On War It's Not

By Sieff, Martin | The American Conservative, March 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

On War It's Not


Sieff, Martin, The American Conservative


On War It's Not [War Made New: War, Technology, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today, Max Boot, Gotham Books, 624 pages]

HISTORICAL SURVEYS of war and the way technological developments change the way it is fought are common-from the tours de force of major military historians like Martin Van Creveld and William O'Neill to potboilers marketed to 12-year-old boys. In his new book, Max Boot certainly aspires to be among the former, and the enthusiastic recommendations on the book's dust jacket from no less than Sen. John McCain, Robert Kaplan, retired Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, and Paul Kennedy certainly add to this impression. But War Made New is remarkably superficial and filled with the most extraordinary lacunae. It ignores-by accident or design-the most important developments in modern military technology.

Boot follows the familiar pattern of taking supposedly pivotal battles that changed military history, describing them in a dramatic and easily accessible outline, and then briefly discussing the forces that were their deciding factors. Yet his choice of battles is very bizarre. No chapter in his book covers any major battle of World War I. The Korean War and the Vietnam War are ignored, even though the former is a classic example of a theme Boot celebrates: the superiority of militaries with advanced technology.

With such technology in Korea, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps virtually annihilated the Chinese forces that vastly outnumbered them. Vietnam was different: there, the most advanced military technology, however profusely used, could not end a politically and tactically complex guerrilla conflict. Though the latter example is quite relevant to the United States' conundrums in Iraq, Boot attempts no significant discussion of the topic. Nor does he discuss any of the anticolonial guerrilla wars, which defined major conflicts for most of the second half of the 20th century, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which demonstrated the vulnerability of close support aircraft and main battle tanks to handheld missiles fired by poorly trained conscript soldiers.

But Boot does include a stirring account-filled with simplistic martial clichés that would have made Richard Harding Davis blush-of the combination of horse cavalry and high tech that supposedly worked unprecedented wonders in 2001 to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. The trouble is, as Boot never notes, that conquering Afghanistan is extremely easy. The British did so three times in just over 80 years. In 1979, the Red Army pulled it off 20 times faster than American and Afghan allied forces did in 2001.

There was nothing epochal or revolutionary about the way the 2001 campaign was fought. In fact, it was disastrously bungled. The squeamishness and incompetence of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his right-hand man, Paul Wolfowitz, meant that insufficient U.S. Special Forces were used in the Tora Bora and Anaconda operations, allowing the key command cadres of al-Qaeda to escape-a strategic development with most disastrous consequences for the long-term war on terrorism.

Boot's chapter on Iraq is even more inept, misleading, and downright wrong than the one on Afghanistan. The chapter's climax is May 1, 2003, the day President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln-which is like ending an account of World War II with the Nazis' conquest of France or cutting off "Hamlet" in the first act and claiming that the play had a happy ending. Since that day, of course, the unending violence in Iraq has confounded the Rumsfeld-neocon contention that superadvanced technology has indeed made war new, as Boot claims in his book.

Boot does add a half-hearted and vague discussion of some of the disastrous developments in Iraq since 2003. This is especially notable for its obfuscations clearly designed to get Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Boot's other neocon friends off the hook for failing to anticipate or prevent any of the developments he mentions. …

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