Book Review: The Changing Face of War

Eminent Dutch-Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld has the rare distinction among historians of having been more right about the future than he has been about the past. His earlier 1990’s works, The Transformation of War and The Rise and Decline of The State were radical interpretations for military history and clashed somewhat with the views of Europeanist and late Medieval specialists but they pointed to the current state of global affairs with great prescience and scholarly authority.

Van Creveld’s latest book, The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat From the Marne to Iraq is not an example of a historian resting on his laurels but of expanding and extrapolating upon previous ideas. In this book, Dr. van Creveld analyzes the evolution of twentieth century warfare up to it’s WWII apex and subsequent decline to a 21st century nadir of shrunken conventional armies, overloaded with goldplated technology but unable to beat shadowy terrorist groups and ragtag insurgencies armed with homemade bombs.

The perspective here is theoretical ( “trinitarian” vs. “non-trinitarian”), systemic and Germanocentric. Van Creveld clearly admires the technical and cognitive martial prowess of the Wehrmacht and the old Imperial German Army that stamped itself so heavily on the bloody history of the twentieth century. He clearly relates the connection between effective logistical coordination between a mass production, capitialist, industrial economy and the armies in the field, unlike most historians, accurately crediting the Kaiser’s Quartermaster-General, Erich Ludendorff ,for having had the breakthrough insights into the political economy of Total War.

The most interesting chapters are the last ( here I agree with William Lind) where Van Creveld takes premier military historian John Keegan to task and critiques the performance of American arms in Iraq. Van Creveld is returning the warm embrace that the Fourth Generation Warfare school has given his body of work in disputing Keegan’s contention that a Nazi-occupied Europe could not have been liberated by indigenous partisan forces. In my view, van Creveld is correct that the Manhattan Project would have rendered the whole question moot but is wrong in overestimating the ability of partisans to have overthrown Nazi domination.

Assuming the defeat of the USSR, Hitler would have simply liquidated the Serbian people as an example, incorporated the Scandinavian countries into a racial confederation system with Greater Germany, and been satisfied with a National Socialist “Findlandization” of the rest of Europe. Except for Russia, which Albert Speer indicated in his final book had been slated for depopulation and Slavic enslavement with no fewer than 30 million eliminated or worked to death building massive transnational autobahns. Preponderant force would have been used by the Nazis to quell open resistance to the ” New Order” but most European countries would have resembled Denmark or Vichy France, not Poland’s rump state “General Gouvernment”.

Van Creveld’s assessment of American performance in Iraq is bitterly harsh, bordering on vicious, but it is accompanied at the very end by a wise set of ” rules” for counterinsurgency warfare ( van Creveld advises throwing out the bulk of COIN literature as having been written by ” losers”) that merit widespread dissemination. One case study of successful counterinsurgency he points to favorably is the British experience in Northern Ireland where the use of military force was highly economized ( a case he omits, curiously, was El Salvador, where it was not), a general consideration for winning at the “moral level of warfare” when powerful state forces seek to defeat a “weak” opponent.

While The Changing Face of War is not the pathbreaking text that The Transformation of War represented, it is highly accessible to the layman, clearly written and coherently argued. It fits well on the shelf of any serious student of military history.

Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part III.) – UPDATED
William Lind review at DNI
Fabius Maximus review at DNI

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Changing Face of War”

  1. Thanks for the review. I am interested in reading Van Creveld’s take on late 20th Century/early 21st Century warfare as it is the time period that I have served in uniform.

  2. There’s aways a rift between potential and possible. How much is the argument about capabilities of an unfettered military organization and one hounded by political constraints? The perception of the enemy that America can be counted upon to defeat itself at home, something unlikely in the ’41-’45 period, is just as powerful in the execution of the war as anything on the battlefield. What the American military and the central government fails is the understanding that in any war, there are always two fronts. The will to prosecute the war is not one left on default. It requires and active and robust effort as anything in the theater of operations. Since WWII, the American military has ‘outsourced’ the telling of the story. Unfortunately today, that means the enemy’s message get through, both what they want and don’t want covered. The only significant coverage the allies side gets that is sustained is the warts.

    The American military has been handed an opportunity to exploit technology to leverage that issue into their favor but instead has constrained and crushed what grassroots generated operations were occurring based upon a lack of understanding, fear, and hidebound bureaucracy. We’ll see, like the German’s in the interwar period in their exploitation of technologies, if the senior American leadership will finally look to this capability and opportunity to effectively fight the next war on the homefront. If they continue to pass the buck as someone else’s problem and fail to address it, then their efforts regardless of merit on the battlefield will go for naught.

  3. Hi Ski,

    Thanks ! Van Creveld has much to say here (20/21st), though overall it is a very critical take with some concessions to force capabilities and the quality of the troops.

    Hi Don,

    “We’ll see, like the German’s in the interwar period in their exploitation of technologies, if the senior American leadership will finally look to this capability and opportunity to effectively fight the next war on the homefront. If they continue to pass the buck as someone else’s problem and fail to address it, then their efforts regardless of merit on the battlefield will go for naught.”

    Van Creveld deals with the Reichswehr (and other European) interwar theorists in great detail – you’ll enjoy that section of the book – but the comparison he draws with American generalship and strategic thinking is unflattering and would tend to confirm a pessimistic perception of senior military and DoD civilian leaders.

  4. Van Creveld totally underestimates the importance of the MSM in modern warfare. The Viet Cong could never have overwhelmingly defeated the US military without their control of the MSM. Similarly, Al Qaeda has won the GWOT and the only question that remains is the date when the US forces will turn tail and run.
    We all know that victory on the battlefield cannot win this war. But there has been absolutely no analysis of how Al Qaeda gained control of the MSM nor why US battlefield victories are irrelevant.

    Here are some hints. By beheading a few reporters at the beginning Al Qaeda forced the MSM to rely on stringers. Terroristic threats to reporters in the Middle East and to management outside the Middle East gave control of the spin. Add to this the very effective anti-Western PR that has continuously
    spun major news stories since the end of WW2. Weapons are useless if there is no will to use them.

  5. Mark,

    What was your reaction to Van Crevelds Hama like alternative to conventional COIN? I actually had to put the book down, blink a few times and then reread when his narrative became something of an impressive snarl as he entertained some rather brutal (and here, Sol Vason, Van Creveld outlines the very tactic you criticize him for underestimating) and very publicized actions.

  6. Sub,

    Are you referring to van Creveld’s favorably contrasting a “Hama solution” a la Hafez Assad with American erratic use of force vs. carrots in Iraq?

  7. Mark,

    To some degree yes. Specifically, I’m referring to the bit where our friend seems to devolve into a very Mongolish mentality. In essence inviting a course of action that results is mass carnage all of which should be viewed and reported by the media. To wit and I quote:

    “…the true objective of your strike is not to kill people per se. Rather, it is to display your ruthlessness and your willingness to go to any lengths to achieve your objective…”

    More to Sol Vason’s comment:

    “…once you have started, do what you have to do openly. The media you control, you can control. The rest are your enemy…”


    “…make sure that as many people as possible can see, hear, smell, and touch the results; if they can also taste them, such as by inhaling the smoke from a burning city, then so much the better. Invite journalists to admire the headless corpses rolling in the streets, film them, and write about them to their hearts’ contents…”

    Sounds like war mongering, doesn’t it? But really, from my own perspective, it’s the naked truth regarding war. I could go on but won’t. I will instead await your (and others) commentary.

  8. This one is on the stack, working its way up.

    I look forward to reading it — the idea that the Third Reich could have been beaten by an insurgency strikes me as utter stupidity. I look forward to seeing just how van Creveld explains it. Insurgencies work only against liberal democracies, or very incompetent despotisms, not tyrannies. Tyrants are free to use the means needed to crush them.

  9. Thank you for clarifying Sub.

    In The Transformation of War, van Creveld attacked Israeli extremist thinkers ( perhaps modern Jabotniki “Eretz Yisrael” ultrazionists, not certain as van Creveld failed to specify)who sought to revive the concept of Milchemet mitzvah, a religiously sanctioned war of genocide (van Creveld, 135, 141). I’m hesitant to ascribe a radical reframing of such views to an endorsement of the pure murder carried out by the Baathist regime at Hama after Islamist cells had been defeated ( whatever the death toll at Hama, I will wager that more died *after* combat ceased than during). OTOH, I don’t know the man so take the following for what it is – my opinion.

    I read the quotations cited as a reiteration of Machiavelli’s axiom that it is better to be feared than loved, but to take care that you do not become hated. In van Creveld’s view, as I interpret Changing Face of War, American forces in Iraq have invited contempt by failing to inspire fear and not understanding the average Iraqi’s calculus of evaluating power had been badly distorted by decades of Saddam’s state terrorism and Tikriti-clan totalitarianism ( as well as simply being at sea in an Arab context generally). Secondly, that ruthless “kinetic” actions being “frontloaded” actually save lives down the road ( Sidebar: the originators of “Shock and Awe” doctrine, Ullman and Wade, believe the invasion of Iraq was anything but what they had envisioned).

    Admittedly, my interpretation here is a charitable one; I’m open to correction here from someone with a greater experience with van Creveld’s work, but that’s how I see the matter.


    I agree with you. Tito’s survival was predicated on 150 + Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS divisions being tied up on the Eastern Front, rather than methodically destroying Serbia in toto.

    What we know of Hitler is that while pragmatic and flexible in terms of tactics earlier in his career, Hitler could also privately articulate the most extreme Social-Darwinist visions that gave even the most radical Nazis like Himmler and Goebbels pause. Van Creveld is correct in stating that the Nazis would ( and did) have had pockets of serious guerilla/terrorist resistance all over Europe – I’m not sure how much they would have had once the Nazis enacted a Carthaginian solution on a rebel nation-state. Van Creveld is flatly wrong here but he’s not, as far as I am aware, a scholar of the Nazi period like, for example, John Lukacs or Richard J. Evans.

  10. What Lex said. I need to read the book, but I can’t see the Nazis being defeated by partisans. They had a willing and quite large corps of collaborators in every Continental European country who were perfectly happy to kll their countrymen. If the counter-insurgency didn’t work they’d have been quite willing to kill or deport a few more mass populations. Partisans are of very limited use against sufficiently genocidal regimes.

  11. The belief that western nations can win – sustain occupations – against local insurgencies is without foundation in the post-WWII record. Nor is there any historical basis for the belief that superior technology has helped western forces, other than running up the tab while they fight – until they lose.

    After Mao brought 4GW to maturity, almost everybody loses in the game of foreign occupation (there are grey areas between foreign occupation and civil wars). Russians in Afghanistan. French in Algeria. Portugal in Africa.

    Not just western nations. South Africa was expelled from Namibia. Ethiopia from Eritrea. India from Sri Lanka. Israel was forced to leave Lebanon. There are dozens of examples, in almost as many forms.

    What was the role of the media in “holding back” these forces? Note that several of these states used every weapon in the conventional book, including torture, reprisals and widespread killing of civilians.

    Why is there still belief that some magic counterinsurgency formula will allow profitable occupation of foreign nations? Searching for the Holy Grail would be more reasonable; at least your souls would benefit.

    It is a misread to say he “approves” of the Hama solution. There is no point being a military theorist if you impose your morality on the facts. It works when used against insurgents by a strong government, under certain circumstances. If that upsets you, instead try the Disney Channel.

  12. Fabius Maximus,

    “It is a misread to say he “approves” of the Hama solution. There is no point being a military theorist if you impose your morality on the facts. It works when used against insurgents by a strong government, under certain circumstances. If that upsets you, instead try the Disney Channel.”

    Was this a general observation or does it entail a specific direction?

    “What was the role of the media in “holding back” these forces?

    What of Vietnam. Or todays Iraq war. Is the media simply a side effect or an unwitting participant?

    These aren’t challenges, rather real questions.

  13. The war in Iraq, the recent war between Israel and Hezbolah, the coming war between Israel and Hamas are all wars fought simultaneously on 2 fronts. One front is the battlefield itself, whether it be Gaza. Lebanon or Iraq. The second front is the editors desk at UPI, Reuters, CNN, BBC, ABC, CBS, NBS, NPR, API, nytimes, wapo, latimes, london times. US forces are unbeatable on the first front. But, inexplicably, the nation that invented public relations has lost every PR battle and PR war since MacArthur was fired.

    But the PR front is the most important because a loss here negates any victory on the battlefield. So the question no one has answered is why is the US such a pitiful helpless giant in the PR business?

  14. “So the question no one has answered is why is the US such a pitiful helpless giant in the PR business?”

    Because the media has been outsourced to the private sector?

    This is not just a flippant answer. The problem is one of static vs. line. I.e., the private-sector media may or may not have a common message: if not, then multiple messages are delivered with each diluting the others; if so, they must not play that message openly and bluntly but indirectly and in the form of a mosaic. Probably, a combination of these occurs. Either way, “managing” static is very difficult; creating a singular line, or message, is very difficult.

    The enemies, on the other hand, would amplify this static. The fantasy world of some theorists includes the notion that “The Enemy” may “control” the media, but this is not what happens. No, the enemy must merely ensure that the media remains but static; the Americans themselves will help by taking this static and imagining definite lines — many of them crossing or warring. And this lead to a kind of operational stasis.

  15. subadei,

    The essence of modern warfare — whether one calls it 4th generation war, non-trinitarian war, or whatever — is that the high ground is moral, not geographic. As such media can be as or more important than tanks.

    But let’s not put overemphasis on them as causes of our defeat in Vietnam or (perhaps) Iraq. To determine the media’s significance, look at the full range of insurgent conflicts, not just the ones we’ve fought. Since WWII local insurgent forces have defeated most foreign occupiers. Some foreigners had hostile media at home, some not. Media are just one factor in the balance of one aspect (the “home” front, support for the war). They do, however, make nice scapegoats for folks unwilling to accept the realities of modern war — and western militaries inability to adapt to them.

    As for “Hama solution”, it is a just another fact of war. Van Creveld describes it, like a docter describing the actions of a virus. It does not matter if he, or we, like it or not. I don’t believe that I understand your question.

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