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The devil in the details

CONFLICT / Uncover the truth behind Conflict, an engaging but flawed analysis of warfare from 1945 to Ukraine.

Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine
Author: David Petraeus Andrew Roberts
Publisher: William Collins, USA

There are not very many books written by two authors. There must be a reason. Even if books today, especially in the nonfiction department, have increasingly become a collective enterprise, a team effort — as the humanities too acquired a scientific trait — usually, the authorship is attributed to a single person. Writers tend to be jealous of their creations. In the case of Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, published by William Collins, part of the HarperCollins publishing empire, a single authorship is more difficult to establish. One of the authors is British historian Andrew Roberts, famous for his praised biographies of Napoleon and Churchill, both of a fairly hagiographic character. The other is David H. Petraeus, the American general, former head of U.S. forces in Iraq between 2007 and 2008 and former director of the CIA in 2012. Military men rarely write books. General Petraeus, on leave since 2012, evidently found time to do so.

military silhouettes fighting war against foggy sky

Historical reconstruction

Conflict aims to analyse in ten chapters how warfare has changed from 1945 to the present and «show how militaries around the world have learned — or failed to learn — from each previous war when trying to fashion the means to fight the next.» Another task is to put the Russian-Ukrainian war, to which one of the final chapters is devoted, in the «proper historical context.» The result is an informative, powerfully written, gripping book that could be very persuasive. Yet in such a book, it is not enough to «get the big ideas right,» one of the cardinal tenets of «successful strategic leadership,» according to the book’s introduction. Because the devil, as it is well known, loves details, details are where he hides, more or less successfully. If the details are fragile, intentionally or not, the big idea of strategic leadership or a book can turn out to be a house of cards.

A big book on wars from 1945 to the present written by an American general and a very pro-American, transatlanticist British historian obviously cannot fail to mention the Vietnam War in which the United States intervened militarily in an open manner between 1964 and 1975. It is well known that U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson significantly increased the American presence in Vietnam after the supposed «Gulf of Tonkin» incident, which then served as a casus belli. «On 2 August, a U.S. destroyer was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of North Vietnam,» Petraeus and Roberts write. Three days later, the U.S. president authorised retaliation. But the authors carefully avoid mentioning the supposed attack on the American destroyer USS Maddox on 4 August. This was the real «Gulf of Tonkin Incident» and the pretext for the American intervention. An attack that never happened, by then-Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara’s own admission a few years later. This was the attack that prompted the president and the U.S. Congress to authorise an expansion of open and direct U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the fight against the communists. That 60 years later, a historian would write about Vietnam as if he had never heard of the Pentagon Papers frankly leaves one speechless.

Yet this omission and cavalier approach to the details of historical reconstruction is unfortunately not a rarity in this book. Four years after the U.S. left South Vietnam, in December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. An invasion came after the previous Afghan government had repeatedly asked the Soviet Union to intervene and after a coup by a rebel faction. The Soviet invasion predictably received the most vehement criticism from the United States and other countries. The following year, the 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted by 67 countries, including the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany — and Norway. Petraeus and Roberts write that the United States began helping the Afghan mujahideen after the Soviet invasion. Yet by the admission of then-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski a few years later in a famous interview with the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, U.S. support began before the Soviet invasion, with the specific purpose of luring in the Soviet Union and turning Afghanistan into a Soviet Vietnam. The name «Operation Cyclone» should ring a bell. To mention these, by now, well-ascertained facts should not be equated to spreading conspiracy theories. On the contrary, pretending these details are irrelevant is a severe fault for a history book.

Military men rarely write books. General Petraeus, on leave since 2012, evidently found time to do so.

Iraq and Ukraine

Unfortunately, it does not end there. Inevitably, a significant part of the book has to be devoted to the Iraq war after the March 2003 invasion by the United States. The authors write that the United States had decided to base its case on a «flawed, intelligent assessment» regarding supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. They have the decency to admit that the weapons of mass destruction were not found later — but only in a little note at the end of the book. A bit little, perhaps, for a war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Nor does one perceive in the account of the Iraq War, written in the first person of General Petraeus, any kind of remorse for starting this war, only some inkling of second thoughts, more about how this war was conducted than its motives.

We finally come to the war in Ukraine, the occasion that inspired this book. The authors set out to provide the historical context in which the war broke out, but even in this regard, the account by Petraeus and Roberts can be considered deficient. Admittedly, the introduction warns against expecting an explanation of the causes of wars from this book. But this cannot be an excuse to then present the wrong causes. The exposition of the historical context of the war in Ukraine begins with the much-denounced «Gerasimov Doctrine» on hybrid warfare. The expression is derived from a speech in 2013, later published as an article, by the Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, in which he outlined the U.S. way of modern warfare. Western pundits and commentators instead turned the tables. They enthusiastically adopted the expression, using it to allude to an omnipresent threat from a Russia never satiated by her imperialist conquests and always ready to wage war in the most devious and covert of ways. Never mind that the author of the expression «Gerasimov Doctrine» himself, British historian Mark Galeotti, apologized for creating the misunderstanding and urged that the phrase be dropped because «there is no doctrine» and «Gerasimov didn’t invent this.» Unconcerned, Petraeus and Roberts write that Gerasimov — now head of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine — «may have had Ukraine in mind» when he spoke of hybrid warfare. «On March 18 2014, Putin ordered Russian forces to take control of the Crimea, an action that the Ukrainian government decided not to resist militarily,» the two authors then wrote. The context of the Russian annexation of Crimea is entirely absent: there is no reference to the Ukrainian revolution in February, the Ukrainian president’s flight to Russia, or the protests in Crimea following the seizure of power in Kyiv by a Europhile and nationalist government, or to the March 16 referendum. Putin woke up one day and sent his soldiers to take Crimea. The rest of the chapter on the Ukraine-Russia war is a eulogy of heroic Ukrainian resistance and a list of the endless episodes of idiotic ineptitude on the part of the Russian military. These passages seem to have been written under the immense euphoria that was in the air last year when it appeared that the unstoppable Ukrainian counteroffensive would easily recover all the country’s territories, including Crimea. They do not seem to have aged very well.

a bombed our residential building during the ukraine war

An old blockbuster

Reading this book is, at times, almost like watching one of those Hollywood war blockbusters that were so popular a few years ago — hasn’t the quantity of such films been declining in recent years? Can this be by chance? — with the United States as the indispensable nation that, despite all the problems, is ready to sacrifice itself to save the world. It’s a trite old script, and most people seem to have grown tired of watching this sort of blockbuster.

It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. One of the related myths of this adage — too often forgotten — is the optimistic belief that sooner or later, the truth, by some mysterious metaphysical law of nature and the historical process, always surfaces in the end: once the dust of conflict has settled and the fog of war has dissipated, History, ten, twenty, thirty years later, comes to give a definitive and unalterable account of events: the Truth has revealed itself! This is a myth that many history scholars are happy to embrace and propagate; after all, it makes them feel useful and good about themselves. Yet, as this book shows, History is often nothing more than a condensation of the journalistic narrative of its time and is no less tendentious than the journalistic or cinematic account of war.

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