by Martin van Creveld
PublicAffairs, 2011, 512 pp., $35
The Culture of War
by Martin van Creveld
Presidio Press, 2008, 512 pp., $35
The world of U.S. defense policy today resembles nothing so much as an Etch A Sketch being reset: It is being turned upside-down and shaken. For close to a decade, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the shadowy campaign against terror, have been nearly all-consuming concerns for military and other national security decision-makers. Defense and intelligence spending has been essentially uninhibited. Now a very different landscape lies before us: Iraq is receding as an everyday concern, force commitments to Afghanistan are declining, and budgetary belts are painfully tightening.
What should come next in a world of uncertain threats and speculative enemies? Getting ready for the next counterinsurgency mission? Preparing for war with China (either because it is inevitable or because we must deter it)? Limited interventions in other people’s civil wars? What possibilities are safe to ignore? And what military forces are best suited to dealing with these possibilities? The answers to these questions matter now, because the investment choices we must make today will do much to determine what tools we have at our disposal for decades to come.
Into this context steps the prolific Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld with his newest book, The Age of Airpower. Van Creveld’s latest would seem to have arrived at a most opportune time, for it raises questions about just such fundamental issues. Regrettably, however, the answers mostly disappoint.
At first glance, the title of The Age of Airpower suggests a paean to its subject. Instead it is an obituary, a Romanesque rise-and-decline story in which airpower bursts onto the scene, enjoys a glorious but fleeting heyday in the mid-20th century, and then enters an era of gradual decline as it degenerates, left behind by the march of history. The book purports to be a comprehensive history of its subject from the earliest use of warplanes to the present, and it claims further to tell us history’s verdict on airpower, both present and future. Despite the author’s engaging style, these claims end up unredeemed, at times annoyingly so.
The Age of Airpower fails its most basic test by repeatedly failing to get the history right. It is riddled with factual errors, many involving easily checked details about airplanes, ships, armament, and aircraft designations and names, along with incorrect dates, descriptions of events and order-of-battle accounts. Several can be traced to the author misreading Wikipedia entries, which constitute a surprisingly large proportion of the citations. Descriptions...