Sunday, 20 September 2015

Two books on military and economic history

Earlier in the year I read two books that related to military history, and I've been meaning to write a little bit about them. I've always enjoyed reading about historical events, especially ancient and medieval history. So, I was particularly excited about the first book, Castles, Battles and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History, by Jurgen Brauer and Hubert van Tuyll. I think I bought this book through a random Amazon recommendation. The second book was Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare Warfare, by Stephen Budiansky. I forget who suggested this book to me, but I'm glad they did.

I've found a lot of history books to pretty dry. On the other hand, being able to apply economic theory to history is usually pretty cool. Castles, Battles and Bombs belongs to the dry category, unfortunately. The authors set out to focus on a number of different economic theories, and use one historical case study to illustrate each one: castle building in the High Middle Ages to illustrate opportunity costs; the Condottieri in the Renaissance to illustrate principal-agent problems; the decision to offer battle in the 17th and 18th Centuries to illustrate marginal analysis; the American Civil War to illustrate information asymmetry; strategic bombing in World War II to illustrate diminishing marginal returns; and nuclear armament in France to illustrate substitution. Don't get me wrong - there are lots of really interesting bits, and I got a lot of inspiration for examples to use in next year's ECON110 class. However, the writing probably isn't for a generalist audience - it kind of feels like six journal articles pulled together into a book, with an introduction and concluding chapter to weave it all together.

One part in particular is interesting though, in the chapter on diminishing marginal returns in World War II bombing. Diminishing returns occur when each additional unit of input leads to a lesser amount of additional output. Using data from the USSBS (United States Strategic Bombing Survey), Brauer and van Tuyll show (to take some selected data from their Table 6.3), in September 1944 17,615 tons of bombs dropped on Germany led to a reduction in railroad movements of 3519 ton-kms. In December 1944, 61,392 tons of bombs reduced railroad movements by 6377 ton-kms. So, a 250% increase in bombing led to a 81% increase in damage. Their data are more extensive than that, but that gives you a flavour of how quickly the returns from bombing diminished.

Blackett's War also covers the bombing campaign in World War II, but from an operations research point of view. Operations research is the use of advanced analytical methods (i.e. mathematical and statistical analysis) to decision making. Obviously this is similar to economics, and a lot of economists are involved in operations research today. In the book, Budiansky extensively covers the genesis of operations research, and does so in a way that is both interesting and accessible to ordinary readers. The story follows the physicist Patrick Blackett and a cast of British (mostly) and American scientists, and their contributions to World War II, particularly focusing on how they contributed to the U-Boat war in the North Atlantic.

The book also covers the ineffectiveness of strategic bombing. Budiansky writes:
Blackett talked to Bernal around the same time and did a few pages of penciled arithmetic. In the ten months from August 1940 to June 1941, the Luftwaffe had dropped 50,000 tons of bombs, an average of 5,000 a month. The number of civilian deaths was 40,000, or 4,000 a month; that worked out to 0.8 persons killed per ton of bombs...
He also calculated that the total decline in industrial production from the air attacks on Britain was less than 1 percent: factory output for the country in April 1941 had been affected more by the Easter holiday than by the German bombs that fell during the month.
Blackett argued against strategic bombing, but his arguments fell on deaf ears. However, eventually the operations research prevailed and air attacks on u-boats in the North Atlantic became much more effective as a result.

Overall, Budiansky's narrative style is easy to follow and the choice of anecdotes brings the time period to life. I highly recommend Blackett's War, and I'll certainly be looking to populate my bookshelves with some of Stephen Budiansky's other books, to read in the future.


  1. Omar Bradley's 'A Soldier's Story' is also pretty good on the application of economics to war fighting. Even Audie Murphy, in 'To Hell and Back' described what he did as a management problem; how he used his scarce resources to kill Germans.

  2. Excellent, thanks Patrick. A couple of oldies there - hopefully AbeBooks can hook me up.