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Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine
A (very short) book review
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In the latest version I’ve written a short review of David Petraeus and Andrew Robert’s excellent new book, Conflict.
I’m often asked whether I would recommend this book or that. I am happy to whole-heartedly recommend this one. It reads well, is thoughtfully constructed and well told. It’s easy to consume.
Many years ago I concluded my own study of command in the Far Eastern war between 1941 and 1945 that:
‘Experience of war in the Far East between 1941 and 1945 showed that successful generalship requires four critical characteristics: leadership, strategic sense, intelligent energy and originality. What is abundantly clear is that generals who possess only one or a pair of these characteristics will never achieve what Sun Tzŭ lauded as a ‘Master of War’ or what Clausewitz called a military ‘genius’.’
It is good to see that a similar rubric frames this excellent, readable book. The authors set out to analyse inter-state conflict after 1945 through the prism of command decision making at the military strategic and operational levels of war. They succeed. Its an easily comprehensible way of understanding the plethora of conflicts which have scarred the world since the defeat of Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Japan in 1945.
Petraeus and Roberts sensibly start with the requirement for decision-makers to get the strategic idea right, though their book is a helpful reminder of just how often idiotic politicians and generals get this wrong. Much of the disaster in war can be linked directly to a failure, sometimes of quite grotesque proportions, to do this.
The authors are keen to explain that the book is not a comprehensive A to Z for the upwards of 300 wars since 1945. I found it a handy, bite-sized account of the major conflicts, and pattern of conflicts, since 1945. Indeed, this is its key strength: one can pop in and out of their subject material without for one moment losing any sense of thread or continuity. While the book can easily be read as a consecutive narrative, but one can equally dive in, with profit, at any point. Each chapter happily stands on its own two feet.
Nevertheless, the wars of the immediate post-war period are dealt with as an hors d’oeuvre for more extensive essays on the wars of the recent past: Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine. The more recent wars, though, are to be understood in the context of what went before. The book is more analysis than narrative, which is its major strength, though the pithy descriptions of wars – Vietnam and the Falklands are two such – are exceptionally well done. The authors are not content merely to tell, but to explain, concisely and precisely. I enjoyed their explanations. Interestingly for a book on strategy the moral component of fighting power – and of success and failure in war – is a recurring and important theme.
Back to ‘getting the strategy’ right, it looks as though Russia’s ignominious failure to win a quick war in Ukraine in 2022 is merely the latest in a long line of such strategic incompetence by leaders drunk on their own hubris. It is yet to be seen whether, by Europe’s failure to capitalise on Russian military ignominy, the war may just be a story of defeat grasped from the jaws of victory. This reviewer hopes not, but the signs are all there. And what about the future of war? Well, you’ll need to read the last chapter to find out. It’s a series of sensible observations deduced from the narrative, rather than being a grand expose of what the future might hold in terms of how wars are fought, and where. Thank goodness. Suffice it to say, expect more of the same, with fast acquisition of technological developments in wartime but the same propensity for political hubris and over and under-calculations by political leaders intent on using their militaries to achieve unobtainable political objectives. It has ever been thus; General Petraeus and Lord Roberts show why.
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