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BOOK REVIEW

The endless battle hymn

October 26, 2008|Michael B. Oren | Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and a visiting professor at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is the author of "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present."

The Culture of War

Martin van Creveld

Ballantine/Presidio Press: 490 pp., $30

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The fact that two major Hollywood films were recently released, "Miracle at St. Anna" and "The Lucky Ones" (both deal with American soldiers in battle), or the fact that combat boots and camouflage pants are all the rage among teenagers comes as no surprise to Martin van Creveld. The connection between culture -- popular as well as high-brow -- and war is a constant in history, he writes, and a mainstay of civilization. "Fighting itself can be a source of joy, perhaps even the greatest joy of all," he explains in one of many observations likely to irk the "sentimental" left, as he labels it, as well as the "hard-headed" right. But Van Creveld, one of the world's preeminent military historians and a social critic renowned for his provocative views, scarcely flinches. "I have always enjoyed a good fight," he vaunts.

Part of Van Creveld's thesis speaks to me. Having participated in several Middle Eastern wars, I can attest to their horror as well as to their prurient allure. Along with Churchill, I'll also confess: "There is nothing in life so exhilarating as to be shot at with no effect." I have written and taught military history and commented on contemporary warfare. But finding war personally exhilarating and academically compelling is still far from asserting, as Van Creveld does, that war is integral to culture -- more, that culture cannot survive without it. Proving such a blanket, controversial claim would require a scholar of immense erudition and gall. Van Creveld could be that scholar.

Readers of the first 300 pages of "The Culture of War" will marvel at the encyclopedic cataloging of the myriad bonds between humanity's loftiest and deadliest endeavors. From the "Epic of Gilgamesh" to "The Odyssey," "The Iliad" and the Bible, war and culture have always been linked, as Van Creveld shows. They have been welded together by the drama, the near-death thrill and even sexual titillation of combat. War not only permeates literature -- Shakespeare's plays are especially martial -- but also art forms from the earliest pictographs to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Similarly, warfare has left an indelible imprint on the evolution of music, on architecture and on the rituals that transformed the prohibition against taking another's life into a sacred prescription for murder. Even the games we play, whether chess or football or the latest iteration of the video game "Doom," are byproducts of war. Rather than being the antithesis of culture, Van Creveld demonstrates, war is its "magnificent counter-part."

Yet Van Creveld is not content with merely listing the universal and millennium-long intersections between culture and war. He also assails those who would challenge his ideas. Ruthlessly targeted are those scholars who chart the culture-war connection's decline in the post-World War II period. "To argue that humanity is losing its taste for war and that war itself is on its way to the dustbin of history is worse than misrepresenting the truth," Van Creveld counters, noting that some 226 wars were fought between 1946 and 2002 and that the number of refugees has quadrupled in the last 40 years alone. Indeed, the reduction in the number of wars between modernized countries -- less the result of pacifism, he insists, than of the fear of nuclear holocausts -- merely obscures the undiminished number of conflicts among developing nations. Ignoring that trend, Van Creveld maintains, "amounts to a crime against that very humanity that is beyond the pale." He also overturns the widely held assumption that democracies never make war on one another, citing the two Anglo-American wars of 1776 and 1812 and the American Civil War between the democratically elected Union and Confederate governments.

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