Tag Archives: martin van creveld

Martin van Creveld looks at Hand-to-hand combat from classical Athens to modern Israel

Summary: Martin van Creveld looks at the history of the martial arts in the west, from their origin to the use of Krav Maga by the Israel Defense Forces. He discusses their value and limitations. It’s a surprise to those of us whose knowledge of these things comes from Hollywood.

Krav Maga


Hand-to-Hand Combat:
A Short History

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 16 April 2014

Posted with his generous permission

Not long ago, I was approached by an Austrian-German-Dutch producer who wanted me to participate in a TV program he was preparing about Krav Maga (Hebrew: “touch combat”) as practiced in the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Doing a Google search I was surprised at the number of references to it, not only in Hebrew but in various other languages as well. It turned out that Israeli instructors in the field are active in many countries and that their services are in demand. Given the obvious public interest in the subject, I thought a short survey of its role in the history of war in general, and in the Israeli military in particular, would not be out of place here.

The ancient history of “touch”

The term “touch,” or hand-to-hand, or close, combat is misleading. In reality it comprises two very different things. One is combat without weapons, as in various kinds of martial arts; the other, combat conducted at such close quarters as to enable the combatants to look into the whites of each other’s eyes, as the saying goes. To avoid confusion the two must be kept separate.

Martial arts have been practiced for thousands of years. They may, indeed, go back all the way to our ape-like ancestors. Ancient Egyptian soldiers engaged in regular wrestling matches which were sometimes attended by the Pharaoh in person. The window from which Ramses III (ca. 1187-56 B.C.) watched the bouts still exists. In the Iliad, boxing is mentioned. The champion, a certain Epheios, was the same man who later built the Trojan horse. During classical and Hellenistic times martial arts, including wrestling, boxing and pankration, a form that allowed the use of both arms and legs, formed an important part of sport. At Olympia, the site of the famous games, the statue of Agon, contest or struggle, stood right next to that of Ares, the god of war.

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Martin van Creveld asks what do soldiers do during war? Rape.

Summary: Here Martin van Creveld reviews a book about an important new book documenting rape by US troops during WWII. With the passage of time we’re slowly able to see the full horror of the “good war”, the dark deeds done by both sides. This clear sight of the past can hep us prevent it repeating, providing an antidote to the glorification of war that arises as when we blank out these memories.

What Soldiers Do


Human All Too Human

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 9 April 2014

Posted with his generous permission

Review of What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France by Mary Louise Roberts (2013).

What alerted me to the existence of this book was a radio program to which I happened to listen one fine Saturday morning. The way it was presented, Mary Lou Roberts, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had caused a stir by drawing her readers’ attention to the sexual misbehavior of American troops in France during the period from June 1944 to VE Day. Another feminist tear-jerker about bad men abusing poor innocent women, I thought.

As it turned out, the book is anything but. In her introduction, Prof. Roberts dwells on the realistic premise that any attempt to understand the relationship between the United States and France as it developed after the Normandy landings cannot limit itself to high-level diplomatic exchanges alone. It should, instead, look at the way GIs — as many as four million of them, serving under General Eisenhower — interacted with the French population and the French population, with the GIs. The more so because those interactions both reflected and created the images both sides formed of each other; images which in turn were not without impact on high-level diplomatic exchanges and decisions.

Speaking of interaction, the problem of sex neither can nor should be avoided. And it is on sex that Prof. Roberts trains her telescope.

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Martin van Creveld: learning to say “no” to war

Summary:  In his fourth post about the real revolution in military affairs, the evolution of western armies into pussycats, Martin van Creveld looks at the increasing number of men who refused to fight — first for religious reasons, later often for ethical reasons — and the State’s increasingly willingness to accommodate them.

Christ is anti-war


Pussycats IV: Learning to Say No

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 29 October 2014

Posted with his generous permission


The first Pussycat article dealt with the frequent defeats of modern Western armed forces at the hand of irregulars in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and pointed out some of the underlying causes behind this phenomenon. Pussycats II explained how war was associated first with excellence, then with honor, then with wisdom (“the ultimate experience”) and then with PTSD. Whereas Pussycats III traced the way in which, time after time, rude but brave conquerors were turned into soft, lazy, effeminate losers. Here I want to analyze the contribution of yet another factor: to wit, the rise of the right to say no.

Principled resistance to military service can be traced as far back as early Christianity under the Roman Empire. Whether, at that time, it was rooted in moral objections to war as such or in religion has long been moot. The fact that, no sooner did the empire turn Christian in the fourth century A.D, many Christians started joining the army suggests that the latter interpretation is closer to the truth. Once God had told Emperor Constantine that in hoc signo vinces most problems disappeared. From the time of Charlemagne’s campaigns in Spain and Saxony to that of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, countless Christians went into battle under the sign of the cross. In 1999, the Serbs did so still.

Following the Reformation, some Protestant Sects took the opposite tack. Citing Jesus’ command to “love your enemies,” they asked to be exempted from military service on religious grounds. Among them were the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Hutterites, and others. In the Netherlands, in Switzerland, and in parts of Germany they often got their way, normally in return for paying a special tax.

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Martin van Creveld: Do the cycles of history turn our armies into pussycats?

Summary:  In his third post about the real revolution in military affairs, the evolution of western armies into pussycats, Martin van Creveld looks for explanations in the cycles of history.

"The Wheel of Fortune" from Garden of Delights (1164).

“The Wheel of Fortune” from Garden of Delights (1164).


Pussycats III, or
the Rise and Fall of Empires

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 8 October 2014

Posted with his generous permission


“What is time?” asked Saint Augustine. And, answering his own question, wrote: “I know what it is, but I cannot easily explain it.” Thirteen hundred years or so later Isaac Newton described some of time’s outstanding characteristics as he saw them. In his scheme of things time had an objective existence, i.e. it was not something that existed merely in our feelings or thought. It moved from the past to the future, never the other way around. Flowing along, so to speak, it could never repeat itself. The speed of the flow was fixed, and nothing could interfere with it.

The Einsteinian Revolution challenged these ideas. Nevertheless, to this day many, perhaps most, people see time in Newtonian terms. Some scholars believe that the idea had something to do with the invention of mechanical clocks around 1300. But that is a subject we cannot explore here. Suffice it to say that, around 1760, it was joined by the idea of progress. Not only did time move from the past to the future, but as it did so things became better, or at any rate were capable of becoming better, than they had been. All men will become brothers” wrote Friedrich Schiller in his “Ode to Joy” (1785).

Shifting the emphasis from the individual to the polity, the father of modern history, Friedrich Hegel, led his strong support to this idea. So did all three of the most important modern ideologies that drew on his work, i.e. liberalism, socialism/communism, and fascism. As Steve Pinker‘s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) shows, not even the experience of two world wars, Auschwitz and Hiroshima have put an end to the idea that man, and by implication society, is capable of moral improvement and has actually been improving.

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Martin van Creveld: Our armies become pussycats, part 2

Summary:  In this second post about the real revolution in military affairs, Martin van Creveld examines ask why men fight. Rather than the conventional political and geopolitical factors, he looks at the psychology of excellence, honor, spirituality, and PTSD. It’s worth some thought as we begin the second round of our long war.  See part one here.

"Mars, god of war" by GhostsAndDecay at DeviantArt

Mars, god of war” by GhostsAndDecay at DeviantArt


Pussycats II: Seek and You Shall Find

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 17 September 2014

Posted with his generous permission


“Seek and you shall find,” says the Gospel. Never more so, one supposes, then in our own “post-modern” age when everything goes and countless things that were supposed to have an objective existence suddenly stand revealed as “constructed” in this way or that. Not only words, as Humpty Dumpty said, but things mean what we choose them to mean. If not completely so — here I differ with some of the most extreme followers of Michel Foucault — then at any rate to a considerable extent. Take the case of war.

The age of prowness

In ancient Greece and Rome war was supposed to be associated with arête and virtus. Both are best understood as (manly, but in the present context that is beside the point) excellence and prowess respectively. Achilles preferred a short, heroic life to a long and dull one. Alexander, who studied Homer under the guidance of Aristotle, told his troops that “work, as long as it is noble, is an end in itself.” Virgil, by common consent the greatest Roman poet, celebrated virtus, the quality that had made had enabled his city to conquer first Italy and then the world, as follows:
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Martin van Creveld: Our armies become pussycats, part 1

Summary:  The revolution in military affairs continues, silently and invisibly. Our hardware-obsessed military and its fanboys see only tools while the nature of war itself evolves. Previous posts looked at the increased role of women and children. Here Martin van Creveld looks at another fundamental change.

Army Strong


Pussycats – Part I

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 21 May 2014

Here with his generous permission

For several decades now, Western armed forces — which keep preening themselves as the best-trained, best organized, best equipped best led, in history — have been turned into pussycats. Being pussycats, they went from one defeat to the next.

True, in 1999 they did succeed in imposing their will on Serbia. But only because the opponent was a small, weak state (at the time, the Serb armed forces, exhausted by a prolonged civil war, were rated 35th in the world); and even then only because that state was practically defenseless in the air. The same applies to Libya in 2011. Over there, indigenous bands on the ground did most of the fighting and took all the casualties. In both cases, when it came to engaging in ground combat, man against man, the West, with the U.S at its head, simply did not have what it takes.

On other occasions things were worse still. Western armies tried to create order in Somalia and were kicked out by the “Skinnies,” as they called their lean but mean opponents. They tried to beat the Taliban in Afghanistan, and were kicked out. They tried to impose democracy (and get their hands on oil) in Iraq, and ended up leaving with their tails between their legs. The cost of these foolish adventures to the U.S alone is said to have been around 1 trillion — 1,000,000,000,000 — dollars. With one defeat following another, is it any wonder that, when those forces were called upon to put an end to the civil war in Syria, they and the societies they serve preferred to let the atrocities go on?

By far the most important single reason behind the repeated failures is the fact that, one and all, these were luxury wars. With nuclear weapons deterring large-scale attack, for seven decades now no Western country has waged anything like a serious, let alone existential, struggle against a more or less equal opponent. As the troops took on opponents much weaker than themselves — often in places they had never heard about, often for reasons nobody but a few politicians understood — they saw no reason why they should get themselves killed.

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Martin van Creveld says: To understand ISIS, see its history

Summary:  To gain a perspective to understand the Islamic State, Martin van Creveld looks at the history of the Middle East for its origins. Although written last year it remains as apt today as then (despite the monthly clickbait announcements of turning points in this war).

Van Gogh sees the history of the Middle East

Van Gogh's Wheatfield (1890)

Van Gogh’s Wheatfield (1890).

The Monster II

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 24 September 2014
Here with his generous permission

What went wrong? A brief history of the Arab world.

During the middle ages the Arabs developed a brilliant civilization, or so we are told. Next, at some time during the fifteenth century, things began going wrong. The Arabs missed the invention of print (only in 1775 did the Ottomans, who at that time ruled over most Arabs, allow the first printing shop to be established. They missed humanism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. They missed the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They missed the French and American Revolutions along with the principles of democracy and human rights; and they also missed the industrial revolution.

As so often, backwardness meant military weakness and invited invasion. By 1919 there was not one Arab country left that was not under European occupation with all the attendant bloodshed, destruction, and humiliation.

The process of liberation started in the 1930s and lasted into the 1960s. Many of the regimes that now took power were republican and secular. They promised to catch up with the modern world, usually by adopting some version of “Arab socialism.” Algeria, Tunisia, Libya (after 1969), Egypt, Syria and Iraq all took this approach.

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