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The Transformation of War

(Martin van Creveld)

Clausewitz was wrong!

(Or, if he wasn't wrong then, he's wrong now because the world has changed, and so has war.)

As so often happens, I skimmed this book and put it aside last fall when it was assigned reading. More recently I picked it up and became fascinated with it. Van Creveld is an Israeli historian, so he has seen more war than most academics. He is always interesting, though not always right. (He says that serious peace negotiations were underway in Moscow in the days before Little Boy obliterated Hiroshima. Nonsense! The Russians weren't brokering Japanese peace offers; they were fending them off, because they were about to go to war against Japan on their own account.) In The Transformation of War, he takes on no less a figure than Carl von Clausewitz, whose On War has been the strategist's bible for nearly 200 years. Here are my notes on what van Creveld has to say:

'... contemporary "strategic" thought ... is fundamentally flawed; and, in addition, is rooted in a "Clausewitzian" world-picture that is either obsolete or wrong. We are entering an era ... of warfare between ethnic and religious groups. Even as familiar forms of armed conflict are sinking into the dustbin of the past, radically new ones are raising their heads.... Already today the military power fielded by the principal developed societies in both "West" and "East" is ... more illusion than substance.' (p.ix) Note that this was written a decade before 9/11, and even before the Soviet Union imploded.

Of unconventional forms of warfare: '... what we are dealing with here is neither low-intensity nor some bastard offspring of war. Rather, it is WARRE in the elemental, Hobbesian sense of the word, by far the most important form of armed conflict in our time.' (p.22)

'... there are solid military reasons why modern regular forces are all but useless for fighting what is fast becoming the dominant form of war in our age.' (p.29) In Vietnam, the US and ARVN vastly outnumbered the communist forces, but three-quarters of American troops were in support functions. 'At the place where it mattered, in the jungle, the number of "maneuver battatlions" actually available was about equal on both sides.' (p.30)

'So expensive, fast, indiscriminate, big, unmaneuverable, and powerful have modern weapons become that they are steadily pushing contemporary war under the carpet, as it were; that is, into environments where those weapons do not work, and where men can therefore fight to their hearts' content.' (p.32) The ultimate weapon of course is the atomic bomb, which hasn't been used since August 1945.

Of World War II: 'Whatever else total war may have done, it put an end to any idea that armed conflict, including specifically the largest ever fought, is necessarily governed by the Clausewitzian Universe. Historically speaking, in fact, trinitarian war--in other words, a war of state against state and army against army--is a comparatively recent phenomenon; hence, the things that the future has in store for humanity may also be very different indeed.' (p.49)

'If any part of our intellectual baggage deserves to be thrown overboard, surely it is not the historical record but the Clausewitzian definition of war that prevents us from coming to grips with it.' (p.58)

'Considered from the point of view of the identity of those by whom it is waged, [low-intensity] conflict is much closer to the most primitive forms of nontrinitarian war than to war as conducted, say, in the days of Moltke or ... Eisenhower. The same applies to the weapons that it employes, the methods that it uses, and even the reasons it is waged.' (p.62)

'Nor is it advisable to forget that, behind the human will, there are often at work psychological forces that are uncontrollable, even unknowable, and that may cause even the most rational opponent to react in unexpected ways. As Moltke once put it, of the three courses that the enemy can take normally he selects the fourth.' (p.110)

'If any army is to launch a successful attack against an opponent which is as strong as itself, it will have to concentrate. It will have to weaken its forces at one point and reinforce at another.... The greater the risk that a force takes, the more likely it is to succeed but the worse also the consequences if it does not.' (p.113)

'The art of strategy ... consists of employing strength against weakness or, to speak with the ancient Chinese military writer Sun Tsu, it consists of throwing rocks at eggs. The opponent, however, is assumed to be intelligent and active.... Thus, the primary condition for success is represented by the ability to to read the opponent's mind while concealing one's own thoughts.' (p.119)

The 'paradoxical logic of strategy': 'In ordinary life, an action that has succeeded once can be expected to succeed twice.... But this elementary fact--on which are based the whole of science and technology--does not apply to war, football, chess, or any other activity that is governed by strategy.' (p.120) In war, 'The economical, efficient, and streamlined an organization the greater its vulnerability.' (p.121)

Pace Clausewitz, 'the view of war as a continuation of Politik, let alone Realpolitik, is in some ways a modern invention. Even if we substitute "rulers" for "state," the view does not date further back than the Renaissance.' (p.126)

Non-political war: war for religion. 'Beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia [1648] ... Westerners mostly abandoned religion in favor of more enlightened reasons for slaughtering one another. However, in the part of the world subscribing to Islam the same thing only happened much later, and then to a much more limited extent.... Present-day Islamic sects differ among themselves as to the importance of Jihad as compared to other Islamic duties; however, by and large every free, adult, able-bodied, male Muslim is considered duty-bound to fight and die for the greater glory of Allah....' (p.139)

'... even today, the idea of war as a continuation of religion [as opposed to the Clausewitzian dictum of war as a continuation of politics] ... is anything but dead. Western strategists who are followers of Clausewitz would do well to take this fact into account; or else, failing to understand Holy War, they may well end up as its victims.' (p.142)

Non-political war: war for existence: 'Fighting as they did for national existence, the amount of punishment that the Algerians could take [1954-1962] was almost unlimited....' (p.144)

'Insofar as there have always been struggles for existence, doctrins that derive from the Clausewitzian Universe, and that emphasize rationality, the primacy of politics, and cost-benefit calculations, have always been wrong.... Policy-makers and others who think that they can make rational use of their countries' military forces to attain political goals have a lesson to learn: the power of interest-type warfare is limited by definition, and pitting it against noninstrumental war, in many cases, does little more than invite defeat.' (pp.148-49)

'A person may well law down his life in the name of God, king, country, and family, or even for all four at once. However, to say that he does so because he has some kind of posthumous "interest" in the survival even of his nearest and dearest is to invert the meaning of the term.... Thus consdered, warfare constitutes the great proof that man is not motivated by selfish interest; as the original meaning of the term berserker (holy fighter) testifies, in some ways it represents the most altruistic of all human activites....' (p.158)

'Fighting is best understood as a reciprocal activity. It gets underway, not when some people take the lives of others but at the point where they risk their own.... Just as it makes no sense to ask "why people eat" or "what they sleep for," so fighting in many ways is not a means but an end.' (p.160)

'Thus, conventional strategic thought has put the cart in front of the horse. Danger is much more than simply the medium in which war takes place; from the point of view of participants and spectators alike, it is among the principle attractions, one would almost say its raison d'être.' (p.164) 'War's unique nature consists precisely in this: it has always been, and still remains, the only creative activity that both permits and demands the unrestricted commitment of all man's faculties against an opponent who is as strong as oneself.' (p.165) 'Since he who fights puts everything at risk, whatever he fights for must be deemed more precious than his own blood.' (p.166)

'... the successful conduct of war requires a certain boyish enthusiasm. This enthusiasm, in turn, can cause those who engage in it to retain that boyishness; war has always been the business of the young.' (p.170) '... war can cause people to fight because, and to the extent that, it is the one activity most capable of causing the difference between [means and ends] to disappear; the highest form of seriousness is, precisely, play.' (p.171)

'He who loses out to the weak loses; he who triumphs over the weak also loses. In such an enterprise there can be neither profit nor honor. Provided only the exercise is repeated often enough, as surely as night follows day the point will come when the enterprise collapses.' (p.175)

'A war whose conduct fails to make a clear distinction between what is and is not permitted will degenerate into chaos and, ultimately, cease to be war at all.' (p.190)

'Insofar as war, before it is anything else, consists of fighting--in other words, a voluntary coping with danger--it is the continuation not of politics but of sport.' (p.191)

'Strategy is interactive by definition; any attempt to defeat the enemy that involves outwitting and deceiving him must be preceded by an endeavor to understand him.... Belligerents who were originally very' dissimilar will come to resemble each other first in point of the methods that they use and then, gradually, other respects.' (p.195)

'As low-intensity conflict rises to dominance, much of what has passed for strategy during the last two centuries will be proven useless.' (p.205)

'... nothing is more characteristic of strategy than its mutual, interactive character.' (p.206)

'Even as Jomini wrote his Précis des grandes operations de guerre [translated as The Art of War], Spanish guerillas were showing that it was perfectly possible to wage war--and a very savage war at that--on a small scale.' (p.206)

'In short, such conflict [i.e., low-intensity conflict] is to conventional warfare what the Einsteinian world-view is to Newtonian physics.... Low-intensity conflict will ensure that, once they are intermingled, battles will be replaced by skirmishes, bombings, and massacres.' (p.207)

'From the vantage point of the present, there appears every prospect that religious attitudes, beliefs, and fanaticisms will play a larger role in the motivation of armed conflict than it has, in the West at any rate, for the last 300 years. Already as these lines are being written the fastest growing religion in the world is Islam. While there are many reasons for this, perhaps it would not be so far fetched to say that its very militancy is one reason for its spread.... Thus Muhammed's recent revival may yet bring on that of the Christian Lord, and He will not be the Lord of love but of battles.' (pp.214-15, and note again that this book was published in 1991!)

'However unpalatable the fact, the real reason we have wars is that men like fighting, and women like those men who are prepared to fight on their behalf.' (p.221)

'Just as no Roman citizen was left unaffected by the barbarian invasions, so in vast parts of the world no man, woman, and child alive today will be spared the consequences of the newly-emerging forms of war. Even in the most stable societies, the least they can expect is to have their identity checked and their persons searched at every turn.... [S]uch communities as refuse to look facts in the face and fight for their existence will, in all probablility, cease to exist.' (p.223)

'It is simply not true that war is solely a means to an end, nor do people necessarily fight in order to attain this objective or that. In fact, the opposite is true: people very often take up one objective or another precisely in order that they may fight. While the usefulness of war as a means of gaining practical ends may well be questioned, its ability to entertain, to inspire, and to fascinate has never been in doubt. War is life written large.... One very important way in which men can attain joy, freedom, happiness, even delirium and ecstasy, is by not staying home with wife and family, even to the point where, often enough, they are only too happy to give up their nearest and dearest in favor of--war!' (pp.226-27)

Altogether, a splendid book, and one that is even better on the second reading. Buy it at Amazon.com. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford