Martin Van Creveld on Men, Women & War

By Bunker, Robert J. | Military Review, November/December 2002 | Go to article overview

Martin Van Creveld on Men, Women & War


Bunker, Robert J., Military Review


I was at first apprehensive when approached about writing a review essay on Martin van Creveld's new book, Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?1 The topic was not a key interest of mine, and more pressing real-world needs required my attention. While the sporadic conversations I have had with van Creveld over the last couple of years made me aware of his growing interest and deep fascination with the topic of women in general, this work seemed a diversion from his repertoire of such seminal works as Supplying War: Logistics from Wallerstein to Patton; Command in War; and Technology in War: From 2000 B. C. to the Present.2 Luckily, I relented and decided that I should expand my knowledge base by reading van Creveld's book. As I read and reflected on his new text, I realized that by following his instincts he has once again created a unique work.

The immediate benefit I gained from reading the book is a better understanding of the military historical context of women in relationship to future warfare. The book also helped explain why emerging mercenary companies are male-dominated. I had long ago recognized but never really placed this trend into a gender context. While these lessons might or might not have been van Creveld's intent, it is of primary interest to me and, I suspect, to many Military Review readers. The danger many of us fall into is getting too operational in our thinking and focus. The revolution in military affairs, operations other than war, and stability and support operations are examples of such focus. Sometimes we must take in more encompassing views at the cultural and societal level in which war is waged. Since women make up at least half of our populace, understanding their historical roles in warfare is important. This understanding will allow us to better understand the current context in which they operate in the Armed Forces, with the U.S. Army of particular interest, and what their future roles in warfighting might be.

Overview and Analysis

Men, Women & War sports a camouflage cover, making it look somewhat like a field manual. The preface discusses how poisoned the relations between the sexes are in this field of scholarship and lays out van Creveld's historical view concerning how it has been the man's "duty to protect woman, by fighting for her if necessary."3

The introduction provides van Creveld's intent. He goes beyond "construction of gender" arguments to instead seek to show that a "great illusion" exists concerning women in the military today. He states "that the influx of women into the military, far from representing some historical step in women's unstoppable march toward liberation, is both symptom and cause of the decline of the military in question. The process was triggered by the introduction of nuclear weapons over 50 years ago. Since then, the armed forces of no developed country have fought a major war against a major opponent who was even remotely capable of putting its own national existence in danger; compared with the recent past, and with very few exceptions, all they have done was to engage in skirmishes."4

He argues that this process has been ongoing for about 30 years, as has the rise of military contractors and mercenaries who are almost completely absent of female personnel. The former South African mercenary group Executive Outcomes and the private security group Military Professional Resources Incorporated founded by retired U.S. Army generals are two examples of the types of groups of which van Creveld is speaking. He states that "it might almost be said that those armed forces that have been forced to incorporate women no longer fight; whereas those that still fight have very few, if any, women."5

Part I surveys how women have been caught up in wars-as instigators, causes, objects, or as proteges of men. Van Creveld views women as critical to war in these capacities and claims that to some extent war owes its existence to women as much as it does to men because it is an organized social and political activity; that is, take away women, and war would not exist. …

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