Tag Archives: martin van creveld

The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen

Summary: Although many of our geopolitical experts continue to lie, our defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan slowly become visible to America. This is the failure of the COIN (as in FM 3-24), Petraeus’ baby. The wars were a tragedy, but relying on COIN was folly. Both were avoidable if we had learned from history. And from historians, like Martin van Creveld. This week’s series of posts recalls what we should have known. It’s not too late to learn, and to stop the mad small wars we’re waging around the world.

Eleazar vs an armored vehicle

The first suicide bomber in the first failed counterinsurgency, from the First Book of the Maccabees, 1.6.43

“Now Eleazar saw that one of the {elephants} was equipped with royal armor. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it. So he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name. He courageously ran into the midst of the phalanx to reach it … He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and he died.”

Today we have a guest post: “On Counterinsurgency: How to triumph in the age of asymmetric warfare
Excerpt from a speech by Martin van Creveld
Given at the Henry Jackson Society on 26 February 2008


Defining Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency and insurgency is the future of war, as nuclear weapons are slowly but surely making large-scale conventional warfare between powerful countries obsolete. These days any country that can wage large-scale conventional warfare is able to build nuclear weapons, and no first world modern state wants to risk the total devastation of nuclear war. For more than half a century wars have been waged either between or against countries which do not have and/or cannot build nuclear weapons. Once the nuclear weapons appear the game comes to an end. In fact, that is the best argument in favor of nuclear proliferation: nuclear states tend not to engage in combat with each other!

Unfortunately, the decline of large-scale conventional combat did not signal the end of war but rather a shift to other forms of conflict commonly referred to as low-intensity conflict, sub-conventional conflict, guerilla warfare, terrorism, or insurgencies. And over the last 62 years, the most powerful, important, modern, and sophisticated military armed forces on earth have had an abysmal record in coping with insurgency. Failure, upon failure, upon failure in more than a hundred cases typifies the entire record of counterinsurgency. {For details see the links at the end}

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Martin van Creveld explains the essence of Airpower Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Summary:  As we increasingly rely on projecting power from the air, it’s become more important to understand the history and future of airpower.  As with any aspect of the military arts, we first turn to Martin van Creveld, who has written 22 books about almost every significant aspect of war — technology, logistics, air power and maneuver warfare, the training of officers, the role of women in combat, military history (several books), nuclear proliferation, and strategy (several books).  Today we republish a review from the Marine Corps Gazette of his latest book.



  1. Review of The Age of Air Power by Martin van Creveld
  2. About the reviewer
  3. Other posts about the work of Martin van Creveld
  4. Other posts about airpower

(1)  The review

The Age Of Air Power by Martin van Creveld (2011), reviewed by Scott J. Kinner (Major, USMC, Retired), originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette of November 2011.  Republished here with their generous permission.


When Martin van Creveld speaks, people listen. His thoughtful works on military theory and history continually seek to challenge conventional wisdom. His insights and arguments are profound and substantial enough that even if one does not agree, they cannot be dismissed; they must be countered.

Van Creveld’s latest book, The Age of Airpower, is another such work. Arguably the most in-depth treatment of the subject available, Van Creveld not only addresses airpower in terms of both land- and seabased aviation, but also includes the space domain with its proliferation of ballistic missiles and satellites. Is so doing, he covers the role of airpower in conflicts from pre-World War I to Afghanistan.

Van Creveld seeks to demonstrate that airpower reached its high point in World War II and, relative to the promises of its proponents, is in a period of decline and increasing ineffectiveness. He argues that due to nuclear deterrence, conventional warfare amongst superpower competitors is extremely unlikely. But he points out that it is the anticipation of this type of conflict that drives airpower strategy and procurement in developed nations, resulting in dwindling airpower assets that are too expensive to maintain, that are too expensive to risk or lose in combat, and that are wholly ineffective against the types of actual conflicts encountered by today’s militaries.

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Status report on the war with Iran (we’re ignorantly drifting into yet another illegal war)

Summary: We’re marching towards a war. Like our other wars this past decade, an ill-considered conflict based mostly on lies. Wars being among the most uncertain things in life, this might be larger, more expensive, and more painful than our other wars  since 9-11. Take a deep breath while reading this post and consider what we’re doing. Only our passivity and implicit support for the hawks driving US foreign policy makes these wars possible. As such we’ll fully deserve the consequences, for good or for ill.  This is the tenth post in this series. Links at the end go to the previous chapters and to other reliable sources of information and analysis about this war.

A lie will fly around the world while the truth is getting its boots on.
— Attributed to Mark Twain

During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
— Attributed to George Orwell


  1. The latest attack on Iran, in violation of the laws American laid down after WWII
  2. Again, as we did with Iraq, we’ve unknowingly taken the critical step towards war
  3. Can we take out Iran’s nuke facilities?  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs answers.
  4. What are the likely results of our conflict?
  5. The winners so far:  Turkey and Iran
  6. Other posts in this series
  7. For more information: articles discussing the current conflict between Iran and US-Israel
  8. Other posts about attacking Iran

(1)  The latest attack on Iran, in violation of the laws American laid down

These assassinations and sabotage are acts of war.  Illegal, as the UN Security Council has not authorized actions against Iran.  Nor has the International Atomic Energy Agency made definitive charges against Iran (just carefully worded and poorly documented “concerns”).  We’re pissing on the work of several generations of Americans and our allies in and after WWII.  They boldly took the first small steps away from a world of mindless violence — towards one of collective security governed by standards and laws.  And now we’re turning back.

So far Iran has shown commendable restraint.  If they hit back, they will the ones acting in accord with the UN Charter.  We will be the criminals.  Many Americans will rejoice at that, an indicator of our descent from what we were — into a pit, with no bottom yet visible.  Now let’s look at the latest attack on Iran.

From the FARS News Agency

(a)  Terrorists Kill Commerce Deputy of Iran’s Nuclear Enrichment Site“, FARS News Agency, 11 January 2012:

An Iranian university professor and deputy director at Natanz enrichment facility was killed in a terrorist bomb blast in a Northern Tehran neighborhood on Wednesday morning. The magnetic bomb which was planted by an unknown motorcyclist under the car of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan Behdast, a professor at Tehran’s technical university, also wounded two other Iranian nationals in Seyed Khandan neighborhood in Northern Tehran.

Ahmadi Roshan, 32, was a graduate of oil industry university and a deputy director of Natanz uranium enrichment facility for commercial affairs.

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What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told.

Summary:  We’re driven to war like sheep herded by dogs, both sheep and us manipulated by fear.  Today we’re driven to war by fear of what a nuke-armed Iran will do, as described by our ever-hawkish geopolitical experts.  How reliable are their forecasts?  Ninth in a series; at the end are links to the other chapters.


  1. Could Iran use nukes to increase its geopolitical influence?
  2. Iran could use nukes for defense
  3. The World Can Live With a Nuclear Iran
  4. Is Iran weak or strong?
  5. Is Iran irrational and anti-American?
  6. Other posts in this series
  7. For more information: articles discussing our attempts to stop Iran’s progress towards nukes
  8. Other posts about Iran’s nuke program

(1)  Could Iran use nukes to increase its geopolitical influence?

Paul Pillar examines the ways Iran could use nukes:  “Iran’s Nuclear Oats“, Paul R. Pillar (former National Intelligence Officer), The National Interest, 29 September 2011 — Excerpt:

The alarmism about the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon is unmatched by any comparably intense attention to exactly why such a possibility is supposedly so dire. Among the voluminous opinion pieces, panel discussions, campaign rhetoric, and miscellaneous outcries on facets of this subject, one could search in vain for any detailed analysis of just what difference the advent of an Iranian nuke would make. Most of the discourse on the topic simply seems to take as a given, not needing any analysis, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be so bad that to prevent it warrants considering even extreme measures

Recently Ash Jain of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy produced what appears to fill this gap. His monograph, titled “Nuclear Weapons and Iran’s Global Ambitions: Troubling Scenarios,” is, at least on the face of it, a serious effort to analyze the regional and global consequences of Iranian nuclear weapons. It is the most extensive consideration of this question I have seen from anyone who clearly believes that an Iranian nuke would be very bad. As such, Jain deserves credit for taking this stab at the subject. As a serious, extensive effort, his paper can be taken as demonstrating the limits of any case about the dangers of Iranian nuclear weapons.

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The Decline of the State in Europe and the US, a big but invisible theme of current news

Events in Europe and the US play out as an almost mathematical proof of Martin van Creveld’s forecast that the 21st century would see the decline of the nation-state.  In Europe’s it’s  plain to see, if invisible to its elites.  Ditto in the US.  Here’s one example of the State’s decline, an excerpt from “The Tea Party Jacobins“, Mark Lilla, New York Review of Books, 27 May 2010:

Ever since the Seventies, social scientists have puzzled over the fact that, despite greater affluence and relative peace, Americans have far less trust in their government than they had up until the mid-Sixties. Just before the last election, only a tenth of Americans said that they were “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States,” a record low.  They express some confidence in the presidency and the courts, but when asked in the abstract about “the government” and whether they expect it to do the right thing or whether it is run for our benefit, a relatively consistent majority says “no.”  It’s important to remember that the confidence they express in free markets and deregulation is only relative to their sense that government no longer functions as it should.

And they are not alone. Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively. This is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame. Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing.

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The key to success in Afghanistan: independence

Summary:  The key ingredient for a foreign army’s success fighting an insurgency is independence.  Building and supporting the local government’s legitimacy, with their people confident that the foreigners will leave after winning.  It’s the key theme of FM 3-24, the COIN guide — but ignored in practice by our military.  It contributed to victory in Malaysia, and can do so in Afghanistan.  Americans should instinctively understand this!

  1. The Malaysian insurgency:  victory and independence
  2.  It also will work in Afghanistan
  3. What does victory mean for us in Afghanistan?  (added in response to reader responses)

(1)  The Malaysian insurgency:  victory and independence

The Brit’s gradual emancipation of Malaysia played a great (if commonly underestimated) role in the insurgents defeat  (the Malayan Emergency of June 1948 – July 1960; see Wikipedia).  Independence was granted in August 1957.

(a)  Excerpt from Martin Van Creveld’s Transformation of War

Against these defeats, numbering in the dozen, there is just one shining (and often-quoted) example of a former colonial power “winning” a struggle in the Third World. The British armed forces in Malaysia successfully put down a communist insurgency which, truth to say, was largely confined to the Chinese minority and unsupported by most of the population. By this feat they acquired a high reputation, also learning “lessons” from which others have since sought to benefit.

What is often overlooked, however, is that this particular struggle was conducted in a vacuum. It was perhaps the only time in history when a country, far from using war for expansionist ends, from the beginning announced its intention of not doing so. The British Conservative Government headed by Winston Churchill entered the struggle with the promise that Malaysia would be evacuated once the insurgency was defeated. When it was defeated, the British kept their word.

(b)  Excerpt from John A. Nagl’s Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife:

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The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”

In Technology of War Martin van Creveld, the greatest historian of our time, describes how new technology affects both the nature of war — and the societies that use them.  Today we have taken a large step into the future by deploying unmanned aerial vehicles as flying assassins.  We can make only two guesses as to the consequences.

  • There will be unexpected consequences.
  • Our opponents will respond, probably themselves using this technology.

This is an extension of our bombing in Iraq.  Not having been bombed, like so many other nations, we are insensitive to feelings death from the sky invokes in so many other people.  Or, judging from the news blackout of our Iraq bombing, we just prefer not to know.  For more about this see the articles at the end of this post.

Today’s feature discusses this:  “The Forty-Year Drone War“, Nick Turse, TomDispatch, 24 January 2010 — Reposted with permission:

Introduction by Tom Englehardt

There’s something viral about the wondrous new weaponry an industrial war system churns out. In World War I, for instance, when that system was first gearing up to plan and produce new weapons by the generation, such creations — poison gas, the early airplane, the tank — barely hit the battlefield before the enemy had developed countermeasures and was cranking up his own production line to create something similar. And this process has never stopped.

The wonder weapon of our present moment is the missile-armed unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, now doing our dirty work, an endless series of targeted assassinations, in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands. Such weapons always come with wondrous claims. Here’s a typical one from a recent Wall Street Journal editorial:Never before in the history of air warfare have we been able to distinguish as well between combatants and civilians as we can with drones.” When it comes to war, beware of any sentence that begins “never before,” and the claims of future breakthroughs or victories that go with them.

It’s easy, of course, for the editorial writers of the Journal to pen such confident sentiments thousands of miles from the war zone. They would undoubtedly feel quite differently if their hometowns and neighborhoods were the targets of such “precise” weaponry, which has nonetheless managed to kill hundreds of civilians.

Drones, of course, do just what they were meant to do, as surely as did poison gas, the airplane, and the tank early in the last century: they kill. That’s indisputable, but the promised “breakthroughs,” whether aimed at destroying enemy fortifications, enemy networks, or the enemy’s will, seldom follow so reliably. And yet once the wonder fades and the overwrought claims with it, the wonder weapons remain in our world — and (here’s the viral part) they begin to spread.

There is no evidence that the drones are breaking the back of either the Taliban (Afghan or Pakistani) or al-Qaeda in our distant wars, but plenty of evidence that they are helping to destabilize Pakistan and create intense anti-American feelings there. Now, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicated on arriving in Pakistan last week, we are thinking of giving the Pakistanis their own unarmed surveillance drones, while from Iran to China, Israel to Russia, powers everywhere are rushing to enter the age of 24/7 robotic assassination along with, or just behind, us. You might think that this would give the Pentagon pause, but a prospective arms race just gets the blood there boiling, and when it comes to Terminator-style war, as Nick Turse indicates below, the U.S. Air Force has plans. Boy, does it ever!

The Drone Surge – Today, Tomorrow, and 2047
By Nick Turse

One moment there was the hum of a motor in the sky above.  The next, on a recent morning in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a missile blasted a home, killing 13 people.  Days later, the same increasingly familiar mechanical whine preceded a two-missile salvo that slammed into a compound in Degan village in the tribal North Waziristan district of Pakistan, killing three.

What were once unacknowledged, relatively infrequent targeted killings of suspected militants or terrorists in the Bush years have become commonplace under the Obama administration.  And since a devastating December 30th suicide attack by a Jordanian double agent on a CIA forward operating base in Afghanistan, unmanned aerial drones have been hunting humans in the Af-Pak war zone at a record pace.  In Pakistan, an “unprecedented number” of strikes — which have killed armed guerrillas and civilians alike — have led to more fear, anger, and outrage in the tribal areas, as the CIA, with help from the U.S. Air Force, wages the most public “secret” war of modern times.

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