Review: The Pursuit of Power, by William H. McNeill (University of
Chicago Press, 1982).
William McNeill's The
Pursuit of Power is an ambitious book, as its subtitle "Technology,
Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000" makes clear. McNeill covers a lot of ground, from
medieval China to the nuclear arms race of the contemporary world, and he does
it with style. His writing is clear and
well-organized, vital for a book of this scope, and the vast literature he
surveyed makes the footnotes almost as interesting as the main text. McNeill seems to specialize in books of this
sweeping nature; his previous work includes The
Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, and Plagues and Peoples, which "sought
to discern major landmarks in the interaction of human populations and
microparasites" in his own words (p. vii). The Pursuit of Power
was intended as "a belated footnote" to correct McNeill's neglect of
"the interaction between military technology and political patterns"
in modern times in The Rise of the West.
The main theme in The
Pursuit of Power is the interaction between market forces and the
development of military power. In
Chapter 2, McNeill develops his hypothesis that "China's rapid evolution
towards market-regulated behavior in the centuries on either side of the year
1000 tipped a critical balance in world history," (p. 25) prompting the
rise of a world-wide trading market that undermined "command
economies" around the world. In
the subsequent chapters, McNeill goes on to examine the ways market forces
worked to propel Europe to its position of world dominance. He concludes that while Europe provided a
unique setting for market economics to drive military development, the two
world wars of this century may herald a return to a command-style economies, as
bureaucratic, planned economies which originated in the pressures of war become
permanent and pervasive across the globe.
Overall, McNeill presents a very convincing argument,
backed up by an impressive variety of sources.
Inevitably, however, his reach occasionally exceeds his grasp, and he
ventures into the realm of pure speculation.
The most egregious example of this is his suggestion that the
effectiveness of military drill is because "the movement of the big
muscles in unison rouses echoes of the most primitve level of sociality known
to humankind," based on nothing more than his own experience with drill in
World War II (p. 131). However, this
example really misrepresents the substance of McNeill's theorizing, which is
generally much less off-the-wall and much more closely related to reality. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is
McNeill's shameless speculation, and his equally shameless acknowledgement that
he has no evidence to support his claims.
McNeill presents a broad interpretation of the impact
of the military on the development of human society, and looks at a wide
assortment of military, technological, and social developments from new
angles. While he occasionally goes
beyond the limits of his evidence, his audacity is refreshing and
thought-provoking. The Pursuit of Power answers the need for military history that
connects with general history with a vengeance, and is recommended reading for
anyone with an interest in how the world got to its current state.