In a lengthy but never boring volume, prolific military historian van Creveld (History/Hebrew Univ.; The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, from the Marne to Iraq, 2007, etc.) offers a rich, satisfying examination of the role war has played since the Stone Age.
He begins with a sneer at “bleeding hearts” who believe war is a loathsome aberration unworthy of study, but he sneers equally hard at conservative “neo-realists” in government who, in their ignorance, treat it as a macho extension of diplomacy and lead nations into catastophe (the author is no friend of the Iraq War). Van Creveld emphasizes that war has always fascinated humans. Beginning before the dawn of history, societies have surrounded it with ceremonies, decoration, play and other affectations often irrelevant, and sometimes counterproductive, to strategy. Military dress, parades and even weapon design bear only a distant relation to battlefield practicalities but occupy a significant role in every culture. Even in today’s gender-neutral world, the author notes, education emphasizes martial virtues (the importance of taking risks, teamwork, sacrifice, etc.). Van Creveld then moves on to the culture of warfare itself: the ritual of transition into war and back to peace, the pleasure of fighting and the rules of engagement. Despite the pacifist claim that true war is lawless slaughter and that no sane person enjoys it, van Creveld argues that the opposite is true. He points out that antiwar beliefs have always existed but only became politically correct in the 18th century, adding that history contradicts the stock accusation that self-seeking national leaders inflict war on an unwilling population or that democracies never fight each other.
Neither pro- nor anti-, the author treats war as a natural human activity and makes a good case in this well-delineated account of the traditions, rituals and laws that accompany it.