The Nature of Viking Power Projection
21 March 2012
After the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, the most formidable instrument of force projection to emerge in Western Europe was that of Viking Civilization. The naval force projection capabilities of the Vikings were unique in the historical period, and this achievement counts alongside the great instruments of force projection in human history. The next great instrument of force projection to emerge in human history — the Mongol horse archer — was neither naval nor Western European. (I wrote about the Mongol instrument of force projection in The Power of Mobile Fire.) The next capable naval instrument of force projection in Western Europe did not emerge for another five hundred years, as Western Europe fell into the lassitude of an inland and almost purely agricultural civilization.
As with the Mongols, whose power projection abilities grew directly out of a way of life of nomadic pastoralism that involved horsemanship from an early age, the Norse power projection ability also grew directly out of a way of life, that of a people dependent upon shipping. Life in Scandinavia is difficult. If you can imagine the difficulty of life in early medieval Europe, and then multiply this difficulty by colder temperatures, shorter growing seasons, and more difficult overland transportation, you get an idea of the difficulty of life in early medieval Scandinavia. The coastline of what is today Norway in rocky, bleak and cold, and it faces the inhospitable North Sea, but it is deeply indented by fjords. What is a fjord? A fjord is a sunken mountain range whose valleys are filled with frigid waters and whose peaks tower above the narrow waterways. What little farming there is in Norway takes place on a very narrow strip of alluvial deposits between the water’s edge and the steeps sides of the walls of the fjords.
This is a hard land in which to make a living, and people here would have been unimaginably poor were it not for waterborne commerce — raiding and trading by ship gave the medieval Norse peoples what little wealth they possessed. Without shipping, the peoples of Scandinavia would be limited to what little produce can be coaxed from their northern soils. With shipping, the Vikings made themselves a power to be reckoned with, whose influence stretched from the British Isles to Constantinople, where Swedish Vikings became the Varangian guard who were the special detail of the Emperor of Byzantium.
The geography of the fjords was the key to Viking power projection in the same way that the grasslands of Central Asia, capable of pasturing horses but not suitable for settled agriculturalism, were the key to Mongol power projection. The fjords open directly onto the North Sea, but they are not mere harbors. The waterways of the fjords penetrate deep into the interior of the Scandinavian landmass, and these waterways are lined with trees that cover the sides of the fjords. Since a fjord is a sunken mountain range, the tops of the mountains (at least at the coast) do not rise above the timberline. (It is quite beautiful to see Norway in the fall since the autumn colors reach to the top of the walls of the fjords.) Deep waterways plus lots of timber plus quiet inland spots long the fjord far from the storms of the North Sea mean that you can build a boat virtually anywhere along the edge of the fjord.
Shipbuilding technology, while sophisticated, is a skill that one man can acquire from participating in a few projects, after which the experienced shipwright can set himself up at the quiet end of a fjord. His family homestead can supply him with enough to eat while he builds a ship, and once the ship is built the neighbors can all jump on board, leaving their wives at home to care for the farm. Since there were no raiding parties coming from elsewhere in Europe, probing the coast of Scandinavia for unguarded farmsteads, these farms would be safe for the weeks or months that a raiding party was away. Also, there was little wealth here for any foreign raiders to steal. Like the Vikings, they would be attracted to soft targets that had something worth taking and little ability to defend it — like monasteries.
At this point in European history, there was little competition for raiding and trading. The Vikings mostly had the sea lanes to themselves; their free hand on the water meant many opportunities, and the many opportunities lured the ambitious and the adventurous to improve their lot, in the course of which they improved their knowledge of seamanship and the communities upon which they preyed. Communities were isolated. Communications were poor. There was no strong central authority that could be mobilized to systematically counter the Viking threat. Little changed. A soft target might well remain a soft target for generations.
The farms along the fjords were a base and a supply depot; the inhospitable terrain functioned like a natural citadel in which these bases of operations remained safe for generations; the same terrain necessitated shipping as a way of life, and the knowledge of shipping meant a people intimately familiar with life on the water. Ships came out of Scandinavia like horses came out of Mongolia. The success of raiding and trading was a strong incentive for others to iterate the successful model, drawing upon the same knowledge rooted in the same way of life. Moreover, the mythology of the Norse peoples before Christianization was remarkably similarly to the Homeric ethos celebrating the life of the warrior, in which battle is honorable and honor more important than life, and this mythology was the source of a vigorous tradition of poetry that was equally part of the lifeway of the people. One suspects that famous lines of Skaldic poetry were repeated under the breath of Vikings as they approached their targets and prepared themselves to loot and pillage, or perhaps, in the spirit of the genre, lines were improvised as the men went about their brutal work.
Power projection before the industrial revolution was always about a way of life. Some ways of life lent themselves more effectively to power projection than others. Many peoples led peaceful histories in so far as their neighbors would allow them to live in peace without taking up arms, but in an age that respected strength and the right of conquest, the narrative of armed conflict was socially necessary and leaves the impression that all peoples were equally warlike.
The calculus of power projection has not necessarily changed with the advent of industrialization. Still, some things have changed. Earlier, in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement, I identified a technological threshold, marked by the Industrial Revolution, that is crucial to the development of power projection:
Before the revolution in mechanical technology — of which the Industrial Revolution was a moment within a larger development — the contests between peoples could be decided by vigorous exertion. Virtually any people could establish an empire by expending sufficient effort. This is parallel to the fact that before the Technological Revolution the interest prohibition was no great impediment to peoples or individuals, since most of that to which peoples or individuals aspired could be secured through sufficient effort (i.e., largely independently of any technical expertise in finance). This is no longer true. In those regions of the world most affected by the Technological Revolution, the age old calculus of ambition has been utterly transformed. Will, effort, and exertion alone are not sufficient for a people to found or expand an empire or for an individual to attain social status.
While I still agree with this, I would point out now that, although ambition and effort could tip the balance in a contest between peoples, as a matter of historical fact the great instruments of power projection have been rooted in the lifeways of a people. This is less about imperial ambition than about the ordinary business of life. The difference for power projection, then, between before and after the Industrial Revolution, is that before the Industrial Revolution an Ozymandian figure could cajole his people to imperial conquest through sheer feats of will, whereas now this is probably no longer possible.
Perhaps it could be said that the essence of power projection has not changed, but certainly its appearance has changed. And here is the sense in which the essence of power projection has not changed, despite the technological threshold: those peoples most adept at the lifeways of industrial-technological civilization are those that can most effectively wage industrialized warfare, and which will then be most effective in industrial age power projection.
It sounds odd to speak of the “lifeways of industrialized peoples,” but it is necessary to begin to think in such terms if one is going to be able to make sense of contemporary history in the same spirit that one brings to the understanding of earlier history. The lifeways of industrialized people do not at all appear similar to the lifeways of pre- and unindustrialized peoples, but the relation of these lifeways to effective power projection remain essentially unchanged.
The first great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was that of the British Navy, in service to the worldwide British Empire, and with its coaling stations around the globe. Ships crewed by hundreds or thousands of men required coal, fresh water, and food; an entire global infrastructure was necessary to support such a navy. Thus the Royal British Navy both made the British Empire possible as well as the infrastructure created by this Empire made the global reach of the Royal Navy possible.
The second great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was the success of German land forces during the First and Second World Wars (and the Luftwaffe as well, in so far as it participated in combined arms operations by providing air support For the Wehrmacht’s armored advance). The German mastery of industrial-technological lifeways was apparent in the excellence of German military hardware (both in terms of design and construction), the care and expertise with which German soldiers employed this hardware (British soldiers in North Africa reported that the Germans always made an effort to recover as many of their tanks as they could after dark), and the ability of the German economy to continue to supply its war machine despite the pressures of fighting a two-front war.
The third great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was the nearly seamless US replacement of the British Navy after the end of the Second World War. The world’s oceans, once patrolled by the Royal British Navy, are now patrolled by the US. The totality of US global control of the sea lanes is nearly unprecedented in history; it continues to this day, though it is under threat (cf. U.S. Confronts an Anti-Access World), and it has played no small role in the growth of global commerce. The Pax Americana has held on the world’s oceans if it can be said to have held anywhere.
The forth great manifestation of industrial-technological power projection was and remains overwhelming US air superiority, with its global infrastructure of airbases (analogous as they are to coaling stations). An air force must have fuel, spare parts, mechanics, and must meet the needs of aircrews. It takes the largest economy in the world to support this infrastructure. And, as with the symbiosis of the Royal Navy and the British Empire, US global influence makes worldwide airbases possible, while the worldwide airbases make US global air superiority possible, and thereby secure continuing US global influence. Continued economic productivity is necessary to support the upkeep and operations of such a force. Should the US economy seriously falter, the US would prove itself unable to remain a competitor in industrial-technological power projection. The fact that the US has managed to maintain and expand its global network over a period of almost seventy years, through good economic times and bad, and has at present no peer force to challenge it globally (though it can be challenged locally), demonstrates the US ability so far to maintain its dominance. Neither more nor less. We cannot extrapolate this dominance into anything beyond the immediate future because there are too many unknown parameters.
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