I will start my review with what I consider two weaknesses of this book.
First, one of the previous reviewers commented on questionable accuracy of the historical facts presented in the book. I found one minor factual error and one mistake with the events I personally witnessed (p. 375). The factual error is the statement that Andropov started campaign to tighten discipline and, as part of it, he launched a campaign against drunkenness. In reality, Andropov indeed started wide-spread disciplinary measures, but the "credit" for the disastrous anti-drunkenness campaign of 1985 goes to Gorbachev.
The mistake is van Creveld's statement that after Afghanistan "adventure ended in defeat, in 1988, the Soviet leadership was left without an armed force which could have imposed unity on the country." This is nonsense. It is equivalent of saying that as a result of defeat in Vietnam, the US Army was destroyed. In fact, Soviet Army was used successfully afterwards exactly for the purpose of maintaining internal stability: in January of 1990 26,000 Soviet troops stormed overnight Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) effectively "restoring the order" and killing 130 and injuring 700 people in the process. Also, in 1991-1992 the 14th Army under the command of General Lebed had effectively stopped the civil war between Moldova and Transdnistria and restored peace in the region. Only several years later, by murdering General Rokhlin and starting the First Chechen War, KGB started in earnest the destruction of Soviet Army as a fighting machine and political force (General Lebed was killed later).
The second weakness of this book is its writing style. Unfortunately, Professor van Creveld has an intractable predilection for large, convoluted, and unwieldy sentences, especially in the first two thirds of the book. Combined with the book's poor editing, it leads sometimes to outright blunders. Here is an example of a sentence taken from page 350 of the paper-back edition:
"The idea that complete sovereignty, including the unrestricted right to wage war, was too dangerous to entertain in the age of modern technology suffered another blow as a result of World War I and the 10 million casualties (in dead alone) that it wrought."
Not only must you parse this phrase in order to understand it (and you, by necessity, will become good at parsing by page 350 of this book), but this sentence, judging by the context, means exactly opposite: the idea that sovereignty understood as a right to wage war has become too dangerous did not suffer any blows, but was, in fact, confirmed by the horrors of World War I.
My purpose in pointing this out is to allay the anxiety of the future readers of this book. If you cannot understand some passages, this is not because you are stupid, but because of the regrettable way this book was written and edited.
Why would you bother to read a book which is difficult to read and may not be very accurate? There are a few reasons:
First, Professor van Creveld excels in making sense out of the heap of seemingly unrelated historical events. The breadth and depth of the scope of this book is so immense, that it must have inconsistencies by definition (because, for example, historians frequently disagree on the meaning and significance of historical events). This book is not meant to be a source of exact historical information, and you should not use it as such.
The historical analysis offered in this book is essentially Hegelian, i.e. the author presents different forms of political organization at the dawn of human civilization and then shows in minute detail how those organizations changed in time to become the modern state. The author combines an enormous amount of information - facts, dates, historical anecdotes - in order to prove that the modern state is not "the end of history," but only another stage of political development of human society. The author further shows that the modern state had outlived its usefulness and is due to be replaced by a different form of socio-political organization.
The second reason to read this book is the pleasure of following Professor van Creveld's process of historical thinking. Very few historians can match his erudition and intellect, and you can learn a lot simply by reading his thoughts on the subject.
Except for a very vague outline in the last five pages, there is no prediction of the future in this book - Professor van Creveld is too wise for that. Don't look for any practical advice either. If you need to know what kind of shelter to build, what gun to buy, and whether you must invest in ammunition, or gold, or both - look somewhere else. This book is a purely academic exercise, albeit of the highest order.
The Rise and Decline of the State was first published in 1999. Despite all the events of the last 6-7 years (9-11, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.) this book holds its own remarkably well. I only want to comment that the extent of the UN "oil-for-food" corruption scandal was not known in the late 1990's, otherwise Professor van Creveld would probably expand on his opinion about the role of the UN (p. 385). It may well turn out that a hundred years from now historians will admire the honesty, dedication, and accountability of our state bureaucrats compared to their ruthless and corrupt non-government bureaucracies.
Overall, I think that The Rise and Decline of the State is well worth the time and effort necessary to study it. You will look at the current political and social events from a completely different perspective after reading this book. Anyone interested in history and politics must be aware of and pay attention to the discussion presented in this book.