by Martin van Creveld
PublicAffairs, 2011, 512 pp., $35
The Culture of War
by Martin van Creveld
Presidio Press, 2008, 512 pp., $35
The world of U.S. defense policy today resembles nothing so much as an Etch A Sketch being reset: It is being turned upside-down and shaken. For close to a decade, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the shadowy campaign against terror, have been nearly all-consuming concerns for military and other national security decision-makers. Defense and intelligence spending has been essentially uninhibited. Now a very different landscape lies before us: Iraq is receding as an everyday concern, force commitments to Afghanistan are declining, and budgetary belts are painfully tightening.
What should come next in a world of uncertain threats and speculative enemies? Getting ready for the next counterinsurgency mission? Preparing for war with China (either because it is inevitable or because we must deter it)? Limited interventions in other people’s civil wars? What possibilities are safe to ignore? And what military forces are best suited to dealing with these possibilities? The answers to these questions matter now, because the investment choices we must make today will do much to determine what tools we have at our disposal for decades to come.
Into this context steps the prolific Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld with his newest book, The Age of Airpower. Van Creveld’s latest would seem to have arrived at a most opportune time, for it raises questions about just such fundamental issues. Regrettably, however, the answers mostly disappoint.
At first glance, the title of The Age of Airpower suggests a paean to its subject. Instead it is an obituary, a Romanesque rise-and-decline story in which airpower bursts onto the scene, enjoys a glorious but fleeting heyday in the mid-20th century, and then enters an era of gradual decline as it degenerates, left behind by the march of history. The book purports to be a comprehensive history of its subject from the earliest use of warplanes to the present, and it claims further to tell us history’s verdict on airpower, both present and future. Despite the author’s engaging style, these claims end up unredeemed, at times annoyingly so.
The Age of Airpower fails its most basic test by repeatedly failing to get the history right. It is riddled with factual errors, many involving easily checked details about airplanes, ships, armament, and aircraft designations and names, along with incorrect dates, descriptions of events and order-of-battle accounts. Several can be traced to the author misreading Wikipedia entries, which constitute a surprisingly large proportion of the citations. Descriptions of the development of air-to-air missiles and precision-guided munitions (as well as of ancient and modern warships) conflate details of different technologies, indicating a lack of understanding of how these systems actually work.
Some errors are just puzzling, as when van Creveld asserts that the name of the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War is a misnomer because Iraq was the aggressor—as if the order of precedence in hyphenated war names are normally based on who started the fight. (This supposed convention would no doubt surprise participants in the Russo-Japanese War.) Equally puzzling is van Creveld’s explanation for the Finnish Air Force’s use of a swastika insignia in World War II, which he says testifies to their close ties with the Luftwaffe. In fact, the Finns adopted the insignia in 1918, long before the Nazis came to power and before there even was a Luftwaffe. (A popular Finnish folk symbol, the swastika also appeared in national heraldry and even in postage stamp watermarks well before Hitler’s rise to power.)
The historical purpose of The Age of Airpower is also marred by troubling omissions. Recounting the all-important interwar belief that “the bomber will always get through”, as Stanley Baldwin famously put it, van Creveld never explains why theorists at the time thought this would be true. There is much disdain for the conduct of the NATO air campaign against Serbia in 1999, but no explanation of why the author does not consider it ultimately to have been a significant success for airpower. He also pays surprisingly little attention to the remarkable 2001 U.S.-led air campaign in Afghanistan.
Some of these inaccuracies and lacunae can be written off as tangential to the real thrust of the volume (if not to the author’s and publisher’s broader credibility), but others can’t, given the book’s claim that its analysis is grounded in its history. For example, in describing the limitations of modern airpower, van Creveld states that land-based fighters could not reach Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 (in fact, they flew hundreds of such sorties from bases on the Arabian peninsula). Most significant of all are assertions such as, “A Stuka was quite as capable of knocking out a World War II tank as an A-10 Warthog is of doing the same to a present day one”, and “P-47 Thunderbolts in 1944–45 did not take many more sorties to bring down a bridge or hit a locomotive than an F-16 did six and a half decades later.” These statements are proffered without citing sources or evidence to support them, and are simply incorrect. Ultimately, it is hard to avoid concluding that van Creveld is not merely presenting sloppy history but is also twisting it to support his central claim: “Since , far from growing, the power of airpower has undergone a slow but steady decline.”
There are two main elements to this overarching argument. The first is that although “no large scale conventional campaign is feasible in the teeth of enemy command of the air”, nuclear proliferation has now made conventional war between countries with important air forces impossible, leaving only irregular enemies to fight. In such conflicts “the use of airpower . . . has been the record of almost uninterrupted failure.” The second is that, even setting aside the sort of war being fought, since World War II the cost of airpower has grown enormously while its capabilities have remained more or less constant. Given this shift in the ratio of costs to benefits, and the decline in numbers of air platforms, van Creveld concludes that the value of airpower has diminished.
The contention that major conventional wars are, or are becoming, a thing of the past, whether due to nuclear weapons or some other cause, is of course not unique to van Creveld; nor is the idea that “wars among the people” are the wave of the present and future (which he credits largely to Rupert Smith).1 Others have also argued that airpower is ineffective in such wars because of the genuine difficulties involved in finding and identifying small targets in complex terrain and built-up areas (although they have rarely done so in such categorical terms, since airpower has often been quite potent in irregular and counterinsurgency warfare). Van Creveld argues that if airpower were as effective as its advocates claim, it would be able to win quick, decisive victories against insurgents and other irregulars, which it tends not to do. But he fails to note that armies and other forces designed for counterinsurgency also often fail to win their victories quickly and decisively, and are not expected to do so in such conflicts.
The Age of Airpower really breaks new ground—and is both most disingenuous and least successful—with its impassioned (to the point of irate) argument that airpower is locked in a spiral of degenerative decline. This is most strikingly embodied in van Creveld’s claim that precision-guided munitions (PGMs) are not really more accurate than the unguided bombs of decades ago; they merely allow the aircraft dropping them to do so from safer distances. There are two problems with this claim. First, it is flatly incorrect: Even the most deadly World War II dive bombers could not approach the accuracy of modern PGMs, as demonstrated by the dramatic results when these weapons entered service late in the Vietnam War. Second, the idea that accuracy only matters if you are reluctant to close with the enemy is militarily ludicrous; one could equally well claim that a modern rifle is not much of an advance over an 18th-century musket because either one will hit reliably if fired from six feet away.
Why make such a far-fetched argument? Why do so especially in the wake of a series of recent campaigns (Kuwait and Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia and Afghanistan) in which airpower achieved levels of effectiveness that, in each case, exceeded the prewar expectations of most pundits? Two factors seem to animate van Creveld’s analysis. One is the tendency for airpower to fall short of inflated expectations proffered either by its advocates or by national leaders too eager for the prospect of an easy victory. The strategic bombing of Germany would presumably have been more impressive to historians if its early planners had not enthusiastically predicted that it would bring about the collapse of the German war economy much faster than it did. The Serbian defeat of 1999 would likely have appeared more lustrous had it not been tarnished by the White House suggesting at the outset, against all reason, that bombing would bring victory in a matter of a few days.
The other factor is van Creveld’s assertion that airpower is being weakened by a decline in courage and risk acceptance among airmen and their leaders. He attributes this to the stakes in modern wars being low (though one would think that would apply to soldiers and sailors as well) and to the influx of women into Western armed forces, especially air forces, beginning in the 1970s. This last bit is contained in a brief but impressively misogynistic tirade at the end of The Age of Airpower in which he goes so far as to attribute the under-representation of women in combat relative to non-combat roles in the U.S. Air Force not to legal barriers that have only recently been lifted, or even to relative physical weakness, but to cowardice. “In all countries that allowed women to join their militaries, air forces received more than their fair share of them, the reason being that those forces have a much higher tail-to-teeth ratio (most women prefer to serve in the tails, where they are much less likely to get killed) than the other armed services.” This represents a truly low point in a book that already has more than its share of them.
Van Creveld stood on much firmer historical ground in his previous book, The Culture of War. He was also more successful there, in part because his goals were comparatively modest.
Most of The Culture of War’s twenty chapters examine various cultural dimensions of warfare and militaries, ranging from weapons and their decoration, military training methods, and soldiers’ pre- and post-combat rituals to the treatment of war in literature, movies, art, historical scholarship and public monuments. These surveys, not limited to Western history, are rich in colorful detail, ruminating on diverse examples from the Biblical era to the 20th century.
There are some limitations to this approach. The surveys are not systematic. For example, the reader sees a great deal about Sparta but little about other Greek military cultures, giving the impression that they must not have been terribly different. German and Israeli armies also loom much larger than their contemporaries in the data (if “data” really is the plural of “anecdote”). His account only gives modest attention to the post-1945 era and very little to the past quarter century. Nor are navies and air forces very much in evidence. With some exceptions, The Culture of War is overwhelmingly a book about land warfare and the soldiers who wage it.
Throughout, van Creveld’s central thesis is that at a fundamental level warfare and preparations for it are timeless. Though militaries adjust as technologies and social systems change, the basic role and mindset of the soldier endure, just like boys’ and men’s fascination with warfare. For example, military training methods “have remained essentially the same for millennia on end.” Van Creveld also maintains that changes in laws and beliefs about the legitimate use of force and the treatment of noncombatants are less significant than the fact that there have always been rules of one sort or another governing acceptable conduct in warfare. Where he sees universal patterns and immutability, others will consider the intercultural diversity and historical changes he describes to be more interesting and consequential than what has remained constant. These readers may thus be all the more frustrated by the relatively short shrift given to developments in the past generation or two.
The book’s coda states that its principal objective is to show the reader that warfare has rich cultural dimensions that are fascinating and worthy of study. It certainly accomplishes this (although anyone who decides to read a 500-page volume called The Culture of War probably already knows this to be true). Van Creveld presents this proposition as an alternative and a corrective to the belief that warfare is a utilitarian, culturally sterile means to an end. Clausewitz and those in subsequent generations who esteem him (“strategists” and “neo-realists”) fundamentally misunderstand their subject, he says, when they characterize war as the extension of policy by other means.
One may question whether there are many Clausewitzians, or neo-realists for that matter, who imagine war to be a bland activity without cultural content or significance. I have yet to meet one, at any rate. But even if they do exist, van Creveld’s book begs the question of whether it matters. Nowhere in The Culture of War do we see examples of statesmen who were actually led astray by such a belief, leading their nations into disaster as a result of failing to take into account the passionate and visceral dimensions of warfare. Certainly there are such instances, but it must be said that at least 4,000 years of history is saturated with the opposite problem: leaders and peoples seeing war through passionate lenses at the expense of a prudent assessment of costs, benefits and probabilities, making catastrophic choices as a result. The year 1914 provides the evergreen example: Multiple European countries blundered their way into the July Crisis and then into war in part because of too much cultural ennui, too much ambient militarism and too much fascination with the allure of war, not too little. Historical examples of states or communities going to war largely for primal, non-utilitarian reasons are legion.
In the end, van Creveld’s proposition comes down to the difference between combat and war. He is more interested in the process of warfare than in its purpose, and the motivations of the soldier more than those of the commander-in-chief. Indeed, the real target of van Creveld’s disdain appear not to be those who are oblivious to the culture of war and warriors, but those who actively shun or despise it. This makes sense; they are more likely than a neo-Clausewitzian strategist to underinvest in the tools of war or undermine its practitioners.
Early in the historical narrative of The Age of Airpower, van Creveld gives considerable (and quite interesting) attention to the little-known debut of combat aviation, in Libya in 1911–12. One century later, and shortly after he completed the book, we have watched the modest employment of modern airpower reverse the course of a “war among the people” in that same country, defying the apparent expectations of most U.S. defense pundits and military leaders that the best such an intervention could produce would be a prolonged and bloody stalemate. To be sure, the result did not come overnight, was certainly not without cost to the victorious forces on the ground, and represents only an “end of the beginning” with respect to Libya and its political development. Yet for all its political and operational shortcomings, it is not fanciful to pronounce the NATO intervention a notable achievement.
Or so it would appear, at any rate, to an observer who analyzes war in terms of costs and benefits and prefers inexpensive victories to expensive ones. Van Creveld insists that this is the wrong way to think about war, and his arguments suggest that victory is devalued if one does not go into harm’s way to win it. (This is not as uncommon a notion as many might suppose. It is cut from the same cloth as op-ed contentions that using airpower instead of infantry in Afghanistan enrages the Taliban and alienates the Afghan public because of the unfairness of attacking one’s enemies with impunity.)
This way of thinking seems poised to become an issue of growing significance in defense debates in the years to come. At the most obvious level, it will drive the competition for increasingly tight budgets in favor of force structures that emphasize the merits of close combat with the enemy, as opposed to air and naval forces, which have portrayed themselves as alternatives to the costs and risks of close-quarter engagements. But there is a deeper issue.
The twin elements of soldiering—risking one’s life and taking (or helping to take) the lives of others—have increasingly become disconnected for many American warriors. This pattern is especially common among naval and air forces but is by no means limited to them. For a traditionalist à l’outrance like van Creveld, the idea of being a proper warrior without putting oneself significantly in the line of enemy fire appears to be an oxymoron. But let’s be upfront about what that would mean if it were true: To decide that a pilot in Nevada flying a Predator over Afghanistan, a targeteer in an air operations center, a cruise missile operator on a guided-missile destroyer, or for that matter a gunner in a virtually invulnerable main battle tank is not truly a warrior because he or she is essentially safe from enemy attack would trivialize both the sacrifices these people make and the losses experienced by their enemies. It also seems to be an argument in favor of risking American lives simply for the supposed honor of doing so. That can’t be right.
Since the earliest days of military aviation, the advocates of airpower have claimed that it provides the basis for a better way of war, offering greater strategic success at lower cost than the traditional clash of purely terrestrial armies. Many observers of recent conflicts see evidence that these promises have now been substantially fulfilled. Van Creveld insists that trying to change the key features of warfare is naive, even undesirable, and that the heyday of airpower lies in its past, not its present or future. It is a thesis that goes to the heart of current budgetary struggles in the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. But his argument does not have history on its side.
1General Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (Knopf, 2007).