Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Preemptive Strikes and Preventive Wars: A Historian’s Perspective

By Barry Strauss

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Image credit: Poster Collection, US 1684, Hoover Institution Archives.

Preventive wars and preemptive strikes are both risky business. A preventive war is a military, diplomatic, and strategic endeavor, aimed at an enemy whom one expects to grow so strong that delay would cause defeat. A preemptive strike is a military operation or series of operations to preempt an enemy’s ability to attack you. In both cases, a government judges a diplomatic solution impossible. But judgment calls are debatable and preventive wars often stir up controversy. Preemptive strikes run the risk of arousing a sleeping enemy who, now wounded, will fight harder. Yet both preventive wars and preemptive strikes can succeed, under certain limited circumstances. Consider some examples.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) is the granddaddy of all preventive wars. The Peloponnesians, led by Sparta, decided to make war on Athens less because of a series of disputes dividing the two blocs than because of the future that they feared, one in which Athens’ growing power would break apart Sparta’s alliance system. The Athenians wanted to decide the two sides’ dispute via arbitration, but the Spartans refused, which cost Sparta the moral high ground. Before Athens and Sparta could fight a proper battle, the war began. Sparta’s ally, Thebes, launched a preemptive strike on the nearby city and Athenian ally, Plataea.

Both the preemptive strike and the preventive war succeeded but at no small cost. It took four years of hard fighting and considerable escalation before Plataea surrendered. Sparta emerged victorious against Athens but only after 27 years of intermittent and escalatory warfare. The price of victory was steep, leading to embroilment in war against Persia, a falling-out with Sparta’s former allies, and ultimately, the collapse of the Spartan regime after centuries of stability. Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, but managed to preserve and even strengthen its regime at home; it never successfully restored its overseas power.

To turn to another ancient case, Rome frequently engaged in preventive war. The most egregious example was the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.), when Rome declared war on Carthage. Carthage offered no serious threat for the foreseeable future, if ever, because Rome had thoroughly defeated it twice in the past. Yet some Romans feared the growing prosperity of its long-time rival. The war was hard-fought but led to a complete Roman victory. After a lengthy siege, Carthage was destroyed. It ceased to exist as a polity. For a century it wasn’t even a city, but then it was re-founded—as a Roman city.

Turning to modern times, Japan fought a preventive war against Russia in 1904-1905 in order to stop the Russians from building up their strength in the Far East, particularly via a railroad through Russian-occupied Manchuria. The Japanese launched the war with a preemptive strike, a surprise attack on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur. The strike weakened the Russian fleet but did not destroy it. Ultimately Japan was successful at sea but compelled to accept a stalemate on land. The outbreak of revolution in Russia forced the Russians to the peace table and handed Japan victory, but although Japan bruised Russia badly it did not win the war on the battlefield.

In June 1967 Israel launched a series of preemptive strikes against Egyptian and other Arab air forces. A devastating success, it contributed greatly to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. In 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a series of highly successful surprise attacks if not preemptive strikes. Although Israel bounced back by dint of effort and with American resupplying, the Arab states’ military successes, along with their use of the Arab “oil weapon,” led to victory, especially for Egypt.

None of the belligerents in 1973 had to convince their people to fight, but not all politicians have that luxury. In Rome before the Third Punic War, for instance, the leading war hawk, Cato the Elder, frequently ended his speeches in the Senate with the statement that Carthage must be destroyed. It took an effort to convince the senators to fight a preventive war against a less-than-obvious threat, but it is even more difficult to convince modern liberal democratic societies to do so. Popular and successful politician though he was, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not dare ask Congress for a declaration of war against Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Yet both regimes were expansionist powers offering widely—but not unanimously—acknowledged threats to American security. Even after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war only against Japan, even though the U.S. and Germany were engaged in an undeclared shooting war in the Atlantic. Not until Germany declared war on the U.S. on December 11, 1941, four days after Pearl Harbor, did the U.S. Congress declare war on Germany.

Most would consider the Japanese attack on the U.S. in 1941 a preventive war by Japan, before the U.S. could intervene in the Far East. The Japanese might say that American economic strictures such as freezing Japanese assets and embargoing oil were tantamount to acts of war. In any case, Japan launched a preemptive attack on both the U.S. navy and air force in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The strike did great damage but left the Americans with more than enough resources to rebound and win the war. This despite Japan’s ability to inflict a second damaging preemptive attack on the U.S. air force in the Philippines, a little over nine hours after news of the Pearl Harbor attack had arrived.

The U.S. fought a preventive war in Iraq in 2003 against the threat of Saddam Hussein’s program of weapons of mass destruction. Some in the U.S. government also hoped to turn Iraq into an ally. The invasion succeeded in defeating Iraqi conventional forces, occupying the country, and toppling Saddam. Yet U.S. intelligence concluded that although Saddam’s goal was to recreate his WMD program, that program had been destroyed in 1991. Public support for the war in the U.S. wavered after the emergence of an Iraqi insurgency. In spite of eventual success by a U.S. counter-insurgency campaign, a change of government in the U.S. brought a complete withdrawal of remaining American troops from Iraq. Today Iraq has no WMD but it is a divided state, reeling from war with ISIS, and in large part an ally of Iran rather than the U.S. If preventive war was a success, it came at a heavy price.

To sum up, preventive wars and preemptive strikes work only under certain conditions. If the attacker carries out a brilliant operation, has overwhelming military superiority, is able to mobilize political support particularly at home but also abroad, and is willing to pay a heavy price and bear a long burden in case the war drags on, then one of those two moves might make sense. States lacking those strengths would do best to avoid such risky endeavors.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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