On War #275: Van Creveld Writes Another Big Book

By William S. Lind

All of Martin van Creveld’s books are worth reading, but a few are “big books,” books so important that anyone interested in war must read them.  To date, his big books include The Transformation of War, The Rise and Decline of the State and Fighting Power.  Van Creveld’s latest book has just come out, and it is a very big book indeed.  Titled The Culture of War, it targets, hits and obliterates Clausewitz’s assertion that war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.

Like John Boyd, van Creveld has engaged in a running feud with Clausewitz.  I happen to think Clausewitz still offers much of value, as do many things Prussian.  But as Boyd often said, we have learned a few things since Clausewitz’s day.

The Culture of War offers one of the most important lessons.  War exists not to serve the interests of states, it argues, or anything else.  Rather, it is a fundamental part of human nature and culture.  No human culture is imaginable that excludes war.  At the same time, war and those who fight it develop their own cultures, cultures which shape how war is carried on far more powerfully than do rational calculations of military effectiveness.

It is impossible to summarize a book this rich in a column.  Rather than try, let me give two examples from it, both from German military history.  The first illustrates the danger of military culture divorcing itself from actual war, the second the consequences of trying to separate military institutions from the culture of war.

After the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, the Prussian army routinized itself to the point where complex and largely useless drills came to be everything.  Creveld writes,

Many were especially devised for the king’s benefit; the most spectacular, if not the most useful, movement of all was turning a battalion on its own axis, like a top…

However, the extent to which the culture of war had taken over from war itself is nicely illustrated by two contemporary stories.  One had (General) von Saldern earnestly debating the pros and cons of increasing the regulation marching speed of seventy-five paces a minute to seventy-six; according to the other, when he went to heaven and explained his system of maneuvers to Gustavus Adolphus, the king answered that he was not aware that in the years since his death the earth had been made flat.  Briefly, a thousand details-“pedantries” as Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher was to call them later-that had originally served a useful purpose now became detached from reality, so to speak.  They continued to float about solely as parts of a highly developed culture, one that no longer made sense in any terms except its own.

The result was an army so brittle that, when faced in 1806 with Napoleon, it shattered.

Creveld’s second example is today’s German military, the Bundeswehr.  Germany’s politicians have demanded the Bundeswehr be stripped of all German military traditions, not just those of the Nazi period.  Creveld notes that

At first, only the years 1933-1945 were exorcised.  From 1968 on, however, there was a growing tendency to extend the shadows until they covered previous periods.  Not only the Panzer leader Heinz Guderian, not only the desert fox Erwin Rommel, but Hans von Seekt, Paul von Hindenburg, Erich Ludendorff, Alfred von Schieffen, and Helmut von Moltke disappeared. From heroes who had served their country, they were turned into “militarist,” “reactionary,” and “imperialist” villains; in today’s casernes, it is in vain that one looks for their names or their portraits…

In comparison with similar institutions in other countries, German military academies, staff colleges, and other educational institutions have an empty, bare, functional, and soulless appearance. The relics of the “wars of liberation” apart, almost the only items on display pertain to the Bundeswehr’s own history. However, since the Bundeswehr has never gone to war, the ability of those items to excite and inspire is limited…

Given the terrible historical background, all this is perfectly understandable. On the other hand, it is indisputable that an armed force, if its members are to fight and die for their country, must have a culture of war…

One does not have to be a “militarist” or a right-wing extremist to note the peculiar smell that prevails throughout the Bundeswehr. That smell is made up of impersonal bureaucratic procedures, political correctness, and the obsequiousness that results when people worry lest speaking up will lead to bad consequences.

Both of these extremes hold lessons for today’s U.S. military. The inward-focused culture of the Second Generation that dominates the American armed forces has generated an ever-widening disconnect with the nature of the modern battlefield. That contradiction lies at the heart of the American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, like the Bundeswehr, the U.S. armed forces are under political assault by forces that care nothing for preserving the necessary culture of war. The forced insertion of large numbers of women into the American military is one example. If the next administration opens the combat arms to women and also demands the recruitment of homosexuals, the damage to the culture of war may be vast.  The kind of men who fight often join the military to validate their manhood.  They cannot do that in armed services heavily peopled with women and homosexuals.

Just as van Creveld’s book The Transformation of War warns that war is changing, The Culture of War cautions that some things do not change.  The culture of war must contain certain elements, elements common to successful militaries throughout history.  If ideologies or other political or social forces outlaw some of those elements, the consequence will not be the end of war.  War will be carried on by other means, by gangs, militias, tribes and terrorists who are not subject to political correctness and can embody in full the culture of war.  From that perspective, Creveld’s The Transformation of War and The Culture of War are two volumes of the same work.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind

Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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Filed in Uncategorized | 16 responses so far

16 Responses to “On War #275: Van Creveld Writes Another Big Book”

  1. senor tomason 24 Sep 2008 at 8:02 pm 1

    “The forced insertion of large numbers of women into the American military ”

    The recruitment of large numbers of women into the United States Armed Forces was made neccesary by the all-volunteer recruiting system. The all-volunteer military could not survive without large numbers of women simply because not enough men join to fulfill recruiting requirements (not even close, actually). To have a military with no women or even a military with small numbers of women (say no more than five per cent of the force) we would have to restore the draft.

  2. jaylemeuxon 25 Sep 2008 at 12:55 am 2

    “If the next administration opens the combat arms to women and also demands the recruitment of homosexuals, the damage to the culture of war may be vast. The kind of men who fight often join the military to validate their manhood. They cannot do that in armed services heavily peopled with women and homosexuals.”

    Look, I’m no San Francisco liberal, but come on. These ideas just aren’t consistent with social science.

    1. The culture of war in America is not going anywhere, unfortunately. Women and homosexuals are not going to stop 18 year olds who grew up playing with guns and being told they’re not allowed to cry from wanting to fight.

    2. Homosexuals are already in the military — much more than some might think. Many of them are men. They grew up playing with guns and being told they’re not allowed to cry, either. They have no less motivation to fight in any legitimate war.

    3. Lind himself has asserted that 4GW, the war of the future, demands soldiers who don’t want to fight. The kind of men who join the military to validate their manhood are effective in a war against the Soviet Union, not a counterinsurgency war in a foreign culture.

    [CR: Good points. Although Lind and van Creveld have done ground-breaking work on the future of conflict, their social ideas are controversial, to say the least (you should hear what my wife has to say about them.)]

  3. rmhitchenson 25 Sep 2008 at 9:45 am 3

    Two comments: First, I think Azar Gat (another Israeli scholar) covered the same ground more exhaustively in War In Human Civilization, which analyzed the inherent nature of war in Homo Sapiens, but allowed for the possibility that societal changes in recent centuries might effect changes in human behavior, to include less of a tendency to embrace warfare.

    Second, re: the Bundeswehr, a former colleague in Army Intelligence, an active-duty officer, did a tour in USAREUR [Note: US Army Europe] in the early 1970s as a junior officer and went back more than a decade later as an O-5. Because he spoke near-fluent German he often found himself in a liaison capacity with the Bundeswehr during NATO exercises. His comment to me upon returning to the USA in the late 1980s was that “the Germans aren’t the Germans anymore.”

  4. rmhitchenson 25 Sep 2008 at 9:50 am 4

    One more comment, actually more of a data point: re: “forced insertion of large numbers of women into the American military,” one of our “canaries in the mine,” sci-fi author Joe Haldeman, foresees thorough gender integration in future military forces. (In his first novel, a classic, The Forever War)

  5. EmeryNelsonon 26 Sep 2008 at 4:37 pm 5

    The US and the West in General will not give up it’s PC ideas until they actually pay a price. I see no evidence that the pain is unbearable to the organizations involved. In fact it appears painless. Without much in the way of “dangerous” wars what possible consequences could we suffer?

    An infantry Bn full of women isn’t likely to be defeated in Iraq and is even unlikely in Afghanistan. In fact this is a test I’d like to see. We know homosexuals will fight, they have for thousands of years. The women issue may be in doubt so why not form an infantry bn and send them to Iraq for a test? Of course the real test would have been in Korea or Vietnam, but my intellectual betters seems to think those days are past (I appreciate the work of MVC and Lind but see this as a cyclical problem with large, ugly/violent wars returning as we become weakened).

    However, the US army isn’t an organization I’d care to be with any longer and the reasons are that besides the usual BS of rigid and useless culture of rank, we’ve now added PC to the mix. Organizations like this are jobs programs with no real value in fighting wars, but then small wars don’t take much in the way of violent action so there’s no real test to be had. (Our massive firepower has convinced everyone of our superiority… for the time being).

    The one thing we need to keep in mind is that there are no 4th generation warfare entities that rely on women other than for propaganda and intellegence purposes. There “chauvinism” seems like a cultural imperative and they don’t seem to have a difficult time taking 1st world armies to stalemate. An interesting question to ask is would these organizations be better served if they were more PC? Perhaps the US and EU should be making a case to the UN that these entities need to be forced into a “level playing field” by adding more women and homosexuals into their ranks. This business of them relying on the best and brightest seems unfair.

    “These ideas just aren’t consistent with social science.”

    Jaylemeux, you (and perhaps you and Mr. Richard’s wife) could tell me what this means, what has it proven and what science is involved?

  6. dnion 26 Sep 2008 at 5:12 pm 6

    EmeryNelson,

    Actually, van Creveld himself concluded in Transformation of War that women have been active in guerrilla groups, including in leadership roles, since forever. It’s only when the guerrilla war winds down and things return to normal — uniforms, ranks, bureaucracies, etc. — that they get shoved aside.

    Qutbist (“fundamentalist”) Islamic movements have cultural barriers to employing women in leadership roles — I wouldn’t draw any generalities from them.

  7. EmeryNelsonon 26 Sep 2008 at 7:47 pm 7

    I fully understand MVC’s point about woman active in insurgencies (but more particularly, “people’s war”). I would assert that insurgencies use women when necessary (this includes Muslims) and for particular, or limited, missions. They also have the role as props for insurgencies in that most standing armies respect women and when they don’t it adds numbers to the insurgent cause. One might even make the case that women are a political liability one way or another and that’s their greatest role.

    As stated above, I’m more then willing to run tests. I wonder why it wasn’t done a long time ago? OK, I’m being a smart ass. I know exactly why it’s not been done. That said, it seems reasonable to allow any person, female or otherwise, who meets “one” standard to do any job that’s necessary. Enact one standard and all arguments are over. If someone’s qualified that’s all that matters to those doing the job, at least from my experience.

  8. jaylemeuxon 27 Sep 2008 at 12:47 am 8

    “Jaylemeux, you (and perhaps you and Mr. Richard’s wife) could tell me what this means, what has it proven and what science is involved?”

    EmeryNelson- Let me make clear that I’m referring to the social, not the natural, sciences-mainly anthropology and sociology. Most of human behavior/values are learned, starting at birth. The reason we think of certain sets of values/behavior (like war, for instance) as male or female is because we’re taught from birth that those are correct ways to act. Sex is biological-gender is cultural. The body of knowledge on this is too vast to post here. There are cultures in the South Pacific in which what we think of as the traditional gender roles are reversed-women are aggressive and men submissive-because they’ve never been exposed to the idea that there is any other way.

    My point was that:
    1. Our culture is militaristic-I was playing with toy guns/tanks/jets as early as I can remember, and so were all of my male friends. Men brought up in such a culture aren’t in any threat of losing that value set if they’re paired with women/homosexuals/whatever.
    2. Since these values are learned, there’s no reason women and homosexuals can’t learn them just as well as anyone else.

    Besides, women and homosexuals are already in the U.S. military, which means that the absolutist view is flawed and we’re left arguing the merits of percentages.

  9. jaylemeuxon 27 Sep 2008 at 12:59 am 9

    We want an organization with the broadest spectrum of experience and viewpoint that we can get, right? As long as other gender groups are properly indoctrinated, don’t they just expand our (Boydian) orientation for the benefit of all?

    If it weren’t for the Lioness program providing female soldiers to perform the VERY hazardous but culturally necessary job of searching female locals at ECPs across Iraq, we would have things a lot worse off there. Marine units have even borrowed Lionesses from nearby Army units, lest they have to allow female locals to pass through checkpoints without inspection.

    To say that we need to exclude these gender groups to preserve the “culture of war” is also what Tom Barnett calls “thinking about war in the context of war instead of in the context of everything else.”

    I haven’t read Van Creveld’s book, but Lind’s review takes the destructive nature of women and homosexuals as an assumption, and I see no evidence that this nature is real. I’m not afraid of controversial viewpoints, but they have to be backed up by logical arguments and factual evidence. I think Lind and Van Creveld are complacent on this, given that their target audience generally already agrees with them.

    But really, I think the concept of “forced recruiting” of certain gender groups is a little paranoid. Say the U.S. was to drop “don’t ask, don’t tell:” It doesn’t mean recruiters are going to start reluctantly posting themselves outside gay bars.

  10. jaylemeuxon 27 Sep 2008 at 1:35 am 10

    “This business of them relying on the best and brightest seems unfair.”

    I missed this quote the first time around. You’re really saying that men as a group comprise humanity’s “best and brightest?” I’ve been scoring in the 99th percentile since kindergarten, and I now attend classes at Columbia University where women routinely blow me out of the water. War is no different when viewed from this lens. There’s a lot more to war than carrying heavy stuff and making guttural noises.

  11. EmeryNelsonon 27 Sep 2008 at 11:16 am 11

    “I’ve been scoring in the 99th percentile since kindergarten, and I now attend classes at Columbia University where women routinely blow me out of the water. War is no different when viewed from this lens. There’s a lot more to war than carrying heavy stuff and making guttural noises.”

    Admittedly I’ve never scored that high in anything and a prestigious university was never in the cards. However, one must wonder if the PC lens of an American university (where these idea have already been decided based on it’s culture which is significantly far from war) can honestly evaluate what war is? The university is a long way from a retreating army on the Korean peninsula (I got it. Most here don’t think those days are over. I do not). As stated above I’ve been waiting for the testing on this for close to thirty years.

  12. Mycophagiston 27 Sep 2008 at 6:46 pm 12

    Jaylemeux wrote:

    “I haven’t read Van Creveld’s book, but Lind’s review takes the destructive nature of women and homosexuals as an assumption, and I see no evidence that this nature is real.”

    Mr. Lind must be aware that the Theban Sacred Band, consisted of married Gay couples, who took the vows of Iolas, and for that matter much of the military force of Sparta, consisted of Gay men; what is he thinking?

    I grew up with the myth of the screaming queen as being the typical Gay person. And whoa to the military that consists of my generation being forced to work with Gay men. Last time I checked however, our military is not recruiting men of my generation… :(

    Many of todays young people have no idea what this prejudice is all about.

    Dave

  13. jaylemeuxon 27 Sep 2008 at 8:18 pm 13

    Emery-
    Granted, I realize that the university/war analogy only goes so far. It’s difficult to get serious, objective social research in war zones for obvious reasons. I’m equally suspicious of the university’s ability to understand war, but I like to think my grasp of the subject is above average here since I did 3 tours in Iraq before I ever went to college.

    I guess the thing that gets me the most is that I watched young men who joined the Marine Corps because they wanted to kill people (i.e., validate their manhood) create a lot of enemies in Iraq that I was then forced to fight. They clearly weren’t conditioned for success in that environment. CI demands a more diverse crowd with more life experience and something to lose. A number of scholars say that CI is also likely to become more frequent, and conventional war less so. Lind has pointed this out several times, but is ardently opposed to the introduction of women and homosexuals (probably not even realizing the prevalence of the latter) into the GCE. Seems like a contradiction to me.

  14. EmeryNelsonon 28 Sep 2008 at 1:07 pm 14

    jaylemeux, Creating the insurgency came from the top, that’s to say, Jorge his own self. In the environment he created an all female company, or women attached to a line company, would have acted similarly. If they would not have acted differently I’d like to know why? Are they that different from men? If so, is a lack of aggression a real advantage? Would an enemy find TTPs to counter any “advantage”. These are the kinds of questions, the ones no one wants to talk about, that I want answered.

    I do not buy Mr. Lind’s vision of a 4th GW future. In the short term yes, in the long term no way. The very second the fourth rate Mexican military decides that Juarez is the key to their survival it will quickly look like Hama. The Black Swan analogy above seems much more historically accurate. I’ve always believed that the war you prepare for is never the war you get. But time will tell. As the US slips below the waves in a mountain of debt things are going to change. Military equality (or worse) seems to be our future, not superiority. I wonder how long our infantry would last without an air force to take out snipers?

  15. JJon 30 Sep 2008 at 12:03 am 15

    “War will be carried on by other means, by gangs, militias, tribes and terrorists who are not subject to political correctness and can embody in full the culture of war.”

    Does anyone else feel that there is a chance that here, in the US, that such conflicts may surface?

    How would our military deal with such a problem?

    If 4GW is the future, then I see no reason why such a scenario should not be entertained, at various levels of probability of course.

    [CR: JJ — very good question. Lind, for one, has answered an enthusiastic “Yes!” and points to rising and increasingly organized cross-border gang activity in the American Southwest. One could envision the problems becoming worse as the American economy deteriorates.

    It’s not clear that the military has much of a role to play since the problem appears to be primarily social (e.g., demand for drugs) and one of law enforcement. As for counterinsurgency, evidence suggests that it is rarely successful in foreign countries but has a much better track record when used by the local government. We may be getting ready to see how well our new C/I theory actually works.]

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