Luck and Culture in the Early Modern Period

In his essay "Is Strategy an Illusion?" Richard Betts argues that a crucial component of strategy is that which is exterior to strategy itself, for example, the concepts of "luck versus genius" and "culture versus coercion" respectively. In other words, the author advances the argument that such notions are ultimately more determinative of the affectivity of a strategy than that, which is immanent to strategy itself. When considering Betts' argument within the context of the Early Modern Period, the extent to which strategies during this time were efficacious in their goals can therefore be evaluated according to if and how such concepts manifested themselves. Certainly, the Early Modern Period is constituted by a vast number of radically different events, such as the exploration of America, the fall of the Byzantine Empire, and the Thirty Years War. Accordingly, the utilization of Betts' theoretical framework in order to abstract the Early Modern Period can in one sense be said to omit the specificity of particular incidents and the actions that spawned them. Nonetheless, by concentrating on a few specific events that are viewed as crucial to the Early Modern Period, one may utilize Betts' framework to provide a basis for understanding what exactly motivates this period and essentially gives it its unity within the context of strategy. With this objective in mind, the following essay shall approach two pivotal events in the Early Modern Period, the Spanish conquest of Central America and the Thirty Years War, and attempt to define the military strategy of the period in terms of Betts' schema. The essay will argue that what makes the Early Modern Period distinct is a particular combination of luck and culture, insofar as individual and national wills exerted themselves during this period in a radically autonomous sense, thus anticipating the subjectivity that constitutes Modernity. However, the successes and failures of such approaches were more the result of luck than genius, as this same brute exertion of will is coextensive to contingency rather than astute planning, precisely because such subjectivity is more irrational than rational.

In order to develop this argument, it is first necessary to provide a summary of Betts' main arguments in his text "Is Strategy an Illusion?" with the aim of applying this conceptual apparatus to the Early Modern Period. Strategy is a crucial concept for Betts, insofar as he equates with the very logic behind conflict: "Without strategy, there is no rationale for how force will achieve purposes worth the price in blood and measure." Accordingly, for Betts, strategy is immediately tied to the concept of reason – strategy is a concept of rational evaluation that aids in decision making, insofar as one reflects on the precise manner in which to realize political and military aims: "Without strategy, power is a loose cannon and war is mindless." Strategy is thus essentially a technique of rational calculation, which has a teleology, or in other words, a specific goal that is to be realized. According to this broad definition, it would seem that Betts suggests that strategy is ubiquitous within any political or military enterprise. However, as the author clearly states: "Because strategy is necessary, however, does not mean that it is possible." In other words, strategy as rational calculation is necessary to the success of a political or military endeavor; however, this does not mean that strategy itself can always be realized: within the specific context of military strategy that concerns Betts, in one sense, strategy is impossible since it is an illusion to be able to construct a general meta-narrative that can clearly understand a given scenario and calculate all its variables. This "view from nowhere" is not accessible, and thus there are always contingencies that constitute a particular action: strategy cannot calculate all possible variations of a situation, and thus it is improbable to form a comprehensive plan of simple cause and effect that may predict or yield a desired outcome. Betts basically employs a probabilistic account of strategy, whereby strategy is essentially a tool for prediction and determining the probabilities of an outcome. Thus, for Betts "strategy fails when some link in the planned chain of cause and effect…is broken." In essence, for Betts this chain will always be broken, because there are always unaccounted for contingencies in any situation. According to this inevitable break down of strategy, Betts sets up two conceptual oppositions in order to explain how military victory can be possible in the inevitable absence of strategy. The first couplet consists of "genius versus luck." For Betts, "strategic choices depend on estimates about risks and subjective judgments about the value of the stakes, they are gambles." Hence, choosing the correct strategy amidst such an ambiguity is either an act of luck, i.e., that one has chosen the correct strategy is purely the result of chance, or genius, i.e., that the most effective military strategists are precisely those who have the capacity to minimize contingency from their planning and make the best choice. Another crucial couplet for Betts is that of "culture versus coercion." This essentially means the relation to the enemy. The concept of culture for Betts "prevents the common frames of reference necessary to ensure that the receiver hears the message", or in other words, the cultural context of the one formulating the strategy is the only factor in the formation of the strategy itself: there is no attempt to adjust to an opponent, such that culture can be understood as the pure manifestation of an individual or national will in action and the imposing of this will on the enemy. Coercion, on the other hand, takes into account a certain dialogue within strategy, to the extent that strategy is planned with an eye towards how the opponent shall understand the message of the strategy, or how they will respond to it. Coercion essentially involves a relation, whereas culture indicates a more unilateral approach, wherein one bluntly asserts one's will and objectives against the opposition.

When considering Betts' schema within the Early Modern Period, we first have to ask what constitutes this period, in order to basically understand how strategy was used during this time. Jan Glete notes that the academic literature tends to define the Early Modern Period's usage of strategy as follows: "strategies were induced to support the early modern development of strong states." In other words, strategy in this period was defined by the very emergence of states as individual states, who attempted to exert their autonomy and sphere of influence: this can be summarized as the attempt of states to assert their own individuality within the world around them. However, to the extent that one considers, following Betts, that strategies are ultimately not always possible, that is, that it is impossible to foresee all the consequences and effects of a given strategy, the way in which such states achieved or did not achieve their goals is tied to the conceptual distinctions between luck and genius on the one hand, and coercion and culture on the other hand. In the case of the first, there was a certain amount of luck that can be argued was present in the Early Modern Period, insofar as this was a period characterized by an ambiguity and lack of great powers – there was a certain amount of luck within this level playing field that determined if states would be able to articulate their strong individual development within an uncertain world lacking a clear hegemonic power. On the other hand, precisely because states attempted to assert their influence and power, and thus their identity in this period, we can understand that they were primarily defined by their own cultural principles, as opposed to a form of coercion. These states only wanted to realize their hegemonic objectives through an expression of their own power and strength, irrespective of communication with the other. Accordingly, using Betts schema the strategies of luck and coercion can be viewed as crucial to the Early Modern Period.

In order to further develop this notion, let us examine two characteristic events of the Early Modern Period, in order to understand how the concepts of luck and culture informed the strategies of the time: The Spanish conquest of Central America and the Thirty Years War.

One of the crucial themes of the Early Modern Period, following Glete's analysis, is that individual nation states expressed their nascent autonomy and strove for hegemony. In line with this idea, the struggle for the expansion of geopolitical influence can be viewed as consistent with such aspirations for power. The Spanish conquest of Central America is one such example of an early modern state attempting to assert its force, as the men who participated in the conquest of Mexico, "had in their own lifetimes witnessed the end of eight centuries of Islam in Spain" through the acquisition of lands that finally comprised Spain's autonomous territorial remit. As Hassig notes, therefore, in this time period, "along with other Europeans, Spaniards ventured into foreign lands, driven by the zealotry of the Church Militant but also encouraged by the lure of greater trade, new territory, and subject populations." In short, such expansion was a certain expression of national hegemony, of which the conquest of Mexico is an example.

However, the strategies of the Spanish army in this conquest are consistent with Betts' thesis about an absence of strategy: a certain zealotry, as Hassig notes, defined the Spanish incursions. As Hassig notes, "religious justifications, if not a crusadelike religious fervor, marked much of the expansion into Mexico," such that the strategic aims of the conquest following Betts, cannot be said to lie in a rationally defined teleological objective, but rather in a certain irrational religious fervor, that corresponds with what Betts terms culture. In other words, it was the imposition of culture, without concern for dialogue with the "primitive" and pagan natives, which determined this strategic approach, as opposed to any type of cultural coercion. With this essentially irrational aggressive aim, the Spanish conquest of Mexico was not so much an act of rational genius in realizing strategic objectives, but rather indicative of luck. For example, as Hassig notes, the Spanish demonstrated superiority in both their possession "of larger armies and better organization" and their military capabilities were the consequences "of a long tradition of European military organizational development." Accordingly, Spain's military development was not the result of genius, but rather consistent with similar developments throughout Europe. When considering the conquest of Central America itself and the opposition that was the primitive forces of the Aztecs, this is where the luck of the Spanish conquest enters: The Spanish were simply luckly that a more technologically advanced and organized people did not inhabit the lands they had explored and wished to conquer. Such luck also manifested itself on the purely biological level: "the Indians lacked immunity to the diseases the Spaniards brought with them, leading to massive numbers of deaths and precipitous depopulation." Such events could obviously have not been foreseen, and rather were consistent with pure chance. The Spanish, wishing to impose their own culture, essentially had the luck to stumble upon an undermanned and technologically inferior opponent. The Spanish conquest was hence a cause of being at the right place at the right time – any fighting force in Europe could have achieved the same goals – the Spanish achieved these goals because their cultural will had led them to expand to the Americas.

Whereas the Thirty Years war can be generally described as an internal religious conflict within Germany between Protestant and Catholic Christians, the involvement of other nations in the war, alongside the close affinity between the outbreak of war and religious ideology, suggests that the war can be abstracted according to the early modern period's tendency towards the formation of new national identities. In this case, a struggle between Protestant and Catholic and the axes of allegiance that each respective camp possessed indicates a struggle for such autonomy. Yet according to the length and brutality of the war, it is clearly one in which a greater strategy, in Betts' sense of the term, was non-existent, rather representing a brute struggle for power. In this regard, it is once again culture that defines the strategy of this time period, insofar as the imposition of either a Catholic or Protestant ideology without compromise delimited the two sides of the war – elements of Christian brotherhood were absent insofar as, to use Betts' term, "cultural blinders" existed on both sides. The violence of the conflict in Germany thus came to "symbolize national humiliation, retarding political, economic and social development and condemning their country to two centuries of internal division and international impotence." The end of the war was not the realization of one side's strategic teleological objective, but rather a "tragedy", arguably generated by precisely such an uncompromising imposition of cultural will that defined both sides of the conflict and continued to affect Germany hundreds of years later. Furthermore, the defining strategy of both sides, that of "bellum se ipsum alet", that is, the war will feed itself, further intensified the violence as the destruction of land and seizure of property was the result of a lack of tactical planning on how to supply both armies, eventually leading to the tremendous decrease in the German population, famine and disastrous losses for both armies.

Amidst the unbridled violence of the protracted war, it is thus clear that whatever advantages occurred during the conflict were the result of luck rather than genius. It was rather a conflict of attrition and circumstance, magnified by the fact that the war can be said to have had no clear victors within Germany itself, leaving the country a fragmented plurality. For example, the decline of the Holy Roman Empire was merely a contingent outcome of the war's long, enduring and volatile trajectory. This notion is also demonstrated in the pure improbability of the war's conclusion, insofar as it "changed the order of European politics and directed it into new channels." What is important about this wide-scale change in order is that it was certainly not anticipated by the Catholic and Protestant sides at the beginning of the war: Germany's sectarian conflict had changed the entire structure of Europe. In other words, this order was not planned by one party or another, but was rather a contingent development of the war itself, namely, pure luck. Following the bloody attrition and prolonged nature of the conflict, any gains and losses from the sides'multiple participants underscores the pure chance of history.

Accordingly, using Betts' conceptual framework, the strategy of the Early Modern Period can be summarized as a synthesis of culture and luck. As the two aforementioned conflicts demonstrate, policy was defined by a certain ideological drive to assert the will of the participants, such that dialogue or communication were deemed inconsequential: the term zealotry is apt in this regard, to the extent that it describes the unilateral demonstration of power that emerging nation states attempted to show to their surrounding world with such bold assertions of autonomy. Yet this was accompanied by a subsequent luck in conflict: the heterogeneity of war and its unpredictability suggest that chance and contingency defined who could be deemed victorious in such conflicts. If, as Betts suggests, strategy - insofar as it is a teleological planning of cause and effect - is sometimes entirely impossible, the desire of nation states to emerge in the National Early Modern Period re-enforces this thesis, as bravura coupled with chance seemed to determine the course of such national development.

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