History

The Pursuit of Power by William H. McNeill

A comprehensive history of weapons and warfare, from ancient times to modern. Although a somewhat uncomfortable topic (reading this makes you aware of the huge quantity of effort that humans have put into trying to kill each other en masse over the past millennia), I found it utterly fascinating. The social and political effects of the technology of war, for example: when swords and horsemen were the dominant power, a culture of honor arises (knights in the west, samurai in the east); but as soon as the crossbow shows up to make unskilled footmen in large numbers more effective, this disappears.

Another point I found extremely intriguing was the subject of drilling. Prior to about two centuries ago, an army was simply a mess of guys with weapons that would sort of run at each other, trying to kill and avoid being killed. Some clever Prussian commanders bureaucratized their soldiers, getting them to march in organized lines, fire on fixed schedules, and so on. This made them devastatingly effective compared to the traditional approach, but also brought with it an interesting side effect that became a mainstay of modern military culture. It turns out that the human mind is very strongly shaped by doing repetitive motions in sychronization with others. It produces a strong bond and sense of loyalty both between the men and to the parent organization. Drilling thus becomes not only a way to learn the drills, but a way to shape the minds of your soldiers. (I think it is fair to say that a similar effect may be at play in certain types of group religious rituals or even dance routines.)

Once technological superiority become well-established as the way to win wars, the huge thirst for better killing power from rules and politicans created an enormous market incentive for innovation. Some of the stuff weapon-makers come up with is mind-bogglingly clever. One of my favorites is the technique for making more powerful canon. Bands of metal are heated so that they expand, and can be slid around the outer casing of the canon barrel. When the metal cools, it clamps down, exerting tremendous force on the barrel, thus allowing use of much more gunpowder without the barel blowing apart.

Be warned that this book is dense, and not written with a terribly accessible style. I only managed to get through the whole thing by reading in short spurts over the course of many months.

Rating: 4 of 5
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