Chapter 3 - The Military Revolution
The military revolution of the Iron Age qualitatively increased the combat capabilities of ancient armies to levels never seen before in human history. Yet, what distinguishes modern warfare from ancient warfare is more than its level of military capability and destructive power. The key defining element of modern war is strategic endurance, and this quality is a function of the total integration of the social, economic, and political resources of the state in support of military operations. After the fall of Rome it was not until the Civil War (1860-65) that the West once again began to fight wars requiring the total integration of all social resources in support of the combat armies in the field. Quite naturally, the various elements of the supporting strategic infrastructure became necessary targets of military attack. Thus, the battles of the Civil War were won and lost as much in the factories and on the farms as on the battlefields themselves. The emergence of this level of warfare in the 19th century was not new. Total war had been a major defining characteristic of armies of the Iron Age more than two thousand years earlier.
For much of the early ancient period armies could often force a strategic decision with a single battle. The fate of individual states and even empires turned on a single victory or defeat. As the states of the Iron Age grew in social and organizational complexity, their ability to remain at war increased exponentially. Because armies could now draw upon the total mobilized resources of their states to support military operations, a single battle no longer decided their fate. The staying power or strategic endurance of ancient armies increased to a level equal to that of the armies of World War I.
Persia, for example, could lose almost every battle against its Greek adversaries for 200 years with little effect on the stability of the empire. Time and again Persian armies sought to bring the Greeks to heel, only to fail on the field of battle, and still the empire survived and prospered. Even its eventual defeat at the hands of Alexander required a series of major battles. Rome's military efforts in the Punic Wars and in later conflicts clearly demonstrated that the new social organization of the state lent great military endurance to the nation with the moral and political will to use it. In 255 B.C. a Roman fleet of 248 ships was sunk in a storm off Cape Pachynus with a loss of over 100,000 men, a number equal to 15 percent of the able-bodied men of military age in all Italy. Rome's response was to build another fleet and continue the war against Carthage. Polybius called the Carthaginian War the bloodiest and costliest in history. Roman losses alone approached 400,000 men, a number equal to all the men lost by the United States in World War II! And still Rome fought on.
The politico-military endurance of the integrated states of this period was further evident in Rome's wars with Hannibal. Hannibal was able to move freely throughout Italy for almost 18 years, ravaging the countryside as he went. In 218 B.C. at Trebia, Hannibal destroyed a Roman army of 40,000 men and overran most of northern Italy. A year later, in June 217 B.C., a Roman army was trapped in a defile surrounded by hills near the shores of Lake Trasimene. Once again, almost the entire Roman force was slaughtered. Yet, with Rome having lost almost 100,000 men in less than 3 years, Hannibal could still not force a strategic decision against Roman political will. In an attempt to achieve final victory, in 216 B.C., Hannibal drew yet another Roman army into battle at Cannae. Hannibal caught the legions in a perfect double envelopment. Seventy thousand Roman soldiers were killed, and another 10,000 taken prisoner. The three defeats at Hannibal's hands cost Rome 150,000 men, and still the war went on. The staying power of the Roman state, even in these early days, was remarkable. Eventually, Hannibal was forced to withdraw to prevent a Roman strategic thrust at Carthage itself and was defeated by Scipio at the Battle of Zama. Carthage had won every battle and lost the war. The deciding factors were the endurance of the Roman political order and its ability to continue supplying military resources regardless of the defeats it suffered in the field. And this same ability is precisely what defines the capability of states to wage modern war today.