Friday, January 14, 2005

The Van Creveld Factor

"J" from the comments section is reading Martin van Creveld's The Transformation of War.

One of the foundation courses at King's College, London (in the War Studies department, that is. I don't think Theology and Philosophy students have to do the same thing...) requires students to look at van Creveld's book and Clausewitz's On War* in reasonable depth and in juxtaposition (full disclosure - I have consistently taken Clausewitz's side). I'd already read Transformation of War before the course began and I've had it up to the eyeballs in the past four months. So here's a little rant for you.

I generally pigeonhole books into one of four categories - Good and Right, Bad and Wrong, Good but Wrong and Bad but Right. I'm not sure that I can readily pigeonhole van Creveld's work in one of these categories, however. It's a pretty mixed bag.

It's over a decade since the book was published - long enough for van Creveld to have written a self-congratulatory retrospective, which appeared in the journal Small Wars and Insurgencies, but which can also be foud in Robert J. Bunker (ed) Non-State Threats and Future Wars. The book was notable at the time of its publication for taking on two entrenched strands of mainstream opinion, the military establishment which was flushed with success (and rampant technophilia) from the spectacular operational success of the 1991 Gulf War and a civilian establishment which was pinning its hopes on a lavish peace dividend and getting a collective tightness in the groinal area over whimsical theories predicting "the end of history".

In contrast, the world as van Creveld sees it is thoroughly nasty and reprehensible - a stance I can thoroughly appreciate - and in Transformation he made the point that it was only going to get nastier. His thesis brought forth several controversial (at least at the time) themes - that the controls and monopolies on violence enjoyed by the modern state system were poised to break down, that the utility of large conventional forces was set to decrease drastically and that nature of war as understood in the world's staff colleges was about to change as new military protagonists emerged (or re-emerged, depending on your reading of history) - warlords, gangs, international criminal networks. War would be increasingly "asymmetric", tribal, nihilistic even. On top of this, far from being a period in which international behavioural norms would flourish, we would see a transition into an increasingly barbarised warfare in which participants scrambled to reach the bottom of the barrel first.

The ladies, of course, love a man with a croaky voice and Muppet eyebrows

I've already said the book is a mixed bag. So where does it succeed and where does it, er, not?

First of all, it is a tribute to van Creveld's vision that many of the things he predicted are now spoken of as the norm - asymmetric conflicts, warlordism, LICs, the move from vertical to horizontal hierarchies among the oppoenents of the West. At the time, however, his claims were highly controversial. This is entirely in keeping with the van Creveld canon - the man is nothing if not a controversialist. In common with A.J.P. Taylor, van Creveld is a provocateur par excellence. Most academics would be content to produce a single "classic" work in their lifetimes. The Transformation of War, however, is van Creveld's second classic the first of which, Supplying War, had been in print for over a decade before van Creveld produced Transformation. Van Creveld has been credited - is still credited - with putting the subject of military logistics on the map (whether, given the central role logistical planning plays in the actual conduct of warfare, this says something about the state of the military-historical community as a whole is a whole other discussion...). It is indicative of the reaction van Creveld's work elicits to point out that of the three really noteworth broad surveys of military logistics to appear since Supplying War, two - John A. Lynn (ed) Feeding Mars and Thomas Kane's Military Logistics and Strategic Performance - pay tribute to van Creveld as intellectual stimulant and provocateur but are harshly critical of his conclusions and methodology and are in no small degree dedicated to systematically (and quite effectively) gutting his conclusions. The third, Major General Julian Thompson's Lifeblood of War, pays glowing tribute to van Creveld's work and picks up chronologically where van Creveld leaves off, but my personal view is that - perhaps given General Thompson's professional military background - it is a superior work to Supplying War.

There can be little doubt that one area in which van Creveld has proved enormously prescient regards the decreasing utility of - specifically technology-led - conventional forces. The US defence community has spent billions of dollars on weapons systems - and investment that has given the US a phenomenal military superiority on paper. In practice, however, the impact may well be less than originally touted in the sales catalogue. It would be churlish and just plain wrong to suggest that America has gained no return on her investments. Whether they have offered value for money is another question. Initial claims by air power enthusiasts aside, the Kosovo conflict was won as much by - eventually - shrewd political manoeuvring and plain luck as by high technology. Initial analyses of the recent Iraq War - the very fact that this is the first conflict in which Western forces have been involved in over a decade to match the scale of the original Gulf War is in and of itself a feather in van Creveld's cap - seem to suggest that thechnology was at best "value added" and not in and of itself a decisive factor. If one accepts that a successful strategy requires the careful calibration of ends, means and ways then it is unclear quite how one can sleep at night - witness the use in Afghanistan of 300,000 dollar a pop precision munitions to root out individual foxholes containing two or tree ragged tribesmen a piece, armed with nothing more than AK47s, pungent body odour and alarming facial hair. Kipling apparently took his frontier arithmetic with him to the grave. America can, however, afford these luxuries - for now. Outside the USA the story is rather different.

The British armed forces are a case in point. Britain has invested - and seems set to continue to invest - heavily in precision technology and in doing so has effectively turned her armed forces into a golden bullet - you get one shot and it's mightly powerful; but you'd better score a clean kill or you're in trouble. Both the Kosovo intervention and the conventional phase of the Iraq War represent fairly short conflicts - but in each case they were long enough to ensure that the British cupboard was bare. Because of costs, any frenetic, high-intensity activity on the part of the British armed forces quickly results in stockpiles of precision munitions being used up - recuperation time, in contrast, runs to many months or even years. In the meantime, the government scrimps on areas such as body armour and small arms ammunition for live fire exercises, the better to fund shiny toys. The decision to procure the Apache Longbow helicopter gunship provides a good case study. Quite what it provides for the British armed forces that could not be acquired almost as well but at significantly lower costs and higher sustainability by buying the US Marine Corps version of the venerable Cobra gunship or second hand A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft has never been adequately explained. It is open to question whether, when they finally come into active service, the British Apaches will ever see real action. Expensive to start off with, brittle in a non-choreographed fight, with high running costs and requiring a gargantuan logistics train simply to keep them in running condition, it remains to be seen whether they will ever encounter a situation in which the high command will consider risking them in combat justifiable - a classic ends/means/ways rupture. At least Britain can still put a combat-ready Division in the field. The French are in an even worse state. The recent Gaullist defence spending boost has ended in a depressing climb-down after it became abundantly clear that it was economically unsustainable. In 1991, the French were able to put a Division in the field (albeit one somehat inferior in quality to the equivalent American and British formations). Today the commonly accepted wisdom is that they would struggle to field more than a combat-ready Brigade. This is all supposition, of course, as the French have not deployed for conventional warfighting on a Gulf War scale in over a decade.

Ain't nothing gonna stop us now! Oh, wait...

So what's wrong with it then? Well I would argue - and have argued consistently, noisily and shrilly - that van Creveld doesn't really understand Clausewitz. Van Creveld tries to buttress his revolutionary arguments by slaughtering Clausewitz as a proverbial sacred cow - controversial enough on the face of it but given added potency when one bears in mind the fact that at the time Transformation was being written, the US Army was explicitly turning to "Clausewitzian" strategic thought to explain the disaster of Vietnam and to avoid its repetition (The obvious example of this, purportedly Clausewitzian - and phenomenally popular in US military circles - but strongly criticised by some Clausewitzian strategists [full disclosure: I don't like it], is the late Harry Summers' On Strategy).

Van Creveld's assertion that "Trinitarian war" is on the war out superficially ties in well with the fact that the decline of state power and control is key to his Transformation thesis. Unfortunately, van Creveld is reduced to reaising straw men to support his arguments.

Van Creveld categorises the Trinity as consisting of the people, armed forces and government and on this basis is then able to present an array of case studies drawn from history in which one or more aspects of this formulation are seen to be wanting. This is all very neat and on the face of it is quite persuasive. Unfortunately, however, the primary Trinity consists not of people, armed forces and government but of violence/passion, chance and reason/purpose. It is true that these three factors are generally seen to manifest themselves through the people, armed forces and government but most Clausewitz scholars (see, for example, Colin Gray, Beatrice Heuser and Christopher Bassford) agree that this was not at the heart of what Clausewitz was attempting to argue. By explicitly focusing on people, armed forces and government, van Creveld is picking holes in theories that he himself is placing in Clausewitz's mouth. Indeed, in attempting to demonstrate the notion that Clausewitz's ideas regarding Trinitarian warfare were extremely time sensitiveand effectively limited to the period in which Clausewitz was writing, van Creveld ignores the fact that Clausewitz himself stated quite plainly that the relationship between the three pillars of the Trinity changed according to time and circumstance and that a rigis template could not be applied to their role. When these facts are taken into account, van Creveld's arguments become rather less attractive - even if his broader thesis is sound, some of the ways by which he arrives at it leave something to be desired.

When it comes to Clausewitz, van Creveld has been nothing if not joyously inconsistent. His credibility is not helped by the fact that not long before beginning to write Transformation he penned for inclusion in Michael Handel's edited volume Clausewitz and Modern Strategy an enthusiastic - and very good - essay on "The Eternal Clausewitz". A comparison of the two works reveals notable contradictions. In Eternal Clausewitz, van Creveld is (correctly) sharply critical of Basil Liddell Hart's interpretation of On War and praises the work of Peter Paret as among the finest in existence on Clausewitz's work and thought. It seems that over the next couple of years it was not only the nature of war that underwent a dramatic transformation - in Transformation of War, van Creveld happily draws on BLH's misconceptions to add fuel to his condemnation of Clausewitz and the previously pant-wettingly stellar work of Peter Paret is lampooned as "Clausewitz presented as a pipe-smoking, slipper-wearing Western strategist". Ouch! Quite what caused this change of heart is not clear - if I had to make a guess, I suspect that the emergence between Eternal Clausewitz and Transformation of the first (highly critical of Clausewitz) volume of Azar Gat's (a friend and sometime collaborator of van Creveld) History of Military Thought series may have been key to this Damascene turnaround. It would, of course, be both unreasonable and frankly hypocritical to deny van Creveld the right to change his mind. However, whether motivated by the zeal of the convert or simply by an impish inclination to poke a stick into the hornets' nest and have a good old riddle about, the sections dealing with Clausewitz are arguably the weakest in the book. Ironically, many avowedly Clausewitzian works of superb quality have emerged in the past decade and have come closer to many of van Creveld's arguments than one might expect - especially in the matter of rejecting technology as a military panacea.

Van Creveld also tries to place warfare firmly in the realms of the social, as opposed to the political. In this he shares a foxhole with the likes of John Keegan. Keegan and van Creveld's attempts to locate culture as a key determinant in the history of warfare is entirely welcome (though John A. Lynn's Battle: A History of Combat and Culture is superior to both Keegan and van Crevedl). On balance, however, I reject this approach (at least as presented by Keegan and van Creveld), not because there is no truth or merit in it but because it is inadequate. War has a social aspect and this is profoundly important, but again van Creveld goes too far in his search for walls to tear down. Van Creveld's assertion that war is sometimes an end in itself (as opposed to the Clausewitzian vision of war as a means to an end) implies a strategic vacuum that simply doesn't exist. The idea that culture and values are key to strategic decision making and military culture is nothing new. The reality is that Clausewitzian thinkers have long been among the most interested in factors such as strategic culture and the influence of the distorting prism of societal and cultural mores on strategic decision-making. It is no coincidence in my view that most neo-Clausewitzians are Classical, rather than Structural, Realists. The Medieval knight, the Islamic jihadist, the 1941 vintage Japanese, the Somali technical and the gangs of Sierra Leone did not and do not exist in a nihilistic vacuum - all make decisions, assess situations, undertake cost-benefit calculations, have reason and purposes that make perfect sense to them. That they do so through an ideosyncratic cultural lens and in a manner that is difficult to understand for the inhabitants of liberal democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel does not make them absent - it makes them difficult to understand. The fact of the matter is not that van Creveld's broader (non-Clausewitz related) arguments are wrong. It is that they are perfectly compatible with being viewed through a Clausewitzian template.

Did it make sense not to live for fun? Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb...

What to say in conclusion? The fact of the matter is that in non-Clausewitz related areas, the years since Transformation's publication have seen van Creveld thoroughly vindicated. The increasing prevalence of "low-intensity" warfare - still sidelined by some who would sooner stick their heads in the sand - is by now clear for all to see. Events since September 11th have seen strains emerging in what were previously considered the established norms of military conduct toward non-combatants and prisoners. Excellent though America's soldiers are, it is a matter of ongoing concern whether the experience of fighting an enemy who does not play by "the rules" is going to result in a process of brutalisation. The events at Abu Ghraib do not give great cause for optimism. The ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict provides van Creveld with cause for grim satisfaction - having argued that Israel cannot win the conflict by conventional means and having long been an advocate of taking the initiative on withdrawal and the construction of a security wall, recent events must certainly seem like a vindication.

Were strategy identical to a mathematics exam, van Creveld might achieve a less than stellar grade - while his conclusions are often impeccable, the working-out that underpins them often leaves a lot to be desired. However, those who are inclined to be dismissive need to look to their own records before casting stones. Lest we forget, at the same time as van Creveld was cheerfully extolling the eternal relevance of Clausewitz, the bulk of the strategic community were solemnly pronouncing upon the eternal relevance of a political entity called the USSR. Dwelling at any length on the comparitive predictive powers of van Creveld and some of the more enthusiastic of technophile RMA boosters risks an undignified lapse into cackling sadism. On top of this, van Creveld's work has spawned a considerable legacy. It is at least arguable that without van Creveld's original thesis there could have been no Ralph Peters, no Mary Kaldor (at least in her present incarnation), no Robert D. Steele and no Robert Kaplan. As track records go, that's not a bad one to have.

* Like many people in the field, I have long worked under the belief that the Howard/Paret version of On War is the best edition to have. I was therefore somewhat surprised - especially given that Sir Michael Howard founded the War Studies department - to discover that the general feeling within the department (at least among the staff who teach strategy) is that the Howard/Paret On War is the worst of the available translations. I happen also to have a three volume leather bound edition of the Graham translation dating from the early 20th century (complete with stamps from the Sandhurst library), which I have generally passed over in favour of the Howard/Paret edition and which has now been dug out of mothballs. I'm still not entirely convinced... but it's important to point out that the debate is there.

In a spirit of shameless departmental nepotism, I would urge any American readers in search of a non-Howard/Paret copy of On War to go for this version of the Graham translation if they can find a copy, as it has a new introduction by Jan Willem Honig who teaches at King's (and organises the Art of War Studies course).


Blogger J. said...

Wow. Quite a thorough review, I will have to digest this carefully. I am half way through, want to finish the book before really comparing it to Clausewitz. I really like Creveld's tone though, maybe because I am somewhat of a provocateur in my own small specialty. You may think that CB defense is very cut and dry, being a technically-focused field, but oh the debates! I don't mean the top-level WMD discussions either, but the lower operational/tactical use of CBRN defense equipment and policy. Right now we really don't do it right but that's for another day.

My gut says you're coming down hard on Creveld, could it be that (as you allude near the end) Creveld has a good insight into future state-nonstate conflicts, but that Clausewitz is still applicable to general state-state conflicts? I don't know. Must read more this weekend.

What do you think about Thomas Schnelling's "Arms and Influence" and "Strategies of Conflict"? Almost afraid to ask. I'm simultaneously reading the former, have the latter next in line. I really, really like Schnelling's discussion on why gas warfare has not been seen more often than it has. There is precious little strategic discussions on the "why" part of chemical-biological warfare (it's so dirty... etc etc).

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