May 6, 2016

Martin van Creveld: I Doubt Whether Estonia Can Trust Its Allies

Martin van Creveld (L)

Daesh has forgotten that it is simply a guerrilla movement incapable of conventional warfare.

War historian Martin van Creveld thinks that it is very questionable whether Estonia can trust its NATO allies if a war should occur, since war seems almost unthinkable for the modern Westerner.
He is in a good mood when he arrives and says at once that he knows I will ask one question he does not want to answer: whether Estonia could be protected from Russia should the need arise.
Alright, but could we protect Estonia?
It is very hard to protect Estonia against Russia in military terms. The odds would be a hundred to one because the border is completely open, which is why I have certain doubts about whether you can trust your allies.
Why do you have these doubts?
Firstly, because the Alliance is large and has many members. Secondly, because many of the members joined in the past 20 years, since when there has been nothing but disarming, disarming, disarming. And thirdly, because many states consider it vile that war can be used as a tool in international politics. Go to Germany, where people shout: “Nie wieder Krieg!” (“Never again war!”). Americans are different, but not that much since they have been burnt in one war after another over many years.
But the Allies are already here in Estonia. True, there are not many of them. How do you imagine they would act in a military conflict? Would there be a “phoney war” in which direct hostilities would be avoided?
I think they would primarily do what their government thinks is right, not what would be best for Estonia. I can imagine a situation in which the forces would just sit around and do nothing—for fear of losses, or the fear that the public [in the sending country] says this has nothing to do with us. I have a friend, a high-ranking officer in the German army, who worked for Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, for seven years. He should be familiar with the situation. The chancellor said that she could not raise every critical question with German voters. That had happened God knows how many times. The same applies to the Scandinavians, Dutch, Italians and French. They simply do not care. Their lives have been too good for too long, and they have forgotten that the fact they are not interested in war does not mean that war is not interested in them. I don’t know about Estonian war museums. but German ones are completely empty [of visitors]. I recently visited a huge war museum in Dresden and there were two people on the premises in addition to me and my wife. One of them was the ambassador of Lebanon! Calling someone a militarist is the worst insult for a European. The thought that war may be necessary in certain circumstances …
You consider that war has become an unthinkable option?
I can well imagine an agreement with NATO forces along the lines of “you won’t touch us and we won’t touch you”.
Does the attitude that war is an unthinkable option make the emergence of war more probable?
Definitely, in that sense.
Israel, your country of residence, has a conscription system and trains reservists quite extensively.
Increasingly few reservists are trained. More and more of them exist only on paper.
Would it be more reasonable for a state like ours to create fully professional volunteer armed forces or should we retain general conscription?
I know little of your conditions and geography. Some would quote a Danish party of the 1970s that said that the Danes only needed to put a sign on the border reading “We surrender”. One might claim that the value of a conscript service does not lie in being able to fight Russian forces and their heavy weaponry. But one could claim that conscription has the advantage of preparing the population for the guerrilla warfare that would follow. In other respects, the Russians will be in Tallinn in 72 hours or however quickly they really want to be there. But, yes, from the point of view of partisan warfare, preparation is important. For example, consider the war in Iraq. The Iraqi army did not stop the Americans. But the people who were sent home with no resources reorganised very quickly and started to organise attacks on Americans. Conscription may be very useful in that sense.
In mid-April, a Russian fighter jet flew over a US warship sailing in the Baltic Sea at a height of nine metres. How do you interpret this?
It is possible that the pilot was just having fun. But it may have been a message: “Don’t mess with us. And if you do, we have the means to mess with you.”
The security-policy community has talked about the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time. I understand that you have been critical of these interventions?
Yes. Actually, I was stupid, because I did not believe anyone could be so stupid as to invade Afghanistan. I did not take Bush’s words seriously for months. These two wars were very silly. It was clear from the start what would happen. There was no chance of the United States winning these wars. These two wars showed the limits of Western power.
That was back then; but what should we do about the current situation? Today ISIS is active on Iraqi and Syrian territory; it is difficult to estimate the size of the organisation but various approximations have determined the maximum number of fighters to be 100,000.
I think there are considerably fewer of them. But I also think that they made a classic mistake—if you are familiar with Mao Zedong’s theory on the three phases of guerrilla warfare. The first phase is when the guerrillas are more like terrorists: they do not have a base. The second phase is when they get a base where they can dwell and to which they can return. The third phase is transition to conventional warfare. This is a critical moment. The worst possible thing is to make the transition too early. And it seems ISIS has done exactly that. They were too excited about their success in fighting against regular forces that they have suffered from all the deficiencies of regular forces now that they are one, which is why they have lost so many battles in recent months. They have forgotten that they are really just a guerrilla movement.
Do you think some Western states should intervene in what is happening in Syria or Iraq?
They would lose. They are intervening now, but on a ridiculously small scale. I know that it is not possible to win by air strikes alone, without a massive invasion. But they probably would not win that way either, because they do not have what it takes to succeed. I mean that Western states are not ready to fight and suffer losses. And they are right from their point of view: why should an ordinary German, British or American citizen worry about what is happening in Iraq or Syria? “Let them kill one another as they wish,” people might think. The West should have supported Bashar al-Assad from the start. I was certain as soon as it all began that Syria was being turned into a new Afghanistan. I am no Arabist but, as the Egyptians hinted, there are two options: anarchy or a heavy-handed man with a large moustache.
Are there no options for creating and bringing together the much-discussed “moderates”?
It is very hard because the society is primarily clan- and tribe-based, and people are loyal to the family and extended family, not the state. It was the same in Europe as recently as during the Renaissance.
What will become of Europe?
I’m afraid that terrorism and even guerrilla warfare will spread to Europe in the future.
So the current terrorist attacks are only the beginning?
Yes, naturally—unfortunately so, because I like visiting Europe. They will become similar to us [Israel—Ed.].
Will the European Union become more like Israel?
It is already happening, because defences are being strengthened everywhere. I predicted all this 25 years ago in my book. Europe has lived without a war for 70 years, but this may come to an end.
Are the refugees coming to Europe today a threat?
Yes, I really think so. And I do not even blame them. Let me tell you a story about walking in Potsdam in 2000. My wife and I met a married couple; we were in our fifties then. They had a pretty German shepherd. For some reason, the dog did not like my wife and attacked her, and bit a very small piece from her jacket. The German couple were really nice about it—they apologised and promised to pay for the jacket, although the piece was really very small and nothing bad had happened. This incident was observed by two dark-skinned men, Arabs. They did not know that we were Israeli because my wife and I spoke fluent German. When we had finished talking to the German couple, [the Arabs] came to us and said that the result would have been quite different if all of this had happened to them. I have plenty of experiences with immigrant taxi drivers who hate the locals. They feel that everything they have considered the most important, holy, has been turned upside-down. Political scientist Samuel Huntington said it much better than I ever could: it is a question of the relationship between an individual and God, person and person, man and woman, adult and child, rights and obligations. These are the most fundamental questions in the life of every person. They no longer recognise themselves in a foreign country; they go to places where they can find support and listen to imams who say that the old customs were much better than those of the local residents. And they hear how to protect the [old] customs. And as the sermon ends, a man from Daesh comes to them and asks: “Hey, do you really want to protect the old customs?”
Some claim that Islam is actually a religion of peace and we cannot blame the entire Muslim community for savage acts committed by only a few people from the community. What do you think?
We must distinguish between actions and objectives. If we talk about actions, then that is correct—only a small proportion of Muslims support terrorist acts. They might not go and blow someone up themselves but, more often than not, they help to do it by offering shelter or logistic support.
Do all terrorists have a wide support network?
Yes, yes. If it weren’t for the sea, fish could not exist. I’m not saying that no one would betray a terrorist, but this is true of a large segment of the population. And even more people would say that they support the terrorists’ views on relationships between men and women, but they would not shelter the terrorists because they’re afraid of the police. People who have not yet settled in are perhaps the most worried about terrorists since they have the most to lose. But a large proportion of long-term immigrants would support terrorists—if not with actions, then at least in ideological terms.
What do you think Europeans should do with the refugees? Many unarmed people, including women and children, are arriving on the coasts.
Maybe they should learn from Israel’s experience in the 1950s when our border guards regularly fired over the heads of those trying to cross the border. This was seen as infiltration and some people who did not stop were killed.
Van Creveld digresses to talk about the tensions between Israel and Palestine. He firmly believes that Palestinian territories should be free—there is not much hope of reconciliation with the Palestinians, which is why it would be better for Israel to stay as separate from the Palestinians as possible.
You have written a number of books. What subject are you covering right now?
Yes, I will publish a [new] book soon. It is about why everybody else is militarily more successful than the West and what we should do about it. In essence, I claim that the West is turning into [a bunch of] wimps.
And what can we do about it?
Let us hope that, when the danger is grave enough, they will stop being wimps. The first chapter discusses how Western societies are forcibly trying to avoid children becoming independent; they protect them at all times. It is plain to see, compared to preceding generations. The second chapter deals with how soldiers are trained so that they become wimps. They are spoilt. We recently heard a news item about German soldiers refusing to train more than eight hours a day. And then there is a chapter on women serving in the armed forces. Some days ago, I got letters from a few friends, one of whom said: “Thank God, the marine commander said that, although men and women receive basic training together, the standards won’t be lowered”. I didn’t believe a word of it. And the very next day I received a letter about how this and that part of the training programme would be cancelled because women could not cope with them. The marine commander’s words were right for 24 hours!
Have you been a long-term opponent of women in the armed forces?
I wouldn’t say so; the more so because Israel is one of the few countries where conscription is compulsory for women. People cannot understand that war is, above all, a question of pride. If you are not proud of what you are doing, you will not allow yourself to be killed for it. If women can do something, how can men be proud of doing the same thing?
I have seen female Kurdish fighters and policewomen who were far braver than the young Kurdish men who complain about the war and try to get to Europe.
People often confuse war with insurgence and riots. If we are talking about partisans or rebels, then they are indeed much weaker than their opponents, and in that case women can get involved without hurting men’s pride. It is different in war.
What do you mean when you say that young children are spoilt and entire societies become unfit for war as a result?
A woman was recently punished for letting her six-year-old children play alone in a park that was a couple of hundred metres from their home. I remember that I was allowed to cross the street when I was six. Today it is semi-officially allowed in Israel—there is no law about it—when the child is nine. Let us also look at how children go to school. While 80–90% of children walked or cycled to school 50 years ago, only 10–20% do so today. People say it is because the traffic has become more intense—that is true. But, paradoxically, most of the traffic is caused by parents who take their children to school by car. It is a vicious circle. Two-year-old Muslim children who are minded by six- or seven-year-olds can walk on the street. They could eat my grandchildren alive! At 18, in the US, you can join the army, kill and be killed. You can use the most powerful weapons in the world. But you cannot drink beer!
One of your controversial statements is that nuclear weapons have turned out to be a very beneficial invention that has brought peace. Could you elaborate on this?
Statistics prove that our era is the most peaceful period in world history. The probability of dying in a war is much lower than in the past. I do not believe that human nature has changed. I believe that nuclear weapons have made serious wars between large states impossible. We know from history that the wars waged between large states were the bloodiest. The spread of nuclear weapons has been the best thing that could have happened to humankind. Without nuclear weapons, we would have had a third and maybe even a fourth world war by now.
Will there be a nuclear war in some part of the world during our lifetime?
Anything can happen. Deterrence depends on the conviction that nuclear war is possible.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.