Review of “The Transformation of War” by Martin van Creveld

This book’s thesis is that the Clausewitzian view of war is out-dated and inoperable.
I actually disagree with the thesis – I think van Creveld’s view of Clausewitz was too narrow. However, when he wasn’t criticizing Clausewitz, van Creveld’s analysis was fantastic. The book is highly recommended. I’m basically going to ignore his critique of Clausewitz, since I thought it was wrong and – even if it is correct – it’s less interesting than van Creveld’s analysis of modern warfare. I should give one example of why his analysis of Clausewitz is incorrect. van Creveld criticizes Clausewitz for saying that war does not have laws. van Creveld then goes on to explain how wars have always been governed by rules . . . but in each case he cites certain combatants who didn’t follow the rules. The "laws" in the end turn out to be something more akin to codes of honor that are totally unenforceable. I think Clausewitz has the better of this position, but in the end, it’s probably nothing other than semantical disagreement.

For van Creveld, modern warfare is characterized by low-intensity conflicts between states and non-states. States don’t seem to be able to win these conflicts – "In numerous incidents during the last two decades, the inability of developed countries to protect their interests and even their citizens’ lives in the face of low-level threats has been demonstrated time and time again." The consequences of this scenario are not nice to contemplate.

According to van Creveld, modern conflicts will be between ethnic and religious groups.

van Creveld has some interesting tidbits on the rise of democracies and total war. He doesn’t connect the dots between the two, but they’re obvious to anyone who’s looking. For example, we see Revolutionary France as the first nation to consider all citizens part of the war effort. We see all facets of democratic governments being co-opted for war efforts – van Creveld specifically mentions permanent inflation and war.

I don’t want to give away too much. van Creveld is a solid historian. Read his book. I’ll leave with a teaser.

"If, as seems to be the case, that state cannot defend itself effectively against internal or external low-intensity conflict, then clearly it does not have a future in front of it." The consequences of modern warfare, therefore suggest that states are in the process of dying. I don’t expect the consequences to be pretty. Neither does van Creveld:

Just as no Roman citizen was left unaffected by the barbarian invasions, so in vast parts of the world no man, woman, and child alive today will be spared the consequences of the newly-emerging forms of war. Even in the most stable societies, the least they can expect is to have their identity checked and their persons searched at every turn. The nature of the entities by which war is made, the conventions by which it is surrounded, and the ends for which it is fought may change. However, now as ever war itself is alive and well; with the result that, now as ever, such communities as refuse to look facts in the face and fight for their existence will, in all probability, cease to exist.


2 Responses to Review of “The Transformation of War” by Martin van Creveld

  1. robert61 says:

    Do you think the last point about dying states is potentially good news for anarcho-capitalists and/or formalists, or simply worrying news for humans?

    A centralized authoritarian state could probably contain asymmetric threats better than a liberal democracy, but would not necessarily give up terror-motivating imperialism.

    I keep looking for reasons why decentralization of power might be structurally favoured. This trend seems like a candidate.

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