Jason Lyall’s “Divided Armies”

Access to Africa

What makes an army succeed or fail on the battlefield? Too often this question is answered in general terms; superior technology, greater numbers, a larger and more productive war machine. These explanations, however, tend to treat the soldiers who fight and die in these wars as largely blank slates. Their training may make some difference according to certain scholars, but their motivations, preferences, and convictions are seen as either immaterial or inconsequential when confronted with the brutal reality of modern battlefields. In his new book Divided Armies, Jason Lyall works to subvert this understanding, focusing on an infrequently acknowledged aspect of militaries, ethnic inequality. Rather than being stamped out by training and the pressures of warfare, Lyall contends that inequalities drawn along racial and ethnic lines by a society exert a powerful influence on that polity’s prospects for battlefield success. Unequal societies regularly find their militaries rife with desertion, defection, indiscipline and brutal internal measures used to maintain order. Over the course of Divided Armies, Lyall makes a compelling case for us to view militaries not as masses of automata, but startling reflections of the societies which form them.

We begin the history of ethnic inequality and military performance with a conflict that would not likely spring to mind for even a seasoned military historian. The Mahdist War of the late 19th century serves as an illustrative example of how a shift from a relatively equal social order to one of extreme inequality can have damning effects on military outcomes. Beginning in the 1870s, Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself the Mahdi, a prophesied savior of the Islamic world, and launched an uprising against the British and their Egyptian vassals in Sudan. The Mahdi articulated an inclusive vision for his new state, drawing a number of ethnic groups to his banners and managing to successfully fight and defeat the British colonial forces. However, shortly after his victory, the Mahdi fell ill and died, in an event Lyall treats as an as-if-random shift in the Mahdiyah’s social order. The Mahdi’s successor, known as the Khalifa, swiftly imposed an ethnically stratified, rather than inclusionary, order with his own tribe, the Taisha at the top. This dramatic shift would see the Mahdist state’s armies greatly diminished, becoming plagued with desertion and defection during a second Anglo-Egyptian invasion. Ultimately, the second Mahdi war culminated in the infamous Battle of Omdurman, where Mahdist forces, partially out of a desire to prevent opportunities for desertion, were launched into a gruesome frontal attack directly into the teeth of modern British machine guns and rifles. It is somewhat ironic, in a grim manner, that a battle which was in fact the product of severe ethnic divisions and hierarchies, has for so long been held as the vindication of technological determinist theories of military effectiveness.

From Sudan, Lyall zooms out to the centerpiece of Divided Armies, a new database on violent conflict and military inequality called Project Mars. The project contains information on several conflicts not found in the Correlates of War (COW), the dataset traditionally used by researchers of armed conflict. It is innovative in a number of ways, first by defining war loosely as “armed combat between the military organizations of two or more belligerents engaged in direct battle that causes at least five hundred casualties over the duration of hostilities” it simultaneously recognizes that many political entities are destroyed by war, and accordingly are not taken into account by databases looking for combatants who survive. Additionally, the definition passes no judgement as to whether the belligerents must be conventional states to be included, thus opening the door for insurgent organizations and unrecognized polities which may nevertheless fight conventional wars. The effect of this is to bring many more conflicts under consideration, and helps correct the bias towards western, particularly European, wars found in the COW and other databases.

Indeed, it is this emphasis on wars not usually considered in the ‘canon’ of modern or early modern conflict, that makes the book’s subsequent chapters so refreshing to read. Lyall’s case studies examine the war between Imperial Russia and the Khanate of Kokand in Central Asia, the Ottoman Empire’s stand against Italian forces in 1911, and the Ethiopia-Eritrea War of 1998. The details of many of these conflicts would come as surprises to even seasoned military historians. In these sections, the tone shifts dramatically from statistical analysis and at-times jargon heavy theorizing, to one of more narrative play-by-plays. Here the reader has the chance to observe the fragmentation of Khyrgyz auxiliaries under Russian assault, the back-and-forth clash between Ottoman and Italian troops outside Tripoli, and the punishing mass assaults launched by Ethiopia into Eritrean trench lines. 

The book closes on another narrative tone, highlighting the differential fortunes of four Soviet Rifle Divisions outside of Moscow from late 1941 through 1942. Those divisions marked by low levels of military inequality, were able to weather the German onslaught, and even mount successful counter offensives at certain points. By contrast, the two plagued by high inequality were either relegated to reserve duties to lick their wounds, or destroyed completely, though not before desertion had sapped what remained of their manpower. For the reader who has been attentive throughout, these accounts represent a rewarding conclusion, illustrating on a small scale in light of the total numbers involved, how the challenges of military inequality can unwind a fighting force.

Taken together Divided Armies provides a wonderfully rich analysis of unequal societies and the armies they produce. Perhaps the book’s most admirable quality is its ability to make sense of a phenomenon many people intuitively grasp, but rarely put their finger on exactly. Social inequality has been shown to have vast and profound impacts on everything from health to housing to political affiliation, so it stands to reason that the repression should bleed into the military. Yet the magnitude of consequences military inequality holds for armies should astound any reader of Divided Armies, and prompt them to reexamine their conventional knowledge about how militaries are created, and what makes them survive or collapse on the battlefield. 

It would be remiss of me to not include in writing this, that I am a former student of Jason Lyall’s. In writing this review I have worked to present as objective an analysis of Divided Armies’s strengths and weaknesses as possible, however, I encourage you to consult other opinions and analyses of this book as well.

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