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Book Review – The Transformation of War – Martin Van Creveld
Posted by on August 23rd, 2010

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By BJ Bjornson

A few years ago, the blogger Fabius Maximus wrote that the secret to accurately predicting the trends of the Iraq War was to:

1. Carefully read Martin van Creveld’s book The Transformation of War (1991).
2. Each week read the Sunday newspaper, or one of the major weekly magazines.
3. Determine what page of the book we are on.

Given Iraq has mostly fallen off the news pages these days, it won’t work quite so well anymore, but you can transfer this easy three-step process to the fighting in Afghanistan and pretty much any other insurgency without too much difficulty.

My reason for referring to the book is thanks to a couple of posts here in recent weeks. The first is one by Steve regarding the fact that the coalition’s killing of civilians creates new insurgents. No big surprise there, but the point that seems to trip a number of people up is the fact that civilian deaths caused by insurgents don’t seem to have anywhere near the same kind of effect.

But in their study, the researchers found that there’s a greater spike in violence after ISAF-caused civilian deaths than after insurgent-caused ones. “An incident which results in 10 civilian casualties will generate about 1 additional IED attack in the following 2 months,” the researchers write. “The effect for insurgents is much weaker and not jointly significant.” In other words, even if the insurgents possess a “total disregard for human life and the Afghan people,” as an ISAF press release reacting to this weekend’s insurgent bombings in Herat put it, Afghans effectively would rather be killed by other Afghans than foreigners.

Creveld had the answer a couple of decades ago, something called the paradox of strength:

Here we are concerned with a situation where the relationship between strength and weakness is skewed; in other words, where one belligerent is much stronger than the other. Under such circumstances, the conduct of war can become problematic even as a matter of definition. Imagine a grown man who purposely kills a small child, even such a one as came at him knife in hand; such a man is almost certain to stand trial and be convicted, if not of murder then of some lesser crime. In the same way, legally speaking, the very existence of belligerence, war, and fighting already implies that the opponents should be of a broadly comparable nature. Not by accident is the bellum itself said to come from due-lum, a combat of two. Where no symmetry exists, violence may still take place, even violence that is organized, purposeful, politically-motivated, and on a fairly large scale. However, usually the name such violence is given is not war but disturbance, uprising, or crime. These are accompanied by their opposite numbers, namely, repression, counterinsurgency, and police work.

. . .

A war waged by the weak against the strong is dangerous by definition. Therefore, so long as the differential in force is not such as to render the situation altogether hopeless, it presents few difficulties beyond the tactical question, namely, how to inflict the maximum amount of damage on the enemy without exposing oneself in open fighting. By contrast, a war waged by the strong against the weak is problematic for that very reason. Given time, the fighting itself will cause the two sides to become more like each other, even to the point where opposites converge, merge, and change places.

. . .

A small, weak force confronting a large, strong one will need very high fighting spirit to make up for deficiencies in the other fields. Still, since survival itself counts as no mean feat, that fighting spirit will feed on every victory, however minor. Conversely, a strong force fighting a weak one for any length of time is almost certain to suffer from a drop in morale, the reason being that nothing is more futile than a string of victories endlessly repeated. Conscious of the problem, such armies have often sought to compensate the troops by providing them with creature comforts; one is reminded of the iced beer that was helicoptered to American units operating in the Vietnamese jungle and, a more absurd example still, the mobile banks that accompanied the Israelis into Lebanon. However, over the long run no amount of pampering can make up for the fact that fighting the weak demeans those who engage in it and, therefore, undermines its own purpose. He who loses out to the weak loses; he who triumphs over the weak also loses. In such an enterprise there can be neither profit nor honor. Provided only the exercise is repeated often enough, as surely as night follows day the point will come when the enterprise collapses.

Another very important reason why, over time, the strong and the weak will come to resemble each other even to the point of changing places is rooted in the different ethical circumstances under which they operate. Necessity knows no bounds; hence he who is weak can afford to go to the greatest lengths, resort to the most underhand means, and commit every kind of atrocity without compromising his political support and, more importantly still, his own moral principles. Conversely, almost anything that the strong does or does not do is, in one sense, unnecessary and, therefore, cruel. For him, the only road to salvation is to win quickly in order to escape the worst consequences of his own cruelty; swift, ruthless brutality may well prove to be more merciful than prolonged restraint. A terrible end is better than endless terror and is certainly more effective. By way of an analogy, suppose a cat-and-mouse situation. Its very size precludes the mouse from tormenting the cat, though it is capable of driving him crazy-a different matter altogether. The cat, however, must kill the mouse at once. Should it fail to do so, then its very size and strength will cause its actions to be perceived as unnecessary; hence-had it been human-as cruel.

There is, of course, much more in the book that feeds into this concept, but the above should give you the gist of the argument. It does, however, quite eloquently explain why the civilian casualties caused by the insurgents don’t seem to merit the same kind of outrage amongst their supporters as the ones the NATO forces cause do. Fighting against the most advanced military forces on the planet with only a tiny fraction of the technology or budget available to them forgives a lot.

That brings me to the other post that got me thinking about this book and the above section in particular, where Dave posted on the slaughter of a NGO medical team, and ended with following:

NGOs are a cheap, vulnerable and valuable adjunct to American style COIN.  I am just surprised that NGOs are not hit more often as the return on investment is much higher than hitting a uniformed patrol.

The answer is that the return on investment of hitting NGOs, at least the truly vulnerable ones, is subject to rapidly diminishing rewards once you take into account the moral dimension of asymmetric warfare. So long as the insurgents are hitting uniformed patrols, the above dynamic of the weak fighting the strong holds true, and the occasional atrocity goes without comment or significant cost to their support. Switch to the softer NGOs, and they no longer look like the brave forlorn hope going up against the big, bad foreign occupiers, but more the savage and hated bullies killing those too weak to defend themselves. Under those circumstances, the population is unlikely to remain loyal, and the insurgents will have defeated themselves. As with most things in such a war, perception is key, even among the insurgents themselves. I seriously doubt young Afghans go to bed dreaming of bravely slaughtering unarmed medical personnel. Attacks on NGOs can easily do more harm to the insurgents than their initial ROI might make apparent.

In any case, I recommend The Transformation of War as a must-read for anyone who wants to understand modern warfare, and particularly modern insurgencies.

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