Thinking about warfare, the last 100 years

Martin van Creveld: The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq , Presidio 2008

Martin van Creveld gained fame for The Transformation of War, a book that should have been read by the USA before venturing into Iraq (see previous review). In this surprisingly succinct volume, he summarizes the changes in thinking about warfare "from Marne to Iraq", showing how war has changed from something conducted in a short and contained spurts by an army via the "total war" first voiced by Ludendorff to today’s prolonged insurgencies, where the perpetrators blend back into the general population and advanced weapons fired from afar only can make the situation worse.

(As a digression, he characterizes the German invasion of Norway as rather risky and badly planned – it worked largely because the Norwegians were unbelievably unprepared.)

van Creveld divides war into two main phases: Before and after the atom bomb. After the atom bomb, total war was no longer possible, since it would mean mutual destruction. Instead, war has (for the most part) become guerilla war, where a militarily equipped power is battling a much weaker enemy, and, because the enemy is weak, become weak themselves.

There is almost no instances military powers successfully fighting insurgents – though since the history of fighting insurgencies are largely written by the losers, who argue that they could have won if not hindered by politicians, the press or lack of resources.

To fight an insurgency, the power in question must be legal, i.e., treat the insurgency like a criminal activity rather than a war (much as the British did in Northern Ireland, where they, incidentally, had a local police force and spoke the language.) Either that (which takes a lot of patience) or they must use cruelly applied force, with openness and without apology (as Hafez Assad did in Syria.) Trying to fight the war from a distance leads to a quagmire, but going in to fight the insurgents with their own means leads to losses and loses the war on the home front.

The book is admirably succinct when it describes the evolution in thinking about warfare up to about 1950 (showing, among other things, the increasing use of the scientific method in weapons and, to a lesser extent, tactics evolution.) It gets a bit repetitive on the question of how to fight insurgency. But the verdict on the US’ fight in Iraq leaves no doubts about what the author thinks about the technical "revolution in warfare" and what it does:

Once the main units of the Iraqi army had been defeated and dispersed, most of the sensors, data links, and computers that did so much to aid in the American victory proved all but useless. In part, this was because they had been designed to pick up the "signatures" of machines, not people. But it was also because these sensors did not function very well in the densely inhabited, extremely complex environments where the insurgents operated. Myriad methods could be used to neutralize or mislead whatever sensors did work. Worst of all, sensors are unable to penetrate people’s minds. As a result, almost four years after the war had started, the American troops still had no idea who was fighting them: Ba’athists or common criminals, foreign terrorists or devout believers. […]

Soaking up almost $450 billion a year, the mightiest war machine the world has ever seen was vainly trying to combat twenty to thirty thousand insurgents. Its ultramodern sensors, sophisticated communications links, and acres of computers could not prevent its opponents from operating where they wanted, when they wanted, and as they wanted; […] To recall the well-known, Vietnam-era song: When will they ever learn? (Ch. 6.5)

van Creveld offers few conclusions, aside from patience, people on the ground and good intelligence, all of which are hard to acquire and maintain. Otherwise, the insurgents will eventually win, if only because the military powers’ only way of winning is not participating.


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