Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: Motivation in War by Ilya Berkovich

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Cover Art for Motivation in War

Dear Readers,

Today, we are going to look at the first major book of a younger historian of eighteenth-century conflict: Dr. Ilya Berkovich. Berkovich has impeccable academic credentials. He worked closely with Dr. Timothy Blanning at Cambridge and received advice from Dr. Christopher Duffy in the course of his studies.  Motivation in War examines the rationale for enlistment, reasons for continued service, and motivation in combat of eighteenth-century soldiers. In this framework, Berkovich uses the model of historian John Lynn's older but standard work, Bayonets of the Republic. Berkovich argues that soldiers, "embraced a unique corporate identity based on military professionalism, forceful masculinity, and hostility towards civilians." In the following review, I will evaluate the book on two levels. First, how successful is Berkovich at proving the main argument of his work? Second, how approachable is this book as a work of historical scholarship? In essence, does Berkovich show his due diligence as a scholar, and is his work readable for a general audience? 

In the first category, Berkovich succeeds admirably. He marshalls close to 250 primary sources from common soldiers of the eighteenth century, some of them previously unknown to historians such as Christopher Duffy. Although utilizing new material, Berkovich also efficiently examines known published accounts, gleaning new details from the older source material.

Motivation in War also demonstrates an intimate familiarity with the secondary literature on combat motivation, citing both eighteenth-century specialists such as Duffy, Lynn, and Nosworthy, in addition to more modern ways of thinking such as Marshall, Stouffer, Shils and Jannowitz's contributions to thinking about the primary group. Particularly, Berkovich follows in the footsteps of Sascha Möbius, Mehr Angst vor dem Offizier als vor dem Feind?, an important 2007 study which turns the famous quote of Frederick the Great, that men should be more afraid of their officers than the enemy, on its head. Surprisingly, Marcus von Salisch's recent Treue Deserteure: Das kursächsische Militär und der Siebenjährige Krieg is not cited.

Berkovich successfully shows that desertion was not an insurmountable obstacle for eighteenth-century armies. He also demonstrates the nuanced nature of military punishment and its effects on soldiers. However, Dr. Berkovich briefly overstates his case when arguing that soldiers created an identity for themselves in opposition to civilian life, and more importantly, that this resulted in violent actions towards civilians. Certainly, this occurred in the eighteenth century, but it was not necessarily the norm. Gemeine Hoppe, a Fusilier in the Alt-Kretzyen regiment, had this to say about his feelings towards civilians during the 1758 Zorndorf campaign: 

“We were all smoldering with anger over the destruction of Küstrin and the sufferings of the poor country people. The enemy had wasted and destroyed everything, and even broken into churches and robbed them. The poor farmers were scattered over the woods and fields like sheep with their wives and children. The children were crying for bread, so we gave them most of our rations, for which they brought us water in return.”

Hoppe's relation demonstrates a familiarity and reciprocal understanding of the suffering of civilians during wartime. In Hoppe's view, both Prussian civilians and soldiers worked together against a common enemy. His relation is all the more telling because Hoppe was not a native Prussian, he was a foreign-born ethnic German serving in the Prussian army. Other frequently cited common soldiers, such as Roger Lamb, also recorded their experience with civilians in mixed terms. It is undeniable that officers encouraged their men to stand apart from the norms of civilian life, but eighteenth-century soldiers rarely embraced an open hostility towards the civilians of their own nations.

Aside from this minor quibbling, Berkovich contributes an outstanding volume to the growing literature on eighteenth-century common soldiers. His work is quite successful as a scholarly monograph.  

In this second area of evaluation, approachability Motivation in War falls slightly short of the mark. Although doubtless interesting for specialists in the field, Berkovich uses a large amount of academic jargon in this work. For example, on page 10: 

"The claim for novelty of the current model is that it considers these two theories within a single matrix which defines the components of motivation. Although the subdivision of such a complex subject is artificial, it allows for the formation of distinct analytic categories which can be applied systematically, helping to counterbalance the anecdotal nature of the narrative sources and their authors' choice of incident and choice of language."

Although fascinating for an academic and interested reader, this type of writing may push away a more general audience. Berkovich's use of precise and exacting terminology is admirable, especially as English is not his first language, but this is still a potential drawback of the work, which often reads more like a dissertation. Finally, although Berkovich draws on an astounding number of narrative sources, the reader rarely becomes familiar with them as individuals, and their writing is rarely reproduced at length. All of these criticisms fall away when the book is evaluated as an academic monograph, and not a work of history intended for a wide audience. 

For anyone interested in the soldiers of the eighteenth century, this book is required reading. Historians, soldiers, reenactors, and wargamers could all learn from Berkovich's powerfully argued work. The eighteenth-century myth of a cowed group of hapless conscripts being driven into combat by cane-wielding officers is no longer tenable: Motivation in War has destroyed it.

If you are interested, you can find it available for purchase here.


Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns 

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