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.

Dr van Creveld wrote before the final disintegration of Soviet military power, but in this respect the march of events has made his thesis even less credible. Western arsenals, it is true, are filled with weapons developed to deal with an adversary who no longer exists. But the Gulf War showed that other adversaries still exist, armed (and armed by us) with very much the same weapons as ourselves, and against them conventional warfare can be safely waged without risk of nuclear escalation. It could indeed be argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union has made the world safe for the use of conventional weapons: they are being lavishly used in Yugoslavia as I write these words.

Dr van Creveld has, however, a more profound and interesting theory to justify his belief that we are seeing the end of an entire era of warfare, and one that deserves serious examination. Our ideas about war, he claims, are derived from those of von Clausewitz. Clausewitz considered war to be an act of policy conducted by organised and legitimate states, as it has been, broadly speaking, ever since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. He distinguished three elements in the conduct of war: the governments, who devised and shaped it, the military, who conducted it, and (increasingly) the people, the degree of whose involvement determined the intensity with which the war was fought. This was an accurate enough analysis, although during the 20th century the military element increasingly absorbed both the popular and the political.

But, van Creveld points out, war had existed long before the existence of states, and had been fought for many different causes other than state interest. It had been fought as ritual, as a means of litigation, as a way to determine status, to convert the infidel, to enable independent societies to survive, and not least, van Creveld argues provocatively, because men enjoyed fighting. War, he suggests, is a game (as Clausewitz had also pointed out) and the greatest game in the world:

War alone presents man with the opportunity of employing all his faculties, putting everything at risk, and testing his ultimate worth against an opponent as strong as himself. It is the stakes that can make a game serious, even noble. While war’s usefulness as a servant of power, interest and profit may he questioned, the inherent fascination it has held for men at all times and places is a matter of historical fact. When all is said and done, the only way to account for this fascination is to regard war as the game with the highest stakes of all.

Quite how Dr van Creveld reconciles this encomium of war with the dedication of his book (‘To my children: may they never have to fight’) is a matter of speculation: but whether one likes it or not, the ‘fascination’ he describes certainly exists, as one can see by looking in any toy-shop or visiting any book-store. It was this fascination that kept most of us glued to our television-sets through-out the course of the Gulf War. Even if during the Clausewitzian era state interest created the war, it was certainly this element of game, far more than either patriotism or docile obedience, that kept people interested and fighting: an element that was there before the state existed and that is likely to survive, argues Dr van Creveld, even after the state has withered away.

Yet although war as such is eternal, large-scale warfare, van Creveld maintains, is nevertheless obsolescent. That is because states themselves are obsolescent. The era that opened with the Peace of Westphalia is now drawing to a close as states lose the monopoly over armed violence that was their salient characteristic. Orthodox warfare with its distinctions between government and military and peoples, with its weapons and techniques developed by armies largely to fight other armies, has proved useless in the face of the ‘Low Intensity Conflicts’ that have been the major motor of change in international relations ever since the Second World War. Armies have had to divide their time between training for impossible wars and actually fighting adversaries whose techniques have been the more effective because they bear little if any relation to those of conventional warfare. Terrorism, hostage-taking and urban guerrilla action are the instruments of the new world order, and to deal with them armies have to develop comparable small-scale techniques. Armies have to become armed police, operating at close quarters in a civil environment in which the use of their preferred weapons would be impossibly destructive; and this close intermixture of the opposing forces has in itself the disintegrating effect on society which the terrorists themselves intend.

Dr van Creveld thus foresees a gradual unravelling of the state system. It will start – it has indeed already started – in the vulnerable communities of the Thrid World. It will spread to the United States, where social cohesion is already under enormous strain. The traditional societies of Europe and Japan – especially the latter – are likely to hold out the longest, but they will themselves disintegrate as ethnic diversity increases. The subsequent political structure is unforeseeable, but Dr van Creveld seems to visualise a situation comparable to that which succeeded the Roman Empire in the West, when political loyalty went to any local authority capable of affording protection against endemic disorder. Under such circumstances, small is likely to be beautiful.

Not everyone will buy this nightmare scenario, which is already a little dated. It bears the imprint of the late Eighties, when terrorism was very much the flavour of the month. Now it seems rather passé, though it would be rash to assert that it will not return. Low Intensity Conflict was a successful technique in evicting colonial authorities from territories where their metropolitan peoples did not particularly want to stay, and where the indigenous population particularly wanted them to leave, but it has proved not more than a manageable nuisance in developed societies. Only in the Lebanon and – to a very limited extent – in Northern Ireland have terrorists been able to chalk up strictly local successes. Even in Latin America, where they flourished most extensively, they seem to be a dying breed.

Historians are as liable as anyone else to seize upon an ephemeral trend and project it into the future, and Dr van Creveld seems to have fallen into that trap. Had he been writing in February 1991, he might have seen the future of war as lying in police actions conducted by developed societies using highly sophisticated methods to preserve regional stability (or, alternatively, neo-colonialist hegemony). In November 1991, the future might appear to lie with small wars fought with advanced weapons between nations re-emerging from the rubble of collapsing empires. In six months time, another scenario may emerge. Dr van Creveld rightly uses a broad historical perspective to remind us that the system that we take so much for granted is, in fact, sub specie aeternitatis, highly ephemeral: but Hegel was also right to remind us that the owl of Minerva takes flight only at twilight. Neither he nor any other historian has been able successfully to plot the future. Even Clausewitz, surveying the transformation of war in his own lifetime, was prepared to say no more than that ‘absolute war’ on a Napoleonic scale might recur.

Today, there certainly seems little prospect of large-scale war in the foreseeable future. But come the mid-21st century, when Russia may once again be a great power, when China may have advanced further along the path to modernisation, when Japan may perhaps have been internally transformed for the worse, and one or more successful Saddam Husseins may have arisen in the Third World equipped with nuclear weapons and with no compunction about using them: what then? Could anyone have foreseen in 1815 the circumstances that were to lead to war in 1914 or the manner in which that war would be fought?

Dr van Creveld should thus certainly not be seen as the successor to Clausewitz depicted by his publishers. A more appropriate predecessor might be Marshal de Saxe, whose Reveries de la Guerre were dictated during the course of a single night while he was suffering from a high fever. Like those Reveries, Dr van Creveld’s book is full of unusual insights, some brilliant, some absurd. There is, for example, a long discourse about women, better forgotten. There is a deplorably superficial account of the origins of the First World War, which he believes to have been triggered by the assassination of an Archduke Karl. There is the encomium to war as the highest form of sport, referred to above, which, whether one likes it or not, rings uncomfortably true. And there is an excellent summary of the self-imposed limitations on the conduct of war that developed during the Clausewitzian era.

Finally, there is a passage that is perhaps worth everything else in the book, in which he reminds us that the essential characteristic of soldiers is not that they are prepared to kill, but that, unlike executioners or butchers, they are prepared to die; and that the whole panoply of the military sub-culture is devised to make this acceptable. However uneven the odds, there have to be odds of some kind to distinguish war from a simple massacre. This was what made the destruction of an undefended Dresden troubling in a way that earlier attacks on German cities were not. It is this that underlies our justifiable concern about the morality of nuclear warfare. Indeed the Gulf War itself ended partly because the Allied forces, to their credit, revolted against the continued massacre of fleeing Iraqi troops. It was, in a curiously apposite phrase, ‘just not sporting’. Perhaps van Creveld is right: so far from trivialising war, to regard it as an extension of sport rather than as an instrument of policy may do something to civilise it.