History and War

History and War

The Carolina Inn

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

March 22, 1996

Continuing with the Study of War Project, T.I.S.S. sponsored the eighth workshop in a series of nine examining the topic from the perspective of history. The conference was held at The Carolina Inn, adjacent to the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on March 22, 1996. The proceedings featured four respected historians speaking on their discipline=s contribution to the study of war.

About the Speakers. William McNeill is a professor (emeritus) in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. He is the author of numerous articles and many books including The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community; The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000; and Plagues and Peoples. Ralph Sawyer is the founder and president of Ralph Sawyer, Inc., an international consulting firm He has published several works on China including Psychology of Warfare in Ancient China; Seven Military Classics of Ancient China; Sun-tzu, Art of War; and Sun Pin, Military Methods. Walter Kaegi is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. A specialist in the Byzantine Empire and Late Antiquity, his books include Army, Society and Religion in Byzantium and Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests. He is currently working on a new book, Byzantium and Islam, Military Confrontations 650-850. Gerhard Weinberg a professor in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Weinberg has written extensively on the World War II era. His most recent books include A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II and Germany, Hitler, and World War II.


Following opening remarks by Dick Kohn and Alex Roland, the eighth Study of War conference got under way, this time showcasing the discipline of history with an exceptionally rich set of presentations. The talks proceeded from the extremely broad to the relatively specific. William McNeill began with a far-ranging attempt to understand the source and development of organized violence in mankind as a species. Ralph Sawyer redefined our understanding of Chinese ways of war across the last two and half millennia. Walter Kaegi addressed Quincy Wright’s definition of peace within the context of the most current understanding of Byzantine history. Finally, Gerhard Weinberg’s presentation demanded that we reevaluate our understanding of World War II in terms of the radically unique aims of its German initiators.

William McNeill began his talk, “A Natural History of Human Evolution,” with the premise that organized violence, in the form of cooperative hunting or territorial protection, was critical to the survival of the earliest humans. The more successful the cooperative behavior the greater the chances of group survival, thus making cooperative skills a criteria of human natural selection. This premise immediately raised the question of how such behavior developed. For an analog, Dr. McNeill turned to modern behavioral studies of chimpanzees, humanity’s nearest genetic relative. Violence among chimps is also social, but tends to involve smaller groups and to revolve mainly around display behavior associated with challenges to the reigning – “alpha” – male. In addition to “challenge” violence for dominance of the in-group, chimpanzees have been known to establish exclusive territories which boundaries they will then patrol and attempt to expand.

Humanity’s first step in moving beyond the small social primate groups was the development of simultaneous muscular and oral display, in short – dance. In unison, rhythmic group behavior enlarges the self, creating a sense of euphoria and pleasure that comes from this participation within the group. It was this innovation that allowed the expansion of the body politic. The later development of language was the second great step in enlarging social behavior. Language allowed both greater precision in interpersonal communication and an ability to reference abstractions. It is thought that language began to develop around 40,000 years ago, at that moment in the archaeological record that we begin to see rapidly accelerated tool development, a fanning out of humanity around Europe and Asia, and the beginning of the end of the megafauna.

Dr. McNeill sees the disappearance of the megafauna as crucial to the next development in human violence. With the loss of the largest mammals as a reliable food source, food production had to change, and consequently so also did the character of violence. Farming villages had relatively less need for space, therefore territorial violence was not required – a development suggesting that organized violence is not inherent to mankind. Around 4,500 B.C., however, large segments of Eurasia underwent a second revolution in subsistence, the “secondary domestication,” in which mankind learned to milk, utilize wool, and take advantage of animal traction. The consequent highly mobile pastoral societies, with their extensive need for space and their desire to appropriate the visible surplus of the settled villages, quickly came into conflict with the older farming societies. Those farming societies, coincidentally, had finally reached a population density that was forcing social differentiation – rulers and ruled. With the professionalization of force (i.e., the creation of a military through control of the food surplus) one region could move out and conquer another and demand tribute. (It should be noted that these professional militaries quickly developed some form of close order drill – the military “dance”.) Military conquest created the flow of food and people from outlying villages into cities. In order to maintain that flow, the cities had to protect the villages from the pastoralist raids, for which protection they then demanded tribute – the compromise upon which civilization rose. The political history of Eurasia thenceforth was one of sporadic pastoral conquest followed by native reaction/rebellion, followed by another conquest.

The speaker argued, however, that the rise of cities complicated the old divisions of “us” versus “them” and therefore complicated the patterns of violence. A city is a collection of strangers from the surrounding villages. The lack of a natural “us” inspired the creation of congregational religion as a kind of “portable” in-group. All of the congregational religions had a component of music, rhythm and group muscular movement, substituting in its way for the village festival. They all also had some version of the golden rule – “do unto others,” which tended to minimize violence among the “collection of strangers” which was a city. The infiltration of market forces into villages also altered slowly the solidity of their in-groups. Instead of using each season’s surplus in festival to reassert the unity of community, that surplus could instead be sold in the market. Iron was a key ingredient in that development because it remained a product attainable only through the market use of the surplus.

The combination of sectarian religion, technological innovation (spread through the expanding market and often state-sponsored), and the Black Death’s easing of population pressures proved to be the force behind the hothouse atmosphere of military development in Eurasia. The rapid improvement in military technique led eventually to the resumption of drill (an art lost since antiquity) which allowed Europe and China to finally defeat the nomads and moved the critical frontier of development from the steppe to the sea. Simultaneous with this process came the state’s monopolization of legitimate violence.

Dr. McNeill asserted that this monopoly is now being challenged. Transnational elites – corporations and multinational military organizations – are organized outside the confines of state control. Additionally, on the streets of the cities there has been a rise of street violence centered on gangs, who practice a form of violence akin to that of the hunter-gatherer. This development is one reflection of the decay of the solidarity of the village. The village, its autonomy already weakened by market forces, has been unable to resist the technologically enhanced siren song of urban luxury. Added to this volatile mix, and in large measure a response to it, are the ideologies of “truth,” offering a return to a better life or a promise of a new one.

Dr. McNeill concluded that despite such change, the fundamental problem of organized violence remains familiar. The composition of the “us” is changing from the “us” of the village, or the “us” of the sect, to the street communities of the city, or groups of ideologists. But the need for the group to protect its “us-ness” remains. The choices are, and have always been, organized violence or conciliation on terms – challenge or submission. Finding a way to establish a kind of social compact, submission on terms between coherent groups, is essential to preserve and further the global economy. We need to define new kinds of primary communities to replace the vanished “village autonomous,” the place where life happened.

The question and answer period began with a widespread expression of interest in the importance of dance. The other three panelists all noted various periods for which there is evidence of the use of drill and/or dance as a means of building group cohesion within military units. Dr. McNeill commented that the academic study of dance has languished in a narrow focus on stage and social dance, missing the “backbone of human dance” found in the village festival.

The biological component of Dr. McNeill’s talk also raised several questions. One member of the audience questioned the assumption that genetic similarity implies behavioral similarity (referring to the use of chimpanzees as analogs for proto-humans). Dr. McNeill de-emphasized the genetics of his argument, saying he is not arguing that behavior proceeds from genetics, but rather that successful behavior allows survival, and that survival reinforces that behavior. Man has therefore evolved culturally into a social animal, and in fact man exists to be part of a group, deriving meaning from such participation. Civilization’s problems have arisen from competition between those groups. Another participant went further with this idea to assert that genetically man should be non-social. He suggested that it was dance which allowed cultural evolution to occur counter to the genetic imperative to breed outside the group.

Other questions focused on the role of technology in redefining the community in our era. The rapidity of change has thrown open the question of the means of defining a primary group (e.g., geographical contiguity may now have less importance), but not the human need for such a group.

Ralph Sawyer spoke next on the perception and the reality of Chinese theories of war in a presentation entitled, “Chinese Warfare: The Paradox of the Unlearned Lesson.” During the first 2500 years of their history the Chinese developed a sophisticated understanding of war and the most effective way to wage it. “Military values were much esteemed; professional knowledge increasingly fostered; and analytic efforts directed toward mastering the art of mass combat and ensuring victory in the battles that constantly erupted.” The Warring States period witnessed, and in fact fostered, a particularly prolific literature on both the nature and practice of war. Chinese philosophers perceived a wide variety of causes of war, but identified the root cause as human desire in an environment of limited resources. War was inherent to man’s nature and therefore a necessary part of a state’s function.

The “textbook” literature on war has often been interpreted as advocating a kind of “limited” war: avoid battle, keep wars short, rely on maneuver, etc. Mr. Sawyer stressed that this is a misconception. Admittedly, the ancient Chinese literature on warfare does emphasize sophisticated and careful planning, even preceding the outbreak of hostilities, but the stress lay not on avoiding battle but rather on giving battle when it was to one’s advantage. This type of warfare was not necessarily defensive. Chinese military theorists stressed maneuver, both on and off the field, in order to place one’s enemy in a disadvantageous situation. Once positioned, power would be applied brutally and with overwhelming force. This ideal was, however, difficult to achieve in practice. Consequently, war leaders from this period often resorted to overwhelming conquest by force of arms. Chinese warfare more often than not witnesses huge armies inflicting enormous casualties. Guided by the prolific theoretical literature and driven by ceaseless warfare, early Chinese tactical and strategic systems and capabilities far exceeded their contemporaries in the West. Their modern weaknesses arose from a later, mistaken dichotomizing of the civil from the martial.

Mr. Sawyer posited that beginning around 1000 A.D. with the Sung Dynasty, Imperial China came to be ruled by a professional bureaucratic literati who denigrated the practice of war. The success and size of Chinese civilization created a cult of luxury and a self-image of extreme power that merely the display of their opulence was believed to be adequate to overwhelm (i.e., seduce) potential enemies. The spirit of this system lay in the phrase “the benevolent have no enemies.” Rather than enjoying uninterrupted peace, however, the state became debilitated and “eventually proved unable to cope with either internal or external threats and challenges.”

Mr. Sawyer concluded by commenting on the nature of military thinking in present day China. In very recent times, there has been a significant resurgence in the study of the ancient writers on war. Their work had never been totally forgotten, merely banished from the dominant paradigm. Now it would seem that Chinese strategists are again actively pursuing the ancient theories. It is to our benefit to understand the true nature of Chinese warfare, particularly as one looks at their current posturing against both Taiwan and Vietnam.

The questions raised by the other panelists initially focused on the astonishingly large armies cited by Mr. Sawyer. Gerhard Weinberg and Walter Kaegi both raised the “Delbruckian” issues (logistics, military participation ration, etc.) implied by such large forces. Mr. Sawyer admitted that all such figures are notoriously unreliable, but that he automatically halves all of the estimates, and that there is some fairly reliable evidence for armies far in excess of contemporary western standards.

Dr. McNeill questioned the reason for the reversal of value systems with regard to martial virtues, especially since there were ample examples of large and successful Chinese armies within the last millennia. Mr. Sawyer responded that such success has been cyclic. Each new dynasty had a generation of vigorous and martial emperors followed by less energetic successors.

A member of the audience asked if the Chinese had jus in belli, to which Mr. Sawyer replied that they did have such theories (avoiding damaging religious buildings, protecting non-combatants, etc.). However, Chinese logistics usually amounted to plunder, with all its consequences for non-combatants.

Several questions followed regarding the current state of Chinese military thinking and policy, particularly with regard to Taiwan and Vietnam. Mr. Sawyer believes that no attack on Taiwan is imminent but that one on Vietnam seems increasingly likely, and that such tactics of “leading with the left while striking with the right” would be perfectly in accord with the renaissance of ancient theories on war currently being fostered by the Chinese military think-tanks. Asked his opinion regarding the U.S. Army’s most recent assessment of Chinese capabilities (which regarded China as less than a peer competitor), Mr. Sawyer argued that predicting Chinese actions is difficult. Chinese leaders presume a certain rationality on the part of the rest of the world, but they may not feel bound by that thinking themselves. More importantly, he sees the development of basic industry – sponsored by western venture capitalists – as the first step in the creation of enough wealth and technical knowledge within China to allow them to buy and build weapons themselves.

Walter Kaegi opened the afternoon sessions with a talk entitled “Quincy Wright, Arnold Toynbee, and Byzantine Military History” in which he evaluated Wright’s hypotheses (as he borrowed them from Toynbee) in the light of the most recent scholarship on Byzantine history. Wright defined peace as an equilibrium among many forces and Toynbee’s understanding of Byzantine history tended to support that definition. Toynbee characterized Byzantine military policy (after Leo III) as one of moderation, and it was that moderation which assured its longevity.

Dr. Kaegi reminded us that even as Wright was writing, Byzantine scholarship was dramatically revised by G. Ostrogorski. Ostrogorski believed that the Byzantine empire’s strength and longevity came from an extremely strong centralized government and from reliance on soldier-farmers. The weakening of those institutions led to the empire’s eventual fall. Fortunately for Wright’s conclusions, Ostrogorski’s framework has since been dismantled. More recent reevaluations of Byzantine military policy has found that they had access to the corpus and traditions of both the Roman and Greek worlds. The military minds of Byzantium accessed that corpus but lacked the kind of human and material resources of the Hellenistic kingdoms or of the Roman empire. This lack led them to develop a greater emphasis on cunning, avoidance of casualties, use of assassination, and the manipulation of ethnic divisions to preserve their ascendancy. Thus, the empire derived its longevity from pursuing peace wherever possible (a “Wrightian” equilibrium), a policy of restraint rather than “moderation.” Byzantium generally avoided large-scale territorial expansion and its accompanying destabilizing influence (a disequilibrium). When it did expand, as during the Justinian reconquest or the late tenth-century conquest of Bulgaria, negative consequences invariably ensued.

Dr. Kaegi felt, therefore, that Wright’s concept of equilibrium continues to hold up in the case of Byzantium. At the same time, however, there are other factors that Wright seemed to disregard. Not least among those was the asymmetry of military technology between Byzantium and its enemies. Nor do Wright or Toynbee allow for the influence of “timing” or the “accidental.” Both of these unquantifiable loom large in explaining military phenomena (believers in the longue duree’ notwithstanding). It is also necessary to admit exceptions to the “general policy of moderation.” When Islam erupted from the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century the military manuals were unable to deal with that threat and hard fighting was the only option available. Similar circumstances occurred with the coming of the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century.

The speaker concluded by remarking on the growing awareness of the importance of Byzantine military writings in influencing medieval and early-modern European military thought. The Byzantine practice of writing on war continued through the eleventh century, then apparently ceased. The Hellenic-Roman writings referred to so often by early western military writers were mediated through Byzantine hands, who inserted their own reliance on cunning and stratagem. This synthesis emerged most strongly in the French military reformers of the eighteenth century.

During the question and answer period, a question was raised regarding the Byzantine notions of jus in belli and jus ad belli given that they had no concept of Holy War. Dr. Kaegi replied that essentially the Byzantines always viewed themselves as on the defensive, and while they did characterize themselves as Christians defending themselves against invading heathens, they never advocated anything like a crusade. Another member of the audience brought up a broader question relevant to the Study of War conference series, namely, what do historians think of war? Is there a consensus? Numerous comments ensued both from Dr. Kaegi and members of the audience regarding the state of the sub-discipline of military history. A consensus emerged that despite the relative unpopularity (in academia) of studying war, the military history field is healthier than it sometimes seems and its products are much more sophisticated now than they were in Wright’s era.

Gerhard Weinberg delivered the final talk entitled, “World War II: A Different Kind of War.” He reminded historians of the importance of recognizing the differences between aims and means when one examines the nature of a given war (or series of wars). While they are related, changes in one do not necessarily dictate changes in the other. The centuries long series of Egyptian expeditions up the Nile or into the Sinai used different weapons (copper, bronze, chariots, etc.) but retained similar aims. The similarity of those aims (extraction of tribute, acquisition of resources both mineral and human, establishment of trade routes) allows the historian to treat the separate campaigns as essentially similar. In fact, most of the warfare of the ancient world can be characterized by those aims, with the addition of, for example, territorial expansion, control of adjacent tribal areas, and revolt against one’s conquerors. The one possible exception that illuminates this general principle was the total destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War. The validity of this episode as an exception was examined later.

The focus on aims provides a different lens for viewing the question of whether the two great wars of this century were but a single, interrupted, phenomenon. Dr. Weinberg argued that the goals of the initiators of these two wars were fundamentally dissimilar. World War I was a war with aims similar to those in preceding centuries of European warfare: territory, materials, control of colonies and strategic areas, prestige, and national defense. Understanding those goals helps explain the conflicts among the allies in the early stages of that war. For example, though allies, many of them had overlapping territorial ambitions. The key difference between World War I and these earlier wars was the change in means. The new order of magnitude of destructiveness resulted from the technological and structural shifts in pre-war European society.

Dr. Weinberg believed that there is a fundamental break between the two world wars. The aims of the Germans were entirely different from those of the first war. In fact, the more traditional goals of Germany’s allies (including Japan) made their relationship impossibly difficult at times, much worse than the frictions among the western allies. What were those aims? During the 1920’s Hitler assured the Germans that he was unlike all the others. He would not engage the state in a program of minor border adjustments. He would instead lead Germany to enormous conquests from which the German race would inherit the earth. A major component of this ambition was a racial revolution pointed at the demographic re-ordering of the world.

The persecution of Jews, the sterilization of Germans with heritable defects, and the encouragement of “proper” Germans to have more children all began in 1933. In 1938 and 1939 these domestic policies moved forward dramatically, simultaneously with the external policy of conquest. The congruence of the racial aims with the program of military expansion was highlighted by the deliberate re-dating of the policies against the Jews and the euthanasia program for the disabled to coincide with the invasion of Poland.

In fact, Dr. Weinberg argued, the German conduct of the war can only be fully understood in the light of these racial policies and the ultimate goal of worldwide Germanization. The 1940 attacks in the west were a necessary prerequisite for the war against a feeble Russia. The Russian steppe would provide the room for German settlers (and their children) and the oil necessary to supply the eventual war against the United States. And as soon as victory in France appeared inevitable, preparations for the war against the East and the U.S. began. The campaign in North Africa had an aim beyond the shoring up of Mussolini’s failed ambitions or of closing the Suez canal. Its ultimate goal was control over the Jewish population of the Middle East.

Throughout the early stages of the war, the domestic racial policies continued. By the summer of 1941 100,000 handicapped Germans had been killed. That same summer began the resettlement of Germans in conquered territories and the destruction of the Jews. Germans who were deemed unsuitable to reproduce were surgically sterilized. More frighteningly, the German government conducted medical experiments in search of a technique for secretly sterilizing large populations. The only possible target for this activity were the Slavic and other native conquered populations, whose place would be taken by resettled and highly prolific Germans.

Dr. Weinberg sees these war aims as novel. Throughout history there had been deliberate massacres, razing of cities and transplantation of populations. But, even in the aforementioned example of Carthage, the slaves taken to Rome were treated no differently from the other slaves. They might eventually become free, perhaps even citizens. The German program was unique in its worldwide racial/demographic goals.

In the speaker=s opinion, the oft-mentioned technological aspect of World War II has been over-emphasized. Existing weapons were enhanced; nothing was fundamentally new. Atomic weapons and the ballistic missile were innovative, but they were critical to future war, and while hastened by World War II, they were not precipitated by it. Admittedly, the demographic potential of atomic warfare – that is the destruction of all life – was without historical precedent. Equally without precedent, however, was the German concept of a global demographic revolution.

During the question and answer session which followed, Dr. Kaegi asked about the Japanese military=s medical experiments and how they compared qualitatively to Germany’s. Dr. Weinberg said that while the Japanese chose their subjects according to racial criteria, their aims in those experiments were for “useful” weapons, weapons which would serve as auxiliaries to conventional ones. The overall goal remained an expanded empire (a “traditional” aim of war), not the elimination of the Chinese population. An audience member inquired as to the response of the western allies to the discovery of the medical experiments. Dr. Weinberg noted that the situation was different for the Germans and the Japanese. Many of the former were tried, but few to none of the latter. Dr. Weinberg supposed that was due to the U.S. hope of gaining some information from the Japanese researchers since U.S. officials could not reach the actual sites of the experiments on mainland China.

Another question referred to the ultimate goal of the German program of conquest, specifically, did Germany eventually intend to attack its Allies? Dr. Weinberg replied that recognizing the long-term view of the German leadership is crucial to understanding them. Temporary accommodations with their allies were acceptable within the assumption of a 1000 year Reich. Eventually there would be time to deal with everyone.

A stimulating discussion ensued from the observation that the Nazi Germany might have been just one manifestation of racial management within a broader context of such policies by various states in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In general, Dr. Weinberg agreed that state racial policies have a long history, but that the real cause for concern in the twentieth century arises from the enhanced capacity of the state to manipulate (physically and psychologically) its population. It is too easy a transition for the state to begin to view its people as resources, in a manner exemplified by the Nazi use of the term “menschen-material.” This led one member of the audience to ask about the possible conflict implied between Dr. McNeill=s description of man’s need for the group, with that group’s collective demand for self-preservation, and the western liberal conception of the worth of the individual. Dr. McNeill believed the danger is real but that, nevertheless, without the group, a human cannot exist. The issue was pressed further by another audience member who pointed out the English equivalent to Menschen-material: “human resources.” Dr. Weinberg believed, however, that the American war records possessed a fundamentally different tenor regarding the worth of the individual.

Wayne Lee, Rapporteur