Van Creveld was born in the Netherlands in the city of Rotterdam to a Jewish family. His parents, Leon and Margaret, were staunch Zionists who had managed to evade the Nazis during World War II. One of Creveld's uncles and several cousins were killed in the Holocaust.
In 1950, his family emigrated to Israel, and Creveld grew up in Ramat Gan. From 1964 to 1969, he studied history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and earned an MA. From 1969–71, he studied history at the London School of Economics and received a PhD.
Van Creveld's doctoral dissertation on Hitler's strategy in the Balkans during the early years of World War II was published as a book in 1973: "Hitler's Strategy, 1940-41. The Balkan Clue." After completing his PhD in 1971, van Creveld returned to Israel and began teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He became a professor in 1988. In 2007, he retired from teaching at Hebrew University, and began teaching at Tel Aviv University's Security Studies Program.
Van Creveld has been married twice and has three children. He lives in Mevaseret Zion.
Van Creveld is the author of thirty-three books on military history, strategy, and other topics, of which Command in War (1985), Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (1977, 2nd edition 2004), The Transformation of War (1991), The Sword and the Olive (1998) and The Rise and Decline of the State (1999) are among the best known. Van Creveld has lectured or taught at countless civilian and military institutes of higher learning all over the world.
Of particular significance is his 1991 book The Transformation of War (UK: On Future War), which was translated into French, German (New German edition in 2004), Russian, and Spanish. In this treatise of military theory, van Creveld develops what he calls the non-trinitarian theory of warfare, which he juxtaposes to the famous work by Clausewitz, On War.
Clausewitz's trinitarian model of war (a term of van Creveld's) distinguishes between the affairs of the population, the army, and the government. Van Creveld criticizes this philosophy as too narrow and state-focused, thus inapplicable to the study of those conflicts involving one or more non-state actors. Instead, he proposes five key issues of war:
- By whom war is fought – whether by states or by non-state actors
- What is war all about – the relationships between the actors, and between them and the non-combatants
- How war is fought – issues of strategy and tactics
- What war is fought for – whether to enhance national power, or as an end to itself
- Why war is fought – the motivations of the individual soldier.
Van Creveld notes that many of the wars fought after 1945 were low-intensity conflicts (LICs) which powerful states ended up losing. The book argues that we are seeing a decline of the nation-state, without a comparable decline in organized violence. Moreover, in his view, armies consistently train and equip to fight a conventional war, rather than the LICs they are likely to face. Consequently, it is imperative that nation states change the training of their armed forces and rethink their weapon procurement programs.
The book's significance is attested to by the fact that until the middle of 2008, it was included on the list of required reading for United States Army officers, and (with Sun Tzu and Clausewitz) the third non-American entry on the list. Van Creveld's Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton is now included on the list as well.
In a commander's quest for certainty in battlefield information, Van Creveld popularized "directed telescope" as a term to describe the use of specially selected and trusted officers as special agents or observers for the commander".
In addition to his books on military history, van Creveld has written several books on other issues. The most important of these isThe Privileged Sex – which argues that the idea women are the oppressed gender is largely a myth, and that women, and not men, are the privileged gender.
In addition to writing on military history, van Creveld also comments, often pointedly, on contemporary societies and politics.
In a TV interview in 2002, he expressed doubts as to the ability of the Israeli army to defeat the Palestinians:
They [Israeli soldiers] are very brave people... they are idealists... they want to serve their country and they want to prove themselves. The problem is that you cannot prove yourself against someone who is much weaker than yourself. They are in a lose-lose situation. If you are strong and fighting the weak, then if you kill your opponent then you are a scoundrel... if you let him kill you, then you are an idiot. So here is a dilemma which others have suffered before us, and for which as far as I can see there is simply no escape. Now the Israeli army has not by any means been the worst of the lot. It has not done what for instance the Americans did in Vietnam... it did not use napalm, it did not kill millions of people. So everything is relative, but by definition, to return to what I said earlier, if you are strong and you are fighting the weak, then anything you do is criminal.
In a September 2003 interview in Elsevier, a Dutch weekly, on Israel and the dangers it faces from Iran, the Palestinians and world opinion van Creveld stated:
We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force…. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.
In the 21 August 2004 edition of the International Herald Tribune van Creveld wrote, "Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy."
In 2005, van Creveld made headlines when he said in an interview that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 BC [sic] sent his legions into Germany and lost them", a reference to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. His analysis included harsh criticism of the Bush Administration, comparing the war to the Vietnam war. Moreover, he said that "Bush deserves to be impeached and, once he has been removed from office, put on trial."
In 2007, van Creveld commented that
Iran is the real victor in Iraq, and the world must now learn to live with a nuclear Iran the way we learned to live with a nuclear Soviet Union and a nuclear China.... We Israelis have what it takes to deter an Iranian attack. We are in no danger at all of having an Iranian nuclear weapon dropped on us.... thanks to the Iranian threat, we are getting weapons from the U.S. and Germany.
Van Creveld viewed the Second Lebanon War as a strategic success for Israel and a Hezbollah defeat. He was also highly critical of the Winograd Commission's report for its failure to note the many successes brought about by Israel’s military campaign. He noted that Hezbollah "had the fight knocked out of it," lost hundreds of its members and that the organization was "thrown out of South Lebanon," replaced by "a fairly robust United Nations peacekeeping force." He also noted that as a result of the war, Israel is experiencing a level of calm on its Lebanon border not seen since the mid-1960s. More recently, in an article published in Infinity Journal in June 2011, titled "The Second Lebanon War: A Reassessment", Martin van Creveld argued that contrary to the common view, and despite "clumsy, heavy-handed, and slow" ground operations, the Second Lebanon War was a great victory for Israel. He states that as a result of the war, "since the middle of August 2006, all over southern Lebanon hardly a shot has been fired."
In an opinion piece published in The Jewish Daily Forward in 2010, van Creveld argued that the West Bank, far from being vital to Israel's security, is a territory "that Israel can easily afford to give up." Van Creveld contended that the West Bank offers no defense against ballistic missiles from Israel's two chief enemies, Iran and Syria. Furthermore, provided that it would be demilitarized in any future peace settlement with the Palestinians, the West Bank would act as a natural barrier impeding the advance of any army endeavoring to invade Israel by land from the east. Lastly, Israel could defend itself against terrorism from the West Bank by means of a wall coupled with offensive campaigns the likes of Operation Cast Lead and the Second Lebanon War, which successfully restored Israel's deterrence factor when the level of terrorism exceeded what Israel was willing to tolerate. Stephen Kramer, Israel Correspondent for the Jewish Times of South Jersey, disputed the accuracy and relevance of figures cited by van Creveld in relation to Israel's GDP and arms exports. Kramer, who lives in the Samarian settlement of Alfei Menashe, also argued that the Israeli army plays a crucial role fighting terrorism in the West Bank, whereas its absence could precipitate a Hamas "takeover" similar to the one that occurred in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. [Hamas won the democratic Palestinian election of 2006]
In an article co-authored with Cambridge researcher of Middle Eastern history Jason Pack addressing the 2011 Libyan civil war, van Creveld challenged the media's tendency to portray the circumstances in Libya as being largely equivalent to those that formed the backdrop to the overthrow of ben-Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt earlier in the year. "The remarkable spread of the 2011 Arab revolts across the face of North Africa causes many journalists to portray the current Libyan uprising as fueled by similar factors to those at play in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. There are more differences than similarities." Van Creveld noted that Tunisia and Egypt "have been coherent nation-states for well over a century," while Libyan society is still pervasively tribalist. He also observed that whereas the armies of Tunisia and Egypt could mediate the transitions between the old regimes and the new, "Libya lacks a professional, non-tribal army" that could function in such a role. Van Creveld blamed Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi for squandering a crucial opportunity to restore order to the country and confidence – both domestic and international – in the Gaddafi regime.
Van Creveld has stated that the Israeli government has "vastly exaggerated the threat that a nuclear Iran poses to its security, as well as Israel's capacity to halt it."
Syria and Terrorism
2016, in a commentary for the German magazine Focus, Creveld advocated an alliance with the Assad regime. „If the West wants to win the war against the caliphate of terror, they cannot be picky about their allies". The regional conflict was not about a despot, but about a novel form of terrorism aiming at the dissolution of all state order and territorial boundaries in the whole region. Only the Alawite soldiers of the Assad regime were willing to die fighting the terrorists, whereas the European and American attempts to avoid bloodshed concentrating on air strikes, were useless against Guerrilla troops as history had shown. Losing the war against IS and Al Nusra would have incalculable consequences for the Middle East and for Europe. In comparison, Assad would appear as the "lesser devil".
As early as in 2013, again in the magazine Focus, he regarded support for Assad as important to avoid the destabilization of the Middle East as a whole. Assad would continue the war only Assad to prevent a still larger carnage, the annihilation of the 1.2 Million Alawites. "Instead of complaining about humanitarian concerns and arguing about arms deliveries to the rebels, the West should join Russia and press for a negotiation solution. If necessary, the West should help the rebels and allow Assad to stay on his post: he is the only person who can hold the country together." Van Creveld quoted Bismarck: "Politics is the choice between the bad and the worse." “ In a lecture at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Brandenburg he pleaded to follow a "pragmatic path" in Syria.
2011, looking back at Bashar's father, he analysed the strategy of Hafez Al-assad against the town of Hama in 1982, then center of the Muslim Brothers. Without this action, seen as extremely brutal and as a war crime by Creveld, Assad's regime would probably have been overthrown. Assad himself and many members of the Alawite community would have been killed. After Assad's removal, perhaps a stable regime would have been established by non-Alawite Muslims, or - the more likely variant in Martin van Creveld's view - there would have been no stable government at all. In this case, there would have been a war of everyone against everyone. Judging from the experience in neighboring Beirut, such a civil war could have cost hundreds of thousands of people. And, according to what happened in Lebanon and Afghanistan, Syria could have developed into a place teeming with international terrorists of every direction."