Interview with:

Prof. Martin van Creveld

1. Your relationship with the US Marine Corps goes back a long way. Could you talk about your time teaching at the Command and Staff College?

I am 72 and have now been retired for some ten years. Everything seems to have happened long ago.  That said, I enjoyed my year at Quantico (1991-92) very much. They wanted me to stay on for at least another year, but unfortunately it did not work out.

2. How did the CSC compare to other PME institutions, like the German Kriegsakademie (pre-1945) or elsewhere?

I did not get to know the Kriegsakademie in person, of course.

There were some fundamental differences between the two institutions. First, the Kriesgakademie was a three-year course, which allowed for in-depth study of various topics, military history and foreign languages included. Second, to get in the candidates had to undergo an examination (in the Kaiserheerit was voluntary; in the Reichswehr, it was made obligatory on all officers). Third, the fact that there was no four-year military academy to go through first (officer training only lasted about two years) enabled students to enter at a younger age (about 29-30 years). Fourth, the faculty were qualified general staff officers. Meaning that the gap between them and the students was larger than it is at Quantico and that they could act as role models. Fifth, during the Weimar period, only about one third of the officers who entered the Akademie graduated; even during the years of hectic expansion under the Third Reich, not everyone did. Sixth and perhaps most important, faculty had a real impact on the graduates’ career—which, at Quantico, they did not. Over there, it was more a question of ticket punching.

3. Are there any PME institutions today that compare favorably with the Kriegsakademie?

 

Not that I know. But then one reason why the course at the Kriegsakademie could be made to last three years was because the Germans did not have a war college to take up some of the slack. An attempt to set up such a college was, in fact, made in 1938. It was not a success, however, and the war put an end to any effort in this direction.

The outcome was commanders who were excellent at the operational level but knew little about anything above and beyond that.  Hitler was aware of this fact, and used it to make them bow to his command.

4. Could you talk about the occasions you taught at the School of Advanced Warfighting?

 

As I said, it has been a long time. I do, however, recall that there was a world of difference between the general class and SAW. I do not want to offend anyone, but the latter were much keener to master their profession. Clearly, to them it was not a question of ticket-punching.

Besides, at SAW I gave seminars, not frontal lectures. This meant that there were far fewer students and that each of them could contribute.

 

5. One of your students at CSC is now LtGen Kenneth McKenzie Jr., who’s slated to take over as commander of CENTCOM. McKenzie was critical of your work on non-trinitarian warfare and 4th Generation Warfare. Now that he might oversee US military operations in a part of the world arguably rife with 4th Generation Warfare, what’s your reaction to this?

This is really a question you should ask him, shouldn’t you?

6. After writing Fighting Power, the Marine Corps approached you about doing a similar work on itself but you declined. Why was the case, and would you reconsider writing such a book today?

It is true that someone—I cannot remember who—came up with the idea of a similar book on the Marine Corps. I, however, turned it down. The reason? The question I had set myself to answer was: “Why did the Wehrmacht fight as well as it did?” I had a strong suspicion that, in case I looked at the Marines as closely as I had at the Wehrmacht, I would hit on the very same factors. Doing so would bore me, and me being bored would probably result in a second-rate volume.

7. You worked in the DC area, just a drive down to Quantico, during the heyday of the maneuver warfare years in the Marine Corps. What was that like? What was Quantico like? What were your Impressions of people like John Boyd, Bill Lind, Mike Wyly, Al Gray, Paul Van Riper, etc.?

To me, Quantico was wonderful. I acted as a sort of friendly neighborhood guru; every time someone on base needed a lecture on military history/theory, they came to me. And I was glad to help. There were enough good colleagues and students to make my job very rewarding. Besides, neither before nor later did my family and I have such an intensive social life.

I cannot say much about Al Gray, whom I only met once. Ditto for John Boyd. By the time I talked to him, moreover, he was well past his prime. He kept saying “Schwerpunkt,” but that was about all.

The others were excellent and were always brimming with ideas that were both original and interesting. I’d say, however, that the most impressive of all was then-Major John Allen. An awesome guy who, in addition to being an outstanding commander—or so I was told—was profoundly interested in every aspect of his work, history and theory included.  All of us were convinced he would make general, as, in fact, he did.

8. Over the years, you’ve interacted with a great many Marine Corps senior leaders, including several Commandants. What’s your experience with them been like?

 

You are overestimating me.  Generals, as a rule, do not have much time to spare for academics. That was something which General Boomer, who commanded Quantico at the time my wife and I were there, made very clear to me! As I just said, the most impressive of all was John Allen, whom I would call a professionals’ professional. Another was Paul van Riper, an exceptionally astute officer with a good sense of humor who would not necessarily stay on the straight and the narrow. And Bill Lind, of course. He and I have been friends for some thirty years, even though there are many things on which we do not agree.

9. How would you go about getting today’s young Marine leaders, especially enlisted leaders, interested in military history and the serious study of the profession of arms?

 

As my late father-in-law used to say, the community does as the priest does. Not as he says. In other words: example, example, example. If the senior brass show their interest and care to emphasize the role history and theory played in their own development and promotion, those coming after them will follow. If they don’t, then nothing will work.

10. What would your perfect school for junior officers look like? What about for junior enlisted leaders? What about for field grade officers and SNCOs?

Answering that question would take a book, probably more. So let me just suggest a few basic principles I think are relevant to all of these schools. First, schools should be selective—being admitted should depend on achievement and be made to count as a privilege and an honor. Second, they should teach students everything they need to know for their next ranks and assignments and some of the things they need for the ranks and assignments coming after that. Third, the higher the school the greater the role of history and theory in the curriculum. Fourth, graduation should not be automatic but depend on performance. Fifth, in evaluating that performance, faculty should have some influence on their students’ future careers. Sixth, faculty should be placed in a position where they can act as role models and not simply as “children of a lesser God” (as they called themselves in my time).

 

11. In your mind, what is the key to military innovation? How does the US Marine Corps currently stack up in that area?

The key consists of the ability to stick to one’s aims while at the same time granting freedom of thought and tolerating dissent. Since the two things contradict each other to some extent, doing so is anything but easy.

As to the Marines, I do not have sufficient contact with them to know.

12. What do you see on the horizon for the US Marine Corps? How does it remain relevant in the 21st century?

Truth is that the day of opposed landings is past. Has been for decades. The Marines, however, still have three important advantages. First, they can fight “on the land, air and sea” (the last named courtesy of the Navy). Second, they are forward deployed. Third, thanks no doubt in part to the fact that they are overshadowed by their much larger sister services and constantly obliged to fight for their existence, they seem to be more cohesive and more combative than the rest.

13. Have you heard much of former Secretary Mattis’ Close Combat Lethality Task Force? If so, what are your thoughts on it?

I am afraid the answer is no. But the idea of having troops “who are steeled for the nasty, violent, close-in fight that’s at the core mission” sounds reasonable enough. In fact, it fits in perfectly well with one of my recent books, Pussycats, where I argued that most modern armed forces are short of such troops. I also admired the things Mattis, while still a retired general, dared say about PTSD. Pity he is now gone—his resignation is a great loss to America’s nationals security.

14. What do you make of the Department of Defense’s focus on things like drone warfare, AI, and additive manufacturing? Do you expect these things to revolutionize warfare?

 

One should use the best available technology; anything else is a crime against the troops. As to additive manufacturing, it is as Clausewitz wrote: Building weapons is to war as the art of the swordsmith is to fencing. Which does not, of course, mean that one should not carefully consider the things new technologies such as 3-D printing can do for the troops in the field.

15. Do you see any chance of the US getting into high-intensity conflicts with a near-peer (e.g. China or Russia) in the foreseeable future? Why? Why not? If so, what role ought the Marine Corps play in these conflicts? If not, should the US be preparing for this kind of fight anyway, as a means of deterrence?

Of course not. Nukes are wonderful things. If they are not used, then there is no need to worry. If they are used, then there will be no need to worry, either.

Seriously, I believe large-scale conventional war between first and even second-class powers is largely over. All that will be left to the great powers’ armed forces, America’s Marines included, is fighting third- and fourth-rate opponents.

16. Who are your favorite historians? Why?

Sticking to military history, I’d say Thucydides. Caesar. Josephus. I admire them for their ability to encompass all the different aspects of war in a way that is at once realistic, comprehensive, clear, and concise. The older I grow, the more convinced I am that they really have no successors.

17. Are there any historians writing today that impress you?

The last modern history book I found really impressive was Mary Beard’s SPQR (2016). A masterpiece, fluently written by someone who is thoroughly familiar with her subject and practically without footnotes to boot.

18. Where do you see the discipline of military history heading? Do you find this encouraging?

I think the discipline is in retreat. Has been since 1991, in fact. Too many people believe that, in an age when technology advances at a furious pace, nothing that happened more than a few years ago can matter in any way.

19. What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?

Truth is, I have more or less abandoned military history.  My last book, which is now looking for a publisher, is a history of the changing methods people have devised in their attempts to look into the future, starting with the ancient astrologers of Babylon and ending with today’s model-builders. Currently, I am working on yet another book; this time, the objective is to find out the things in history that do not change. The warp, so to speak, instead of the woof.

20. Are there any final thoughts that you’d like to share with the members of the Warfighting Society?

Keep your faith in God and your powder dry.