Sam Seitz

My blogging hiatus has created an enormous backlog of books to review. As is becoming an unfortunate trend, I’m too far in the hole to review every book I’ve read in the past few weeks. Below, therefore, are reviews of some of the better books I’ve recently finished. I’ll put out another set of reviews in the next few days (hopefully).

1. The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics (by Michael Horowitz): This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time, and I think it covers a topic of particular relevance. Fundamentally, the book seeks to determine the factors that enable state and non-state actors to adopt new military innovations, concluding that institutional flexibility and resource constraints are most salient. Horowitz, through his “adoption-capacity theory,” argues that different innovations pose different challenges to adoption. For example, nuclear weapons, though resource-intensive, do not require serious doctrinal shifts or reorganizations. Aircraft carriers, however, are both costly and novel in the demands they place on naval war planners because they fundamentally change the tactics of naval warfare. This distinction is important because, Horowitz argues, it has implications for the distribution of military power. Resource intensive but non-revolutionary technology works to entrench existing powers, as it benefits strong, established states that can invest the requisite capital to reap the rewards. Novel technologies, by contrast, benefit rising powers with more flexible and nascent military structures. While entrenched great powers might be slow to adapt, younger powers can leap ahead by reorganizing to capitalize on new innovations. I found the theory to be both intuitive and well-supported by the qualitative analysis in the book. However, I felt that more could be done. In particular, I wish that Horowitz offered an explicit definition of revolutionary military innovations. It would also have been helpful if he were clearer about what he means by “institutional flexibility.” He uses a very crude quantitative measure based on the time since a military defeat or regime change, which I believe fails to capture the nuances of bureaucratic change. Moreover, it is also a standard he fails to consistently apply to his qualitative work, which is full of caveats and exceptions. My final criticism is that the book reads too much like a dissertation – stylistic polish and more refined case studies would have been nice. Nevertheless, the substance of the book is engaging and convincing, and it covers a topic of imminent importance. So, while this is not the best book I’ve read this year, it is both readable and worth reading.

2. The Culture of Military Innovation: The Impact of Cultural Factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the US, and Israel (by Dima Adamsky): This is another book on military innovation, but it primarily focuses on the role that strategic culture plays in limiting and enabling states’ adoption of novel doctrines. To demonstrate the importance of cultural factors, Adamsky studies the Soviets, Israelis, and Americans. He looks particularly at how they adapted to the revolution in military affairs that emerged from the creation of improved long-range weapons and sensors in the 1980s. The case studies are interesting and extremely well-researched, and they show that the Soviets were much better at theorizing while the Americans were better at creating the requisite technology. The Israelis, for their apart, implemented effectively but did so without much theoretical understanding. There were two serious issues with the work, however, that made me quite dislike it. First, Adamsky never truly assesses whether the RMA was real. In other words, he chooses to sidestep the strategic relevance of these novel concepts and technologies. The problem, of course, is that this makes it exceedingly difficult to determine the value of Soviet theory or American technology. The bigger problem, though, is that his theory is underspecified and, quite frankly, incomprehensible. Adamsky never takes the time to clearly define what he means by culture, and he constantly jumps between national culture, bureaucratic culture, and the sentiments of particular individuals. By switching the unit of analysis, he fails to offer any coherent explanation for the failures and successes of the three countries he studies. Thus, while this book is a fascinating history of different countries’ responses to an RMA, it is absolutely awful political science. Unless you are particularly interested in the contents of the case studies, I would implore you to avoid this book.

3. Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order (by J. C. Sharman): There have been many books written that attempt to explain why Europe came to dominate the world despite its relative economic and political backwardness. Sharman’s work can be added to the pile, but it is still absolutely worth reading because it adroitly debunks many of the commonly held but erroneous explanations for European expansion. In particular, Sharman demolishes Philip Hoffman’s thesis that it was European military power that assured the continent’s ascendence. After all, the great European military innovations of massed volley fire and precise formations could not be deployed by the small bands of conquistadores in the Americas. When these tactics could be employed, such as against the Ottomans, they yielded lackluster results. Sharman instead argues that Europeans came to dominate because they developed political arrangements with developed land powers in Asia that ensured they retained control over the seas. These arrangements also ensured privileged trading rights that boosted European incomes and offered an opening through which Europeans could promote internal instability within the great states of East and South Asia. This thesis is not exactly original – as one reviewer points out, it is a near rip-off of work by Karl Marx, Ronald Robinson, and John Gallagher – but it is well-written and tightly argued. The book is also quite slim. This means that it fails to treat the preexisting literature with the depth and nuance it probably deserves, but it also means the book is eminently accessible and a quick read.

4. Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness (by Ken Pollack): Pollack, a scholar at AEI, has been researching Middle Eastern militaries for quite a long time, and his knowledge and erudition come across clearly in this book. The central question asked by Armies of Sand is: why are Arab militaries so awful? It is a tough question and, quite frankly, a sensitive one. Pollack examines many of the leading explanations, including the Arab adoption of Soviet military doctrine, economic underdevelopment, and politicization of the armed forces. While he finds merit in some of these explanations, he pins the blame primarily on Arab culture, which he argues places extreme value in rote learning, obedience, and loyalty. Consequently, he argues, Arabs are uniquely ill-suited for modern warfare, which requires flexibility and adaptation at the tactical level. As his many case studies demonstrate, Arab militaries are exceedingly effective when they have time to carefully plan and coordinate. Indeed, their plans go into extremely fine detail, even down to the level of individual companies and platoons. As soon as plans start to change, however, Arab militaries collapse because they fundamentally lack the ability to creatively adapt to situations on the ground. This is a catastrophic shortcoming when facing modern Western militaries like the United States or Israel, as these forces explicitly use deep strikes to degrade command and control and decapitate leadership (see, for example, Operation Instant Thunder). One could argue that culture is impossible to define or quantify, which is why the book’s cross-cultural comparisons are so valuable. Pollack does not just evaluate Arab armies but also compares them to those from non-Arab states that use Soviet doctrine, suffer from politicization, or have low levels industrialization. This does not avoid every criticism, but it does mitigate many of them. And although Pollack primarily blames culture, he also believes that politicization and lack of native industry impede Arab military effectiveness by leading to the promotion of incompetents and failing to instill in soldiers an understanding of how to properly use and maintain advanced equipment. Cultural explanations are always tricky, and they can easily devolve into simple racism. But while there are many things to nit-pick in this book, Pollack presents an excellent case that is hard to refute.