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.

I support my soldier

Given the circumstances, indeed, doing so would have been the height of stupidity on their part. Yet from the time the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C were defeated by the outnumbered Greeks right down to the present, troops whose primary concern is not to get themselves killed have never be able to fight, let alone win.

One would think that, aware of the problem, the politicians and societies that so light-heartedly sent the troops to fight under these circumstances would do everything in their power to compensate them in other ways. For example, by allowing them some license to enjoy life before a bomb went off, blowing them to pieces; making sure that those put in harm’s way would be given a free hand to do what they had to do; allowing them to take pride in their handiwork; celebrating them on their return; and giving them all kinds of privileges.

Was it not Plato who suggested that those who excelled in war on behalf of the republic be given first right to kiss and be kissed? After all, in every field of human activity from football to accounting it has always been those who enjoy what they do who do it best. Conversely, in every field those who excel are those who enjoy what they are doing. Is there any reason why, in waging war and fighting, things should be any different?

Instead, far from honoring their troops or even showing them respect, Western societies have done the opposite. During training and in garrison, they are surrounded by a thousand regulations that prevent them from doing things every civilian can do as a matter of course. That includes, if they are American and not yet 21 years old, buying a can of beer and drinking its contents.

On campaign they are bound by rules of engagement that often make their enemies laugh at them, prevent them from defending themselves, lead to unnecessary casualties, and result in punishment if they are violated. Anybody who openly says that he took pride in his deadly work — as, for example, the legendary, now retired, four-star U.S Marine Corps General Jim Mattis at one point did — will be counseled to shut up if he is lucky and disciplined if he is not.

American troops returning from a tour undergo obligatory testing for post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. PTSD, of course, is a real problem for some. However, as all history shows, it is simply not true that fighting, killing and watching others being killed is necessarily traumatic. Suppose the Roman Army had dealt with PTSD as we do now; would it have conquered the world? Nor, contrary to what one often hears, is it true that historical combat was less terrible than its modern equivalents. Perhaps to the contrary, given that the combatants could literally look into each other’s eyes, hear the screams, see the spurting blood, and touch the scattering brains.

As I wrote decades ago in Fighting Power: German & U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945, the real origin of PTSD is found in a personnel system which, for reasons of administrative efficiency, treats the troops like interchangeable cogs, isolates them, and prevents them from bonding.

Adding offense to injury, the above mentioned tests, introduced with the possibility of liability in mind, are humiliating. Wasn’t it Frederick the Great who said that the one thing that can drive men into the muzzles of the cannon trained on them is pride? Nor do things end at this point. Far from celebrating the troops’ courage and sacrifice, society very often treats them as damaged goods. Indeed things have come to the point where it expects them to be damaged.

An important role in all this is played by military women and feminism generally. In every known human society (even, as far as we are able to judge, in some animal societies) since the world began, whatever treatment was considered suitable for males has been seen as too harsh for females. Conversely, to be treated like women was perceived as the most humiliating thing men could undergo. By insisting on gender equality the way they have — even putting in place “equal employment opportunity officers” charged with hounding any man who dares “offend” a woman — Western armed forces have dragged their men’s pride through the mire.

The more so because, as the distribution of casualties shows, it is the men who do practically all the fighting. At the same time they have often confronted women with demands that were too much for them. The proof of this particular pudding is in the eating. Proportionally speaking, far more female than male soldiers are said to suffer from PTSD.

Had the system been deliberately designed to sap the fighting power of Western armies, it could hardly have been improved on. This might well make us ask: cui bono? Who profits? There are several answers. First come thousands of “mental health professionals” hired to treat the people in question. Like the female psychologist in Philipp Roth’s book, The Human Stain, who asks a Vietnam veteran whether he has ever killed anybody (firing a machine gun from a helicopter, he has killed hundreds, perhaps thousands), most would not recognize a bullet if they saw one.

Next come the corporations that produce all sorts of psychopharma (the standard method for treating PTSD is to drug the patients). Third are the media. Always eager to throw the first stone, very often they have a field day selling those suffering from the symptoms to a slavering public. Between them, these three make billions out of the enterprise.

Last not least are feminist organizations which always insist on “equality” (in reality, privilege) even if it means going over the bodies of many “sisters” and wrecking their countries’ military. Two points remain to be made. First, as their repeated victories prove, the Taliban, their brothers in arms in other countries, and non-Western societies generally know better than to follow the West on is self-destructive path. Second, societies that lose their fighting power by treating their troops in this way are doomed. Sooner or later, somebody will come along, big sword in hand, and cut off their head.

Let those with ears to listen, listen.


Other posts in this series

  1. Pussycats – Part Two.
  2. Martin van Creveld: Do the cycles of history turn our armies into pussycats?
  3. Martin van Creveld introduces his new radical book: “Pussycats.”
  4. We’ve become a low testosterone America. Pussycats? More research needed, stat!

Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war: Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present. Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as   Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than ours!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?.

He’s written one of the most influential books of our generation about war, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century. For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the real revolution in military affairs, about women soldiers, and especially these…

Age of Airpower
Available at Amazon.
Rise and Decline of the State
The Rise and Decline of the State.

14 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld: Our armies become pussycats, part 1”

  1. This is, a great article that shoves into the face of the reader Very Uncomfortable truths, exactly the kind of things that a conservative audience, DONT want to hear, because being conservative in USA means not wanting to change, but even more importantly than that, it means pretending things haven’t changed, because if you admit that things have changed, you need to change, just to keep things where they were.

    Keep Up The Good Work Editor.

  2. Now, in so far as analysis, round 1, let’s go…

    The fouth factor that MvC doesn’t mention, because it is the first factor, is the Military Complex

    Having the soldiers be replaceable cogs, that do not get to bonding, treating them like garbage($hit) and the rest of the measures that MvC mentions, also has the effect of even further reinforcing the power of the military Complex’s corporations, making “progress” even more about the new stupid gadget, separating the “success” of that army from the respect the people in it get,
    namely, “you go out the and kill for US, but when you come back we will treat you like a sick puppy, as a rotten apple that went rogue” I can see how this can turn very dangerouss people, roguer than rogue.

    I will stop this analysis here for now.

    In short, MvC fails to mention the First factor of “Cui Bono”.
    How Strange….

  3. While there are several good points, the author misses the big picture: what he describes in the military has been taking place throughout large organizations — whether corporations, NGO or government.

    “For example, […] making sure that those put in harm’s way would be given a free hand to do what they had to do; allowing them to take pride in their handiwork; celebrating them on their return; and giving them all kinds of privileges.”

    In large organization, one is increasingly disallowed to have a free hand at doing what one is supposed to do, to take pride in handiwork, or rewarded for success (except upper officer echelons, I mean, higher managers).

    “During training and in garrison, they are surrounded by a thousand regulations that prevent them from doing things every civilian can do as a matter of course. […] On campaign they are bound by rules of engagement”

    Yes, SOP, ISO-9000, specification templates, SoX, countless regulations from law, standards, and internal rules, all enforced through proper IT systems.

    “PTSD, of course, is a real problem for some.”

    I’am sure you have heard about the scourge of burn-out in firms.

    “a personnel system which, for reasons of administrative efficiency, treats the troops like interchangeable cogs, isolates them, and prevents them from bonding.”

    There we have it: this is the central element, pervasive throughout Western corporate, non-profit and governmental organizations. The fact that it also affects the military and results in “pussies” there — as well as risk adverse fence-sitters in corporations and demoralized bureaucrats in government — should be no surprise. The problem is not with the military, it is with the entire social framework.

    1. guest,

      That’s an interesting analogy, worth thinking about. But they seem quite different in goals. In corporate America we’re seeing a simple return to worker exploitation. Crack down, demand more for less, aggregate power and income at the top. I don’t believe that’s what’s happening in the military, which seems to me (guessing) the latest stage in bringing bureaucratic methods to war — a somewhat mad attempt to “rationalize” combat.

  4. The post by guest is one of the best recently. I would add that as in corporations the gulf in material rewards between the very top and even the upper middle widens. I have heard that generals beyond 1 star have personal chefs ( but can’t find the reference). This can’t be good for group cohesion in war.

  5. There is a song called Crazy boots about the troops that
    went to Malvinas war between Argentina en the UK in 1982,
    it begins like this

    Yo forme parte de un ejército loco,
    I was a part of a crazy army
    tenía veinte años y el pelo muy corto,
    I was 20 and my hair was too short
    pero, mi amigo, hubo una confusión,
    but, my friend, there was a misunderstanding
    porque para ellos el loco era yo.
    because to them I was the crazy one.

  6. The major benefits of the patterns Mr. vC describes are absent from his depiction,
    pharma? psychologists? sure they leech, but they are not factor to be mentioned if you mention only 3, I think thats common sense,
    sure, its mentiones that “it is believed”that it costs were 1 trillion,
    the psychologists and pharma profits from troops pale in comparison with
    the Military Complex (Troops, Weapons, Logistic Tail).

    Mastermind has the nerve to mention “Cui Bono” though, thats some nerve

    So you certainly think, well, what the f#ck do you know pacifist?

    Not much, but if I was USA I would have a troop system that respected troops,
    and based on RAND swarm research and other things by people nobody in the Pentagon listens to.
    Just a though

  7. …. But this is just not conenient to the Military Complex,
    They dont want a system consisting on small units, heavily bonded
    (not even if it requires a heavy tech infrastructure) No

    They want the Soldier not be the center of war,

    It is in the interest of the Military complex Not to develop actually efficient solutions,
    what ther sell as efficient is what is efficient to them.

  8. Thats the question to ask when someone tells you that this or that is good, efficient or efective,

    good, efficien and/or effective For Who?

  9. Interesting hypothesis here. Our military has forgotten the importance of morale.
    I’m not sure I’m convinced that those specific factors (regulations, PTSD, women) are the primary contributors. From what I hear, the general attitude of the officers, such as lack of respect or connection, is at least as important. This is all very much worth thinking about.

    If soldiers are not confident in themselves or in their cause, if they’re coddled and denigrated at the same time, and if they don’t really even want to be there in the first place, then they can’t be expected to perform in the elevated capacity we might expect of such expensive armed forces.

    This is not necessarily evidence of a conspiracy by psychologists, pharmaceutical companies, and feminists. Maybe just bureaucratic sclerosis causing an institution to forget about the one essential factor for any successful enterprise: the people.


    “This book is about female privileges throughout history. It is written by one of the worlds foremost military historians. It documents have laws surrounding marriage and divorce privileged women. How mens work have always been much harder than female work and how society worked to protect women from hard and dangerous work. It documents how boys where treatet extremely harshly in school while girls where comparatively treated as porcelain. It also goes documents how women where very often not punished for their crimes, how their husbands often where instead, that if they where punished they got lesser punishment, how many countries had separate and lesser punishments for women doing the same crime as a man, especially when the punishment was physical women tended to not be given such punishments, and when women did do time they where treated so much better its almost beyond belief. He also documents extensively how women have been protected from military service, how conscription has been very common throughout history, how women that did do some sort of military work, as voluntary soldiers or as support for armies where extremely privileged. And several other ways women won out. It also busts some feminists myths. For example it has a very good critique of the common narrative around witch burning. Throughout most of history, except for the time famous for witch burning, about equal numbers of male and females where burned as witches.

    We need a really good video, or several, going through all this things so that we can have it handy for debates we engage in with people. A Girlwriteswhat video would be perfect for that. She can condense the arguments very well. And put an MRA spin on it. Such a video should have detailed sources for everything below the video. All van Crevelds sources for the claims that are used in the video should be listed below so it can be made extra credible.

    If Karen is not up for it hopefully someone else will do it. Ideally we should have one video that looks at the book in full and separate videos about the individual topics.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: