Famous Last Screams

Michael Howard

  • On Future War by Martin van Creveld
    Brassey, 254 pp, £22.50, October 1991, ISBN 0 08 041796 5

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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