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Response to Review of The Business of War. Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe

I am most grateful to Neil Younger for his generous and perceptive review of The Business of War.  It is a pleasure for the author when a reader has taken the time to think and reflect at length about a review, and has drawn out out not just the larger argument but many points of detail. Amongst these it is good to see highlighted the key assertion that from the 16th century the greatest military problem faced by European states was not so much the increasing size of armies but the increasing duration of warfare, though I would argue that this was no less an opportunity for private military contractors to develop the scale and sophistication of their activities. And after reading too many of them, I am happy that my point about the marginal utility and, in many cases, outright irrelevance of contemporary military manuals strikes a sympathetic chord. 

On the central argument, as Younger indicates, The Business of War is an attempt to challenge the seemingly unshakeable hold that a basic model of ‘military revolution’ has gained in the thinking of most early modern historians who have not steeped themselves in recent debates about military technology and military cultures, territorial and organizational anomalies in waging war, or looked at ‘ground level’ studies of military administration. Although much of the case for such state-formation elsewhere – in studies of local government, fiscal and administrative institutions, and in the aims and scope of government – is being dismantled, the attraction of linking military change to centralization and bureaucracy in the state remains strong. If Business of War can provoke more critical thinking about the institutional and political contexts in which early modern war was waged, it will have made its contribution.  The reviewer correctly points out that the material of the book is drawn from a wide range of secondary sources, and makes little direct use of primary source material. This was a decision made when planning and writing the book. Manuscript and printed sources could have been used more extensively to discuss aspects of military contracting, whether relating to the recruitment and financing of units, operational decision-making, or even French military exceptionalism, but that would have detracted from the central aim: using extant secondary work to argue that there are different ways of looking at the issues of military organization and the role of the state in early modern Europe.  To argue from primary material rather than secondary studies would risk confirming the tacit opinion that the study of mercenaries and private contracting in this period was an antiquarian dead-end, of no real significance to the central direction of early modern history, and only to be pursued through special pleading via obscure archival sources.  

The chronological and geographical range of the book, whose length was restrained to some extent by an already generous and long-suffering Cambridge University Press, inevitably proved problematic. I chose an extended chronological range to show the emergence and flourishing of military enterprise as a more comprehensive development than the essentially timeless phenomenon of ‘hiring mercenaries’. The sixth chapter, dealing with the continuation and partial transformation of military enterprise in the later 17th and 18th centuries remains more of an interpretative essay than detailed study, and is an area where much more can – and I hope, will – be said. 18th-century contracting for the provisioning, transport and support-services, and the construction and maintenance of military weapons, equipment and hardware, has already benefitted from some outstanding and wide-ranging work in the last five years, some of which unfortunately only came to my attention as Business of War went to press. Meanwhile, regimental and company proprietorship and the evolution and varieties of military venality, which are both central to the relationship between officer-corps and state administrators, still deserve much more detailed attention.  In opting for chronological breadth, I undoubtedly sacrificed some geographical range.  Younger’s point about the marginalization of British case-studies and examples in the book is regrettably true, and I failed to take into account until too late the remarkable flourishing of recent work and debate on military organization and military systems in the Three Kingdoms, and its significance for my arguments.

The review further identifies a major issue standing behind the debate about private contracting, central administration and the growth of the state. Traditional statist accounts simply ignored the evidence that administrative and financial responsibility for recruiting, maintaining and deploying armies and navies was outsourced to private contractors. But it could nonetheless be argued that wholesale decentralization of military activities was a decision made by the state, and one taken to achieve and maximize its ultimate political purposes. From the perspective of the creation of a more powerful state, both as an international actor and in terms of its coercive potential and ‘reach’ at home, the debate about public versus private administration could thus be seen as more about means than ends: the latter remained the same however flexible the state was in choosing its agents. Moreover it may well be difficult, in the complex, real world of 17th- and 18th-century administrators, to draw a sharp distinction between private and public activity. Private military financiers and suppliers sought, and often obtained, simultaneous posts in the public military administration, while French army officers were both nominal state employees and large-scale creditors of their units. Even explicitly private contractors were still offering the state services from which they benefitted, albeit not in terms of a salary. How far should these examples be separated from the state’s ‘formal’ administrators, who frequently worked both for a (small) official salary and additional sources of reimbursement which depended on privatizing their activities to collect fees and bribes? 

These are certainly valid points, but they nuance administrative structures and methods that do have significance in their own right. In present-day debate, the issue of the privatization of prisons, military support services, fiscal or other government activities polarizes political opinion in ways that go beyond basic economic considerations. To both supporters and opponents they are seen to change the nature of the state’s relationship to its citizens and the means by which political activity can be legitimated. We have evidence that the same preoccupations influenced governments in the 16th and 17th century, even as financial exigency pushed them inexorably down the path to decentralization. The Spanish Council of State regularly asserted that contracting-out military activity was an affront to the crown’s sovereign powers, and periodically experimented – usually disastrously – with the selective re-introduction of direct state administration. French ministers and generals fulminated against the self-interest and inappropriateness of private supply contracting, even while they were often participants in cartels to undertake this supply. By the 18th century we have examples of political opinion forcing the abandonment of military contracting and its replacement with direct supply. In one sense contracting is certainly about optimizing the capacity of the state to meet its military needs; but it is no less the case that the choice of mechanisms to achieve this changes the nature of the state in fundamental ways.  The traditional view of war and state-building is concerned, explicitly or tacitly, to legitimate the modern state as the product of conscious and directive centralization. Accepting that for most of their history, European rulers have operated through the co-option of private agents, their finance and their expertise, even in an area deemed as central to the identity and claims of the state as military organization, represents something more than simply a cost-efficient choice of administrative method. If the coercive power of the state grew as a result of reliance on military enterprise, this reliance was itself politically significant and argues for considerable discontinuities in administrative practice and in the formation of what is widely recognized as the modern nation-state.  A comparison with non-European states – Imperial China comes obviously to mind – where civil and military administration was far more consistently and thoroughly centralized, points to some important historical divergences.

Engaging with one other point made by the reviewer, perhaps I might also explain my lengthy excursus into military operations during the Thirty Years’ War in chapter four of the Business of War. Both historically and historiographically, the war has always occupied a key position in accounts of early modern war and politics. The standard picture of a futile, stagnant conflict which devastated swathes of Germany and west-central Europe to no strategic purpose, presents the war as a turning point. Depicting commanders as self-interested and risk-averse military contractors, primarily concerned to safeguard their military investment and extract contributions from occupied territory, the war taught European rulers a harsh lesson in the consequences of leaving war to the generals. After 1648 they escaped the consequences of their short-sighted folly by turning their back on military contracting, supposedly creating a new style of state-controlled and -financed army. Essential to this argument, of course, is the perennial opinion that military enterprise was not just morally dubious, but an ineffective way of waging war. Thus the abandonment of enterprise in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War is a logical response to an obvious problem, indeed even carries the air of historical inevitability about it.

Hence my own concern to demonstrate, through both actual operational thinking and case-studies, that these armies were anything but the passive, ineffectual forces so often represented, hobbled by incompetent and inadequate logistical support, with commanders who had no interest in forcing an end to the conflict, and soldiers who were little more than vagrants under arms, undisciplined and unsuitable for any rigorous campaigning. I certainly hoped that the operational case studies, from Pappenheim and Colaert to Torstensson, Mercy and Hatzfeld, would give pause to this picture of sterility and stasis. I take seriously therefore, Neil Younger’s criticism that, without showing that the strategic dimension of the war was also transformed, this extensive discussion of operational effectiveness may seem like special pleading, indeed an apologia for the conduct of the war. If the commanders, troops and their operations were so much more effective, why was ultimate victory – the aim of strategy – so elusive?  But the answer could be straightforward: the strategic dimension is not only about winning a war, but equally about not losing it. This is a notion entirely familiar from studies of, say, the Seven Years’ War, but rarely applied to the earlier conflict. I have long puzzled over a historical rhetoric which consistently attributes both organizational and vast resource superiority to the anti-Habsburg coalition in the Thirty Years’ War. Habsburg defeat, above all from 1635, is presented as inevitable, and histories of the Thirty Years’ War too often read as a litany of allied successes against hide-bound and resource-strapped powers. In such a situation it might therefore be expected that, even without great military competence, victory would have been achieved rather sooner than 1648, as the demoralized armies of the Habsburg powers and their one remaining ally, Bavaria, recognized the futility of their situation and cut their losses by accepting harsh terms rather than incremental military defeat. Instead the war was fought continuously from 1635, neither as a futile exercise in Habsburg self-delusion, nor as a stagnant and meaningless process of territorial occupation and inertia. The Habsburg and Bavarian forces could not win the war against their enemies, but they could all-but fight them to a standstill, repeatedly pushing them back from home territory, and threatening to destabilize positions deep in occupied territory. Shared operational methods and effectiveness made allied progress against the Habsburg forces slow, bloody and subject to reverses. It was not until after 1645 that the tide of war started to turn more decisively in favour of the anti-Habsburg coalition, and the outcome of the Peace of Westphalia is of course far removed from an unconditional surrender imposed by states who were confident of their ability to increase military pressure at will. The operational dimension does explain rather precisely both the formidable threat posed by the armies of the Thirty Years War to rulers and their territories, and the apparent failure to achieve a strategically decisive outcome.