Tag Archives: martin van creveld

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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Martin van Creveld asks who will stop the Monster, the Islamic State?

Summary:  Today Martin van Creveld looks at the Islamic State. Are they ethnic militia unable to expand from their home zone, or a modern version of the Asiatic hordes? Who will stop them?  (1st of 2 posts today.}

Not how they see the Islamic State


The Monster

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 13 August 2014

Here with his generous permission

The monster — the Sunni militias which, equipped by the Saudis with the active backing of the U.S, have been waging civil war in Syria for over three years — has risen against its benefactors. Unable to make headway against Syrian dictator Basher Assad, they have turned to the much softer target that once constituted Iraq but is now, thanks to George Bush Jr, no more than an awful mess. Doing so, they shed any “secular” and “liberal” character they may once had possessed. Instead they revealed their true colors as murderous bandits who wage war with a ferocity rare even among Arabs.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to one of the world’s most important oil fields, has already fallen to them. As resistance seems to be crumbling, the capital, Baghdad, may well be next in line. Should that happen then the way to Basra and the Gulf countries in the south will be open. The outcome could well be another Afghanistan threatening to export terrorism, and perhaps more than just terrorism, both to the Gulf States in the south and to Jordan in the west — not to mention what may happen to the world’s economy should one of its main oil-exporting countries be knocked out.

And the West? Following more than a decade of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, its armed forces are exhausted and urgently in need of recuperation. Many of them have also been made the subject of endless cuts. As a result, their strength has been reduced to a fraction of what it used to be even as recently as the early 2000s. For some of them, the American ones in particular, new threats are looming in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia. Perhaps most important of all, the politicians responsible for the wars in question have been largely discredited. Their successors, with President Barak Obama at their head, may engage in loose talk about the need to use force, as German President Joachim Gauk recently did. However, as President Obama has said, they will not spend any considerable resources to intervene in the ongoing struggle.

Nor, in truth, is there any reason to believe that, if Obama did respond to Iraqi Government pleas and did spend such resources, the outcome would be at all satisfactory.

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Martin van Creveld asks: the more, the better for nuclear proliferation?

Summary:  For over a decade the US and Israel have scared us with stories about the imminent threat of Iran’s nukes, a louder version of a game they’ve played since 1984. Here Martin van Creveld gives a very different view of the problem.  (1st of 2 posts today.}

Nuclear Kraken

Release the Kraken! Art by lchappell


More May Be Better

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 2 April 2015

Here with his generous permission


Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May be Better was the title of an article published back in 1981 by the redoubtable political scientist Kenneth Waltz. Going against the prevailing wisdom, Waltz argued that nuclear proliferation might not be all bad. Nuclear weapons, he wrote, had prevented the US and the USSR from going to war against each other; as, by all historical logic since the days of Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC, they should have done. Instead they circled each other like dogs, occasionally barking and baring their teeth but never actually biting. Such was the fear the weapons inspired that other nuclear countries would probably follow suit.

To quote Winston Churchill, peace might be the sturdy child of terror.

Since then over thirty years have passed. Though Waltz himself died in 2013, his light goes marching on. At the time he published his article there were just five nuclear countries (the US, the USSR, Britain, France, and China). Plus one, Israel, which had the bomb but put anybody who dared say so in jail. Since then three (India, Pakistan, and North Korea) have been added, raising the total to nine. Yet on no occasion did any of these states fight a major war against any other major, read nuclear, power.

And how about Iran? First, note that no country has taken nearly as long as Iran did to develop its nuclear program. Started during the 1970s under the Shah, suspended during the 1980s as the Iranians were fighting Saddam Hussein (who had invaded Iran), and renewed in the early 1990s, that program has still not borne fruit. This suggests that, when the Iranians say, as they repeatedly have, that they do not want to build a bomb they are sincere, at least up to a point. All they want is the infrastructure that will enable them to build it quickly should the need arise. That is a desire they have in common with quite some other countries such as Sweden, Japan, and Australia.

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Martin van Creveld asks “War! What is it good for?”

Summary:  Since we appear to be locked into a long war, we should understand the nature of war and how its changing. Fortunately there are books explaining this in clear language. In today’s post Martin van Creveld reviews one of the best of the new ones, by a Stanford professor of classics.

Your breath first kindled the dead coal of wars
And brought in matter that should feed this fire;
And now ’tis far too huge to be blown out
With that same weak wind which enkindled it.

King John Act V, scene 2.

What War is Good For

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 3 December 2014

Review of War! What Is It Good For? by Ian Morris (2014, 496 pp).

Morris, a professor of classics and of history at Stanford University, thinks he can distinguish between two kinds of war. The first kind, which he calls “counterproductive war,” is waged by non-state entities against each other and also against what more developed communities exist.

It is the oldest form of war by far, consisting of skirmishes and raids and leading to little but death and destruction. It prevalence was responsible for the fact that, among the simplest known societies such as the Yanomamo of Brazil, as many as 10-20% of all people used to come to a violent end. It goes without saying that a population consisting of tribes, all constantly fighting each other for honor and for resources such as water, cattle and women cannot produce much by way of a civilization. As Morris, quoting Thomas Hobbes, says, its members’ lives are almost certain to be nasty, brutish and short.

Enter the other kind of war, which Morris calls “productive.” Productive war was made possible by certain technical and organizational innovations the first and most important of which was the invention of agriculture. It enabled the “stationary bandits” who best knew how to use them to break the cycle and set out on the way to empire-building.

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