A must-read about 4GW: “The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq”

The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq 
By Martin van Creveld

The gift of hope is perhaps the most valuable thing an author can provide us. The Changing Face of War is a must-read book because in it Martin van Creveld provides us with the second best gift: demolishing false hopes. Only after we clear our minds of misconceptions and baseless optimism can we begin the long process of adapting to a world in which a new form of war has obsoleted our current armed forces and ended the military dominance of the western developed nations.

Van Creveld describes our problem in a mild voice, without hyperbole.

As of the opening years of the 21st century, the mightiest, richest, best-equipped, best-trained armed forces that ever existed are in full decline and are, indeed, looking into an abyss. Examples of their failures abound.  {Introduction}

…Against this kind of threat, either tanks, nor warships, nor aircraft, nor the giant “eye in the sky” the Pentagon was planning to enable the last marine private in his or her foxhole to participate in “network-centric” warfare,” or other esoteric forms of warfare its experts kept dreaming up, are of any use at all.  {page 258}

…What can hardly be in dispute, though, is the fact that, from 1945 on, almost all attempts to deal with insurgencies have ended in failure. … as of the late 1990s, there were growing signs that … guerrilla warfare and terrorism, becoming international, were turning into an export commodity.  {page 268}

Bookstores’ shelves groan under the weight of volumes proclaiming that the End is Near, and that today is an inflection point in human history.  Global Warming, Peak Oil, The End of History, etc.  Unlike such sophistry, van Creveld shows the current state of warfare as the result of long-term trends.  He is well qualified to do so, as the author of seventeen books which cover the range of the military arts – including logistics, command, technology, gender, and history.

Where did twentieth-century warfare come from? … Where did those forces peak, why did they start to decline, and how did they reach the present impasse?  {Introduction}

Only after firmly putting current events in a larger context does he move to analysis of how we and our foes fight, and why. This approach puts van Creveld in the mainstream of the literature on “fourth generation warfare”, alongside experts such as Col. Hammes, Col. Richards, and William Lind. These works focus more on diagnosis than providing a cure. After all, correct diagnosis must precede a cure. An analysis of 20th century wars comprises the largest part of the book.

The other major current in literature about modern warfare gives solutions, as seen in works by experts such as Thomas Barnett and Lt. Col. Nagl. In the last chapter van Creveld strikes a note of tempered optimism, showing how events in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that our current fighting doctrines need drastic revision.

Does all this imply that we must resign ourselves to a world where insurgencies will typically gain their objectives? The answer is, by no means. The first, and absolutely indispensable, thing to do is to throw overboard 99 percent of the literature on counterinsurgency, counterguerrilla, counterterrorism, and the like. Since most it has been written by the losing side, it is of little value.  {page 268}

In effect he recommends for us receptive openness to observation and new ideas, innocent of false preconceptions – a foundational state from which we can move forward. He also provides a few tips. Not solutions, but pointers in the direction from which remedies might be found.


Typically book reviews tell you what the author said, filtering the thoughts of a great mind through that of a lesser one. That’s not necessary here. In only 270 pages The Changing Face of War provides a concise summary of van Creveld’s vast body of work on military theory and practice – and the best description to date of a serious danger we face. It is an easy read due to the clarity of his vision and the grace of his writing.

This book is a must-read for two kinds of people:

  1. Professionals in the military arts or military history, or those with an amateur interest in them.
  2. Anyone interested in the survival of our civilization, as military inferiority is seldom associated with longevity of societies.

Buy it or borrow it, and read it.  Or wait five years to read a simple version of his thinking in Parameters, or wait ten years to read a dim version in the New York Times.


Although van Creveld is perhaps the foundational source for those writing about fourth generational warfare (4GW), he does not use the term “4GW.” His 1991 book, The Transformation of War is still considered one of the best studies of warfare where one opponent is something other than a state army.

The Changing Face of War” is also the title of the seminal article which introduced the term 4GW (Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989, by William Lind et al).  It is also the title of a collection of essays from the Royal Military College of Canada, published in 1998 and edited by Allan D. English.  Several articles since then have used also used this phrase in their titles.


Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.  
Attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer (attributio unknown)

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For links to Martin van Creveld’s online works see The Essential 4GW reading list: chapter One, Martin van Creveld.

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