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.
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.
Cycles of history
Strictly speaking, neither the idea of progress nor that of the kind of time in which it takes place can be proved. That explains why the latter has always coexisted, and to some extent continues to coexist, with several others.
Particularly interesting in this respect is time as moving in cycles. The idea was prevalent during classical antiquity. Such key figures as the statesmen Lycurgus, the philosophers Plato and Seneca, and the historians Polybius and Livy (who wrote that Rome “was struggling with its own greatness”) all advocated it.
The great fourteenth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldoun based his history on it. So did Machiavelli and the eighteenth-century philosophs Montesquieu and Gibbons. During the first half of the twentieth century it enjoyed a strong revival at the hands of historians such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee.
Some of these men sought ways to delay the process or, if possible, bring it to a halt. Thus Isocrates, the fourth-century BC Athenian statesman, hoped that Athens, by not ruling its subject city-states too harshly, could avoid the kind of rebellion that had brought previous empires (including its own as it had existed in the previous century) to an end.
Arguing that trade generated gaps between riches (plutos) and poverty (penia) and that such gaps necessarily led to civil war and collapse, Plato in The Republic Of Plato sought to ban it. In Sparta, private property as well as gold and silver were prohibited. Yet as was clear even as such measures were being proposed and implemented, in the long run the cycle of rise and fall could not be halted.
Causes of the rise and fall of empires
As one would expect from a line of thinkers stretching over two and a half millennia, there was no agreement as to just how the process works. Still, looking back, the gist of the argument can be summarized as follows. The earliest humans lived in rustic tribes. They fought each other over land, domestic animals, and women who, as the book of Exodus makes clear, were seen as little different from cattle.
One tribe having conquered the rest, it took on its richer settled neighbors. As, for example, the Persians did in respect to Babylon; the Goths in respect to Rome; the Aztecs in respect to the Toltecs; and the Mongols in respect to China.
Having triumphed, conquered and subjugated, the former tribesmen grew rich and soft. Allowing themselves to be governed by women, they indulged in every kind of luxury. Pushing the process along, rich societies are almost always urban. Making a living in such an environment requires a long education. This causes childhood to become extended and makes raising children very expensive. Hence, as some Roman statesmen began arguing even before the Emperor Augustus passed legislation to increase the birth rate, people who live in cities tend to have few children.
Relative to their size, such societies end up by having fewer men of military age. The small number of men of military age turns them into a precious resource and makes societies reluctant to have them shed their blood even for the best of causes. If, on top of all this, the young are prohibited from experiencing and expressing the joys of war, let alone enjoying the rewards it can bring, the remaining ones are unlikely to be good at waging it.
Some such societies have tried to solve the problem by enlisting mercenaries, foreigners included, thus separating thinkers from fighters. The outcome, says Thucydides, is that decisions are made by cowards — Excellent Sheep, to quote one recent writer — while the fighting is done by idiots.
Others put their trust in technology as the mid-fourth century anonymous author of De Rebus Bellicis (About Things Military) and quite some Chinese officials of various ages suggested. To no avail. Less than a century after De Rebus was written the barbarians brought the Roman Empire to an end. Far from defeating the northern barbarians once and for all, China was conquered by them not once but twice.
Finally, here and there attempts have been made to alleviate the problem by enlisting women. They are, however, unlikely to succeed. For obvious biological reasons, women are vital for the future of any society. As a result their blood is invariably perceived as more precious than that of men and very few of them actually fight or are killed in battle.
All this caused the societies in question to abandon the military virtues that had once led them to greatness or even start looking down on them. Attacked in turn by their poorer but more virile and aggressive neighbors, who were often joined by subject peoples, they ended by collapsing in ignominy. Often the conquerors were backward peoples whose only advantage over the conquered was their fighting spirit. The cycle, Plato and the rest believed, repeated itself, forming the stuff of which history was made.
Is there any reason to think it has ceased doing so?
Other posts in this series
- Pussycats – Part I.
- Seek and you shall find.
- Do the cycles of history turn our armies into pussycats?
- Learning to Say No.
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 our!) 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.