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Posted on Dec 19, 2008 in Books and Movies

Castles, Battles, and Bombs – Book Review

By Jurgen Brauer and Hubert Van Tuyll

Castles, Battles, & Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History.
Jurgen Brauer and Hubert Van Tuyll. The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Hardcover: 385 pages. $29.00

Each chapter analyzes a historical case in depth, using a single economic principle.

When I first picked up this book I assumed that it would be about the commonly discussed issue of how competition for resources leads to armed conflict. I was wrong. Castles, Battles, & Bombs uses six cases to examine military history using economic principles such as opportunity cost, substitution, etc. This is a very general survey, and the case studies run the gamut from the 11th to the 20th centuries. The authors admit that it is a preliminary, surface application of this kind of analysis and they don’t make any claims of prediction, but the approach is novel, an and interesting new way for armchair generals to look at military history.

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Castles, Battles, & Bombs begins with a discussion of economic theory. The preface suggests that the book’s chapters can be read in order in which they appear or readers may turn to the section that interests them and come back later to the discussion of economics as “a surprisingly delectable dessert.”

I suggest the first method. There may be some initial trepidation upon seeing chapters with headings such as "The Case of Capital-Labor Substitution and France’s Force de Frappe," or a chapter dedicated to economic theory but don’t let this turn you off of the book. Economic theory is discussed in a way the layman can understand easily, although someone with a little more economics acumen can process it more deeply. Regardless of your level of sophistication, a thorough reading of the economic theories in the book will greatly enhance the rest of it. You should use the chapter on economics as an appetizer, rather than as a "delectable dessert.”

Each chapter analyzes a historical case in depth, using a single economic principle; there are six cases and six economic principles in all. The end of each chapter discusses the other principles in less detail—a paragraph or two—and presents a matrix that cross-references the effect of each principle on such considerations as manpower, logistics, and operations. I found myself flipping back and forth between the section I was reading, the first chapter, and the closing matrix. If it sounds like I read Castles, Battles, & Bombs as if it were a textbook, perhaps I did, but it helped enhance my understanding and enjoyment of the material. Okay, I admit it—I used a highlighter too.

One case the book applies the principle of substitution in examining France’s entry into the nuclear arms club. The explanation goes something like this: After World War II France remains vulnerable because of its geographic position. France also does not want to be dictated to by its Anglo-American allies, but it cannot compete using a conventional force: the scale of conscription necessary is expensive and unpopular. Conventional forces are also limited in their ability to strike deep and are therefore limited in their use as a deterrent. France chooses to become militarily independent and break into the super-power hegemony by developing its own nuclear weapons program. Applying the economic principle of substitution, the authors examine the question of France shifting its military and security spending from conventional forces to nuclear weapons, and whether its nuclear weapons program should replace its conventional force or simply supplement it.

I found Castles, Battles, & Bombs challenging and entertaining, but I felt that some areas were not explained as fully or deeply as they could be. Discussions were left hanging at times. Also, the book looks backward, drawing examples from history, and I felt some arguments based on economic principles were manufactured to fit conveniently, when other explanations might work better. But the book is admittedly a first look at using economic principles to explain military history. In the future, perhaps there will be a forward-looking work that attempts to predict rather than to present arguments after the fact. Castles, Battles, and Bombs offers an initial look and its information is intended to supplement existing historical interpretations, not replace them; it is a beginning, not a final statement. I’m happy to be offered this novel approach to interpreting military history and will keep my highlighter handy.

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Castles, Battles, and Bombs – The University of Chicago Press

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  1. Happy New Year to the staff, contributors, and readers of ACG>

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