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.

Alexander Fraser Tytler's cycle
Popular but quite fake.

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.

Cycles of Nature

About solutions

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

  1. Pussycats – Part I.
  2. Seek and you shall find.
  3. Do the cycles of history turn our armies into pussycats?
  4. Learning to Say No.

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 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.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these…

Rise and Decline of the State
Available at Amazon.
The Culture of War
Available at Amazon.

11 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld: Do the cycles of history turn our armies into pussycats?”

  1. “…solve the problem by enlisting mercenaries, foreigners included, thus separating thinkers from fighters. The outcome … is that decisions are made by cowards …. while the fighting is done by idiots.

    Others put their trust in technology…”

    He doesn’t bother stating the obvious, that with remote control drone warfare the West are doubling down by combining both tech and the perfect expendable idiots (robots). But since

    “…attempts have been made to alleviate the problem by enlisting women….”

    the mind boggles, for drone warfare is also essentially compatible with feminized warfare (also equal-opportunity physically-challenged transgender), thus blending a perfect triad of martial un-virtues. Reinforce success by adding early teen drone operators, since those iphone gen kids are the best and most dedicated video players.

    It could be the 5th generation of warfare! (/sarc) Well, either that, or a one way trip down the drain.

  2. MvC has very hyperbolic ways of saying things, and in this case its handy, if he were to say what he’s saying directly, he would be “rude”, he throws a hyperbole ball so as to give you time to see it coming, so that one can catch it well.

    Another point. I havent seen this mentioned in this discussion, maybe it is an unspoken given, I feel bringing it explicit could catalize new perspectives. Why are most US soldiers nowadays people that get into the military for economic reasons? What relation does this have to a mercenary?

    Are we talking about pussycats here or about a country that sources its warriors from people that wouldnt do it if not for the economic reasons, but have nothing to gain from victory?

    1. Sinestista,

      ” a country that sources its warriors from people that wouldnt do it if not for the economic reasons, but have nothing to gain from victory?”

      Most volunteer armies are staffed by people doing it largely for the money — and often for the action. That’s certainly been true for the US army during our history.

  3. “Most volunteer armies are staffed by people doing it largely for the money — and often for the action. That’s certainly been true for the US army during our history.”

    In my opinion somebody that does it for selfish economic reasons wont be an effective soldier,
    a soldier needs to be willing to die.
    At the same time the soldier needs to have heavy incentives in victory, spoils, etc.

    If we set this in the current US context, you are recruiting people that go the money and nothing else, because even the most idiotic ones know deep down inside that they are pawns for the elite, they dont believe it their own moral high ground.
    Hence, they are not willing to die to execute the elite’s plans,
    and on top of that if they were to be successful in executing them
    they would not receive any benefit.
    Its logical that they dont do it.

  4. The secret in the wind is aligning the interests of the elite very much with those of the warriors
    and largely with the interests of the society in general.
    I dont know what thats called, I call it common sense.

  5. Les armées très technologique ont des forces mais aussi des faiblesses des effectifs par très importants, une très faible quantité de matériel et des prix en augmentation pour chaque unité avec les faibles commandes et l’allongement des programmes d’armement, … . Elles sont obliger de rationaliser leur industrie en faisant de la coopération dans beaucoup de domaine quitte a perdre de la souveraineté, les symboles sont plus important. Un autre problème et la féminisation de la société (via ces codes et structures) et des armées qui doivent la représenter. Nous n’intervenons plus de façon aussi déterminante et avec moins de moyens (humain et matériel). L’homme est plus l’élément centrale d’une armée. Quelque éléments à rajouter : la part d’homme diplômé et moins importants et ils ont de plus grande difficulté scolaire en maths et en compréhension de l’écrit les résultats baisse, les femmes militaires sont plus heureuses de leur métiers que les hommes un écart de plus de 10 %, des critères notamment physique différent entre homme et femme ont des conséquences, la volonté de mixité et avant tout idéologique, un autre élément que l’on oublie souvent les unités très masculine ont une très grande réputation c’est peut aussi que l’on peut leur demander beaucoup sans restriction particulière et on leur demande la même chose, bref un soldat avec une spécialité.

  6. Sintetista asks:

    Why are most US soldiers nowadays people that get into the military for economic reasons?

    “Recruits joining the U.S. Army in 2008 disproportionately came from rural and exurban communities — especially from southern states.

    “Recruitment rates in rural and exurban counties across the United States were well above the national average. (See chart above.) In rural counties in Southern states, recruitment rates were more than 44% above the national average.

    “In contrast, the rate of people joining the U.S. Army from Northeastern cities was nearly 40% below the national average.

    “Rural Nevada counties had the highest Army recruitment rate among the rural counties in the 50 states in 2008, followed by Alabama and Florida. Rural Massachusetts had the lowest rate, followed by the rural portions of North Dakota and Utah.

    “(..) Studies conducted by the Department of Defense have consistently found that bad economies are a boon to military recruitment. When young people have few options — little chance for employment and no easy route to higher education — they are more likely to join the military. Unemployment rates are higher in rural America than in the cities.

    “In every region of the country, recruitment rates were higher in rural and exurban counties than in urban counties. Only urban counties in the South had recruitment rates above the national average. Cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West all had rates well below the national average.

    “Alabama sent the highest proportion of men and women to the Army, followed by Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and Texas.”

    Source: “Youths in Rural U.S. Are Drawn To Military” The Washington Post, 4 November 2005.

    As the article points out,

    Left adrift, young people such as [Albert] Deal [age 25] “are being pushed out of their communities. They want to get away from intolerable situations, and the military offers them something different,” said Morten G. Ender, a sociologist at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

    In a vicious cycle, the Pentagon has refocused its recruiting on the South and on rural areas because these regions of America provide by far the highest return in recruits per dollar of budget spent on recruiting. So the process is a self-reinforcing downward socioeconomic spiral.

  7. No shortage of fodder as now majority of kids in public school are low income, up from almost majority in 2013! Meanwhile we hear poverty affects brain development. Maybe not wise to get those with these issues in the military!

    I also read somewhere recently disproportionate amount come from military families.
    Poverty Disturbs Children’s Brain Development and Academic Performance
    Majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty business/archive/2013/10/ study-almost-half-of-public- school-students-are-now-low- income/280664/
    Study: Almost Half of Public School Students Are Now Low-Income
    A new study reminds us that poverty is the giant backpack dragging down American students.

  8. About Steven Pinker. Although I may agree that trends may lead to reduced violence. If human nature is any indication Evil may morph from a strong will-to-power forceful entity to that of a much more passive aggressive subtle force than before.

  9. Time is an abstract notion conjured out of our imagination from comparison of residual patterns we call memories with what we observe in the current occurrence. There is only change and we order that change into discreet blocks and compare one change against another calling it the forward movement of time.

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