Van Creveld was born in the Netherlands in the city of Rotterdam, but has lived in Israel since shortly after his birth. He holds degrees from the London School of Economics and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he has been on the faculty since 1971. He is the author of fifteen books on military history and strategy, 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 virtually every strategic institute, military or civilian, in the Western world, including the U.S. Naval War College, most recently in December, 1999 and January, 2000.
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:
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, the only non-American entry on the list. (Van Creveld's Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton is now included on the list.)
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.
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 August 21, 2004 edition of the International Herald Tribune van Creveld wrote, "Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy. which was quoted by Noam Chomsky and cited by John Pilger .
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 sent his legions into Germany and lost them", a reference to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, (which actually took place in AD 9). 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.