European Conflict from

Philip II to Hitler

By David Kaiser

Harvard University Press. 435 pp. $29.95

"IN WAR there is no substitute for victory," the late American folk hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur once observed, and many Americans would probably still agree. But what is "victory" and what does it get you? In this new book, a provocative and strong-minded foray though four centuries of European history, David Kaiser argues that the meaning of victory has varied widely from the 16th to the 20th centuries and that war has been far less useful in attaining the ends of statesmanship than has generally been recognized.

Politics and War is an examination of the relationship between European society, domestic politics, economic development and warfare in four periods of European history -- 1559-1659, 1661-1713, 1792-1815 and 1914-1945 -- a span of time extending from the age of Philip II and Richelieu to the era of Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. Needless to say, other authors have been over this ground many times before, but Kaiser's approach and emphasis are somewhat different. The numerous, frequently protracted, sometimes catastrophic wars of these periods have usually been explained as a result of the ambitions and miscalculations of would-be world conquerors such as Philip II of Spain, Richelieu, Louis XIV, Napoleon or Kaiser Wilhelm and of the efforts of other states to maintain a "balance of power." Kaiser argues however, that "each era of conflict reflected a common state of political development among the different European peoples, that the balance among them reflected a balance of their resources and of the limitations of contemporary military technology which in most periods militated against the achievement of decisive victories and guaranteed a balance more effectively than anything else."

In each of these periods the aim of war and the nature of "victory" were defined differently by kings and politicians. The worst eras were the periods in which victory was open-ended and virtually unattainable. From the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th, European monarchs sought to impose their authority over powerful aristocratic families in their realm and compel religious uniformity. Yet they lacked the political, military and economic resources to attain their ends. The result was endless inconclusive warfare culminating in the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, which the European princes were unable to either win or conclude. Napoleon similarly pursued open-ended goals which could only be attained by new campaigns and new conquests, which in turn opened up new dangers and opportunities. Finally, in the 20th century the growth of mass politics, nationalism and the demands of "total war" compelled European statesmen to promise their peoples that war would result in the total subjugation of the enemy and the attainment of all their political goals, no matter how extreme or even contradictory.

What can you say about a book that covers 400 years of history in as many pages and proposes not only to explain the relationships between politics and war in European history but also to provide new perspectives on the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the origins of World War II and the Holocaust? Specialists who have devoted a lifetime to studying these subjects are sure to have their knives out. They will point out that the book lacks a comprehensive bibliography and that some of the sources cited in the notes are out-of-date or not authoritative.

From the point of view of Kaiser's central argument, that European warfare was an outcome of the state of political and economic development and the limitations of military technology, the most obvious weakness is the lack of attention paid to developments in military technology or indeed to strategy, logistics or operations, all of which had a far-reaching impact upon the intensity and duration of warfare. To give only one example, the revoltionary and enormously influential changes in warfare during the age of Napoleon receive only two sentences, neither of which are very helpful in explaining why Napoleon was able to win such consistent and devastating success on the battlefield. Similarly, Kaiser notes that the "size of armies swelled" in the early 17th century (actually they had been growing ever since the mid-16th century) but never explains why this came about.

That there will be weaknesses and inconsistencies in a work of this scope is probably inevitable. That the book hangs together at all and is successful in offering a coherent and sustained argument is a tribute to Kaiser's boldness, imagination and wide-ranging scholarship.

Ronald H. Spector, professor of history and international relations at George Washington University, is the author of "Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan."