August 1, 2007  

Looking back

A historian mines lessons from 20th century’s conflicts

“The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, from the Marne to Iraq,” by Martin van Creveld; Ballantine Books, $24.95.

Martin van Creveld penned a provocative book in 1991, “The Transformation of War,” which was humbly subtitled “The Most Radical Reinterpretation of War since Clausewitz.” In it, the Israeli historian detailed a predictive hypothesis about the changing character of war into what he called “non-trinitarian warfare.” Such conflicts arise as intrastate wars and are not based on the simplified version of Clausewitz’s “remarkable trinity” of government, people and military forces.

The essay offered an account of warfare in the previous millennium and suggested what the future might hold. The thrust was that major war was waning and that the emergence of forms of war “that are simultaneously old and new” now threatened to create havoc. Van Creveld predicted that armed forces of the world would have to adapt to the frequency of intrastate conflict. This provocative, if not prophetic, text was too readily dismissed by some critics as reflecting van Creveld’s personal proximity to the first intifada against Israel and a classic case of overgeneralization. The massive mechanized assault conducted by an American-led coalition to pry Iraq’s invading force out of Kuwait in 1991 lent credence to those who did not want to contemplate the rise of new modes of combat. “The Changing Face of War” represents van Creveld’s second attempt to flesh out the developments in military history and the rise of unconventional methods in book-length form.

Van Creveld has authored a number of major works, including 1977’s “Supplying War,” which established his reputation for meticulous scholarship and perceptive insights. “Command in War” detailed the evolving nature of command and remains a classic, along with “Technology and War.” Like its predecessor, this book noted that technological advances rarely convey a significant advantage in war, and that dependence on technology introduces more friction and vulnerability than it solves. No serious student of strategic studies can ignore these texts.

In “The Changing Face of War,” the author’s purpose is clear and explicitly stated. If one is to understand the present, one must always start with the past. The bulk of the book is devoted to a race through history detailing the major political and technological developments of both world wars and the interregnum. Van Creveld then breezily rips through the nuclear era. The highlight of this chapter is his dismissive comments about defense think tanks and today’s swollen and counterproductive defense intelligentsia. The “blizzard of paper issuing from these and higher institutes of military learning provides work for great many people with degrees who would otherwise be unemployed and, perhaps, unemployable.”

In his concluding chapter, he wraps up his analysis of the major trends in Industrial Age warfare. However, starting with the rise of revolutionary warfare in the 1950s and in Vietnam, van Creveld details the steady rise of badly equipped irregulars and terrorists to thwart the major armies of the latter half of the past century.

Believing that counterinsurgency is the most important military problem facing us, van Creveld does not despair and offers an all-too-brief proposal to counter irregular threats. His first recommendation is to “throw overboard 99 percent of the literature on counterinsurgency, counter-guerrilla, counterterrorism and the like.” As most of it was written by the losers, he finds it of little value. So much for Galula, Triniquer and Kitson, apparently. In their place, van Creveld proposes excellent intelligence, solid professionalism and iron discipline.

The conclusion leaves the reader flat and this reviewer disappointed. For close to 20 years, van Creveld has prophetically argued about the increasing power of irregular forces and the coming fury of nonstate actors fueled by religion, ethnic identity and criminality. The basic thesis of “The Transformation of War” — the shift from conventional to irregular conflict — has been proven, yet the author has never ventured deep into the thousands of years of history in this mode of conflict. Even more disappointing is the author’s cursory attempt at prescriptions.

This book is well below the bar established by van Creveld’s earlier works. It contains numerous errors of fact, including a rather inapt description of World War II amphibious tactics, misdates the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by a year, mislabels the British battle cruiser HMS Repulse and mistakenly asserts the existence of tactical nuclear weapons in Korea. Van Creveld’s descriptions of the battles of Fallujah are neither objective nor accurate. They reflect a lack of any research as to the political or security context before, during or after the battle.

For a condensed overview of warfare’s major trends, this book will suffice. But for professional students of human conflict, this book offers very few insights and should be passed over.

Frank G. Hoffman is a retired Marine Corps officer and national security consultant employed by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.