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You Thought It Was Hell? War Is Sporty

October 31, 2008; New York Times; You Thought It Was Hell? War Is Sporty; by Barry Gewen.

THE CULTURE OF WAR, By Martin van Creveld, Illustrated. 485 pages. Ballantine Books. $30.

Martin van Creveld doesn’t like bleeding hearts. Nor does he care for mollycoddlers or snobs or pointy-headed intellectuals whose only knowledge of war comes from books, or men who won’t defend themselves or women who refuse to “behave as women.” Those unwomanly women in particular get under his skin: they are a major reason our society is becoming soft, weak, unmanly. Blustering like a present-day Colonel Blimp, harrumphing his way toward a possible heart attack, he writes: “I want to put any number of assorted ‘ists’ — such as relativists, deconstructionists, destructivists, postmodernists, the more maudlin kind of pacifists and feminists — firmly in their place.” Think of Jack Nicholson snarling “You can’t handle the truth” through 485 pages.

Mr. van Creveld has been an adviser to both the American and Israeli militaries, and “The Culture of War,” his 18th book, is a survey of conflict in societies throughout history and around the world. His observations range across weaponry, military training, literature, even video games. Mr. van Creveld knows a lot about a lot, and almost no aspect of how human beings have proceeded to kill one another over the ages escapes his notice (though one missing topic is homosexuality in the military).

But if he doesn’t have much time for postmodernists and feminists, neither does he have much regard for his readers. He pummels them with his encyclopedic knowledge, bullying them into submission with a cannonade of esoterica.

It’s not enough for him to make the point that ornamentation and adornment have always played a role in conflict, and then to back it up with a few examples. In a chapter titled “From War Paint to Tiger Suits,” he scorches the earth with comments on the Catawba Indians of the Carolinas, who painted their faces asymmetrically to frighten enemies, and the Meru of Kenya, who wore special hairdos into battle. We get the idea, you want to say, but he is already on to Japanese samurai, who were fond of Darth Vader-style helmets with antlers, and French soldiers, who dyed their mustaches with shoe polish. “The Culture of War” is not so much informative as demoralizing. It engenders hostility. It’s the kind of book that gives war a bad name.

Which is too bad, because Mr. van Creveld has something important to say that won’t be found in many of the books by pointy-headed intellectuals. He accepts the reality of combat. He is interested in teaching us not how to avoid war but how best to engage in it. He celebrates the warrior ethos as a necessity in a hostile world. Who, given current circumstances, could disagree?

If there’s one thing Mr. van Creveld has learned from a lifetime of study, it’s that war is a constant of history, never to be eradicated. “A world without war is not in the cards,” he writes.

Peace is the aberration, pacifism a quixotic ideal. Insofar as Christianity has presented itself as a religion of peace, it has been a notable failure. Early Christians may have refused to serve in the military, but in the Middle Ages “the Church itself either instigated war or waged it as intensely as anybody else.” We all know that in America today the most fervent hawks are often those who proclaim themselves the most fervent Christians.

Pacifism is doomed to fail, Mr. van Creveld explains, because making war is part of human nature, as evidenced by the joy that men — and it is only men he is talking about — take in combat. There is a kind of ecstasy in fighting, a pleasurable engagement of the entire personality, a heightened awareness brought on by rushes of dopamine and adrenaline. Combat veterans will tell you that some of the most joyful moments of their lives came from their experiences on the battlefield. Moshe Dayan said, “I know of nothing more exciting than war,” and Robert E. Lee remarked, “It is well that war is so terrible: we would grow too fond of it.”

And of course, as Mr. van Creveld keeps reminding us, warfare is intrinsically linked to male sexuality, even down to the thrusting and penetrating motions of much weaponry. (Mines and poison gas, exceptions to this rule of thumb, may be disliked, Mr. van Creveld suggests, precisely because they don’t resemble penises.) Soldiers commonly equate killing with having sex, their guns with their genitals. Mr. van Creveld quotes an American fighter pilot who says warfare is “the most fun you can have with your pants on.”

Give Mr. van Creveld credit for looking squarely at some uncomfortable truths. But since he is convinced that peace can never be achieved through moral importuning, he has to seek elsewhere for a way of controlling mankind’s penchant for violence and killing. He turns in a surprising direction.

Testosterone-besotted men may enjoy combat, he says, but not if they face the certainty of total destruction. Nuclear weapons provide that certainty, and so deterrence has been more effective at preventing war than religion and idealism have ever been. Fear has ushered in a “world-historical” age of peace among the major powers; nuclear weapons should be seen not as a curse but a blessing. You can almost hear the sigh of relief as Mr. van Creveld explains why missile defenses will not work. Nuclear proliferation doesn’t seem to worry him, because as soon as a dictator like Mao Zedong gets the bomb, he realizes that he can never use it. The same process of thought, Mr. van Creveld says, may now be under way in North Korea. He is even sanguine about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

It’s an odd, gloomy kind of hope that Mr. van Creveld holds out, and you can’t avoid the suspicion that he offers it because he has painted himself into an intellectual corner. If war is a fact of life, and nuclear weapons no less so, then the logic of the argument seems to dictate a future of inevitable nuclear destruction. Deterrence is his way out of this quandary, his deus ex machina.

Readers may reach a different conclusion. The world came perilously close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, and as more and more countries acquire nuclear weapons, it requires a real leap of faith to believe that deterrence will continue to work at all times in all places. And that’s not to mention nuclear terrorism. In truth, it’s hard to finish “The Culture of War” without feeling that Mr. van Creveld has left us all sitting out on a limb — and that the noise we hear is the sound of sawing.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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