Western writers about military and political theory sees war as a largely rational activity, at least on a state to state level. Clausewitz sees it as an extension of politics, a tools of policy to advance the State’s goals. Marx looks at its economic basis. Much of the game theory that drives military simulations resembles chess more than anything done by Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance, or Japan in early 1945.
Today many prominent American advocate long wars against what are, in our eyes, irrational foes. Neo-conservatives like William Kristol urge wars to defend rationally-based western societies against irrational, expansionist Islamic fanatics — “Islamofascists.” Visionaries like Thomas Barnett call for neocolonial wars against “gap” peoples, those who have not yet seen the light of civilization. Presidential candidate McCain believes we should fight in Iraq for a hundred years if necessary, against enemies he sees in the shadows but does not clearly describe (Here is the text and video, also here).
Do we understand these foes? Do we understand what drives us to wage yet another long war, just after the conclusion of the Cold War, to spend more on defense than the by the rest of the world combined? While folks like Kristol and Barnett give cool lectures in comfortable conference rooms, where calm reason is in the very air, massive wars are waged in the third world which barely register on the American consciousness and lie beyond our understanding. Nigeria (1967-69). Ethiopia – Eritrea (see here). Hutu vs. Tutsis (Rwanda, 1994). Congo (1998 – , see here and here). Sudan (see here). Senseless blood-thirsty war, without rules, without any logic other than that of the knife.
There is a large literature about the irrational roots of war. Perhaps best known is John Keegan‘s A History of Warfare. While not the refutation of Clausewitz that he intended (The opening line is “War is not the continuation of policy by other means.”), it proves several interesting case studies of why societies have waged war. Keegan says…
Soldiers are not as other men — that is the lesson I have learned from a life cast among warriors. The lesson has taught me to view with extreme suspicion all theories and representations of war that equate it with any other activity in human affairs. … All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior; their cultures nurture the warrior who defend them … Ultimately, however, there is only one warrior culture. its evolution and transformation over time and place, from man’s beginnings to his arrival in the contemporary world, is the history of warfare.
A new book by Martin van Creveld will hopefully take up where Keegan left off about this vital subject. Professor van Creveld has written 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). He has written about the future of war — The Transformation of War (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War. Then there is his magnum opus, The Rise and Decline of the State — the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.
Now comes Culture and War, hopefully explaining the 4GW hellfire infecting so much of the world — while the rest of us enjoy peace and a rate of economic growth not seen since the invention of agriculture. And what their passion for war might mean for us. From the publisher about this book:
Contrary to what Clausewitz and so many “realists” believe, war is not simply a means to an end. It is that, but it also exercises a powerful fascination in its own right; out of this fascination grew, and continues to grow, an entire culture. That culture ranges from the shapes and decoration of the armor of ancient Spartan warriors to today’s high tech “tiger suits;” from war games played by the ancient Egyptians to today’s violent video games; and from the Biblical commandments as to how one should treat one’s enemies all the way to the numbered paragraphs of today’s international law. It also includes countless great works of art, books (both fiction and history), films, and much more.
Renowned author and war historian Martin van Creveld argues that, in spite of cultural, technological, and tactical changes, the culture of war, far from being obsolete, is more alive today as it has ever been. Conversely, a society which, for one reason or another, loses touch with this culture will be helpless in front of one that has retained it and relishes in it.
For links to the online works by Marin van Creveld see the The Essential 4GW reading list: chapter One, Martin van Creveld.
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