War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History - 1500 to Today

November 9, 2006


Max Boot, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations


Acclaimed author Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explored how innovations in weaponry and tactics have transformed warfare and guided the course of human events, from the formation of the first modern states 500 years ago to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming of al-Qaeda.

But no matter how revolutionary the technological innovations have been — be it gunpowder or laser-guided "smart" bombs — Boot said that the most important factor is how well a country does at adapting to that new technology.

"It's not enough for a country to be big and powerful," he said, citing the cases of Spain and the Ottoman Empire, which didn't adapt to changes as well as their adversaries. "You have to find the best uses for these technologies."

Germany, for example, didn't have better tanks than France or England at the start of World War II. But they had a new way of thinking about war — lightning-fast strikes using infantry, armor and air support together, with all of them communicating by radio. Meanwhile, France was defending with World War I-era trench warfare mentality.

"The Germans could out-think their adversaries," Boot said.

Today, America's enemies are doing the same thing. Al-Qaeda doesn't try to fight the United States in conventional ways. They use cheap, flexible tools of terrorism that are hard to defeat, he said.

"Groups like Al-Qaeda are like the eBay of terrorism," Boot said, citing their flexibility, their ability to quickly adapt to new circumstances and their use of technology, like the Internet. "The enemy is inside our 'decision cycle.' They're reacting faster than we are."

Boot said to defeat terrorists, America must reform its military structure to allow soldiers in the field to respond more quickly and creatively to the situation on the ground. We also need to know more about our adversaries. We need more people who know the countries where the terrorists operate, and who speak their language. And we need to focus more on a creative, nimble military and less on the large hardware items the Pentagon loves (though those still have their important purposes).

"What we really need are smart people" who have the skills needed in this terrorism fight, Boot said. "We need to have organizational change. This is a long-term task."


Boot is the author of War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History — 1500 to Today and the award-winning Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. He is a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, lectures regularly at military institutions and advises the Department of Defense on transformation issues. Before joining the Council in 2002, Boot spent eight years as a writer and editor at The Wall Street Journal.

He is a weekly foreign-affairs opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post and Foreign Affairs, among others. In 2004, he was named by the World Affairs Councils of America one of "the 500 most influential people in the United States in the field of foreign policy."