- War Since 1945
Jeremy Black, professor of history at the University of Exeter, UK, makes one very important point in his recent book, War Since 1945: the dominant school of military history and its policy counterpart are inadequate to explain the variety of wars that have occurred throughout the world since 1945.
A distinct improvement over the theoretical immaturity of old-style military history and the sterile economic approach of Cold War defense strategy, the military revolution/revolution in military affairs (RMA) paradigm, which emerged from the combined efforts of British and American military historians and defense intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s, offered a persuasive interpretation of the military's role in the rise of the West beginning with Edward III's crushing victories over France in the fourteenth century and up to the U.S.-led coalition's defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War in the 1990s (see MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, eds., The Dynamics of Military Revolution 1300–2050, 2001). In recent years, however, this model has seemed less useful for explaining the variously motivated civil wars and insurrections in the non-Western world since the end of World War II or [End Page 461] for understanding the difficulties of employing superior Western military resources and technical know-how to political advantage against "rogue" states, "failed" states, nationalist insurgents, and transnational terrorists that refuse to follow the Western way of war.
To escape the bonds of the current paradigm, Black argues, we need to develop new approaches to the study of modern warfare that are less Western, less progressive, less technological, less conventional, less symmetrical, and less exclusively military. Professor Black, however, does not offer such an approach. He is better at describing the types of postwar conflicts that fall outside the dominant historiographical construct than he is at presenting a coherent alternative. To be fair, though, this is not his objective. What Black provides is a brief, largely narrative, loosely structured account of global warfare from the Chinese Civil War to the "world" war in the Congo. Rather than viewing everything through a Cold War lens, Black emphasizes "the variety of post-1945 conflicts and the diversity of goals and methods" (p. 8) and eschews what he regards as the tendency of most modern warfare commentators to create a "metanarrative"—that is, "a clear paradigm of excellence" (p. 11) whose attributes diffuse throughout the world.
While Black's distaste for encapsulating theories allows him to range widely and analyze conflicts on their own terms, it also contributes to a muddled classification scheme. For example, the author primarily discusses the Korean War in his chapter on World War II "aftermath conflicts," the Vietnam War in his chapters on "wars of decolonization" and "Cold War conflicts," and the Arab-Israeli struggle in his chapter on "wars between non-Western powers," even though, he admits, these conflicts contain elements that make them candidates for all four of his post–World War II warfare categories. Without a useful integrative framework, the reader is mostly left on his own to discover the themes in war since 1945 that reach across time, location, and specific protagonists.
Fortunately, such themes can be discerned within Black's narrative. For example, Black notes that air power, though heavily used by Western powers, has played a limited role in the outcome of major post-1945 conflicts, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars, where the non-Western side has relied primarily on infantry-based armies. Yet, with few exceptions, whenever non-Westerners have employed mechanized forces and conventional methods against Western nations and their allies—such as the North Vietnamese Army in the 1972 Easter offensive, the Arab states in their wars with Israel, and Iraq in the first and second Gulf Wars—they have suffered defeat or severe setbacks from the synergistic effects of Western-style air and ground maneuver [End Page 462] warfare. By contrast, insurgencies have been hard to crush. When Western nations have played the role of counterinsurgent power, they have tended to win most of the battles, but...