Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine

Image of Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine
Release Date: 
October 16, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“an important primer for understanding what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what is likely to happen with conflict in the next decade.”

Beyond a doubt the last two years have shown that warfare and conflict will continue to be a feature of the early 21st century. The more important question is not whether conflict will occur, but in what form, between who, and for how long.

This new book, co-authored by acclaimed historian and biographer Andrew Roberts and retired U.S. Army general David Petraeus, examines the course of warfare, how it has changed over the last 50 years, and what direction it might take for the next decade or so.

The authors state clearly upfront they are not writing a comprehensive military history of all the conflicts that have occurred, that would be a mighty lift for any single volume, but instead looking at the patterns of how wars have actually been fought since 1945.

They examine each war from a strategic viewpoint, beginning with the important question of what each side was trying to accomplish politically, then examining which side had better leadership able to not only determine this outcome, but marshal the ways and means to accomplish it and then ruthlessly carry out their strategy to a successful conclusion.

They begin with the Chinese Civil War, one of the most important struggles of the post-war decade when Chinese Communists seized control of mainland China, setting the stage for nearly every other conflict that occurred in Asia for the Cold War.

Immediately following was the first major post-war conflict, Korea, noted by the authors not only as the collective action by the new United Nations, but the first war where neither side was able to wage total war for total victory due to the overshadowing influence and threat of atomic weapons. As we will see early in the 21st century, the role of nuclear weapons as either a deterrent or threat will again rear its ugly head in Ukraine.

The major conflicts of the late 20th century were nearly all driven by decolonialization mixed in with Cold War competition. These wars of insurgency and counterinsurgency, particularly the conflicts in Malaya and Indochina, are offered as very different examples of a successful counter-insurgency campaign, albeit under very different circumstances.

However, even though “wars of liberation” tended to dominate conflict, there were still several more conventional conflicts, particularly the four Arab-Israeli Wars waged from 1948–1973. These wars, especially the Yom Kippur war of 1973, had an impact on militaries beyond the actual combatants, as they highlighted the capabilities of guided missiles against both tanks and aircrafts and forced militaries around the world to develop new technologies and tactics to deal with these threats. These new technologies and tactics were highlighted in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the various post-Cold War operations with the Balkans, as the fall of the Soviet Union actually introduced more not less instability along the peripheries of the old Soviet Empire.

The book then shifts to two lengthy chapters on America’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq written mostly by General Petraeus. These chapters provide a nice summary of America’s involvement and the ultimate effect of 20 years of strategic mixed signals leading to the loss of Afghanistan in 2021 and the still tenuous relationship the U.S. has with Iraq, but both conflicts were ultimately about the rediscovery of counter-insurgency doctrine and training and not really an evolution in warfare.

The last two chapters on the ongoing war in Ukraine and the author’s final thoughts on the future of war offer some serious insights into the surprisingly unexpected direction conflict is moving toward the mid-21st century. Of course, the Russo-Ukraine war has confounded historians and military analysts alike and will no doubt be one of the most studied conflicts of this century. After the initial debacle of the Russian advance into Ukraine, the conflict became a strange amalgam of trench warfare combined with drone warfare and currently shows no sign of ending. Although most experts assumed Russia would quickly capture Kyiv and install a puppet government, the old adage that amateurs talk tactics while professional talk logistics certainly proved its worth again as Russian armored columns, strung out over miles and lacking fuel, ammunition, and even rations, were pummeled by Ukrainian artillery while troops attacked them with anti-tank missiles.

A more important lesson from this conflict is that information and disinformation have become nearly as important as bullets in the truly first information war of this century. The use of social media, cell phones, and other means of instantaneous real time communications have been used by both sides, to not only present their message to a world audience, but as propaganda against their opponents to attack their morale and induce them to surrender or desert. This weaponization of new communications methods is something other Western powers ignore at their peril since any major conflict will become as much a war of narrative as it is of position or firepower. This is being shown in the Israeli-Hamas conflict even now.

Two conflicts the authors surprisingly chose to overlook were the Israeli-Hezbollah War in 2006 and previous conflicts in Gaza in 2008, 2012, and 2014. All these conflicts were notable as a new level of non-state actor ability to wage conventional war with ballistic missiles, military organization, and the capability to combine terrorism with conventional forces. There is no doubt a connection to the tactics and capabilities Hamas opened this current conflict with and these earlier wars.

As the last couple of years have shown, war and conflict will continue to be used as tools of foreign policy and influence. Books such as this are an important primer for understanding what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what is likely to happen with conflict in the next decade.