Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West and What Can Be Done About It

  • Published

Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West and What Can Be Done About It by Martin van Creveld. DLVC Enterprises, 2016, 256 pp.

Martin van Creveld is one of the giants of twentieth-century strategic studies and military history. His works, both scholarly and polemic, deserve a place on the shelves of any serious student of history or international relations, and even his critics must engage with his ideas. His provocatively named Pussycats, which seeks to examine the social, cultural, and institutional roots of present-day Western military failure, could hardly be published at a better time, as two poorly managed—perhaps unmanageable—wars drag on past the midpoint of their second decades and the full integration of women into the US military is under way.

Van Creveld opens by pointing out that in the fifteenth century, Europe began a process in which, due to scientific, technological, political, and economic advantage, it dominated the known world, reaching the height of its collective power on the eve of World War I. Since then, he argues, the West’s engagement with other powers has been marked by stalemate at best, and more often loss, despite retaining most of the advantages it had enjoyed in earlier years. The task he takes on in Pussycats is to explain this decline, through four principal lines of argument.

First, he addresses the raising and education of youth, the raw ingredients of armies. Children and young adults (a category which, he points out, was only recently created) are increasingly directed, guided, and sheltered not only from physical harm but also from distressing sensations and ideas, making them fragile and neurotic. If he is hardly the first to note this phenomenon, van Creveld is nonetheless astute to point out that such an upbringing seems not to be conducive to the ability to take initiative and act independently, attributes required by soldiers at all levels in modern warfare. He also revisits the territory staked out by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, commenting on how decreasing social capital has led to an atomized and highly individualistic society.

Second, he describes the “de-fanging” of the military. This has taken the form of a radical increase in the proportion of generals, in particular, and officers more broadly, across service and national lines, as well as a growing increase in rules and regulations imposed on the day-to-day life of service members. In many cases, he argues, these volunteers enjoy fewer freedoms than their own teenage children might. That many of these regulations are reactions (or overreactions) to the misadventures of a few adds insult to injury, in van Creveld’s eyes. Here, though, he sounds a truly false note in his description of the Tailhook scandal, which led to sexual harassment prevention measures throughout the Department of Defense, as an instance of “dubious claims by a female officer who said she had been fondled” (p. 53). While the investigation was indeed triggered by the complaint filed by a female aviator, it ultimately concluded that 83 women and seven men were sexually assaulted during the event, including an underage woman staying at the hotel, who had no connection to the conference.

It is undeniable that in the wake of Tailhook, substantial resources were devoted to reducing not only assaults but other less overt forms of aggression against women in the military. Van Creveld suggests that an inevitable effect of such measures, as well as similar policies designed to integrate other ethnic or social groups, is an erosion of trust. This has grave consequences for unit cohesion, command climates, and therefore, at least potentially, military effectiveness. It also contributes to an unprecedented number of lawsuits filed by members of the military against their own service, a phenomenon he rightly identifies as disturbing, implying as it does not only a heightened sense of grievance but also an inability, real or perceived, to obtain fair treatment through normal channels.

The “malignant” effects of women in the military are the focus of the third section. Van Creveld’s critique of the inclusion of women in the military in any but the most auxiliary roles is long standing and well known, but it is expressed with particular vehemence in Pussycats. A good sense of what to expect in this chapter is telegraphed by his suggestion that an apt motto for 1960s feminism would be arbeit macht frei (p. 19). Valid concerns about different musculoskeletal strength between the sexes and the readiness challenges and cost implications presented by potential pregnancy, intended or not, must be sifted out from suggestions that higher rates of medical care for women in the services are due to malingering or that women who are traumatized by sexual assault at the hands of a comrade are unfit to serve (p. 111).

The final section addresses PTSD and in particular its relatively recent place in the study of warfare and its effects. Van Creveld makes a number of thoughtful points about how the cultural framing of war influences warriors’ experience of it, asking whether today’s pervasive view of war as illegitimate and damaging does not make it more likely that veterans will view themselves as psychologically or spiritually harmed. He notes that the disorder has historically been less prevalent both in armies that were based on a regimental system, in which cohesion between unit members could develop and be sustained over entire careers, and in those that expected higher levels of mental endurance. In cultures and armies that did not recognize the disorder, or its earlier incarnations, PTSD was diagnosed far less often, a somewhat tautological point, but not an unfair one, to the extent that a mandate to detect any condition will make doctors and psychologists more diligent in looking for it and, presumably, finding it. He also takes issue with the unspoken assumption that PTSD is the new norm for veterans, as reflected in mandatory discharge screenings for the condition. Other portions of the final section, though, reflect outdated and in some cases ugly assumptions. Many of the most successful treatment modalities, for example, treat PTSD as a form of brain injury rather than an emotional one. His suggestion that treatment and benefits for veterans with PTSD are a form of “reward,” which ought instead to be directed to those who manage not to develop it (p. 148), is particularly pernicious.

Pussycats is peppered by a number of errors. Some are frivolous, as, when insisting that popular culture portrays women’s physical strength in unrealistic ways, van Creveld cites a music video by the performer Sia but names the wrong one (p. 106). Others are more germane but still minor, such as his statement that other Western countries’ militaries, including Canada and Britain, “followed the US lead” (p. 85) in integrating women. In fact, this is reversed, with the United States among the last countries to do so.

More substantial errors undermine his broader and thematic arguments. Van Creveld writes that after the US Marine Corps was forced to integrate basic training, it dropped the requirement that women do pull-ups (p. 92). In fact, boot camp in the Corps remains, as it has always been, single-sex, and while attempts are being made to improve upper-body strength among women recruits, it has never been a requirement that women do pull-ups in order to graduate or indeed be promoted throughout their careers. Most puzzling, he describes Marine Gen James Amos as having been silenced and pressured to leave the Corps for being politically incorrect (p. 67). This is a curious way to characterize a 44-year career, culminating in three years as the commandant. More disturbing from an academic, or indeed journalistic, perspective is that the source he cites in support of this is a CNN article from 2005 (a decade before Amos’ retirement) in which Amos is not mentioned and in which another USMC general is defended for speaking plainly. A quote attributed to Amos describing the media as “savages” is taken from, although not credited to, The Duffel Blog, a parody website whose articles are fictitious (if often on the nose).

A number of excellent points are raised in Pussycats, often in passing. Van Creveld discusses the increase in the proportion of senior officers and of lawyers in the military; he suggests that their presence may have led to militaries becoming more similar to modern bureaucracies and corporations than to war-fighting institutions, with implications for the nature and quality of advice provided to government authorities. He points out the growing gap between the military and the rest of American society, arguing powerfully that those who make decisions about when and how to take the nation to war are increasingly unlikely to have any real sense of what war is or what it is for. Most relevant, he documents the extent to which large segments of Western society have come to see war as an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs and questions whether it is possible to craft and sustain a strategy for victory in such a cultural climate.

These points are diluted, though, by the author’s rhetorical excess and strange choices of anecdotes to flesh out his points. The selection and promotion of generals deserves much more scrutiny, as has been addressed in works by Victor Davis Hanson and Thomas Ricks, but van Creveld muddles the issue by diverting into an argument that adulterers on the general staff should be excused, because boys will be boys and great men in the past commonly had mistresses. The question of physical fitness standards for women is vital, both in terms of perceived and actual fair treatment and with respect to combat effectiveness, but this point is weakened by van Creveld’s complaint that women are excused from meeting normal fitness standards while pregnant and for several weeks post-partum.

More damning, much of the provocative argumentation is irrelevant to the question at the heart of the book. Let the reader stipulate that Western armies are etiolated, micromanaged, effeminate, and traumatized; this still does not explain recent military failures. The ISIS flag was raised over Fallujah not because the sergeants and captains who fought there were the product of the helicopter parenting van Creveld decries, lacking courage, initiative, or the willingness to take or inflict casualties. The city was lost because of poor judgment in the White House, the State Department, and at the highest levels of the Pentagon. The great majority of van Creveld’s complaints, if valid, should be borne out in documented incompetence or failure at the combat and tactical level in recent wars. In reality, American forces have seldom lost a battle or campaign level engagement with the enemy post–World War II. Given their tremendous advantages not only in material factors but also in training, this is not surprising. The failure van Creveld wants to explain—an inability to win at the strategic and geopolitical level—is at best loosely connected to the issues he discusses.

This is unfortunate precisely because van Creveld has chosen to address so urgent a matter—why the superior armaments, training, numbers, and resources of Western armies have not yielded lasting or decisive victory—and because he is positioned so perfectly, as an Israeli civilian, an expert on Western militaries but not of them, to provide thoughtful analysis. There are the seeds of a powerful argument in Pussycats, but they are obscured by needless provocation, non sequiturs, and the pursuit of straw men. Given that material, economic, and technological factors so overwhelmingly favor the United States over its recent enemies, any explanation for failure must be based largely in the domain of institutional, cultural, strategic, and moral factors. The book van Creveld sought to write might have provided the foundation for exactly that discussion, rather than simply added fuel to the fire of a number of existing disputes about the structure, culture, and training of today’s Western militaries.

Rebecca Jensen

Visiting Scholar, The Elliot School

George Washington University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."