The Book of the Week

Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West and What Can Be Done About It, by Martin van Creveld, is the Book of the Week. Martin is always a must-read for anyone interested in military history or strategy, whether he is published by Castalia or, as in this case, not.

We’ll have a pair of new books out from him in the near future, but in the meantime, this book about the decline of Western military power should tide van Creveld fans over nicely.

The “West,” a term which from this point on will refer to the countries of Western Europe and North America while excluding Russia and Japan, reached the peak of its power just before 1914. Later, owing partly to the casualties sustained in World War I and partly to a loss of self-confidence, it found that its rule over subject peoples became harder and harder to sustain. During the interwar period several colonial countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, gained at least nominal independence. Translating that into real independence took longer; but by the second half of the 1950s that, too, had been achieved.

Here we are concerned with the strategic aspect of the matter, not the moral one. Still staying in the interwar period, struggles such as the one against the Rif of Morocco, when some 250,000 well-equipped, highly-trained, French and Spanish troops took several years to defeat a loose coalition of mostly barefoot, mostly illiterate, Moroccan tribesmen, pointed to the direction in which things were moving. By 1939 many colonial peoples around the world were preparing to challenge their masters. Although, in the event, it took World War II, in which those masters tore each other to pieces, to set the stage for the conflagrations that followed.

Since then almost the only time Western countries gained a clear military victory over their non-Western opponents was during the First Gulf War. In 1991 NATO, as the most powerful military alliance in history, had just emerged triumphant from the forty-five year struggle known as the Cold War. But its members had not yet begun to dismantle their armed forces as the European ones in particular were to do later on. As a result, they were free as never before or since to send those forces to any spot they wanted to wage any war they wanted against any opponent they wanted. Though few people realized it at the time, in retrospect to challenge NATO, reinforced by several other countries, with a conventional army, as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein did, represented the height of folly. Even so the US and its allies did not complete the job. With good reason, as it later turned out.

This episode apart, practically every time the West, or some country that was part of it, fought the rest it was defeated. Conversely the wars in question, and the people who waged them and fought in them, succeeded in liberating—whatever that might mean—entire continents with populations numbering in the hundreds of millions.