Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Past and Future of War

Martin van Creveld and Douglas Macgregor illuminate the battlefield.

The possibility that next January the country will have an anti-establishment president makes military reform again relevant. Two new books usefully address the subject in ways that update the reform agenda, one looking back at previous efforts and one looking forward at a new and deadly threat to military effectiveness.

The first is Col. Douglas Macgregor’s Margin of Victory: Five Battles That Changed the Face of Modern War. The title is hyperbolic; it would be more accurate to say, “Five Battles That Illustrate Reform Successes and Failures.” But that probably wouldn’t sell. Publishers, not authors, choose titles.

Macgregor’s first account, of Mons in Belgium in 1914, gives overdue credit to British Secretary of State for War Sir Richard Haldane. His partially successful reforms of the British Army, following its abysmal performance in the Boer War, saved it from annihilation when it met the world’s best army, the German army, in World War I. Haldane was opposed by the generals, who then as now feared reform would render obsolete their expertise, especially at self-promotion.

Macgregor’s next two cases, the battle for Shanghai in 1937 and the destruction of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Center in Russia in 1944, are somewhat distorted by his well-known bias toward heavy armor. He criticizes both the Imperial Japanese Army and the Wehrmacht for insufficient mechanization. Yet neither country had adequate industrial resources to mechanize more than a small portion of its armies.

Case four, the Israelis’ counterattack across the Suez Canal in 1973, was the last flowering of maneuver warfare in the IDF, which had begun to bureaucratize and centralize after the 1967 war.

Macgregor concludes with an examination of American performance in the First Gulf War and subsequently. He errs in attributing the failure of Norman Schwarzkopf’s attempt to encircle and destroy the Iraqi Republican Guard to President George H.W. Bush’s ceasefire. As Col. James Burton has proven, the Republican Guard was out of the bag well beforehand. The hard fact is that the Iraqis conducted their retreat better than we conducted our advance, due to the slowness of the VII Corps’ commander, Gen. Frederick Frank, something Macgregor does discuss.

Macgregor’s main recommendation, that the U.S. create a German-style general staff system, is fully justified and highly important. Yet Macgregor’s book looks back, not forward. He foresees a world where our main if not only opponents are other states: Russia, China, Iran, etc. These are chimeras. We are not going to engage in continental land wars with nuclear powers, and an invasion of Iran would be the Iraq debacle writ large. Macgregor ignores Fourth Generation war (4GW), war against non-state entities such as ISIS, perhaps because the heavy armor he values has little role in such conflicts.

thisarticleappearsThe second book looks forward, not surprisingly given its author’s prescience in foreseeing 4GW: his earlier book The Transformation of War is the foundational work of Fourth Generation theory. That author is Martin van Creveld, and his most recent book, Pussycats: Why the Rest Keep Beating the West and What Can Be Done About It, raises a new issue of such vast importance that it must vault immediately to the top of the reform agenda. That issue is the demilitarization of Western militaries and Western societies.

A demilitarized military simply won’t fight. It will collapse at a touch, as so many militaries throughout history have. We may not have reached that point in the U.S., but we will do so soon if ideologically driven decisions such as putting women in combat arms are allowed to stand. Unless a military has an aggressively male culture, which is “uncomfortable for women,” it will not fight.

That’s not the only problem. What chance, Creveld asks, do Western youths—who from cradle through college were instructed and supervised in everything they did—have in the chaos of combat against Third World fighters, many of whom from age five on had to find their own dinner each night?

Creveld writes,

Battle is the most atavistic environment on earth. Filled with terror, it sets back evolution a million years and creates a situation where the only thing that matters is getting out alive. Paradoxically, that is just why the culture of war is as vital as it is. Any attempt to tamper with it, even if laudable in terms of a progressive country’s instincts, is dangerous and should only be undertaken with the greatest caution. What has been demolished can never be restored. A good army that does not have a powerful cultural tradition, one that can act as a kind of corset and hold it together through [thick] and thin—especially thin—is impossible.

More, what chance is there of sustaining a military culture in societies that are broadly anti-military? European and American political and cultural elites are so anti-military that they lament the deaths, at the hands of their own armed forces, of ISIS fighters who would joyfully behead them and their families. As Creveld argues in detail, we have seen all this before. It’s called “decline,” and it is followed by “fall.”

Pussycats looks forward to the kind of war our children will face, not backward to maneuvering armored divisions on the plains of Ukraine. For anyone who wants his children to have a future beyond choosing between conversion or the sword, it is important reading.

William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook.



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