Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq

Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq

by Martin van Creveld

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One of the most influential experts on military history and strategy has now written his magnum opus, an original and provocative account of the past hundred years of global conflict. The Changing Face of War is the book that reveals the path that led to the impasse in Iraq, why powerful standing armies are now helpless against ill-equipped insurgents, and how the


One of the most influential experts on military history and strategy has now written his magnum opus, an original and provocative account of the past hundred years of global conflict. The Changing Face of War is the book that reveals the path that led to the impasse in Iraq, why powerful standing armies are now helpless against ill-equipped insurgents, and how the security of sovereign nations may be maintained in the future.

While paying close attention to the unpredictable human element, Martin van Creveld takes us on a journey from the last century’s clashes of massive armies to today’s short, high-tech, lopsided skirmishes and frustrating quagmires. Here is the world as it was in 1900, controlled by a handful of “great powers,” mostly European, with the memories of eighteenth-century wars still fresh. Armies were still led by officers riding on horses, messages conveyed by hand, drum, and bugle. As the telegraph, telephone, and radio revolutionized communications, big-gun battleships like the British Dreadnought, the tank, and the airplane altered warfare.

Van Creveld paints a powerful portrait of World War I, in which armies would be counted in the millions, casualties–such as those in the cataclysmic battle of the Marne–would become staggering, and deadly new weapons, such as poison gas, would be introduced. Ultimately, Germany’s plans to outmaneuver her enemies to victory came to naught as the battle lines ossified and the winners proved to be those who could produce the most weapons and provide the most soldiers.

The Changing Face of War then propels us to the even greater global carnage of World War II. Innovations in armored warfare and airpower, along with technological breakthroughs from radar to the atom bomb, transformed war from simple slaughter to a complex event requiring new expertise–all in the service of savagery, from Pearl Harbor to Dachau to Hiroshima. The further development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War shifts nations from fighting wars to deterring them: The number of active troops shrinks and the influence of the military declines as civilian think tanks set policy and volunteer forces “decouple” the idea of defense from the world of everyday people.

War today, van Crevald tells us, is a mix of the ancient and the advanced, as state-of-the-art armies fail to defeat small groups of crudely outfitted guerrilla and terrorists, a pattern that began with Britain’s exit from India and culminating in American misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq, examples of what the author calls a “long, almost unbroken record of failure.”

How to learn from the recent past to reshape the military for this new challenge–how to still save, in a sense, the free world–is the ultimate lesson of this big, bold, and cautionary work. The Changing Face of War is sure to become the standard source on this essential subject.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Prelude, 1900-14

1.1. States, Armies, and Navies

Around 1900, the idea that the only possible threat to a "Great Power" could come from another "Great Power" was taken very much for granted. Indeed, nowhere in the voluminous strategic literature of the period is any other possibility so much as hinted at. Depending on whether or not one included Italy, the number of Great Powers was either seven or eight. Of them, no fewer than six (or seven) were populated almost entirely by Christian people of Caucasian stock--an extraordinary fact, considering that such people formed a small percentage of the world's population. Even more extraordinary, of the seven (or eight) Great Powers in question, four (or five) were located in just one, rather small, continent by the name of Europe. Another, Russia, had its main basis firmly rooted in that continent even though it also stretched all the way across Asia to the Pacific. Only two of the powers, the United States and Japan, were geographically separated from the "old" continent. However, even those two owed their strength either to the fact that their population was of Caucasian stock or to their successful adaptation of European ideas, methods, and techniques.

The product of a series of exceptionally fortunate circumstances,1 built up over the course of centuries, this tremendous concentration of military might enabled its owners to share almost the entire world among themselves. From about ad 1500 on, it was Europe that established colonies abroad, not the other way around. European ships were fully rigged and carried row upon row of cannon. Captained by the likes of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and their followers, they reached the four corners of the earth. Wherever they met opposition they shot it to pieces; meanwhile, non-Europeans were able to reach Europe, if at all, only as licensed curiosities.2

In addition to Latin America, the only non-European countries that succeeded in staying independent were China, Thailand, Ethiopia, Liberia, the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and Afghanistan. The main reason why they did so was not their own strength but because the powers, while unable to agree on how to carve them up, did not want to go to war over them. Some were formally designated as buffer zones. Thus, Iran in 1907 was cut into three "zones of influence": a Russian one in the north, a British one in the south, and a common one in the center. In other cases, the independence in question was more apparent than real.

As so often happens, political power rested on an equally impressive accumulation of economic muscle. The Industrial Revolution had started in Britain during the second half of the eighteenth century. From there, it spread to the Continent; as of the beginning of the twentieth century, however, with the exception of the United States and Japan it had scarcely yet touched the other parts of the globe. Until 1750, according to the best available calculations, about three-quarters of all the world's manufacturing output had been concentrated in what, today, we would call the third world (Africa and Asia minus Russia and Japan). From this point, the share underwent a steady decline until, in 1900, it stood at a mere 12 percent. Conversely, by that time, Europe, the United States, and Japan together accounted for no less than 88 percent of world manufacturing output. In terms of per capita industrialization, the gap between the self-styled "civilized" and "primitive" countries was much greater still.

In 1914, on the eve of the Great War, the largest economic power was already the United States, with a population of 98 million and a national income of $37 billion. It was followed by Germany (65 million and $12 billion, respectively), Great Britain (45 and $11), Russia (171 and $7), France (39 and $6), Austria-Hungary (52 and $3), Italy (37 and $4), and Japan (55 and $2). Thus the US economy was slightly larger than those of the next four powers combined, amounting to no less than 45 percent of the total. At $377, American per capita income was also the highest by far--one result of this being that visitors to America who had been comfortable at home felt like paupers. It was followed, at a considerable distance, by Britain ($244), Germany ($184), and France ($153). On that basis, the poorest powers of all were Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Japan, in that order.3

At that time, five out of the world's seven most powerful armed forces, namely those of Germany, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, relied on some form of general conscription to fill their manpower needs. So did Japan, although in practice the country's financial penury meant that the fraction of the relevant age groups which actually saw service was much smaller. The important exceptions were Britain, whose main defense consisted of its navy, and the United States, which, feeling secure behind its oceans, hardly had an army at all.

Conscription, organized by the magistrates with the aid of pre-prepared lists of citizens, had been the normal method for obtaining military manpower both in classical Greece and during the Roman Republic. However, in the days of the empire it was abandoned, and before it was reinstituted, more than a millennium and a half had to pass. Assisted by advances in public administration, the first modern country to resort to conscription, or the levee en masse as it was called, was France in 1792. Other countries reluctantly followed, though not without many ups and downs that, often reflecting political battles among reactionaries, democrats, and socialists, lasted during most of the nineteenth century.4

Following the German triumph over France in 1870-71, most countries adopted the system of military organization developed by the victor. This system divided the armed forces into three parts. The first consisted of a core of professionals (officers and NCOs) who served on longtime contracts--in many cases, until retirement. The second was made up of a larger group of conscripts who, depending on the country in question and also on the service they joined, were usually made to serve two or three years. The two elements together might make up perhaps 1 percent of a country's population in peacetime, though in the case of France it was rather more and in those of Italy and Japan, rather less.

The third and largest part consisted of reservists who had completed their training and, having been discharged into civilian life and perhaps undergone refresher training from time to time, remained available for immediate recall in case war broke out.

By 1914, most countries expected reserves to increase their armed forces by a factor of four or five, but that did not prove the upper limit. The best-organized countries with the shortest lines of communications were Germany and France. Ultimately, they put almost 10 percent of their entire populations in uniform and kept them for years on end; what this meant for them, and their families, we can hardly imagine.

While every Great Power, as well as most of the lesser nations, possessed both an army and a navy, most land and naval forces had developed separately over a period of centuries. As a result, few people thought of providing them with common training at any level, let alone of putting them under joint command. Instead, each service had its own ministry responsible for providing it with weapons, cannon fodder, fuel, and administrative support in everything from financial affairs to veterans' pensions. Each ministry was headed by a minister or secretary who represented it either in the cabinet or, in Britain and France, in a smaller committee consisting of key ministers.

In Germany, the only link between the OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung) and the SKL (Seekriegsleitung) was the kaiser himself, as commander in chief. Consequently, the SKL was not officially informed about the army's plans. Nor, according to one of its subsequent commanders in chief, Admiral Erich Raeder, had it prepared any plans for assisting in the invasion of Belgium and France.5 And matters differed little in the United States. There, too, the secretary of the navy and the secretary of war (army) were insulated from each other, each answering only to the president. Beneath them, the army chief of staff and the chief of naval operations appeared to live on separate planets, a problem that, as far as procedures, signal communications, and data links are concerned, has not been completely solved to the present day. France and Britain faced the same organizational limitations, only this time the role of the missing link was played by their respective prime ministers. In effect the main difference between the military monarchies east of the Rhine and the democracies west of it was that, in the former, the chiefs of staff were entitled to address a sovereign directly. This Immediatvortrag, as the Germans called it, was nevertheless far from ideally suited for the demands of modern war to come. Yet it was only after 1945 that most countries attempted reform, setting up unified ministries of defense with a common high command for all services. By then, as we shall see, in some ways it no longer mattered.

As had been the case at least since Gustavus Adolphus showed the way early in the seventeenth century, armies still consisted essentially of the three arms of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. However, the proliferation since 1870 of magazine-loading small arms, machine guns, and quick-firing cannon was showing those with eyes to see that the days of the cavalry charge were numbered. Perhaps even more importantly in retrospect, extremely rapid technical progress during the second half of the nineteenth century had resulted in armies becoming much more articulated, leading to the creation of a host of specialist units responsible for operating the new devices. Many were offshoots of the artillery, long known as a refuge for officers who were less anti-intellectual than the rest. Among them were engineering troops, technical troops, railway troops, signal troops--soon to branch into the various flying corps--and the like; the days when 90 percent of all troops carried weapons and were expected to fight as their primary mission were coming to an end.

The first experiments in carrying troops by rail had been made in Russia as far back as the 1840s. In 1859, both the French and the Prussians used the method, the former to wage war against the Austrians in Italy and the latter to deploy their army on the Rhine. These early exercises were dwarfed by the American Civil War when both sides, but the Federals in particular, used railroads on a gigantic scale to shuttle men and supplies to and fro across the continent. However, this fact left most European observers, who were convinced of their own superiority, unmoved. Not everybody was as perceptive as Karl Marx, who, though no military expert, saw the Americans' war as "a spectacle without parallel" in history.6 Yet it must be admitted that there was some reason behind the indifference. In 1866 and 1870-71, the Prussians gave a dazzling demonstration of what railways could do, and from then until 1914, almost invariably it was American officers who came to study German methods, not the other way around.

By 1914, the great age of railway construction was all but over. With two hundred thousand miles of track crisscrossing Europe, all powers planned on making maximum use of the lines in order to carry out mobilization and deployment. For example, the German general staff planned on operating no fewer than eleven thousand trains over a period of two weeks. Proceeding at a stately twenty-five miles per hour, their movements were calculated so precisely that even the number of axles passing over a given bridge within a given period of time was known. Then as now, in terms of carrying capacity and sheer efficiency the railways had no rival, requiring far fewer personnel and maintenance per ton/mile transported. Then as now, however, they were also inflexible and, in times of war, vulnerable to enemy action.

Moreover, railways could not be built too close to the front; as a result, many operations still had to be carried out on the backs of men and animals. A mode of transportation that the First World War did not share with any previous conflict was the automobile. In 1914, the mobilized German army had about five thousand of them, mostly impressed civilian vehicles that were unsuited to the harsh demands of war. By contrast, the number of horses used to carry cavalrymen, haul the artillery, and drag the supply wagons was estimated at 1.4 million.7

The newfangled contraptions did prove useful, however, in a famous episode that took place in September of that year. General Gallieni, who serving as military governor of Paris, requisitioned six hundred of the city's taxis to move troops to the front, allegedly making a substantial contribution to the French victory at the battle of the Marne.

As the First World War hammered on, automobiles became more common and were increasingly used for liaison, casualty evacuation, supply, and the like. Other vehicles, in the form of tractors, were also used to haul pieces of artillery so heavy that they could never have been moved by any other means. By 1918, the British army alone had about seventy thousand of them, including both passenger cars and trucks. Still, experience was to show that a fully motorized army needed one vehicle for every six men--a figure remarkably similar to the previous ratio of horses to men, and not even the Americans, who were much better equipped than anybody else, were able to approach it. Partly for that reason, partly because battlefields were often too difficult for mechanized transport, all major operations continued to depend, as they had for centuries, on the muscles of men and horses.8

If war is the father of invention, then the field of command, control, and communication had long been its unloved stepchild. Thanks to its muskets and cannon, Napoleon's grande armee could easily have smashed Caesar's legions, yet as Napoleon himself wrote, he held no significant advantage in his ability to communicate with his generals. In ad 1800 as in 44 bc, communications were moved by men, either on foot or on horseback. For short-range work, messages could be conveyed aurally by drums or trumpets, or visually by flags and standards. For longer ranges, Napoleon did have uniquely at his disposal: the semaphore system. The semaphore consisted of moveable beams mounted on top of tall towers so as to form various combinations, indicating letters, which could be read from afar by means of a telescope. Initially there was only one line; later, the system was expanded until it linked all of the most important capital cities.9 Owing to the need for numerous operators and observers, however, it was enormously expensive to operate. It was also fixed in place, which meant that it was unable to follow the movements of field armies.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, these age-old methods began to be supplemented by the offsprings of the new wonder of science: electricity. In the form of the telegraph, the telephone, and radio, technical progress was rapid, although by 1914 all three remained cumbersome, fragile, or both, and all of course depended on electrical power--which was not always available. As a result, the closer to the front one got, the scarcer were these high-tech marvels and the greater the use of the older, but more reliable runners, blinking lights (including rockets), klaxons, homing pigeons (discarded by the US Army only in the 1930s), and even messenger dogs.

Technological developments changed the battlefield, more or less, but it was at sea where the dramatic advances took place. The early years of the twentieth century caught the world's major navies in the midst of a major transition toward far larger and more powerful, but also more expensive and hence fewer, battleships. During the 1860s, first ironclads (sheets of iron plate over a wooden hull) and then iron-built ships had begun to take the place of the old wooden, sail-driven vessels, and in 1873, the HMS Devastation became the first battleship to abandon sails altogether, relying completely on coal for motive power.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Martin van Creveld, professor of history at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, is one of the best-known experts on military history and strategy. He has written seventeen books, which have been translated into fourteen languages; most notable among them are Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Command in War, and The Transformation of War. Professor van Creveld has consulted to the defense departments of numerous governments, including those of the United States. He was the second civilian expert ever to be invited to address the Israeli General Staff, and has lectured or taught at practically every institute of strategic military study. He has appeared on CNN, BBC, and other international networks and has been featured in many magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek and the International Herald Tribune.

From the Hardcover edition.

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