Conflict: the evolution of warfare from 1945 to Ukraine


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted the appearance of several books, setting the war in its historical context. This is the first study, however, to view the conflict in the long-term perspective of military history since 1945. It is an ambitious undertaking by a partnership between two authors from very different backgrounds. General David Petraeus was a senior US army commander and is an acknowledged authority on counterinsurgency, who also served for a year as director of the CIA. Andrew Roberts is a historian best known for his biographies of Napoleon and Churchill, and his writings on the Second World War, who was recently appointed a Conservative member of the British House of Lords.

In Conflict, the pair have set out to describe and analyse the nature of warfare over almost eight decades. In the compass of a 500-page volume, they have not attempted a comprehensive history but have concentrated on wars that they regard as possessing broader significance; for example, in the development of tactics or weaponry. There are one or two surprising choices – South Ossetia and Rwanda are covered but not the 1979 Sino-Vietnam War, after which the poor performance of the People’s Liberation Army stimulated a major programme of Chinese military modernisation. Nonetheless, the authors cover the great majority of the post-1945 conflicts that one would expect to find, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The big picture

The book’s central theme is that of strategic leadership. Whether exercised by political or military figures, Petraeus and Roberts argue, it is understanding of the big picture that determines a protagonist’s chances of battlefield success. They identify four characteristics that an effective leader must demonstrate: a grasp of the overall strategic situation; an ability to communicate; being able to implement a plan; and to know how to refine and adapt ‘big ideas’ so that they can be applied again in different circumstances.

The authors’ chosen exemplars include both well-known and less-familiar leaders. General Matthew Ridgway, who stabilised the situation in Korea in 1951, is given higher marks than his flamboyant, erratic predecessor, Douglas MacArthur. The US-led coalition victory in the first Gulf War is largely credited to the partnership of President George Bush Senior, field commander General Norman Schwarzkopf, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Colin Powell. Sometimes the breadth of the project means that we are left wanting a fuller explanation of the part played by key individuals. David Ben-Gurion, for example, is commended for his role in the Israeli war of independence as ‘the personification of a great strategic leader’ – yet he receives little more than half a page, remaining a somewhat shadowy figure.

The authors’ desire to point up clear-cut, widely applicable lessons can on occasion run the risk of oversimplifying complex reality. In their summing up of the Chinese Civil War, they state that its main significance lies in the success of guerrilla forces against larger armies backed by a Western government. Yet in their own foregoing account of the war, Petraeus and Roberts rightly highlight as key factors the limited nature of US support and the corruption and incompetence displayed by the Nationalists. Their narrative also underlines the importance of two urban sieges that were unrelated to guerrilla warfare.

Overall, however, the impression is of a book that is remarkable in its scope and scholarship. It rises above a series of discrete campaign studies to illuminate the broader nature of warfare. Writing of post-1945 colonial conflicts, for example, the authors highlight the importance of an effective ‘hearts and minds’ strategy. They contrast the success of British counterinsurgency in Malaya, under the leadership of Generals Briggs and Templer, with the failed French attempt to retain control of Algeria and the debilitating US experience in Vietnam.

Another strength is the authors’ ability to draw connections between similar scenarios across the period. They draw attention, for instance, to the perils of undertaking surprise attacks, from North Korea’s invasion of its southern neighbour in 1950 to Russia’s assault on Ukraine: the difficulty of sustaining initial success; the provocation of the other side into mounting an overwhelming response; and the surrender of the moral high ground.

War in the 21st century

Perhaps the most interesting sections of the book are those informed by Petraeus’s personal experience. The chapters on Afghanistan and Iraq differ from the others in being written by the general in the first person. His opinions on the reasons for ultimate Western failure in both countries are trenchantly stated. In the case of Afghanistan, Petraeus acknowledges the parallels with Vietnam – both long wars in which the US propped up corrupt, unpopular regimes and failed to suppress insurgents who were prepared to wait until the occupier became exhausted. But he argues that whereas the US was not compelled to get involved in Vietnam, pursuit of the 9/11 terror cells made intervention in Afghanistan imperative. He also maintains that it was a conflict from which the US did not have to withdraw in August 2021. Much less domestically divisive and economically draining than Vietnam, it could have been managed, if not necessarily won outright. Ultimately, the political will to sustain the commitment was lacking.

Petraeus develops a similar argument about the evolution of US policy in Iraq, although in contrast to Afghanistan, he does question whether this war was of vital national interest. Many of his criticisms of Western policy in the region are familiar enough. The coalition forces lacked a clear plan for stabilising and reconstructing Iraq after the March 2003 invasion and failed to grasp the country’s internal dynamics. Unsurprisingly, as the author of the 2007 ‘surge’, which temporarily stabilised the situation, Petraeus laments that prior to this, the US had forgotten the lessons of counterinsurgency that should have been retained from Vietnam. More thought, too, should have been given to building bipartisan domestic support for the long haul.

The series of case studies culminates in an incisive analysis of why Putin’s Russia has so far failed to win a decisive victory, following its strike against Ukraine in February 2022. Of course, there are always risks in including still-unfinished events in a work of history, but it seems unlikely that the authors’ main lines of argument will be invalidated by unfolding events. They show convincingly how the Russian leadership has failed to learn from the recent past. As they point out, ever since the Yom Kippur War, holding the line in a drawn-out attritional struggle has largely become a thing of the past. Israel’s 1973 battle for survival was characterised by intense, fast-moving action. It also set a precedent for waging war with increasingly complex, lethal, precise weapons systems. More recently, the first Gulf War and the mid-1990s conflict in former Yugoslavia saw remarkably accurate targeting of enemy assets on the ground.

By contrast, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a throwback to the combat of the two world wars, with indiscriminate artillery shelling of urban areas, massed armoured formations unsupported by other arms, and troops slogging it out from entrenched positions. Ukraine’s more effective exploitation of modern technology, including electronic eavesdropping and jamming of Russian communications, has given it an edge over a less agile opponent.

The Russian campaign displays an absence of the ‘big picture’ thinking that Petraeus and Roberts view as the key to success in war. They demonstrate how Putin has set a hopelessly over-ambitious strategic goal for his ill-prepared forces. He has been outclassed as a communicator by his opponent, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and has consistently reinforced failure rather than showing an ability to learn and adapt. It is a formidable catalogue of disastrous decisions.

American troops fighting on the streets of Seoul, September 1950. The Korean War demonstrated many issues faced by combatants in modern conflict, from the ability to sustain initial success to the provocation of the enemy into mounting an overwhelming response. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Lessons for the future

The book closes with a number of observations on likely future developments in the era of hybrid warfare, artificial intelligence, drones, and cyber­attacks. But it goes beyond a discussion of the implications of rapidly changing technology. The conclusion returns to a point made more than once in earlier chapters, that defence cuts are a false economy, incurring disproportionate costs in the long run. The message is that Western armed forces must be adaptable, well trained, and properly resourced. They must be able to deter potential aggressors in an ever-threatening international environment.

There are a few factual errors. General George Marshall was US Defence Secretary at the time of the Korean War, not Secretary of State. The 1905 Battle of Tsushima was not the surprise victory of an underfunded and underequipped non-European state; the Japanese navy had both a qualitative and (except in battleships) a quantitative advantage over its Russian adversary. The organisation to which Grenada belonged at the time of the 1983 US invasion had not been called the British Commonwealth since 1949.

But these are minor blemishes. There can be no doubt that this is a wide-ranging, thoroughly researched, and well-written guide to a turbulent and transformative era of military history. Both well-informed specialists and newcomers to the subject will read it with advantage.

Conflict: the evolution of warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, General David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts Harper Collins, hbk (£26), ISBN 978-0008567972