On State-Strengthening Wars: Part II


To recur, in a concrete way, to the relationship between war and heightened statism, let us now look at things from the standpoint of Martin Van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Van Creveld, a military historian who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, seeks to come to grips with the inner logic of the European state system over the last 500 years. He begins by setting out a contrast between "governments" and "states."


Van Creveld holds that the state is a purely modern phenomenon which came into being around the end of the 15th century. It is distinguished from mere government, which has existed since about 3000 BC, by virtue of being an abstract, corporate, legal person, which has an ongoing existence separate from that of its personnel or even a titular "sovereign" such as king or emperor (p. 1). Traditional governments did not enjoy this exalted juristic and theoretical status.

Chiefdoms were the first form of government able to tax (p. 17). Their successors in the Ancient World, city-states, empires, and other large territorial states were limited both in their claims and in their ability to get things done. Most importantly, perhaps, such governments were not conceptually separate from the sovereign. Royal bureaucrats were the king’s servants; in republics, magistrates were servants of the citizenry.

The contrast between government and state, it might be noted, can also be found in the writings of the sociologist Franz Oppenheimer and the American libertarian literary figure Albert Jay Nock. There is more than echo of it in the work of British sociologist John A. Hall, who writes that pre-modern governments were "capstone states" which sat lightly on top of society and lacked the power to attempt grandiose social reconstruction. One might wish to quarrel a bit with Van Creveld here, but if we understand him to mean "states since 1500" whenever he uses the term "state," there is little room for confusion. At this late date, a return to mere "government" would be a decided improvement.


Van Creveld discusses the two-front struggle waged by late medieval kings – from about 1300 – against the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, both of which sought to limit kingly authority (pp. 59-87). The Reformation afforded the monarchs a chance to subordinate the clerics within their dominions, an opportunity seized by Protestant and Catholic ruler alike (pp. 69-70, 73). To the extent that they succeeded, such kings effectively turned their "national" churches into departments of state.

But of course the Church and the Empire were not the kings’ only opponents. To secure power at home, monarchs had to bring to heel their over-mighty subjects, the nobility, and deal as well with that "rising" new phenomenon, the merchants or "bourgeoisie," who in Italy and northern Germany had revived the city-state form of government on a basis of commercial capitalism. For a time, leagues of these wealthy city-states posed a serious threat to the consolidation of kingly power.


Van Creveld devotes much space to the kings’ triumph over the nobility (pp. 87-103 and passim). One tactic, made possible by the Reformation and perhaps perfected in England, was to win over nobles with grants of confiscated church lands. French monarchs gradually made good the claim that noble titles were only valid as grants from the king. As for the towns, even where kings played townsmen off against the nobles, they dealt with the towns later. Town fortifications were destroyed. "The population was disarmed and the ‘bourgeois’ and the ‘warlike’ went their separate ways" (p. 117).

Everywhere, the struggle took many decades and the details varied greatly. At the end, with the exception of the Netherlands, kings stood triumphant, even if their rivals’ defeat was incomplete and the burghers’ new economic activities were allowed to flourish.


Coeval (or perhaps "co-evil") with the kings’ successes, warfare became less personal and more bureaucratic. No longer must the king command in person and risk death or injury. Now he had to command from behind a desk. At the same time, government was becoming "sedentary" and permanent (p. 120), as noted in last week’s not entirely serious column.

And to what end had the kings triumphed? Presumably to be better able to fight neighboring states organized along the same lines. Increasing, they thought of their people as sheep to be managed and took over the symbols of Roman imperial authority. One symptom was their promotion of "the ideology of resignation and service… known as neostoicism" (p. 127) – a sort of Western Confucianism!

From 1648-1789, monarchs built up bureaucracies separate from the older "king’s household" and capable of surviving the end of personal sovereignty. In other words, the managerial apparatus shaped by the triumphant kings was already emerging as their potential replacement. The abstract modern state was being born. There is plenty of blame to go around, with differing countries pioneering various aspects of bureaucratic statism. In England, wealthy nobles and gentry controlled a rather minimal bureaucracy but gave us the Bank of England, the successful model of central banking (i.e., the "state-financial revolution"). In Prussia and Russia, rather poor nobilities were attached to the monarchy as bureaucrats.


Everywhere, the emerging states needed information about boundaries, population, resources, and much more. They wished to know everything which might be useful for maintaining internal control and for preparing wars against their neighbors. States needed "information" and they couldn’t get it off the Internet (Al Gore’s birth being far in the future). Getting the information required to maintain order and prepare for war, and those two tasks themselves, required more money (taxes) and personnel, getting more money (taxes) required more personnel, who had to be paid, which required more money (taxes), and so on. Hence, an upward spiral which will at least seem familiar.

The increased fiscal demands of states set off a series of reactions – Fronde, Puritan Revolution, War of Dutch Independence, etc. – which, taken together, constitute the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. Some states came out of it all with new paper limits on their power – to be overcome later.


Having gotten through the 17th century, the major states were soon fighting one another all over the globe for imperial/commercial advantage. The short version involves the decline of Spain and the edging aside of France by Britain. Sweden had already yielded regional power to Russia.

Van Creveld does not neglect the realm of ideas in all this, however. His insights here are very interesting indeed. He argues that Thomas Hobbes "invented" – or first theorized – the true (modern) state, precisely as the abstract, immortal, corporate Leviathan we have come to know and love. Unfortunately, later writers like John Locke accepted the essentials of this model and sought only to justify or limit such states. This may have been a real mistake.

The new intellectual climate emptied discussions of war and peace of older, personalistic notions attached to medieval just war theory. War was now a "public" activity of the state, which could potentially demand the sacrifice of anyone and anything within its territorial limits to achieve victory. It was the French Revolution, undertaken in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which helped states overcome their practical and ideological limits. The new French "liberty" was in fact the freedom of the French state, free of its royalist backwardness and inhibitions, to demand that everyone show up to get himself killed in far-off campaigns that few monarchs would have ever undertaken.


The French "success" with mass conscription and new tactics forced other powers to keep up. While this had the happy effect of ending serfdom in Prussia and even, finally, in Russia – since serfs aren’t "free men" subject to conscription – the downside was larger armies, higher stakes in future wars, greater destruction, and over time the elimination of evolved rules which had made wars at least bearable. The 19th century witnessed the beginnings of Total War with its ideological passions and apparently endless demands on civil society. Have I mentioned Mr. Lincoln?

The 20th century consummated the process. What is striking about Van Creveld’s analysis of the bloody 20th century is precisely his ability to reach to the institutional, structural basis of the problem. Whatever the exact distribution of evil or merit between the coalitions which fought the two World Wars and the Cold War, both sides fought them as states and in a state-like fashion. Unprecedented destruction and mass murder were the logical outcome. The logic of Total War, as developed by Van Creveld for the 20th century, seems so important to me that I intend to devote another column to it.