EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association with the support of other sponsoring organizations.
Castles, Battles and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History
Published by EH.NET (February 2009)
Jurgen Brauer and Hubert van Tuyll, Castles, Battles and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. xix + 385 pp. $29 (cloth), ISBN: 0-226-07163-4.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter Howlett, Department of Economic History, London School of Economics.
This book is a collaboration between a professor of economics and a professor of history, both based at Augusta State University, whose aim is to show how economic theory can enrich our understanding of military history. At first glance, therefore, this should be a book that should appeal to economic historians — applying or utilizing economic principles, theories and ideas to history is our bread and butter. However, its target audience is “the general-interest reader” (p. xvii), it is a trade book, and despite the authors’ claim that “each of the substantive chapters nonetheless makes a genuine contribution to the development of scholarly knowledge” (pp. xvii-xviii) it is not a research monograph. It is therefore more likely to appeal to students than to professors.
The strategy of the book is to take six case studies spanning a thousand years of history and apply economic principles to them to improve our depth of understanding. The historical cases are: the medieval castle, mercenaries during the Renaissance, the decision to offer battle in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the role of information in the American Civil War, the strategic bombing of Germany in the Second World War, and France’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. The cases are studied through, or used to illustrate, six “economic principles”: opportunity cost, expected marginal costs and benefits, substitution, diminishing marginal returns, asymmetric information and hidden characteristics, and hidden actions and incentive alignments. The economic principles, along with a broad introduction to economics itself, are introduced in chapter one and this is then followed by the case studies. While each case does touch on several of the economic principles, all are focused on one aspect — for example, the medieval castle is used to illustrate the opportunity cost of warfare while the bombing of Germany focuses on diminishing marginal returns. Each of the case study chapters also comes with an appendix that provides a matrix whose rows are the six economic principles chosen by the authors and whose columns are five elements of the military sphere (manpower, logistics, technology, planning and operations) — the effectiveness of this as a summary or learning tool is debatable and often the individual elements of the matrix seem forced. The final chapter, which was written in response to “prepublication readers” (p. xix) offers some thought on war in the twenty-first century — including the economics of terrorism and the economics of private military companies. It offers some interesting insights for the general reader, illustrating how economists are thinking about such issues, but sits outside the analytical framework employed in the rest of the book.
At least some aspects of the book could have been improved. For example, the cases could have had a more global spread — five of the cases are European and one is American. Perhaps more acknowledgments could have been given to military historians and military strategy. For example, it is disappointing that neither The Art Of War (written several hundred years before the birth of Christ by Sun Tzu) or On War (by Carl von Clausewitz and published in 1832) appear in the book’s list of references, although the authors, in discussing the significance of information do acknowledge Sun Tzu (p. 159) and Clausweitz gets a nod in discussing Napoleon’s strategy (p. 154). These two of the classic texts on military strategy, while obviously not written using a modern economist’s vocabulary, do utilize economic concepts — for example the second chapter of The Art of War explains how to understand the economic nature of competition and conflict and how success requires limiting their cost. This raises a broader issue of how successful the book will be in opening a dialogue with military historians. In a similar, but more self-interested vein, the book does not fully appreciate the existing large economic history literature that relates to the topic of military strategy (in the broadly defined manner used in the book), not least in terms of technology or state policy or institutions. To cite just one example — Daniel Benjamin and Christopher Thornberg (“Organization and Incentives in the Age of Sail,” Explorations in Economic History, 2007, pp. 317-341) recently argued that the pay incentive system employed by British navy from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century was one factor underlying its military success.
Overall, while the overall contribution to knowledge of this book is limited, it does serve its target audience of “the general-interest” reader well — it is written in an engaging manner, provides much interesting information about its disparate cases, and does illustrate that economics (as this readership knows) has much to offer history. As such it may well find its way onto many student reading lists.
Peter Howlett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Senior Lecturer in the Economic History Department of the LSE. His most recent publication was “Trade, Convergence and Globalisation: The Dynamics of the International Income Distribution, 1950-1998,” (with P. Epstein and M-S. Schulze), Explorations in Economic History, vol. 44, no. 1 (January 2007), pp.100-13.