I’m currently reading Max Boot’s humungous (600+ pages) War Made New. It’s a fascinating book, even for someone like myself who is largely anti-war. Its subtitle is Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Now. In some ways this is a little misleading, because what the book is really about is how technology in and of itself is rarely the deciding factor in battle. There are intriguing parallels to how technology is used in business.
The book is broken into multiple parts, each describing different “revolutions” in technologies:
- The gunpowder revolution (guns and shot on land and sea)
- The first industrial revolution (rifles, steam)
- The second industiral revolution (tanks, aircraft, aircraft carriers)
- The information revolution (professional armies, special forces, the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts)
Several battles are used to illustrate the turning points of each revolution, some of these are well-known, others are not.
What becomes clear over these 500 years is that acquisition and deployment of a technology is not enough to win. Again and again the prevailing side is outmatched in both men, equipment, and technological advancement, whether it be flintlocks, aircraft, canon on ships, tanks, or IT. Boot explodes some myths, such as that the Germans had superior tanks when they invaded France; in fact the French had the better tanks and more of them, but left most of them in Africa.
What makes the difference, including unfortunately for the Nazis, is usually one or more of several things:
- Training and organization (“invisible systems” that enable execution)
- Leadership that sees the opportunities of new tactics enabled by new technologies (sometimes these new tactics took decades to appear, technologies would normally be deployed in time-honored ways at first)
- Bottoms up openness to risk-taking which is not bound by entrenched organizations, perspectives, and politics
Any of this sound familiar? (In additition to the obvious disruptive innovation analogies, it also makes me think of Nicholas G. Carr’s contentious article IT Doesn’t Matter.)
Boot has a lively writing style which keeps the book engaging, and he breaks it up into bit-size chunks of narrative that make it surprisingly easy to dip into. Battles are recreated in detail, and draw you into the situation. Boot’s focus is on strategy and tactics, not the gruesome blow-by-blow of the battlefield.