Martin van Creveld explains why our armies are becoming pussycats

Summary: Martin van Creveld’s new book asks hard questions about America’s ability to defend itself as our society undergoes revolutionary changes (mostly undesired by its citizens). It’s provocative reading for those who like analysts that color outside politically correct lines.

“Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, ‘I am strong!’”
— Joel 3:9-10.

“{Since WWII}, almost the only time Western countries gained a clear military victory over their non-Western opponents was during the First Gulf War. …This episode apart, practically every time the West …fought the rest, it was defeated.”
— Martin van Creveld in “Pussycats”.

"Pussycats" by Martin van Creveld
Available at Amazon.


Disagreeing with Martin van Creveld’s predictions feels like arguing against tomorrow’s sunrise. His successful forecasts are legion. The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (1991) reads like a future historian’s analysis of our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Around 1995 Martin van Creveld told the CIA that Mexico would become the greatest threat to America’s sovereignty. They thought this was delusional; I suspect events since then have changed their minds.

So his new book deserves close attention: Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West. It discusses issues of great importance and covers a wild field of vital questions.

Van Creveld warns that social changes are eroding away the West’s ability to defend itself — reducing its once powerful armies to pussycats. This is probably false as an explanation for the defeats of conventional armies since WWII when fighting non-trinitarian (aka 4GW) armies in foreign lands. It looks prescient as a warning about the future. Let’s examine both perspectives.

About past counterinsurgencies since WWII by foreign armies

The dynamics of war changed after Mao brought 4GW to maturity (details here). The resulting inability of foreign armies to defeat local insurgencies shaped the post-WWII world. It’s a lesson our military refuses to learn (it would reduce the need for their services). Van Creveld clearly explains this in The Changing Face of War (2006).

What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Eritrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.

The Counterinsurgency Center
Too bad they keep losing.

This says the opposite of his thesis in Pussycats. Militaries from the West to the Third World have consistently lost when traveling to other lands to fight local insurgents. They fought well but not wisely. They have sent troops to kill face-to-face, without mercy. They seldom lost on the battlefield, but nonetheless these lost wars. That’s how modern combat works.

An example of how poorly trained and equiped insurgents defeat modern armies, see what van Creveld calls “the power of weakness”. To learn more about this see articles by van Creveld, William Lind, and the War Nerd.

As we see in Afghanistan, insurgents do not regard our troops as “pussycats”. Rather they avoid them, attacking with stand-off weapons (e.g., IEDs). Non-trinitarian/4GW wars usually end with the inglorious departure of the foreign armies, not from defeat — but from the exhaustion of public support at home. As in this discussion after the Paris Peace Talks that ended the Vietnam War…

Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation): “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”

Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation): ”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

— From Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982).

Looking to the future

In Pussycats van Creveld takes a devastating — and politically incorrect — look at American society. The increasing dysfunctionality of our society mirrors the physical and psychological weakness of our young people. The high rates of suicide by soldiers (often before combat or even overseas deployment) and PTSD are evidence of this. Add to increasing rates of obesity and drug use, plus decreased interest in joining the military, the result is a possible recruiting crisis for the Army in the next decade or two. Van Creveld outlines his thesis…

“Chapter I examines some of the ways in which modern Western societies raise, or rather mis-raise, boys in particular – from among whom, like it or not, they will have to draw their future soldiers. Chapter II focuses on the way those societies have been doing whatever they can to defang their armed forces. Chapter III looks at the way women — or perhaps I should say the way women are being incorporated into the forces — are devastating those very forces. Chapter IV looks at the unprecedented spread the phenomenon known as PTSD. Chapter V investigates the growing predominance of rights over duties, as well as the way war itself is being delegitimized.”

These concerns are not new. In the 17th century Samuel Pepys wrote about “parade ground” armies being unable to defeat real fighters. When the last rules against gays and lesbians in the services fell in 2011, conservatives (in and out of uniform) gave confident predictions about the imminent collapse of our military. Three decades ago in Starship Troopers (1959) Robert Heinlein warned of an America whose…

“…citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’ and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”

Are van Creveld’s warnings false alarms like those from the past? Or have these warnings finally borne fruit? We will learn the answer in our lifetimes. The powerful social trends that van Creveld describes will not stop soon. Eight years of Hillary Clinton’s presidency will accelerate them (details here), doubly so if the Democrats take the Senate — as they probably will.

So here’s the reason to read Pussycats: to help see America’s possible future. His harsh insights are a ticket to vision, understanding, and preparation. Well worth the few dollars for the book.

“Van Creveld is incapable of writing an uninteresting book.”
— Lawrence D. Freedman (Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London) in Foreign Affairs.

Cat sees lion in the mirror

For a preview of Pussycats…

See these articles about Pussycats: Martin van Creveld introduces his new radical book, William Lind’s review, and Lind’s incisive comments. Also see MvC’s Pussycats series of posts…

  1. Our armies become pussycats.
  2. Seek and you shall find — Why men fight.
  3. The Rise and Fall of Empires — Do the cycles of history turn our armies into pussycats?
  4. Learning to Say “No” to war.

About the Author

Martin van Creveld

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. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

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 in the fascinating Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (see the chapters about modern gaming, wargames for the people).

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.

He has written three books about Israel: Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace, The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force, and a biography of Moshe Dayan.

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!), Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?. and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West (2016).

And perhaps most important for 21st century America, his magnum opus— the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State— describes the political order unfolding before our eyes.

For More Information

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See other posts about 4GW. Also, here are two of the best books about the transformation of our armies.

Transformation of War
Available at Amazon.
Men Women and War
Available at Amazon.

12 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld explains why our armies are becoming pussycats”

  1. Hi FM,

    I haven’t read Van Creveld’s book, so I’m just responding to this post. I look at the problem set differently.

    a. Don’t blame the private for bad policy and grand strategy.
    b. It’s not about us. The West inability to “Fix” the Middle East or win an unwinnable war is typically about the internal issues in the state.
    c. I’m more worried about unrestricted warfare than our ability to mobilize for direct war.

    For these type of discussions, I think that they have to be interdisciplinary. The Empirical Studies of Conflict at Princeton (via Minerva) is doing some good statistical analysis.

    See “How persistent is armed conflict?” James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin

    Editor’s note: Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired) served multiple tours in various command and staff positions in Iraq, and was a former Editor of the Small Wars Journal. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and studied small wars at the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

  2. FB
    We continuously ignore predictions…especially if they don’t fit our carefully crafted somewhat deluded political leanings. So despite van Creveld being spot on, those who lean left will be highly offended at the suggestion that our society is turning our men into women and our women into men…after all we are “equal” right.

    Good post!

    1. Matthew,

      (1) The quote is not a myth and I don’t attribute the quote to General Giap. It’s a first person description of a conversation, give by a participant who is a credible witness.

      (2) Re: US never lost a battle, from an article by Carlton Meyer.

      He is using some idiosyncratic definition of “lost battle”. We don’t know what it is since he doesn’t state it. Most of the incidents listed are raids by the Viet Cong or N. Vietnamese army, in which they inflicted casualties and fled. They did not hold land or force retreat of US forces — the usual requirements of a “defeat”. The author weirdly considers encounters in which the US suffered casualties a “defeat” irrespective of enemy losses (seldom even mentioned) and the tactical results of the engagement.

      A few incidents on his list are failed raids by US forces, in which the US suffered casualties (albeit usually fewer than the VC) before executing their pre-planned withdrawal. Those are not battlefield defeats in any meaningful sense.

      Some are delusionally stated, suggesting that this website’s information should not be relied upon. Such as describing the first major encounter of US forces with N. Vietnam forces — The Battle of Ia Drang, a raid by US air cav into a NV base area. The kill ratio was 12:1 NVA to USA. Calling this a defeat is bizarre. He calls it a defeat because the US concentrated its aerial firepower, as if war is game and that was cheating. I just skimmed the rest after reading that nonsense.

  3. Another perspective on this, emailed by a retired Army officer:

    “Our troops have yet to fight anyone who can fight back. When the rocket artillery falls, opposing UAVs eliminate the C2 {our command & control}, and armored forces smash into them — our troops are in for a shock. They have never been to war. Like the British in 1900 they just think they have. 1914 taught British soldiers about war. Our troops might learn in the same way.”

    1. Funny, I’ve been under both mortar and artillery fire. Cleared trenches too under fire.

      So, following this logic, why did we lose the Korean War? Were those Marines and Soldiers not tough enough?

      1. Mike,

        I believe (guess) this officer was referring to today’s troops. I wondered about this statement, but haven’t the standing to comment on it — so just pass it on.

        Also, did we lose the Korean War? I think it was more or less a tie.

  4. Mr. van Creveld is certainly an established author and makes many valid points worth discussing in earnest. Sadly, our state of national discourse is no longer reasonable but instead a playground for the dysfunctional. In the end, we can only blame ourselves for this sad state of affairs.

    With that out of the way, I wish academics would stay in their lane when venturing into the medical field. Specifically, PTSD is no “phenomena” as written above. It’s a natural reaction that anyone can develop after exposure to a single traumatic event or prolonged exposure to multiple traumas (and combat is traumatic, whether it’s squad on squad or army on army). Let’s not conflate intensity of combat operations with natural biological reactions that occur to the body and mind when under immense stress.

    The real issue is that PTSD has always been around, we just didn’t understand it (just like people who once thought the world was flat) and even today we still don’t completely understand it. PTSD became a formal diagnosis in the DSM-III in the 1980s, so previous generations who went before were left to their own devices upon return to society because science and the medical profession didn’t understand it (look at Trump, even he still equates those with PTSD as weak). Previous attempts to explain this condition were called “shell-shocked” (World War I era) and “battle-fatigue” (World War II era) but there was no treatment for it.

    Maybe this is a minor quibble, but it’s frustrating (to me anyway) when academics start making proclamations about subjects they (usually) don’t have any first hand experience with nor the professional training/education. Was Mr. van Creveld ever a line infantryman who saw any type of combat? I ask this in honesty, because I’d be surprised to hear an actual combat veteran proclaim that PTSD is a modern “phenomena” (and if they did, I’d argue that they are either lying or have gone 12 O’clock high on us).

    It reminds me of a quote that General David Shoup USMC said about critics (and anyone who writes from the gallery is a critic, no matter their intelligence or educational level):

    “The galleries are full of critics. They play no ball, they fight no fights. They make no mistakes because they attempt nothing. Down in the arena are the doers. They make mistakes because they try many things.

    The man who makes no mistakes lacks boldness and the spirit of adventure. He is the one who never tries anything. His is the brake on the wheel of progress.

    And yet it cannot be truly said he makes no mistakes, because his biggest mistake is the very fact that he tries nothing, does nothing, except criticize those who do things.” General David Shoup USMC

    On a final note, one could argue that the Korean War never ended. An armistice was signed which ended open hostilities, yet here we are today with a N. Korea who is threatening nuclear war with just about everyone.

    Speaking of nuclear war, one could argue that the mere concept of large state-on-state conflict today would be a slow suicide for everyone involved wouldn’t you agree? Can you really envision that the side who started to lose wouldn’t resort to using nukes? It raises an interesting dilemma and potentially means that large standing armies are obsolete, kind of the like the battleships of World War II. Our future may be pointing to a time of “war among the people” wouldn’t you agree (like the religious wars in Europe between the Catholics and Protestants)?

    While there was several close calls during the Cold War, even the Soviets had the common sense not to start a conventional war with the US, as they knew damn well how that would end. We live in interesting and dangerous times, especially when Russia has changed its nuclear doctrine to “first strike will be considered for the purposes of de-escalation” (I’m not really sure how lobbing some nukes is going to de-escalate anything but only time will tell on this wonderful concept).

    1. McCloud,

      (1) I hope you didn’t write a 600 word long rebuttal to my two word mention of MvC’s discussion of PTSD. You must realize that’s several steps beyond absurd.

      (2) “Speaking of nuclear war, one could argue that the mere concept of large state-on-state conflict today would be a slow suicide for everyone involved wouldn’t you agree?”

      I would agree that this post is clearly stated as about foreign armies fighting local insurgents, not “large state-on-state conflict”. MvC has often written that nukes create a threshold beyond which war becomes suicide, a barrier which has prevented large conventional wars between nuke states since WWII.

    2. McCloud,

      Thank you for that insightful comment. I have said many similar things, but seldom so succinctly and cogently.

      “Sadly, our state of national discourse is no longer reasonable but instead a playground for the dysfunctional. In the end, we can only blame ourselves for this sad state of affairs.”

      During the past decade, that has become the great theme of the FM website project. The response of commenters has been overwhelmingly negative. Assuming responsibility for America — seeing ourselves as citizens, not victims — is like a stop too far. Most people react to that challenge like vampires to holy water. It burns!

      “With that out of the way, I wish academics would stay in their lane when venturing into the medical field.”

      Total agreement. I’ve seen too many cases of PTSD, including my son (a light case; 2 tours in Helmand, Afghanistan, with the USMC). My wife — active in the Blue Star Moms — has heard many horrific stories about PTSD. Only slowly is the military coming to grips with this. Congress, of course, refuses to adequately fund the Veterans Admin — preferring to whine that they don’t spin gold out of straw from the inadequate funding they’re given. But the money for the F-35 has to come from somewhere (who knows, perhaps it will work adequately some distant day in the future).

  5. FM-

    For context on my comment, it is essential to understand perceptions at the point in time. For WW2 vets, Korean vets were weak and could not win a war. We had often soft. For Korean War vets to Vietnam vets- Ditto.

    It runs in cycles.

    Today is different than yesterday, and we’re at another turning point with technology which will challenge us as a nation-state. Are we weak? I don’t know. But, it will be different.


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