Friday, February 21, 2014

Military Power, Monarchies and Republics

In these modern times we tend to elevate our beloved political talking shops and denigrate our militaries which provide the security to allow all of us to pursue our peaceful pleasures. The focus today tends to be on economic concerns (which are certainly pertinent) rather than military strength and that extends to the rivalry between republicans and monarchists. I have seen many put forward the case for why monarchies are superior to republics based on social concerns, based on economics and based on religion but I do not recall ever seeing the case being made for monarchies having an edge on republics when it comes to the armed forces. To an extent, this is somewhat understandable given that, in our own time, the two dominant military superpowers of the world (the United States and the Soviet Union) have been republics with most of the remaining monarchies of the world depending, ultimately, on the United States for protection. However, this rather narrow vision does not give us the full picture, even though the armed forces of several modern-day republics certainly present quite a respectable picture of military strength. Yet, even today, if one looks closely at the actual facts, one can see that the record of republics does not stand up to close scrutiny when compared to monarchies in their prime. Consider, for example, how efficiently Great Britain was able to guard the largest colonial empire in history which, at its most expensive, cost slightly more than 3% of the net national product between 1870 and 1913 whereas the United States today stands guard across the world at a cost of 6.8% of the net national product between 1948 to 1998. Britain did more with much less over a far greater period of time.

Kublai Khan
Of course, when looking at the whole of human history, there is no doubt that martial strength was immense in the pre-revolutionary days before republicanism became increasingly dominant. Almost every major power that has ever existed reached its peak under the rule of monarchs rather than presidents. It was true of Alexander the Great when he conquered “the world”, it was true of Rome under the Caesars and true for the Mongols who struck out under Genghis Khan to found the largest land empire in history which reached its peak under the reign of Kublai Khan of the Yuan Empire. Imperial China reached its peak in size under the Qing Dynasty of the Manchus and it is quite telling that most of the foreign policy of the current communist government in China has focused on retaining or regaining territories that were not traditionally Chinese but which had been part of the Great Qing Empire (such as Manchuria, Tibet and Outer Mongolia). As an empire the Turks dominated the Middle East, North Africa and much of Southern Europe, whereas the Republic of Turkey managed to defeat Greece before spending the rest of their recent history dominated by an identity crisis (Muslim or secular, Asia or Europe). More recently, some might be unaware of how successful Imperial Germany was during the First World War compared to Nazi Germany in the second. True, the Kaiser did not conquer France, but German troops fought longer in more far-flung territories in the First World War and German troops actually penetrated farther into Russia in that conflict than in its successor two decades later. The military strength of Austria-Hungary is often denigrated (unfairly) but it was certainly a major European power and none of the minor republics which succeeded it can compare to the military muscle of the old “Dual-Monarchy”.

However, some will surely wish to take issue with countries such as the example of Germany, cited above, or that of France. Many will assert, and point to a number of powerful facts to support them, that both France and Germany were stronger after their monarchies were overthrown. However, in the case of France, this would mean claiming Napoleon to be a republican when he reached his height of power as a self-proclaimed monarch. Furthermore, both Napoleon and Hitler marched to war with an officer corps that was the product of the monarchies that preceded them. In the case of the Germans, if Hitler achieved more, it is also true that he lost more, in fact many, many millions more in German lives than the Kaiser did. As for France, if looking only at the French republics, their biggest expansion was colonial and not in Europe where the most militarily powerful countries were. After the Thirty Years War, the Kingdom of France was the dominant power on the continent of Europe, something no French republic has ever managed and the Kingdom of France produced some of the greatest military minds in world history, something which, again, no republican regime in France has managed to match. Under King Louis XIV, all of Europe revolved around France with almost everything that happened being instigated by France or done in reaction to France. However, for most of the history of the French republics, the country that most fits that description would be Germany.

At this point, republicans will surely be getting impatient and would wish to stress the current military might of countries such as the United States, Red China and the Russian Federation. This can be a little tricky, however, as these powers came to be or came to their full strength after monarchy had ceased to be the dominant form of government and monarchists could object to a direct comparison for the same reason republicans would surely object to the comparisons made before with the great monarchial empires of history that dominated the world. However, in the case of China and Russia we can certainly compare them to their own monarchial pasts. The United States, being a relatively young country with no past as a monarchy to compare it to, will be the most difficult. What can be said about the United States is that, in the first place, it got practically nowhere on its own as a military power until it began to sacrifice its original republican vanities and embrace the ways of the Old World monarchies it so despised. This means stripping away some of the cherished myths of American military history, starting from the very beginning; principally, the idea that there was anything at all innovative about the military forces of the American War for Independence.

Many, in the United States certainly, will have learned in school that the colonial patriots outwitted the British by fighting in irregular fashion, using long rifles from cover while the redcoats marched shoulder to shoulder in long lines in the open. This is simply not true and credible American military historians will admit as much. The Continental Army had a record of almost continuous defeats interrupted by the odd stalemate or minor victory that usually resulted from their enemies doing something risky rather than on any brilliance on the part of the American leadership. The colonials did not become a military force worthy of great consideration until they adopted the European tactics they claimed to despise; fighting in line of battle with the victory going to the troops that were the most disciplined and well drilled. Most also know that the colonial forces would not have been victorious had it not been for the timely intervention of the forces of the Kingdom of France. However, after the war, in the full flush of their victory, the Americans made the mistake of believing their own propaganda and giving in to their republican vanity. They spurned things like professional armies, an educated officer corps and even military decorations as all having the taint of monarchy about them. Instead, they clung to the mistaken belief that they had achieved victory all on their own and that this proved that a civilian militia, fueled by a righteous love of liberty, could triumph over any enemy. That conceit lasted until the War of 1812 when the U.S. invaded Canada and had their proverbial clocks cleaned. While still talking a good game in public, privately, the American leadership realized they had been very lucky to escape unscathed from that conflict and, in the aftermath, decided to have a professional army instead of relying so heavily on a civilian militia and, most significantly, to establish formal military academies for the training of officers. Ridiculous republican ideas such as soldiers choosing their own officers by election were quickly and quietly done away with.

Once that was done, it was also quite some time before the United States ever fought a war against another country at the height of its power and almost every war since (save perhaps the Mexican War and the Civil War in which America fought itself) was a war the United States chose to fight and was not a matter of absolute necessity. The most ridiculous was the war with Spain which came at a time when American power was growing rapidly and Spanish power had reached rock bottom. One author compared it to “a tiger fighting a sick tomcat”. The First World War was definitely more of a challenge, but even then, American power did not really come into play until the last half of 1918 when Imperial Germany was bankrupt, starving and running out of soldiers. World War II certainly saw American military power at its peak, fielding immense military strength on land, sea and air in Europe, Africa and Asia. World War II stands out though as being a war in which it was taken for granted that this was a war of machines, a war of aircraft carriers, submarines, tanks, bombers, fighter jets and rockets. It became a race between the Axis and Allies to develop new and better weapons first. The U.S. ended up trumping everyone with the atomic bomb.

American military strength cannot be denied and I will not attempt it. I will say that it came into its own only when it stopped trying to incorporate republican ideology into the military and stuck with what had proven to work in the monarchies of Europe. Today, politics has been steadily creeping back into the U.S. military and (coincidence?) clear-cut military victories have become steadily fewer. Think though, for a moment, about the tools of the modern American military superpower. American innovation is second to none, true, but at their core, all of these are improvements on things which originated in monarchies. Sound unreasonable? Put it to the test: everyone thinks of American troops using flamethrowers during the island hopping campaign in the Pacific but the flamethrower is actually very old technology, used by the Byzantine Empire (“Greek Fire”) and by the Chinese during the Ten Kingdoms period (Pen Huo Qi). Most Americans know that the first battle between armored warships was in the American Civil War (battle of Hampton Roads) but the first actual armored warship was built by the French Second Empire and even these could be seen as improvements on even earlier innovations such as the “Turtle Ships” developed by the Kingdom of Korea in the Fifteenth Century. The first to use aircraft in combat was the Kingdom of Italy during the war with Turkey, the first to develop fighter planes was the German Empire, the first submarine to sink a ship with a free-swimming torpedo was the Imperial German Navy, the first to use tanks in combat was the British Empire and the first to launch a successful air raid from a naval ship was the Imperial Japanese Navy all in the First World War. No one can say that republics have a monopoly on military innovation.

Concerning Russia and China, of course, the situation is completely different as there is a monarchial past to compare with the republican present. First, there is Russia and there will surely be many who think there can be no comparison between the Russian Empire and, if not modern Russia, certainly the Soviet Union at its peak. Actually, there is and the contrast is rather stark. When one thinks about the great victories of the Soviet Union they invariably involve battles in World War II in which the Soviets were able to throw hordes of men and machines against greatly outnumbered German and other Axis forces to achieve victory (which even then were extremely costly and often rather limited). This alone would place none of the Soviet commanders on the same level as a Tsarist general like the great Marshal Suvarov who never lost a battle in his career, winning against the French, Turks, Poles, rebel forces at home and often fighting against enemy armies that outnumbered his own. His strategic movements and surprise attacks made him one of the most influential military commanders in history. All too often, the greatest victories of Imperial Russia are little known but when one considers the vast areas of Eastern Europe and Central Asia that came under Russian rule after hard fought campaigns the perspective surely changes.

People tend today to emphasize too much the defeats Imperial Russia suffered and have a very incomplete vision of the whole picture. World War I is one of the most cited examples and yet few realize that, in spite of immense industrial and logistical disadvantages, the Russian Empire drove Austria-Hungary almost to the breaking point, made considerable gains against the Turks and at the time of the revolution was, according to military production, showing every indication of being on the verge of a massive turnaround. Even when it comes to wars that were lost for the Russian Empire, it is quite revealing to look at the quality of the powers Russia lost to in comparison to conflicts that were lost by the Soviet Union. For example, Russia lost the Crimean War but it took the combined power of Victorian Great Britain and the French Second Empire (both of which had illustrious military reputations) combined with other powers to do it. Russia lost a war to Japan (the significance of which seemed worse than it was simply because of a rather racist underestimation of the Japanese by all European countries) but made Japan pay a heavy price for it. Just consider for a moment, which was the greater embarrassment; losing a war with the Empire of Japan (a power that would inflict the worst defeats ever suffered by the U.S. Navy and the British Empire in World War II) or losing a war to tiny, outmatched Finland like the Soviets did?

True, the Soviets gained some territory but they did not conquer Finland and they suffered terrible losses even at that so that Finland was called “the grave of the Russian field army”. Which was the worse loss; being forced out of Poland by the combined might of Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary or being forced out of Afghanistan by a mob of goatherds with a few advisors from the CIA? In that light, the record of Imperial Russia looks somewhat different doesn’t it? And, since World War II (in which the U.S.S.R. was massively supported by Britain and the United States) the Red Army did very little formal fighting and was most often used to crush dissent by mobs of civilians, hardly noble victories. It should also be kept in mind that the early, horrendous losses suffered by the Soviets in the Second World War can be blamed almost entirely on Stalin who had gone out of his way to seek out and destroy talent wherever he could find it. The Russian Empire also kept flexible in foreign policy and believed in fighting her own battles whereas the Soviets were content to meddle in the internal problems of far flung countries that had nothing to do with Russia at all and is also a far cry from even the Russia of today that seems stuck in the foreign policy grooves of its Soviet predecessor.

As for China, it may seem the most difficult case to make, but is actually the easiest. People today look in awe at the People’s Liberation Army as the largest standing army on earth, they look at the Chinese nuclear arsenal, the largest air force in the world and a rapidly expanding navy. However, in terms of military equipment, most Chinese air and naval units are far behind their rivals in terms of technological sophistication. It has the second largest navy in the world but only 13 nuclear submarines compared to 72 in the U.S. Navy and its one aircraft carrier was an old Soviet hulk purchased from the Ukraine with the original intention of using it as a casino ship. Compare this to the navy of the Ming Empire which had ships more than twice the size of the leading naval powers of Europe at the time. The modern Chinese military copies the weapons and equipment of other countries, Imperial China invented new technologies such as gunpowder and rocketry. One could even go back to ancient China when Sun Tzu literally wrote the book on military strategy.

Throughout its long history, Imperial China had defeats but also won victories against almost all of its neighbors in that course of time, dominating some for centuries at a time. When one looks at the military record of Communist China, for having such an immense army in terms of numbers, there is not much to write home about. In Korea, the Chinese suffered inordinately heavy losses in order to achieve a stalemate. In India, China claimed a victory but it was a minor one at best and was accomplished by having the Indians outnumbered 8 to 1. Later, the PLA took quite a drubbing from the Vietnamese, claiming victory while retreating from Vietnam and doing nothing about the Vietnamese domination of Pol Pot’s Cambodia which China had launched the invasion in response to. Despite its immense size, the Chinese military has shown itself quite fierce when crushing Buddhist monks in Tibet or student activists in Peking but has much less to boast of when fighting actual enemy armies. And that has been the history of modern China. Whether wins or losses, Imperial China fought many external enemies whereas most of the fighting done by Chinese armies since the birth of the republic has been internal struggles for power, first between the nationalists and communists and later by the communists against dissidents.

And, in the end, despite all of the storm and stress, no republican government in China has ever been able to surpass or even match the land area controlled by the Qing Dynasty at its peak. The Soviet Union may have dominated more of the earth than the Russian Empire but it certainly did not last long, nor did it gain all of that territory by its own strength. Aside from the United States (which has never been a monarchy) every country that has a significant military history behind it reached its peak of martial strength while under monarchial leadership rather than republican. There is then a powerful argument to be made for monarchy not only in terms of a more economic government, greater social cohesion but also greater security as well.


  1. Hi MM,

    Long time reader, first time commenter. In general. the USSR's performance in World War 2 has long been underrated in the Western and English speaking worlds, mostly because of the language barrier and the stresses of the Cold War. There was probably a residual Russophobia as well, as the belief that Russia/the Soviet Union only won its battles by hurling a mountain of bodies against it opponents is a charge held against every Russian state, imperial, Soviet, or republican.

    That said, I have to mention that one of, if not the finest, hours in Imperial Russian military history is the defeat of Napoleon by Alexander I in 1812-1814. Led by Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov, the Russian Army successfully evaded the Grand Armee until Borodino and ruthlessly chased it out of Russia afterward. Winter might be brought up as an excuse, but the battle of Borodino was fought in September and Napoleon was in full retreat by October. In roughly 6 months, the French had been fully driven out of Russia. A comparison with WW2 is apt here - Hitler and Napoleon both invaded in June. Barclay and Kutuzov had recovered all of Russian territory in 7 months, while the Red Army would have to fight on for another 3 years before it did the same. Finally, the Russian Army was a key part of the coalition that ultimately defeated Napoleon, first at Leipzig then in the invasion of France itself. It would be very hard to credit winter for the Russian victories in Germany and France. Overall, its performance in 1812-1814 was in the highest class among armies and commanders, especially since it was fielded against the personification of military genius and the finest army of the day.

    I've long been a Russophile and I view the Soviet triumph in WW2 as a glorious tragedy - an unparalleled achievement in modern warfare but also the most brutal and costly. However, the victory against Napoleon was an achievement equal to that in military terms, if not greater. The Imperial Russian Army was outnumbered for the duration of the 1812 campaign, while the reverse was true in 1941-45. And of course, even the most barbaric acts of the Napoleonic Wars pale in comparison to what happened during World War II. Alexander I may not have had a genius of Suvorov's caliber, but he had Barclay de Tolly and many other able leaders. Barclay is sadly unappreciated, and who else but Stalin was responsible for diminishing his reputation in favor of Kutuzov, since Kutuzov was an ethnic Russian and the Georgian born Stalin was a Russian chauvinist.

    1. No one can deny the great sacrifices made by Russian soldiers in WW2, often made because of a love of homeland rather than the government, however the leadership was really incompetent. Losses were immense because Stalin cared nothing for the lives of his people and his generals were mostly incompetent, thus we have the inordinate losses in Finland and in battles like Stalingrad which could have been won at much less cost. As you say, in the Napoleonic Wars the Russian troops were the ones outnumbered in a number of battles and they received nothing like the support Stalin received from the US & UK. Stalin had eliminated almost every talented general in Russia prior to the war and even those who proved the best were ones that had previously been sidelined and who were quickly cast from favor once the war was over.

      Even in World War I, a German force much less than that in World War II, took a much longer time to advance to comparable areas inside Russia. Despite the criticism of Imperial Russian leadership, they put up a much more effective fight in World War I than in World War II when the Axis powers were able to advance deep into Russian territory for some time before meeting any significant Russian opposition that was able to stop them.

      I would also add that during the French invasion, Napoleon was able to concentrate almost (and I do say 'almost') entirely on Russia whereas in WW2 Stalin and the Soviets were barely able to hang on even while the Axis powers were fighting in the west, in Africa and maintaining large forces in diverse parts of Europe. I will agree that turning back the Napoleonic invasion was one of the finest points in the military history of Europe but I don't think Soviet action in WW2 has been downplayed, if anything, I think it has been exaggerated, probably because of the immense losses incurred. Given their immense advantages the Soviets should have had no problems at all but the fact that was such a crisis comes down almost entirely on the fact that Stalin was a bad leader and he actively sought to get rid of any other leaders who were any good.


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