The Changing Face of War by Martin van Creveld
Creveld reviews the last ~100 years of military history to gain some perspective on the shift from conventional war to guerrilla tactics. For those defending against guerrilla tactics, the only things that have worked so far are: welcome the new political force and seek to keep the total death toll low, or raze the offending areas and kill enough people so that the survivors will be afraid of your secret police.
The first implies yielding sovereign power to others in certain matters, which is less than optimal for people who believe they are vested with the power of a nation. And the second implies a departure from the good-natured developed country image that we market to ourselves. Since these choices suck, lots of people have written lots on this:
Starting at least as early as the 1950s, the literature on counter-insurgency is so enormous that, had it been put aboard the Titanic, it would have sunk that ship without any help from the iceberg. However, the astonishing fact is that almost all of it has been written by the losers.And complicating this issue is the existence of a huge defense industry:
Nobody has ever commanded nuclear forces in war, nor been compelled to fight in an environment where they were present; hence officers, however well educated and trained, cannot claim to know much more about this field than civilians do. Thus, in the West at any rate, they have been unable to prevent civilian experts—from Bernard Brodie through Albert Wohl-stetter, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, Thomas Schelling, and Edward Luttwak—from making their views known. Being better educated, quite often they did so more coherently and more effectively than serving officers could. The outcome has been a situation whereby, in most Western countries, a so-called defense community made its appearance. It is made up of academics, consultants, civil servants, and journalists as well as serving and retired officers. All compete in gaining renown, money, office, and, if possible, influence.By the end of the book, Creveld's curiosity has turned into a jaded acceptance that command structures will always have problems, with some more so than others:
Each time an incident took place, “lessons” were drawn. Regulations, all of them aimed at preventing Hizbollah from succeeding in doing this or that, were piled on one another. At the same time initiative and independent thought were stifled. Reading some of the material, one gets the impression it was written by and for nincompoops with social science backgrounds.It's just frustrating that we manufacture problems that we can solve when faced with problems that we don't want to solve.
As of the opening years of the twenty-first century, the mightiest, richest, best-equipped, best-trained armed forces that have ever existed are in full decline and are, indeed, looking into Examples of their failure abound. Almost forgotten are the days when the Israelis had fought against, and triumphed over, all the armed forces of all the Arab countries combined. Instead, having spent seventeen years vainly trying to put down the Palestinian uprising, the Israelis are even now giving up and retreating from Gaza and parts of the West Bank—to be followed, no doubt, by most of the rest. Other armed forces find themselves in a similar plight. Having spent ten years fighting in Chechnya, thoroughly demolished the capital of Grozny, and killed, injured, and “dehoused” tens if not hundreds of thousands of their opponents, the Russians are still unable to pacify that country of two and a half million. In Thailand, in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in a dozen other countries, regular armed forces are engaged in so-called counterinsurgency operations. In terms of sheer military power, all are far stronger than their enemies. None, however, seems to be making any considerable headway, and most will probably end up in defeat.
Yet no sooner had “major combat operations”—to quote President Bush’s victory speech—ended than it became clear that the US forces, which had taken only three weeks to occupy a country of 240,000 square miles and capture its capital, were unable to deal with a few thousand terrorists. In early 2005, having lost ten times as many troops to those terrorists as they did during the war itself, they were still floundering. So weak had their position become that their opponents hardly bothered to shoot at them any longer. Instead, preparing for the day after the inevitable American withdrawal, the terrorists were focusing on their own countrymen.
In 1914, on the eve of the Great War, the largest economic power was already the United States, with a population of 98 million and a national income of $37 billion. It was followed by Germany (65 million and $12 billion, respectively), Great Britain (45 and $11), Russia (171 and $7), France (39 and $6), Austria-Hungary (52 and $3), Italy (37 and $4), and Japan (55 and $2).
In 1905, Japanese scouts used radio in order to warn their commander in chief, Admiral Heichachiro Togo, that the Russian fleet was approaching the Tsushima Strait;11 by 1910, every single British vessel, military or civilian, was ordered to install a set.
Julian Corbett to lecture at the newly established Greenwich Staff College. Corbett at the time was the world’s best-known naval theorist after Alfred Mahan, and though few people (other than Winston Churchill) actually read his work, most agreed that it was brilliant.
this experience should have led to the realization that the day of cavalry was past and that any future horsemen should fight dismounted, as the Boers did, despite being excellent riders. However, that lesson proved a bitter pill to take, and was mostly rejected. For centuries on end, officers had been horsemen first and foremost. Cavalry, the aristocratic arm, had always looked down on the poor unfortunate foot sloggers.
Still, siege warfare was the last thing most commanders expected, so it is scarcely surprising that the first trenches were dug simply on the initiative of individual troops seeking to escape the hail of bullets and artillery shells directed at them. Soon the high command on both sides made the practice of digging official, creating order out of chaos by issuing instructions, supervising the works, and allocating so and so many yards of front to corps, divisions, and regiments. Back home, training soon came to include using the spade as well as the rifle. Within months, on both sides, vast networks of zigzagging trenches appeared, until it became theoretically possible for a soldier to walk from the channel coast all the way to the Swiss border without once having to show his head above ground.
Fighting had always been the most stressful of all human activities by far, but hitherto combat had usually lasted hours or, at most, a few days. This was no longer true in 1914–18, when many battles, such as Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres, lasted for weeks, even months. Imagine a continuous concussion of exploding shells, the very air filled with screaming pieces of metal and noxious fumes from cordite or gas, the sound of screaming wounded, and the smell of dead comrades (a horrible mixture of rotting flesh and excrement) left where they fell, perhaps weeks before.
In the years before 1914, preparing to fight one another in the open, armies had acquired large numbers of field artillery pieces, the most famous of which was the French seventy-five-millimeter gun. Thanks to its recoil mechanism, which made it unnecessary to reaim after each round, the “75” and its counterparts in other armies could fire almost as fast as a rifle could. Thus, in 1870–71, over a period of five months each German gun had only fired two hundred rounds on the average; but now there were periods when more than that number was fired on a single day.
This might explain why, in 1935, at least one participant in the Geneva Disarmament Conference (who had been gassed himself) considered gas a rather humanitarian weapon.’6 Thus the real logic behind the use of gas was that, being heavier than air, it would settle onto the lowest points on the battlefield, forcing the men on the receiving end to leave their trenches. Once they had done that, hitting them with conventional artillery became all the easier.
Between late 1914 and early 1918, the only time the Western Front shifted more than ten miles in either direction was when the Germans carried out a voluntary withdrawal in the spring of 1917. Neither the great German offensive at Verdun, nor any of the numerous Allied “pushes,” could do more; most of the time, they did considerably less. Even the large, well-planned, innovative German offensives in the spring of 1918 only forced the British and the French to retreat forty miles.
This, then, was a war not just between armies but also between factories. Nothing like it had been foreseen in the prewar plans, and indeed very often those plans ran at odds with what was actually to take place. For example, French military authorities, in calling up workers to serve, caused employment at Schneider-Creusot to drop by half; yet this was the firm that manufactured more artillery pieces and more shells than any other.33 Their counterparts in other countries were no more prescient. Britain, the country of free trade par excellence, went to war with the idea that business could and should continue as usual, and throughout the war there was a tug-of-war between the army and industry as to who should obtain the available manpower. In Germany, the early months of the war led to the giant chemical firm Bayer losing almost half of its eight thousand employees, causing production to fall by a similar amount.34 The tendency to look at war as an activity in itself, the almost complete separation between military and civilian education, and the expectation of a short conflict all contributed to this outcome.
Worst of all was the situation in Russia. Before the war, in spite of its generally very low living standards, Russia had been the largest European producer of food by far (in fact its output, 68,864 thousand metric tons, was triple that of the remaining countries combined).
Yet by 1925, the popular mood began to change. In terms of both people and material, French losses had been devastating. Whereas other countries recovered, in France a declining birthrate did not permit these losses to be made good. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that, during the interwar years, a higher proportion of women worked than in any other country8 Female or male, most French citizens came to think of war as an evil necessity at best, a horror to be avoided at almost any cost at worst.
Compared with Douhet, Fuller, and Liddell Hart, Erich Ludendorff was a towering figure. Much more than the first two, he understood what modern war was like from the top, and unlike the last-named he did not regard it as some kind of field game; “the war has spared me nothing,” he would write, having lost two sons. On the other hand, and again unlike Liddell Hart in particular, neither did he shrink from its horrors.
Where Ludendorff proved most correct, however, was in his insistence that the Second World War—a term, of course, that he did not use—would be broadly like the first, and like its predecessor would develop into a gigantic and prolonged struggle. As was the First World War, it would be waged on many fronts, at sea and in the air as well as on land. Like its predecessor, it would both demand and make possible the mobilization of all resources. He was also proved right in that even democratic Britain found it necessary to curtail the role of politics by setting up a national coalition government—which meant that, as long as the conflict lasted, there was no parliamentary opposition, and elections were postponed. Ludendorff’s posthumous triumph may, indeed, be seen in the fact that, by the time the war was over, a continent had been devastated and an estimated forty million people lay dead.
Since there had been no air force during the Weimar Republic, though, most of its commanders were ex-army men, who consequently understood the importance of joint operations better than their British and American colleagues. Whenever such operations were planned, it was German practice to put an air force general in charge.
The sector of the front that the Germans attacked on May 10, 1940, was weakly held by second-rate troops whose nerves shattered under the impact of screaming German dive-bombers. The French high command, saddled by a completely inadequate communications network, was unable to react to the German movements in time. So bad were things in this respect that, later in the campaign, the freshly appointed commander in chief, General Maxime Weygand (the same who had praised French generalship to a British audience a year earlier), had only a single telephone apparatus to transmit his orders, and the female secretary responsible for it insisted on going out for lunch every day between 1200 and 1400.
The Germans’ initial objective was to gain air superiority, which implied that their attacks should be directed primarily against radar stations and airfields. Had they persisted, they might very well have broken the RAF’s backbone, which in turn might have opened the way to a seaborne invasion they were planning. In the event, the Germans, in response to a British attack on Berlin, changed targets and mounted a massive raid on London on September 7. Apparently, the Berlin attack had been ordered by Churchill with just that purpose in mind.
Having started life as an underground movement, the nascent IDF also left something to be desired in its organization, discipline, and training.37 As an Israeli daredevil who later rose to become his country’s chief of staff and minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, used to say: We’re lucky that the enemy consists of Arabs, not Germans.
next to a death sentence the best thing to focus the mind is a bunch of students. Especially if they are young, and especially if they are importunate as well.
To quote a Norwegian friend of mine who was in a position to know, the generals, by some mysterious process not even they understand, reach “conclusions.” The job of “expert,” is to justify those conclusions, elaborate on them, and, if necessary, defend them against journalists, parliamentarians, and similar nosy people.
At best, the blizzard of paper issuing from think tanks, universities, and higher institutes of military learning provides work for a great many people with degrees who would otherwise be unemployed and, perhaps, unemployable. At worst, it threatens to annihilate the world’s forests and smother the globe much as old issues of National Geographic are said to do. Dazzled by the king’s new clothes, most people see, or at any rate claim to see, all this studying as proof of modernity and progress. In reality, it is often a sign of irrelevance, decline, and impotence as many of the world’s most powerful armed forces vainly try to deal with opponents so much smaller and weaker than themselves that it should be no contest. Precisely because efforts to deal with them are so often in vain, such opponents are multiplying like rabbits, and the operations on which they engage become more and more daring.
Dang Xuan Khu (aka Truong Chinh), understood this very well. To quote the latter: “The guiding principle of the strategy of our whole resistance must be to prolong the war. To protract the war is the key to victory. Why must the war be protracted? Because if we compare our forces with those of the enemy, it is obvious that the enemy is still strong, and we are still weak. … If we throw the whole of our forces into a few battles to try to decide the outcome, we shall certainly be defeated and the enemy will win. On the other hand, if while fighting we maintain our forces, expand them, train our army and people, learn military tactics … and at the same time wear down the enemy forces, we shall weary and discourage them in such a way that, strong as they are, they will become weak and will meet defeat instead of victory.”’8 Perhaps the person who put it most incisively was Henry Kissinger. The forces of order, he once said, as long as they do not win, lose. Insurgents, as long as they do not lose, win.
By showing restraint, the British did not alienate people other than those who were already fighting them. As events were to show, the number of IRA supporters did not increase over the years. By the mid-1990s, the organization had begun to experience difficulty in recruiting new members to take the places of those who had been killed or jailed or else had left on their own accord. Time, it is said, will wear down anything but diamonds. If that is true, then the British army proved to be a gem. Its troops, unlike those of practically everybody else, did not become demoralized. They did not take drugs, did not go AWOL or desert, did not refuse to fight, and did not turn into a danger to themselves and their officers as had happened in Vietnam, where any number of the latter were “fragged”— blown to pieces—by their own subordinates. Instead, they were as ready to give battle on the last day of the hostilities as they had been on the first—a fact that the terrorists learned to their cost.
The IDF had long been considered one of the world’s finest fighting machines. Now it was caught off balance by a situation it had failed to foresee—just one day before the uprising started, the “coordinator of activities in the Occupied Territories” had declared Israeli control of the Palestinians a “brilliant success.”27 The IDF reacted by lashing around incoherently, if not savagely. Over the next months, it killed hundreds, arrested thousands, imposed curfews, and blew up the houses of many suspected terrorists; acting on the specific orders of then minister of defense Yitzhak Rabin, it also used batons to break Palestinian arms and legs right and left. Hence it was unsettling to listen to General Waters, who said his objective was not to smash the IRA by killing as many terrorists as possible; instead, as long as his term of duty lasted, his mission was to make sure that as few people as possible on either side were killed.
What is one to make of a deputy chief of intelligence who, instead of looking for the facts, sees his mission as “providing decision makers with a narrative”? How does one distinguish “strategic intelligence superiority” (SIS) from “operational-tactical intelligence dominance” (OTID)? No doubt such terminology was born in “cross-rank brainstorming meetings intended to form conceptual frameworks.” So thick was the nonsense, and such the resulting verbal confusion, that the need to reform officer training and education, particularly at the medium and senior levels where plans are made and orders issued, became one of the cardinal lessons to emerge from the conflict.
Ere they condemn Israel’s failures, Western militaries should consider a number of social factors that their nations share with it and that tend to depress their own fighting spirit. First, there is rising life expectancy, which results in the compulsory infantilization of young people of military age, who must be kept out of the workforce for as long as possible. Second, there is falling fertility, which makes society less willing to accept casualties. A third factor that almost everybody understands but is afraid to talk about (for fear of the consequences) is the increased presence of women in the forces: The more of them join, the less strenuous the training; the less attractive, too, those forces are to young men eager to prove themselves—instead of being pulled up to become more than they are, young men are pushed down and revert to less than they were. Above all, there is the feeling that there is no threat. No Western country, almost certainly not even Israel, is about to be invaded by hordes of slogan-yelling, knife-wielding, bomb-throwing barbarians.