Martin van Creveld is one of the world's most prolific military historians, and has written in serial fashion about the state of present-day military conflict in light of the past. His books, most of whose names make use of the word "war," have appeared steadily every few years — "Supplying War" (1977); "Command in War" (1985); "Technology and War" (1989); "The Transformation of War" (1991); "The Art of War" (2000); "Men, Women and War" (2001), and "The Changing Face of War" (2006).
Mr. Creveld's methodology has been to start with a counterintuitive, if not quirky, proposition, and then give a whirlwind tour through history to substantiate it. But if in the past there has been an occasional determinism to his work — that perhaps the examples are chosen to fit, rather than lead to, the premise — "The Culture of War" (Presidio, 485 pages, $30) reads as an entirely empirical investigation. Indeed, it is the most persuasive, engaging — and controversial — of all Mr. Creveld's substantial studies. In it, he makes the convincing case that, despite the claims of many activists, warfare is a natural and necessary feature of human life.
Mr. Creveld has a variety of objectives in "The Culture of War," but his more important are threefold. First, he presents himself as a Thucydidean: Across time and space, he argues, the nature of war, which reflects the unchanging nature of man, remains largely the same — a lesson critical in this tech-obsessed age. Those who believe contemporary high technology and the now-entrenched Western notion of modernism have changed the conduct of warfare forever are sorely mistaken. And so are those who argue that war is entirely "constructed" by culture — as if fighting among Amazon Basin tribes shared little in common with Hitler's Wehrmacht.
Of course, culture does play a role in determining some marginal aspects of warfare, and there can seem to be significant distinctions between the conduct of war in, say, pre-Columbian Brazil and 1940s Bavaria. But in the general sense of what causes wars, how we prepare for and conduct them, what ends conflict, and how it is commemorated, societies ancient and modern across the globe are far more similar than different.
Second, and far more contentiously, Mr. Creveld argues against both the modern, anthropological doctrine that assumes wars fulfill a cultural or ritual need, and realists who follow Clausewitz in thinking that war is a mere means to achieve political objectives. For Mr. Creveld, war is instead a natural and human enterprise, an impulse that resides within the individual. If it fills any need, it is inside the human psyche, and thus brings a certain sort of satisfaction ipso facto to those who engage in it. This, Mr. Creveld suggests, is why people — though mostly men — seem to enjoy trying to kill each other, and why most other bystanders are fascinated watching or thinking about it. "War, and combat in particular," Mr. Creveld writes, "is one of the most exciting, most stimulating activities that we humans can engage in, putting all others in the shade; quite often that excitement and stimulation translate themselves into pure joy."
As Mr. Creveld notes, most people are sensualists, and wouldn't engage in warmaking if they did not find it pleasurable or at least engaging, both during the fighting and in recollections after the bloodletting. I tend reluctantly to agree — how else to explain why men and women still read in fascination about Passchendaele or the Somme in a way they don't follow the economic downturn in Britain in the late 1920s, or the passage of the Corn Laws? Why are there so many World War I poets and World War II novelists, or Vietnam-era gonzo journalists — and annual veteran get-togethers in Vegas that draw their members in ways the Rotary or Elks club does not?
This was once brought home to me when I was a 20-year-old archaeological student visiting Chania, Crete, in early October, 1973. While sitting in a small taverna, I suddenly was jarred by dozens of cheering, drinking, and singing foreigners in their 50s, rising to their feet to shout in unison. The Cretan waiter shrugged and said to relax; it was only the periodic informal gathering of some former German paratroopers going over their past exploits in their drink — ecstatic in their camaraderie and absolutely unconcerned, if not oblivious, that most scowling Cretans neither liked Germans nor had forgotten the particulars of an especially brutal occupation. I recently boarded a transcontinental flight in which a Green Beret sergeant in uniform, with a chest full of medals, was spontaneously offered first-class accommodation by both the airline and, at a time of an unpopular war in Iraq, several passengers booked first class. A prominent Washington politician on the same flight was simply ignored.
Even societies that have apparent constraints against military culture execute these with difficulty. Postwar Germany, swearing off war entirely, is nevertheless ambiguous about honoring military heroes of its Nazi past. Few cultures were as antithetical to military chauvinism as the European Jewish Diaspora — but out of precisely that landscape emerged the resolute Israel Defense Forces.
Mr. Creveld does not think war is going to leave us anytime soon. True, the advent of nuclear weapons and the related notion of mutually assured destruction seem to have thwarted vast global wars in the West with their millions of fatalities, making an otherwise enjoyable pursuit just too costly for even the most diehard adherent to follow. But even here there are two caveats: Plenty of murderous, smaller wars since 1945 have broken out, in places as diverse as the Balkans, Cyprus, Hungary, and Israel, and abject slaughter continues on a wide scale in the non-Western world, especially in Africa, where nuclear deterrence plays little if any mitigating role.
Finally, Mr. Creveld argues that war is not always the worst of human enterprises, and that those who fight them are not necessarily less civilized than the rest of us. Many wars are defensive and save the innocent from the predator nations who are not swayed by diplomacy. We might remember also that some of the great slaughters of the 20th century — Stalin's Great Terror, which took more than 20 million lives, Mao's various leaps and revolutions that killed well in excess of 50 million, or Hitler's death factories that systemically eliminated an estimated 11 million — were killing fields apart from the formal battlefield.
Mr. Creveld's conclusion may sound flippant, but after perusing his universal examples of war's gaudy uniforms, elaborate protocols, moving speeches, friendships made under fire, unmatched acts of heroism, postbellum reunions, dress re-enactments, ubiquitous commemorations in art, literature, and architecture, and solemn accord given the veteran and the combat dead, one must conclude that if it doesn't quite deliver joy, there must be something inexplicable about war that makes it such an enduring feature of human life.
I wish I could suggest that Mr. Creveld exaggerates his disturbing case — or that I can instantly list longer periods of peace in ancient Greece or medieval Europe than he cites; or insist that the UN or globalization, not his mutually assured destruction, explains so far the absence of World War III in the West; or that a pacifistic European Union has found the solution to peace and security without arms and military deterrence; or that post-traumatic stress syndrome, graphic anti-war poetry, or politically active veterans groups argue against the notion that war is either natural or in any way pleasurable to most sane people. But on closer examination of the subtle and often disinterested way Mr. Creveld presents his compelling evidence, I cannot, and end in agreement with his pessimistic diagnosis:
Almost as far back into history as we can look, there have always been some people who preached the cause of peace. Yet their words and gestures seem to have had precious little impact on a bellicose world. Quite often the champions of peace, instead of sticking to their convictions through thick and thin, ended up advocating war for a cause they considered right; others were pacifists only because they knew that in case of need their countrymen would do their dirty work for them. To the extent that change did take place, it was due almost exclusively to fear of a nuclear holocaust that would render meaningless the very objective of war, victory.
In sum, "The Culture of War" is as disturbing a book as it is endlessly provocative and fascinating.
Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.