Hand Grenade of the Month for July 2017

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Handgrenade of the Month – July 2018


Revolution-ary Problems

By John T. Kuehn


            “And now for something completely different…” so saith the Monty Pythons—as those of us who grew up prior to, perhaps, the mid-1980s know.  Those who didn’t, well, you can always binge-watch the series.

This handgrenade addresses the problems associated in military history with the concept of revolution—specifically revolutionary changes as they relate to military affairs and how to categorize them. 

First there is the challenge in terminology created by “The Revolution in Military Affairs” debate, which prompted an entire book of back and forth between luminaries such as Cliff Rodgers, Michael Roberts, Geoffrey Parker, and various other contestants battling over the meaning of what happened in early modern Europe from the 15th-17th centuries, plus or minus a century a or two on either end.[1]

This became further muddled by the Soviet idea of the “military-technical revolution” that cropped up as early as the late 1950s and early 1960s, but was well established as a concept by the 1980s.[2]

Of course the 1990s themselves turned THE Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA, singular, major sense) into the idea of revolutions in military affairs (rma, plural, minor sense).  These two ideas became hopelessly conflated with each other as well as with the idea of innovation, especially in the minds of the Washington Defense establishment by people like admirals Art Cebrowski and Bill Owens of the U.S. Navy.[3]   With the end of the Cold War a new day had dawned and it was a revolutionary sunrise that conferred all the light of the change in war to the advantage of the United States.  The situation became further muddled as RMAs also became conflated with something called “defense transformation” and sprinkled throughout, like incense was the discussion of military innovation, or effectiveness, or whatever.[4]  Smart people doing military stuff smarter because of gee whiz technologies.

2001 saw the agent—the 9/11 World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks—that obliterated the premature rejoicing by folks like Owens.   9/11, not Y2K, was the true disruptive event of the nascent 21st Century.  This was the same year that Williamson Murray, one of the principle authors of the idea of rma’s (plural, minor sense), further clarified his thinking and that of others in The Dynamics of Military Revolution and, with Macgregor Knox, added the idea of a Military Revolutions (plural), events of long duree and impact that embraced component rma’s.[5] 

As musical genius Frank Zappa once sang, “ain’t this boogie a mess.”[6]

Today many folks in the military history community ignore or belittle this conversation, having decided that the so-called wars on terror-long-war-whatever-you-call-it have obviated these concepts’ application to thinking about modern war.[7] 

This is a mistake. 

The ideas (plural), still have value.  True, transformation was torpedoed, although it hangs on in the cult of innovation as expressed now in the incantation known as “strategic offsets.”  My own view?  Choose your definition(s) and use it (them), but be firm and disciplined in its (their) use. 

 I tend toward the definitions from 2001, although I have modified “military revolution” and renamed it social-political-military revolution (I could add any other number of modifiers).  I have consciously decided NOT to turn it into an acronym.

Maybe I should go the Joe Strange route and call it capital-M military revolution.[8]

Your thoughts esteemed handgrenade audience?



[1] The quickest way to get up to speed on this is to consult the list of sources in the “fat footnote found on page 1 of McGregor Knox and Williamson Murray’s Dynamics of Military Revolutions, 1300 – 2050 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[2] Knox and Murray, 2-3.  They attribute this to Marshal N.V. Ogarkov, but the Soviet interest predates this by at least a decade as evidenced by Commander R.W. Herrick, “The Evolution of Soviet Naval Strategy and the Effect of the Revolution in Military Affairs,” from a paper for The International Symposium on ‘The Impact of the Modern Military Revolution on Strategy and Foreign Policy,’ by the Institute for the Study of the USSR at Munich Germany, 20-22 October 1964 in the Naval War College Review (December 1964).

[3] See Geoffrey Parker, ed. The Cambridge History of Warfare (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 418-420;see also Williamson Murray and Allan Millett, eds. Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 414fn149.

[4] To their credit,  Murray and Millett tried to add some disciplined historical thinking to this subject with 1996’s Military Innovation in the Interwar Period.

[5] Knox and Murray, 11-14.

[6] From Apostrophe, Frank Zappa, 1974,

[7] They include folks as diverse as Brian M. Linn to Jeremey Black and not a few of my colleagues in the hallway here at the Department of Military History in Fort Leavenworth Kansas.

[8] This is a reference to Strange’s writing on war and his coining of the term Capital ‘W’ war,  see Joseph Strange, [stand by for a long title] Capital ‘W’ War: A Case for Strategic Principles of War (Because Wars Are Conflicts of Societies, Not Tactical Exercises Writ Large  (Marine Corps War College, Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 1998).