The Book Club

The Timelessness of War

Dear Laura,

The more I read military history, the more I become convinced of the timelessness of war. Tactics and strategies change; leaders come and go; technology evolves. But the true essence of war—the threat or use of violence to impose your will on another—remains essentially unchanged. So, too, do the corollaries of war: death, fear, destruction, and the clash of will. Maybe this is why veterans from different wars find it so easy to share war stories over a few beers.

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There really is not much new in Max Boot’s new book, War Made New. Which is not to say that I did not like it—I really enjoyed reading it. Boot is a fantastic writer who eloquently describes the march of military history from the 15th century to the present day, using vignettes like the British drubbing of the Spanish armada in 1588 and Japan’s smashing of the Russian fleet in 1905 to illustrate certain key points. Japan’s victory, for example, shows how small differences in technology, like its slightly faster ships firing a new kind of explosive shell, can make a tremendous difference in battle. This victory had results far beyond the field of battle; Japan’s triumph eviscerated Russia’s empire in the Far East, and it heralded the coming of Japan as a major world power.

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The first 300 pages of the book take us through the major evolutions in military doctrine, organization, and technology from the French invasion of Italy in 1494 to the end of World War II. Although he skips over a great deal in between, the method is successful, because it enables Boot to connect large events to each other in a way that enables us to see the arc of military evolution.

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His central argument is both eloquently simple and quite orthodox. Successful armies are the product of national institutions that recruit, educate, train, and equip the force, and their success owes much to their successful employment on the battlefield as part of what Stephen Biddle calls the “modern system.” Since the industrialization of warfare during the American Civil War and World War I, the endeavor has simply become too bloody for infantrymen to fight on their own in exposed ranks; this problem has been compounded many times over by advances in airpower and missile technology. Thus, the only way to succeed on today’s battlefield is to fight as part of a “combined arms” system—employing infantry, armor, artillery, and support units—and to leverage terrain and people for a comparative advantage. This institutional, almost bureaucratic, approach to war is what has historically ensured victory, more than any one particular technological innovation or act of valor.

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I stay with Boot all the way until he reaches America’s first Gulf War. Here, he starts to deviate from his central thesis to lavish praise on the U.S. military’s technologies and personnel, rather than applying the same critical eye that he used earlier in the book. In one brilliant section, Boot describes how the Prussian military under Gen. Helmuth von Moltke developed its famous General Staff and implemented numerous military reforms as the result of its humiliating losses to Napoleon at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806. The lesson is clear: “Historically, victors don’t learn nearly as well as losers,” according to the late Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, one of the American military’s leading visionary thinkers.

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When winners do learn, they often tend to draw the wrong lessons from their victories. The German army successfully learned from its loss in World War I to fight a war of maneuver in World War II, which it did with terrible success until Allied industrial capacity and Soviet manpower eventually turned the tide three years later. After World War II, America thought its airpower and overwhelming conventional military could win any war; it learned otherwise in Korea and Vietnam, and, to some extent, we still remain prisoners of this mindset today in Iraq. I would have liked to see Boot critically examine the U.S. military more, since the crux of his book seems to be that the American way of war has somehow created a new kind of warfare that will be fought by armies of increasing technological sophistication.

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Toward the end of the book, Boot also raises some fundamental questions about contemporary warfare that he doesn’t answer. Although the “modern system” works quite well against state armies, Boot correctly writes that it does not always work well against terrorists or insurgents who target civilians, not militaries; organize as cells, not hierarchical units; and rely on perfidy and treachery to conduct their attacks. He describes an alternate form of military organization—called “netwar” by your RAND colleagues John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt—which might be more appropriate for fighting this new kind of foe. But he does not develop this idea to show us how the United States might pursue its own kind of netwar, beyond citing some of the Pentagon’s newest futuristic techno-wonders like the Future Combat System and nanotechnology, which might someday make netwar a reality. I think this tension, between the institutionalized form of warfare that has succeeded throughout the ages and the new kind of insurgent warfare practiced today by our enemies, is both fundamental and extremely difficult to reconcile.

What do you think? Is there much new about the way America practices war today or the way our enemies fight us? How should America think about military change as we try to learn the lessons from our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Sincerely,
Phillip

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