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The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat,…
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The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, from the Marne to Iraq

by Martin L. van Creveld

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This unfortunately sub par book by noted military historian Martin van Creveld meshes two of his ideas (the end of conventional war, and the futility of counterinsurgency) already developed in The Transformation of War into a strange tale of the 20th century.

The first idea is the end of wars among first and secondary powers due to the spread of nuclear weapons. As the computer in the film "Wargames" realized, the potential mutually assured destruction (MAD) discourages war among rational actors. Van Creveld traces this development from 1900 to 1945 in four chapters which form the bulk of the book (ca. 170 out of 270 pages). The arms race and technological and tactical innovations of WWI and WWII (machine gun, gas, submarine, aircraft, tank, radio, radar, sonar, aircraft carrier...) lead to the ultimate killer, the atomic bomb. The first chapter is riddled with little mistakes and howlers the author or a competent editor should have caught (One example, p. 53:"... on fields such as Chancellorsville ..., vast formations of colorfully dressed troops had gathered as if on parade." The battle of Chancellorsville took place in a region called the "Wilderness". Sight was so bad the Confederates shot their own general, "Stonewall" Jackson. And apart from Zouave regiments, most regiments had shed conspicuous uniforms.). The main problem of the four chapters is that van Creveld has already and better told this story in his previous book, The Transformation of War. Rigorous editorship should have whittled it down to a single chapter to allow van Creveld more space to elaborate his second idea about counterinsurgency (again already developed in his previous book).

Chapter five is a mix of a swift tale of the post WWII wars, nuclear doctrine and the increasing costs of weapons systems resulting in a laments of displacing brawns by brains (especially if they are female) and other pet peeves.

Chapter six presents his ideas about counterinsurgency. His basic statement is that any force used against (weak) insurgents leads to morale defeat. Excessive force alienates the population, limited force causes attrition among the occupier's forces. Van Creveld develops two winning strategies for counterinsurgencies: Love (Brits in Northern Ireland) and Hate (Syria's Assad). Either the counterinsurgency forces remain restrained policemen helping the locals or they become even more ruthless than the terrorists inflicting disproportional, exemplary suffering. He then shows the Americans' incompetent alternating or concurrent application of carrot and sticks in Iraq.

His pessimistic assessment could have benefitted from a more extended discussion of the topic. While he discusses intelligence and linguistic competence, he treats legitimacy quite casually. Van Creveld switches easily from discussing Nazi occupation strategies to colonial occupiers. A population's compliance to an occupier requires some token of legitimacy. Otherwise, the use of force becomes prohibitively expensive. Van Creveld could learn from the tales of Robin Hood. The Israeli Defense Force can neither apply his "love" nor his "hate" strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinians; they lack the legitimacy for the first, and the collective conscience, fortunately, prevents the second. From the conquest of Gaul to the Norman invasion to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, lessons in counterinsurgency remain to be developed.

A second question not discussed is the differential of the implied value of lives of the occupants and the occupiers. The two successful strategies cited (Northern Ireland, Syria) differ from Iraq, Vietnam, Somalia or Israel in the fact that the life of the occupiers and the occupied are of a more or less equivalent implied value. This factor is in my opinion one of the main reasons of failure as the high value of First World soldiers leads to a protection mentality (Just as the British Empire used Indian native regiments, the UN should develop Third World staffed military police regiments.).

Overall, this book does not progress beyond The Transformation of War and needs both editing and elaboration. ( )
  jcbrunner | Mar 31, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0891419012, Hardcover)

One of the most influential experts on military history and strategy has now written his magnum opus, an original and provocative account of the past hundred years of global conflict. The Changing Face of War is the book that reveals the path that led to the impasse in Iraq, why powerful standing armies are now helpless against ill-equipped insurgents, and how the security of sovereign nations may be maintained in the future.

While paying close attention to the unpredictable human element, Martin van Creveld takes us on a journey from the last century’s clashes of massive armies to today’s short, high-tech, lopsided skirmishes and frustrating quagmires. Here is the world as it was in 1900, controlled by a handful of “great powers,” mostly European, with the memories of eighteenth-century wars still fresh. Armies were still led by officers riding on horses, messages conveyed by hand, drum, and bugle. As the telegraph, telephone, and radio revolutionized communications, big-gun battleships like the British Dreadnought, the tank, and the airplane altered warfare.

Van Creveld paints a powerful portrait of World War I, in which armies would be counted in the millions, casualties–such as those in the cataclysmic battle of the Marne–would become staggering, and deadly new weapons, such as poison gas, would be introduced. Ultimately, Germany’s plans to outmaneuver her enemies to victory came to naught as the battle lines ossified and the winners proved to be those who could produce the most weapons and provide the most soldiers.

The Changing Face of War then propels us to the even greater global carnage of World War II. Innovations in armored warfare and airpower, along with technological breakthroughs from radar to the atom bomb, transformed war from simple slaughter to a complex event requiring new expertise–all in the service of savagery, from Pearl Harbor to Dachau to Hiroshima. The further development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War shifts nations from fighting wars to deterring them: The number of active troops shrinks and the influence of the military declines as civilian think tanks set policy and volunteer forces “decouple” the idea of defense from the world of everyday people.

War today, van Crevald tells us, is a mix of the ancient and the advanced, as state-of-the-art armies fail to defeat small groups of crudely outfitted guerrilla and terrorists, a pattern that began with Britain’s exit from India and culminating in American misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq, examples of what the author calls a “long, almost unbroken record of failure.”

How to learn from the recent past to reshape the military for this new challenge–how to still save, in a sense, the free world–is the ultimate lesson of this big, bold, and cautionary work. The Changing Face of War is sure to become the standard source on this essential subject.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:10 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

One of the most influential experts on military history and strategy has now written an original and provocative account of the past hundred years of global conflict. This book reveals the path that led to the impasse in Iraq, why powerful standing armies are now helpless against ill-equipped insurgents, and how the security of sovereign nations may be maintained in the future. Van Creveld takes us on a journey from the last century's clashes of massive armies to today's short, high-tech, lopsided skirmishes and frustrating quagmires. War today is a mix of the ancient and the advanced, as state-of-the-art armies fail to defeat small groups of crudely outfitted guerrilla and terrorists. How to learn from the recent past to reshape the military for this new challenge--how we can still save, in a sense, the free world--is the ultimate lesson of this big, bold, and cautionary work.--From publisher description.… (more)

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