Interview with Martin van Creveld


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When you talk about military history and strategy, you can't help but cite Dr. Martin van Creveld, author of such notable works as The Transformation of War and Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. He has written 17 books so far and is a professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, where he has been teaching since 1971.

According to Dr. Chet Richards, van Creveld's Fighting Power was among the late Col. John Boyd's favorites. Any book worthy of John Boyd's attention is worthy enough for any serious student of strategy.

His book The Transformation of War tells us of fourth generation warfare (4GW) not the term he used but that’s what it is. Richards wrote, "Van Creveld has seen the future, and you won't like it: It's non-trinitarian, non-Clausewitzian, and probably not winnable by organized state armies." In other words, more like the world Sun Tzu competed in. Martin van Creveld, then, is not only a foremost thinker of warfare's history but also of its future.

As you will see in our interview with him, he did not mince words with us. And we wouldn't want it any other way. When we informed him of a news article about how Bush officials bristle at the suggestion the war in Iraq looks like Vietnam, he replied, "Well, let them do some bristling. These people should be impeached, tried and punished for misleading the American people into a senseless war. They can then spend their time in prison reading Clausewitz and Sun Tzu." Whether you agree or disagree, Martin van Creveld's words have substance and are not mere conjecture. Dismiss them at our nation's peril.

To read more about Dr. van Creveld and his works, go to Google's scholar feature. Enjoy the interview! In your book The Art of War: War and Military Thought, you stated Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is “the best work on war ever.” This is a distinct compliment to Sun Tzu considering your vast knowledge and analyses of history’s works on warfare, from von Buelow to Jomini to Clausewitz, would you mind sharing your thoughts about Sun Tzu and what distinguishes him from other military writers?

van Creveld: Let me start by saying that Sun Tzu does not need my praise. His work has lived for over two thousand years, and will surely live for another two thousand without any help from me.

To my mind, what sets Sun Tzu apart are the following three qualities.

First, like Clausewitz's On War, The Art of War is not a cookbook. It does not focus on telling readers how to make war, but provides an entire philosophy. By so doing, it raises itself above the momentary political, economic, social, technological, and cultural circumstances under which it was written. It creates a framework for thought that may be used by anyone out to understand or wage war, at any time, at any place.

Second, unlike On War, The Art of War is a Daoist text. The significance of this is that Sun Tzu sees war not as a means to an end, let alone as a positive good, but as a necessary evil. While fully aware of the vital role war plays in human affairs and prepared to do whatever it takes to win, he never allows the reader to forget what a horrible business it is. This in turn results in The Art of War being pervaded by a deep humanity which On War, precisely because it treats war as a means to an end, does not display.

Third, whereas On War is a weighty philosophical treatise The Art of War is at the same time a work of art; in this respect it resembles Lao Tzu as well as Plato. I am no Chinese scholar, but those who are tell me that each word rings like a bell. To some extent, this quality comes through even in translation. You have lectured or taught at virtually every strategic institute in the Western world, including the US Naval War College, and have already written 17 books. What first got you interested in writing and teaching about military history and strategy, and what keeps you continuing to do so?

van Creveld: For an answer, look up the introduction to Plato's Republic. Here, Socrates says that the imaginary city he and his interlocutors are about to construct will act like a magnifying mirror for looking into the human soul. With war, things are similar. More than any other human activity, war subjects men—both as individuals and in large groups—to the most extreme conditions. By so doing it brings out the human soul in all its baseness and all its glory. It has been said there are two major camps in the US military leadership: Those who follow the principles of Clausewitz and those who follow the principles of Sun Tzu. Do you agree in general? If so, which of the two ideas do you think will apply more in future wars? If not, what doctrines or sets of principles do you see the US military leadership following?

van Creveld: I doubt whether the U.S military leadership has followed either Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, or else it would hardly have gotten itself involved in an unwinnable war in Iraq.

In the future as in the past, both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu will undoubtedly have a lot to offer. As to the U.S, I do not see that it follows any particular set of principles except hypocrisy: meaning, the heart-felt need to dress up its extraordinary hunger for power with fine-sounding phrases about freedom, democracy, women's rights, etc. You believe the current US involvement in Iraq will end up like the Vietnam War. What are the major parallels? In a more philosophical sense, why do we as human beings do not tend to learn from our history and past mistakes, especially in a serious matter as warfare?

van Creveld: Both Iraq and Vietnam are, to use the terminology I developed in The Transformation of War, non-trinitarian conflicts. Experience shows that almost all countries that tried to fight such wars from, let us say, 1941 on, have lost, as did the U.S itself in both Vietnam and Somalia. Why should the war in Iraq end up differently?

Concerning the second question, you really should ask Mr. Bush. According to Carl Woodward's Bush at War, which has many verbatim reports of the decision- making process that led to Iraq, Bush, repeatedly referred to Vietnam, adding that "I am not stupid". Why, assuming the reports are correct, he nevertheless decided to go to war escapes me and will no doubt preoccupy historians to come. You recently wrote a book about who many consider as Israel’s greatest leader, Moshe Dayan. From your research, what are the main attributes that made him exceptional, and how can current and future leaders learn from how he operated?

van Creveld: Dayan's strongest suits as a military leader were probably as follows. First, there was his known courage, which caused men to follow him and enabled him to demand the supreme sacrifice of them. Second, he had an in-depth, almost intuitive, understanding of the relationship between politics and war unusual in military men. Third, he possessed a certain cunning, disguised as frankness, that caused him to always look for ways to outwit the enemy. Since Israel in his time was always fighting enemies who were larger and stronger than itself, all three qualities were absolutely vital. We have been hearing a lot about China (the origin of Sun Tzu and written military thought) and its economic rise in the last 20 years. What do you think about their military program? Should we be concerned about it?

van Creveld: Assuming China does not become destabilized and continues to grow, it will no doubt develop a military program in proportion to its resources. That said, one should add that, historically speaking, China has been inward-looking. Unlike the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R, it has never sought to make the rest of the world share the blessings of its own ideology. Nor does it have a particularly bad record of military aggression.

These facts give rise to cautious optimism. I do hope that, working together, China and the U.S. can avoid a second Cold War. That means neither taking the Chinese program lightly nor exaggerating it, but finding ways to minimize competition and cooperate instead. In your professional opinion, do you think wars will be with us for another thousand years? If so, what do you think are the consequences, and is there anything you think we can do as a civilization to curb or mitigate these deadly conflicts?

van Creveld: I must say I dislike your references to my "vast knowledge" and "professional opinion". They are beside the point.

I think that war, i.e. politically-organized armed conflict, is part of human nature; recent observations have even confirmed the existence of something very like it among chimpanzees. Therefore it is almost certainly going to be with us as long as humanity itself lasts.

As history since Hiroshima shows, the best, perhaps the only, way to curb war is to deter it with such overwhelming force as to turn it from a struggle into suicide. The best way to mitigate it is to use all possible means to bring it to a speedy end. I think both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu would agree on these points.

[End of interview]

We suggest the following books by Dr. Martin van Creveld:

Click Here to Purchase
Buy this book
- 254 pages
- 0.9 x 9.5 x 6.5 in.
- Free Press
- March 1991

$ 22.05

Click Here to Purchase
Buy this book

- 198 pages
- 0.7 x 9.4 x 6.2 in.
- Greenwood Press
- October 1982

$ 97.95

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