Monday, 22 March 2010

Van Creveld

No, I’m not a fan of Martin Van Creveld, but his texts are entertaining. I recently read through his probably most famous book, The Transformation of War, which is from 1991. His thesis is that conventional wars are obsolete and that future wars will be low-intensity conflicts – ”a war of listening devices and of car-bombs”. This is already kind of commonsensical today (Münckler’s The New Wars provides an updated version). Van Creveld also argues that this implies the obsolescence of Clausewitz’ view that war is a rational instrument in the service of political ”interests”, that governments wage war with the help of regular armed forces against the armed forces of other governments, and that these forces are distinct from civilian population. I’ll come back to that when I’ve read Clausewitz.

There are a few points of interest for social theory and the study of social movements and insurgencies here. First, globalization: that this involves a change in the nature of wars is seldom discussed, but here too the power of states is undermined as conventional wars gives way to ”frontierless” low intensity conflict. Secondly, he argues that there can’t be any conflicts without shared rules: at the very least opponents need to agree on what counts as victory (pp 65-94). Thirdly, not only Clausewitz but Weber too is proven wrong: the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence was a historical paranthesis.

Fourthly, the book is useful to show why Karatani is wrong when he thinks that the threat of nuclear doom – or alternatively the actual trauma of third world war – will usher in a Kantian ”perpetual peace”. Here is Karatani from a recent publication: ”Without a world federation there will be war. However, if there is a war there will be a world federation. In either case it will be realized” (Karatani, Seiji o kataru, Tosho Shimbun, 2009:141). Let’s listen to a passage in Van Creveld, which starts in an almost identical fashion but ends with a totally different meassage:
If no nuclear holocaust takes place, then conventional war appears to be in the final stages of abolishing itself: if one does take place, then it will already have abolished itself. This dilemma does not mean that perpetual peace is on its way, much less that organized violence is coming to an end. As war between states exits through one side of history’s revolving door, low-intensity conflict among different organizations will enter through the other. (p224)
Exactly. States may wither away, but wars won’t. Even if a world republic comes into being, wars won’t stop. The nuclear threat may stop states or empires from waging war, but not partisans or guerillas.

Fiftly, like Clausewitz, Van Creveld stresses that war is social intereaction. What’s interesting is that this action follows a peculiar, paradoxical logic which sets it off from many other forms of social action:
In ordinary life, an action that has succeeded once can be expected to succeed twice – provided circumstances remain the same... But this elementary fact – on which are based the whole of science and technology – does not apply to war, football, chess, or any other activity that is governed by strategy. Here, an action that has succeeded once will likely fail when it is tried for a second time. It will fail, not in spite of having succeeded once but because its very success will probably put an intelligent opponent on his guard. (p120)
Well put. It raises important questions, such as: how can be know things without induction? How can we behave intelligently when we can’t generalize from experience? How come experience is important even when we can’t generalize from it?

Finally, note how much hope he gives the weak. Colonial uprisings were the business of the downtrodden and the weak, he writes, but modern armies have been so singularly ineffective in combatting them. The stronger side may take their cities, but ”nothing is more futile than a string of victories endlessly repeated” (p175). The stronger side will suffer from a drop in morale and it will be accused of unnecessary cruelty whatever it does. In short: fighting the weak is futile business. ”He who loses out to weak loses; he who triumphs over the weak also loses” (ibid). I don’t buy his argument wholeheartedly: it holds only to the extent that the weak are ready to huge sacrifices and probably also only to the extent that the stronger side feels it can afford to lose the war. But given those conditions: yes, the weak can win. All they need is the determination and courage never to give up, no matter how grisly and appalling their losses.

Endurance in the face of the impossible – I recall Badiou’s definition of courage here.

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