to accomplish during their periods of uncontested supremacy; meaning that even during the height of Muslim power, during the time of Moorish occupation of Spain, and later with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, they had little long-term success against Western powers.
Back to the firearm. Another reason why we see the mass of production and improvement of the firearm in the West and not the East, is that the evolution and effective military use of firearms requires a marriage of rationalism and capitalism, to ensure an improvement in design and mass production. This rational approach to scientific inquiry, that allows for the mass use of new technology, requires a certain level of individual freedom, and welcomes rather than fears the entrance of a lethal newcomer to the battlefield.
Lethality on the battlefield is something that all nations crave, but not if that lethality threatens the status-quo of domestic power. I am not proposing that all Eastern nations made a conscious decision to curtail military technological advancements to protect the balance of domestic power. Though there are certainly examples of this happening. Rather that these Eastern nations lacked a foundation of free enterprise and consensual government that would have allowed them to create, improve, and mass produce dangerous new weapons; and then allow them to be used by ill-treated peasants without the fear of uprisings caused by a shift of domestic power from the elite to the now more dangerous peasantry.
Even during the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines were able to master the use of “Greek fire”, produce it in great quantities, and then disperse it into widespread use, allowing their fleets to overcome the numerically superior fleets of the Islamic armadas.
Later, Europe developed the crossbow, allowing for the rapid and cheap fabrication of a weapon that could be used by poorly trained soldiers. This was also dispersed far and wide, with little governmental oversight, and without fear that this new weapon would create a massive shift of domestic power.
The fall of Rome, in some ways, only spread Western Civilization further, as Germanic tribes settled and Christianized, becoming more Western that before. European colonization of the sixteenth century may have been strengthened by the production of firearms and the capital ship, however, those discoveries were themselves a product of a foundation of Western Civilization and an application of capitalism and a rational approach to science.
*Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale is an interesting book, Alternate History/Fantasy, of what the world might have looked like if Rome had not collapsed.
Therefore, the sixteenth-century military renaissance was a reawaking of Western dynamism, rather than a late rise, and transcends mere technological superiority and has nothing to do with morality or genes. The West views warfare as amoral, largely unshackled from ritual, tradition, religion, or ethics—relying only on what is militarily necessary, which is what gives Western arms its lethality. The tools of war do not simply appear from a vacuum and transform the battlefield, rather, they are born out of the principles of Western Civilization, primarily the marriage of rationalism and capitalism.
Even with a long history of this marriage, the West has not always owned a monopoly on superior technology, therefore these two principles are not by themselves all that is necessary to own the battlefield. The Greek triremes at Salamis were not superior to their Persian counterparts, and Japanese aircraft carriers had planes that were better than those on the American carriers. It is at that point where the other principles become necessary in overcoming the enemy, but it is important to remember that the spirit of these principles: consensual government, civic militarism, and the free landowning citizen were very different from one battlefield to the next.
The West’s rise to military preeminence cannot be boiled down to an accident of geography or other such simple explanation. While I would probably enjoy writing an entire book on the subject, my time has restricted me to this series of articles. If you would like to dig deeper into these principles I would recommend Carnage and Culture by Victor D. Hanson. The links in this article and the others were chosen because they served as sources.
Read the next article, Civic Militarism and its role in waging unlimited warfare.
This article was written by Jake Parrick