When I was a young whippersnapper, I read a lot of mythology (Greek, Arthurian, Norse, whatever). One of the things that perpetually confused me was this whole "divine right of kings" "love the monarch" bit. It was so foreign to what I knew and understood that I couldn't even figure out if folks were being serious when they wrote about it, or whether they were just confused. Then I read War and Peace. Tolstoy painted a book that still strikes me as impossibly clear in showing a frame of mind that I do not now have, nor am I capable of having. But nonetheless he showed it to me. How did an aristocrat in the age of absolutism view his monarch, and his duty to the country. Wow.
So...back to van Creveld. Roughly, the book is simple. His claim: von Clausewitz was brilliant, and did a good job of defining War, as war was understood from Westphalia through the second 30-years war (1914-1945). Outside that narrow window, von Clausewitz's theory of war is not wrong so much as irrelevant. To really understand this, you have to get outside your narrow prejudices as someone who has grown up in the peaceful age of the state.
Clausewitz says war is near-unlimited application of force between two states in order to achieve objectives.
- War is not (in most of history) a perogative of states...that was usurped in 1648, and began to fall apart seriously by WWII. No war since WWII has been even primarily a conflict between 2 states. Rather it has been state against amorphous in-population tribe or tribe against tribe. Not only that, but the distinction of state/military/population is not only historically recent, but rapidly dying. Africa is only the start. Expect it everywhere in 50 years. This followed-through says that US vs. Iraq (II -the invasion, not III the occupation) may well have been the last state-vs.-state war. Nukes have changed everything. Normal military hardware is IRRELEVANT. Counter-insurgency (COIN)-war is all there is left.
- War is not unlimited application of force historically. It is normally a deadly status game between high-status men of different tribes. Low status men and women have mostly been strictly prohibited. He never uses the words, but let's call it a mating ritual of the human species. And the unlimitedness is tremendously modern in application. Really, it's a WWI, WWII invention...where normally unlimitedness is highly frowned upon. Rather, various (strongly, but imperfectly observed) rules of war have always applied in greater geographical areas (europe, china, etc.).
- War is NOT about objectives primarily. War is about war. To fight for objectives (as all post WWII fights have been) is to lose. Fighting must be done for a nearly sacred purpose (God, Tribe, Country, Apple Pie), or the fighters lose will-to-fight and thus the fight. Sure, there were some eras (1648 to 1945) that were kinda like that (purposeful), but not really.
The line from van Creveld is that the only way to stop the kind of low-grade war that now owns much of Africa is to use mind-altering drugs, orwellian surveillance, or to remove the status-dimension of war. This status-dimension removal is historically best done by fully integrating women into combat units (fascinating history in Israelli Defense Forces here). At that point, it's no longer a man's game, with all its benefits, and organized war withers.
I walk away from the book boggled by a few items.
- Violence/War is ubiquitous. Almost no generation in human history EVER has avoided wars which impacted every town everywhere. War between states is an anomaly, and should be thought to be done. Now it's war between smaller units.
- So much of most people's theory of the world rests on a very historically transient idea of the state. Strongmen ruled the globe from the dawn of agriculture to 1648 (in Europe), with occasional virulent outbreaks of the state (Rome, China), which universally descended back to strongman rule, and occasional bouts of anarchy, both peaceful (Iceland, Ireland) and not (Somalia, Bosnia). Any real approach to politics has to take "the state" as a temporary (semi-fictional) constraint.
Easily the best book I've read so far this year. If you even take it seriously enough to try to refute it, it will mess with your head, and ask you to think differently about an awful lot of stuff.