About the Book by David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts Titled “Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine”

From a Wall Street Journal book review by Jonathan W. Jordan headlined “‘Conflict’ Review: How Wars are Fought and Won”:

As Europe’s first big cross-border land war since World War II grinds through its second year and a mass terror raid sparks memories of the Yom Kippur War, a top-to-bottom look at how wars are fought in the era of Pax Atomica has become grimly relevant.

“Conflict” brings together one of America’s top military thinkers and Britain’s pre-eminent military historian to examine the evolution of warfare since 1945. Retired Gen. David Petraeus, who co-authored the U.S. Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency warfare and oversaw the troop surge in Iraq in 2007, brings a professional eye to politico-military strategy. Andrew Roberts, who has been writing on military leadership since the early 1990s, offers an “arc of history” approach to the subject of mass destruction. The pair’s ambitious goals: to provide some context to the tapestry of modern conflict and a glimpse of wars to come.

The book begins with the early struggles of the postwar era. China’s brutal civil war, the authors observe, demonstrated “that guerrilla warfare undertaken according to Maoist military principles by smaller forces could ultimately be successful against a Western-backed government.” This drama would play out over the next 40 years from Vietnam to Nicaragua, with rival superpowers taking supporting roles.

Invoking the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, the authors argue that the first job of a strategic leader is to get the big ideas right. Those who have succeeded include Gerald Templer, who became Britain’s high commissioner for Malaya in 1952 and whose reference to winning “the hearts and minds of the people,” we are told, “remains the most succinct explanation for how to win a counter-insurgency.” By contrast, the nationalist forces in China, the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam got the big ideas wrong and paid a steep price.

The longest chapters, frequently narrated in the first person by Mr. Petraeus, cover Iraq and Afghanistan, where political dysfunction swamped military success. On the 2021 collapse of Afghanistan’s government troops, who had been so expensively trained and equipped under Presidents Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden, Mr. Petraeus remarks that “the troops were brave enough—the 66,000 dead Afghan soldiers killed during the war attest to that. But they fought for an often corrupt and incompetent government that never gained the trust and confidence of local communities, which had historically determined the balance of power within Afghanistan.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 serves as the book’s case study on how badly Goliath can stumble against David. As Hitler did with Stalin, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin placed his hopes on a quick knockout blow. When that failed, corruption, improvised logistics, the lack of air superiority, a failure to prepare for economic backlash and the lack of mass public support doomed Russia’s chances of a swift victory. Noting an increase in both German military spending and European weapons supplies pouring into Ukraine, as well as the expansion of NATO to include Finland and likely Sweden, the authors conclude that, “in setting out to make Russia great again, Putin was actually making NATO great again.”

The authors broadly cover the roles of economic sanctions, social-media manipulation and consumer activism in the Ukrainian war. Elon Musk’s control of the Starlink satellite internet system, they note, gave him a unique veto power over Ukrainian operations in Crimea. “With individual tycoons such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos wielding such extraordinary power,” the authors tell us, “wars of the future will have to take their influence into account.”

The final chapter teases out the contours of future conflicts. Artificial intelligence, strategic mineral monopolies and “hybrid wars”—where weapons include deepfake disinformation, political manipulation, proxy forces and cyberattacks—cap an incisive look at the next phase of warfare. “Hybrid warfare particularly appeals to China and Russia, since they are much more able to control the information their populaces receive than are their Western adversaries,” the authors caution. And with the line between limited and total wars growing fuzzier every year, the combatant of the next war might be a woman sitting at a drone desk, a computer geek hacking into a power grid or a robotics designer refining directed-energy weapons systems.

“Conflict” is, in some ways, an extension of Mr. Roberts’s thesis in “The Storm of War” (2009)—that dictatorships tend to crack under the stress of a sustained war against popular democracies. While autocracies enjoy some advantages at war’s outset—they are nimble and can achieve true strategic surprise, for instance—if the sucker punch doesn’t end the fight quickly, democracies, shocked into action, may bring to bear more motivated, more efficient and often larger forces to turn the tide.

For all its technical erudition, “Conflict” is remarkably readable. Mr. Roberts’s engaging prose softens the edges of Mr. Petraeus’s straight-shooting analysis. Both men see modern military history as a succession of partnerships created to counter violent challenges from nationalists, terrorists and dictators.

The book was written before the recent outbreak of war on Israel’s southern border, where a coordinated terror raid has spurred a more conventional military riposte. As gunmen ride to massacre scenes in pickup trucks and precision missiles take to the air in response, the authors’ introductory caveat snaps into focus: “Warfare evolves; it does not ossify. Yet it is clearly also capable of being suddenly and shockingly thrown into reverse.”

Many of the elements that “Conflict” dissects—the use of low-cost drones, the targeting of infrastructure, the power of social media and the patronage of outside powers, to name a few—flash across our screens in real time, reminding us that “war is thus still very much worth studying.” Timely, engaging and instructive, “Conflict” is the best one-volume study of conventional warfare in the nuclear age. It sets a new benchmark in understanding modern war.

Jonathan W. Jordan is the author of “American Warlords: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II.”


  1. James Ssemwanga says

    I thought there would be something in there specifically on conflicts on the African continent.

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