Review of “Transformation of War” by Martin Van Creveld

For around 200 years conventional armies and military professionals have been basing their doctrine of warfighting on the theories and writings of von Clausewitz in his book On War. In The Transformation of

War, Van Creveld goes to great lengths, citing many historical events, to prove that doctrine based on what he calls the “Clausewitzian Universe” is incorrect and obsolete, especially when used to deal with the realm of Low Intensity Conflict prevalent in the world today. Van Creveld’s purpose is “to address some of the most fundamental problems presented by war in all ages: by whom it is fought, what is all about, how it is fought, what it is fought for, and why it is fought.”

Martin van Creveld (born 1946) is an Israeli military historian and theorist. He was born in the Netherlands but has lived in Israel for most of his life. He holds degrees from the London School of Economics and The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he has been on the faculty since 1971. He is the author of fifteen books on military history and strategy, of which Command in War (1985), Supplying War (1977, 2nd edition 2004), and The Sword and the Olive (1998) are among the best known. He has lectured or taught at virtually every strategic institute, military or civilian, in the Western world, including the U.S. Naval War College, most recently in December, 1999 and January, 2000 (Wikipedia, 2006).

Van Creveld begins The Transformation of War by roughly defining contemporary war and the uselessness of deterrence policies, based on nuclear and high-tech weapons, aimed at states (countries) that don’t have such capabilities. Written in 1991, he continues by illustrating the prevailing trend toward Low Intensity Conflicts, opposed to conventional wars, since World War II with exception of the limited conflict during the Gulf War. Van Creveld’s view is that with the propensity toward Low Intensity Conflict, Clausewitz’s theories being inadequate to cope, and conventional armies being inflexible to adapt, completely new strategies need to be implemented toward the Clausewitz Trinity (Army, State, and People). He goes so far to suggest that all Conventional Standing Armies be dissolved and reorganized as unconventional forces to deal with the prevailing type of conflict.

Van Creveld’s position that doctrine, based on Clausewitz, is outdated is absolutely accurate although; current should not be totally discounted but drastically modified and adapted to meet the ever changing dynamic of Low Intensity Conflict. The notion that standing conventional armies be completely dissolved is flawed; there is still a great need for these armies, for example Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime and the recent invasion of Iraq. After the initial phases of these two operations conventional standing armies were needed to establish security around the remaining infrastructure in the midst of the power vacuums that materialized. Standing armies still play an important role in national defense and with a little molding may fit into new doctrine developed for Low Intensity Conflict. Another possible course of action, using van Creveld’s theories, would be to bifurcate the military. One branch developed to deal with conventional conflicts and one to deal with low intensity conflicts.

Any military professional desiring to explore alternative views of modern doctrine that are based on Clausewitz and those stagnated in a conventional mindset, namely leaders at operational and strategic levels, will greatly benefit from reading Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War.