Encouraging Reflection on Martin van Crefeld’s Bold Predictions in 1991 within ON FUTURE WAR

ON FUTURE WAR, London: Brassey’s, 1991 ISBN 0 08 041796 5

ON FUTURE WARAn examination of the nature of war and its radical transformation in our own time. The author argues that the Clausewitzian assumption that war is rational is outdated, and that strategic, logical planning is unrelated to the current realities of guerrilla armies, terrorists and bandits. He sets out to demonstrate that our most basic ideas of who fights wars, and why, are inadequate – because man has a need to “play” at war. Van Creveld also wrote “Technology and War”, “Command and War” and “Supply and War”

  • Extract from Flap Abstract of the Book, 1991
  • Michael Howard: “Famous Last Screams,” a review of On Future War

This item is meant to set the stage for both blog comments and short essays in this site in the near future. Standing now in 2014 we are in a position to comment critically on the views of this famous historian who resides in Israel. It is not unconnected to the items (a) “Where In-fighting generates Fervour and Power: ISIS Today, LTTE yesterday” and (b) “The Psychology of Totalitarianism via Skya’s Treatise on Japan’s Holy War”. Standing now in 2014 we are in a position to comment critically on the views of this famous historian who resides in Israel. Apart from the advantages of hindsight, several visitors to this website will have one advantage over van Crefeld: their experiential compass will not be in the heartland of international power, the West (and its offshoot Israel). They will be located in the peripheries of international clout and be backed by knowledge of the four Eelam wars in Lanka.crefeld Martin van Crefeld

I = Extract from Flap Abstract of the Book

At a time when unprecedented change in international affairs is forcing governments, citizens and armed forces everywhere to re-assess the question of whether military solutions to political problems are possible any longer, Martin van Creveld has written an audacious, searching examination of the nature of war and of its radical transformation in our own time.

……. At this moment armed conflicts of the type van Creveld describes are occurring throughout the world. From Lebanon to Cambodia, from Sri Lanka and the Philippines to El Salvador, the Persian Gulf and the strife-torn nations of Eastern Europe, violent confrontations confirm a new model of warfare in which tribal, ethnic, and religious factions do battle without high-tech weapons or state-supported armies and resources. This low intensity conflict challenges existing distinctions between civilian and soldier, individual crime and organised violence, terrorism and war. In the present global atmosphere practices that for three centuries have been considered uncivilised, such as capturing civilians or even communities for ransom, have begun to reappear………..

II = Michael Howard: “Famous Last Screams,” a review of On Future War

There have never been lacking prophets, from Isaiah onwards, to proclaim the end of war, though the more recent of these have not postulated the Second Coming as a necessary condition for achieving it. Some have suggested that the more terrible war becomes, the more quickly it will die out, and, like Alfred Nobel, have devised more destructive weapons in order to hasten the process. Others, from Kant onwards, have suggested that since war is conducted only by unrepresentative élites, it will gradually disappear as democracy extends its sway throughout the world. Yet others see the best hope of its extinction in the universal imposition of a benevolent hegemony by right-minded people calling itself a ‘New World Order’.

Such prophets are sometimes unfortunate in their timing. The radical publicist H.N. Brailsford, in his book The War of Steel and Gold, declared in the spring of 1914 that there was no longer any serious danger of war between the Great Powers of Europe. At the beginning of 1939, Sir Samuel Hoare happily declared that the world was entering an Age of Gold. So when Martin van Creveld tells us, not, admittedly, that war as such is about to cease, but that ‘large-scale conventional war … may indeed be at its last gasp,’ he must expect, in spite of his formidable reputation as a military historian, to be greeted with a certain degree of scepticism.

Dr van Creveld has been almost as unfortunate in his timing as H.N. Brailsford. Within a few months of the appearance of this book in the United States, the Gulf War erupted. It did not last long, but it involved forces totalling nearly a million men, equipped on both sides with highly destructive weapons, and resulted, albeit somewhat one-sidedly, in casualties in the order of tens if not hundreds of thousands. Further, it was for the victors a remarkably successful use of large-scale force as an instrument of policy, whether one approved of that policy or not. For the British edition of the book Dr van Creveld has made some last-minute changes, suggesting that the war was ‘the last scream of the American eagle’: but it has to be said that his thesis now looks less convincing than it may have twelve months ago. G.K Chesterton once described a popular and inexpensive pastime known as ‘Cheating the Prophet’, which consisted simply in listening to wise men forecasting what would happen and then doing exactly the opposite. People are still quite good at playing that particular game.

Whether right or wrong, however, Dr van Creveld’s prognosis is based upon an interesting and original analysis. It shares some characteristics with the ‘Nobel’ school in suggesting that weapons have now become too terrible to be used as instruments of policy. In spite of the best efforts of American think-tanks, no one has yet come up with any convincing suggestions as to how to fight a war with nuclear weapons that would not involve mutual suicide. Nor is it clear how nuclear-armed powers can fight a conventional war that would not escalate to a nuclear one. Further, the increasing sophistication and expense even of conventional weapons has made their price far exceed their utility.


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