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The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe
Published by EH.Net (November 2012)
David Parrott, The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xvii + 429 pp. $28 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-521-73558-2.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Jamie L.H. Goodall, Department of History, Ohio State University.
It is assumed that the Military Revolution debate has been wrestled into submission. However, David Parrott’s new book, The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe, reveals that there is still much to be said on the topic. Produced from a series of lectures Parrott (New College, Oxford University) delivered for the Lees Knowles lectures in 2004 at Trinity College Cambridge, the present volume offers an eloquent, fresh interpretation of the military revolution and the relationship between warfare and nation-state development in early modern Europe.
A central theme of nineteenth and twentieth century history was the centralization of a state through its military needs. The principal argument of this theory is that medieval rulers were incapable of adequately mobilizing resources financially, materially, and technologically because they struggled with the limitations and constraints of a decentralized state. Due to the dispersed nature of power, local elites, kinship networks, and power players problematized the vested interests of citizens and/or subjects. However, as a result of the changing character and scale of warfare, rulers confronted the reality of survival and could reverse their “acquiescence in existing political arrangements” (p. 11). Specifics such as when, where, and how this occurred, have been debated over the years by military, political, and economic historians alike, from Michael Roberts to Sir Geoffrey Parker to Jeremy Black. Parrott’s work is set apart by his emphasis on the significance of privatization to the military revolution. He asks why the “implicit assumption behind almost all state-building theory and analysis [is] that the political objective was not just the raising and maintenance of unprecedented military forces, but [it was] doing so within a framework of direct state control of those armed forces?” (p. 14).
According to Parrott, the “business of war” has too often been considered peripheral, or a historical dead-end, as historians interpret increased state military control as an end-all historical process. One reason for this emphasis is due to the fact that national armed forces, fueled, funded, and controlled by the state, were the end product. Additionally, Parrott refers to historians’ tendencies towards two sets of interrelated negative assumptions about the use of private military organizations, citing S. Percy and Janice Thompson: the moral and legal wrongness of “killing for hire” and the belief that the privatization of warfare is militarily self-defeating. For one, it is seen as morally reprehensible to hire mercenaries and private contractors as military extensions since warfare should be waged for the greater good, rather than for personal profit. Secondly, mercenaries cannot be counted on to be loyal since logically they could become traitorous for the right price, and therefore they are more costly to the overall aim. But Parrott sees no need for the incompatibility between the growth of the state and a substantial privatization of military activity. Rather, he provides significant evidence to the contrary, using examples ranging from Xenophon and the Greek mercenaries serving in Persian wars (401 BC) to Blackwater contractors operating in Iraq.
In two sections, Parrott challenges inherent assumptions about the military revolution while offering a comprehensive overview of early modern military contracting. The “Foundations and Expansion” part examines systems of military enterprise within three chapters going through the sixteenth century and into the Thirty Years War. Chapter 1 looks specifically at the options available to European states before the mid-sixteenth century, emphasizing the various types of private military force and organization. Parrott uses the contributions of Swiss pikemen and German Landscknecht as a means to understand the qualities and strengths of early modern armies.
Chapter 2 looks at the expansion of military enterprise from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth century. Parrott contends that the “challenge of sustaining military force over long sequences of campaigns pushed existing mechanisms of state-controlled war finance to the breaking point, but also offered the opportunity systematically to deploy the credit of military contractors” (p. 19). He supports this claim by examining a series of contingent political developments, from the unprecedented weight of Ottoman military might on central Europe and the Mediterranean to the unanticipated dynastic inheritance of Habsburg ruler Charles V. Due to these developments, conflict became characterized by a variety of different systems that Parrott broadly terms “public-private partnerships.” The author then shows the range that these military models could take. Chapter 3 explores traditional state-dominated models and armies raised entirely by military enterprisers. Parrot states that the most common and resilient additions of contractors to states were their investment in the infrastructure, especially provisions and oversight.
In the second half of the book, “Operations and Structures,” Parrott assesses how contracting functioned and changed in the century after 1660. Chapters 4 and 5 are arguably the heart of this book. This is where Parrott most strongly emphasizes the important role military contractors played in early modern warfare. First, the author directly and adeptly challenges the assertions that private enterprise was ineffective, wasteful, or destructive by looking at military captains and colonels – proprietors who invested money and credit to recruit and supply their own troops and units. Parrott argues that military proprietors had a vested interest in the success of their military campaigns, securing ample provisions. He then goes into the specific options for endowing and equipping these contract armies through wide networks of personal contacts, financial institutions, and mercantile production. The benefits of military enterprise ranged from financial gain to social or cultural prestige.
The final chapter examines continuity and evolution after 1660. The author contends that military contracting, particularly during the Thirty Years War, was not a destructive failure, because many of the structures established as part of the “private-public partnerships” of the period were retained well into the eighteenth century and beyond. In today’s political climate, with questions raised about the effectiveness and desirability of increased military privatization, Parrott’s book reveals the complex historical significance and precedence of private military enterprise.
Jamie L.H. Goodall is a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State in the Department of History. She is currently working on a dissertation focused on the economic relationship between piracy, illicit trade, and European colonization.
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