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

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