Everything Old Is New Again
It is in the nature of many military historians to glamorize, albeit often unintentionally, the field about which they write. There’s a reason for this: much of the time it seems that those who come to write about the field have in them a certain, sometimes grudging, fascination with the systems and machinery (both mechanical and organic) of the military. In short, those who write about the Battle of the Somme or the Vietnam War often do so because way down deep they find the things that armies do—the movement of units, development of tactics, deployment of heavy weaponry—incredibly cool; though you’d never hear, say, the courtly John Keegan (The Face of Battle, among other classics of the field) say anything quite so crass. It’s for this very reason (among others) that the field has always desperately needed somebody like the Dutch-Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld. Consider the opening paragraph of his newest book, The Changing Face of War:
As of the opening years of the 21st century, the mightiest, richest, best-equipped, best-trained armed forces that ever existed are in full decline and are, indeed, looking into an abyss ... In Thailand, in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in a dozen other countries [including Chechnya, the West Bank and Gaza], regular armed forces are engaged in so-called counterinsurgency operations. In terms of sheer military power, all are far stronger than their enemies. None, however, seems to be making any considerable headway, and most will probably end up in defeat.
A cliché of most military leaders has them touting their armed forces as the best equipped, best trained in the whole wide world. Occasionally, some of them may in fact be right. What Van Creveld does that is so revolutionary is look those people in the eye and say, It doesn’t matter. Your military can have all the best equipment, most up-to-date training, fantastic personnel and tactics fully vetted by every expert in the field, but when set against a determined guerrilla force all those factors will likely matter not a whit. As the book points out, all the US military’s technological prowess hasn’t helped much in the current war, and in fact often helps distance its soldiers from the conflict they should be waging. Right now the “mightiest war machine the world has ever seen” is spending almost $450 billion a year as it “vainly [tries] to combat 20- to 30,000 insurgents.”
Additionally, Van Creveld points out, with some rather cutting sarcasm, the recent explosion in the West (the US especially) of civilian military analysts producing book-length reports on this subject or that is not actually symbolic of new and advanced thinking of such matters, but in fact just so much noise, the band playing on as the Titanic slowly slips beneath the waves. The point is made rather strenuously that all this think-tanking of the modern military is in fact “a sign of irrelevance, decline, and impotence as many of the world’s most powerful armed forces vainly try to deal with opponents so much smaller and weaker than themselves that it should be no contest.”
Once upon a time, large, organized and well-equipped armies of major nations actually faced each other on the battlefield, and it is to the last century’s worth of such contests that the balance of The Changing Face of War is concerned with. The book is divided into chapters on the first and second World Wars, the “Twenty Years’ Truce” between them, the Cold War period, and everything since 1991, titled appropriately “The New World Disorder.” What Van Creveld does in rather pithy fashion is lay out the evolution of warfare (in less time than it takes some military historians to discuss a single battle) from vast conscripted forces slaughtering each other on the fields of Europe to the post-WWII scenario in which increasingly shrinking armies faced off under constricted circumstances (the threat of nuclear annihilation keeping them constantly in check) to the present-day bafflement where asymmetric combat is the norm rather than the exception.
The Changing Face of War, then, serves two purposes. First, as mentioned, it presents a smart précis of modern military history, with Van Creveld ticking off a number of canny insights along the way. One that is often overlooked is the very real extent to which the world wars excised Western civilization’s naïve, flag-waving conflation of mass bloodlust and radical nationalism: “The great democracies’ retreat from any kind of enthusiasm for war proved permanent. In 1939-41, and to a very considerable extent thereafter, they went to war only reluctantly and expected the worst.”
It is in fact that reluctance which Van Creveld sees as being one of the greatest hindrances in the current conflicts with insurgent and terrorist bands. As laid out in his book, the recent history of Western counterinsurgency shows a terrible inconsistency in strategy that is as confusing to the enemy and the native population as it is to the soldiers waging it. One of the examples Van Creveld uses to buttress this point is the wavering and muddyheaded tactics (one couldn’t call it a strategy) being pursued by the US in Iraq: “Now they use firepower to slaughter their enemies en masse, now they embrace them. Now they demolish, now they rebuild. Now they kill innocent people, now they pay compensation (an Iraqi life is worth $2,500).”
To have a chance of dealing rationally with insurgencies—the only kind of conflict that Western armies are going to be facing in the foreseeable future, unless Canada decides to invade Maine—Van Creveld proposes following one of two examples he lays out in a bracing manner near the end of the book. In short, Van Creveld the occupying force must go one of two ways: barbarity or civility, and either one necessitates incredible levels of planning and restraint. The former example is that of
Syria’s President Assad, who dealt with an uprising in 1982 in rather Machiavellian fashion by systematically and unapologetically butchering thousands of civilians in the city of Hama—the press paid little mind, opposition was effectively crushed and Assad stayed in power. The latter example is of the British in Northern Ireland, where incredibly disciplined units spent decades ensuring that as few people as possible on either side were killed, grinding down the conflict through immense reservoirs of restraint and focusing on everything but the body count (the polar opposite of, say, the US in Vietnam).
We can say with relative confidence that the Assad example will not be followed, even the most dogged of the Pentagon’s civilian desk-hawks wouldn’t countenance it, and without almost as much confidence that the British example won’t be either—the US can’t start its invasion over or spend the required years getting the current mess under control. What we can’t say is that somebody didn’t point the way.