When you can’t face it in battle.
by Victor Davis Hanson
There is a growing consensus that it is near suicide to face the United States in a conventional war. Both the long history of western warfare, and a variety of recent encounters—whether in the Falklands, the Gulf, or the Middle East—remind us that Western militaries are able to project lethal force (often at quite formidable distances from home) in ways that are not explicable by their often small populations and territories.
Western approaches to economics, politics, religion, and culture—consensual government, free markets, secularism, the chauvinism of a middle class, the freedom of the individual—often translate on the battlefield to better equipped, armed, motivated, disciplined and supported soldiers. Osama’s videos of pajama-clad killers in ski-masks may look scary. But a platoon of Rangers would slaughter hundreds of them in seconds if they ever approached Americans openly. In Mogadishu everything boded ill for a few trapped Americans—outnumbered, far from home, local hostility, urban warfare, no clear mission—and yet the real wonder was not that a few Americans were tragically killed, but how such modern successors to the Redcoats at Rorke’s Drift managed to shoot their way out, and blast perhaps a few thousand in the process.
How, then, does one defeat a Western military power? There are usually ways.
1. Civil War. Western powers, of course, in theory can turn on each other. Such fratricide is rarer these days because the spread of Western democracy tends to discourage consensual governments from attacking each other in the way that Sparta fought Athens, Caesarians took on Republicans, the Union battled the Confederacy, or Europe was torn apart during the twentieth century.
In such awful scenarios the full array of Western military advantages is turned against itself. And then very bad things inevitably happen: more were killed during the first decade of the Peloponnesian War than all the Greeks lost in the Persian War. More Romans were killed by Romans than by Carthaginians. All the Americans killed by Native Americans were a fraction of those lost in the summer of 1864. The Britain sacrificed more men the first day of the Somme than in a century of colonial wars in Africa and Asia.
The good news is that for all exasperation with France and Germany, there is very little likelihood that any Western democracy is going to invade another. Nor is any such consensual government is in danger of being overthrown by an autocrat. For the foreseeable future, then, the West is not going to turn on itself as it did for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and commit mutual suicide. Our enemies’ only hope in this regard was Saddam’s strategem of hoping Germany, France, and Russia might restrain the US—like the Ottomans wintering in the harbor of Marseilles in the winter before Lepanto.
2. Military parasitism. As a way of obtaining parity, many non-Western societies have tried to import either Western arms or expertise-buying, stealing, or cloning it. The examples are legion. The galleys and guns of the Ottoman forces at Lepanto were without exception copies of Venetian designs. In 1850 Japan had no munitions industry, no oceanic fleet, and no organized naval corps; by 1905 its ships were among the best in the world and blew apart a Russian armada—but only after 250,000 Japanese students for a half century had studied at British, French, and Germany universities and military academies. From Europe, they imported lock, stock, and barrel, everything from western notions of command to advanced optics and metallurgy.
Contemporary China is similar. Like the Ottomans and the 19th-century Japanese, it believes it can either purchase or steal Western computer, aeronautical, and nuclear technology—while skipping bothersome Western notions like democracy and free speech in the process of obtaining military parity with the United States.
The Arab world too has sought to destroy Israel with Migs, Scuds, SAMs and RPKs—technology that they could neither design nor fabricate, but that they believed to impart to their autocracies a magical ability to destroy a democratic Jewish state all the same. The experience of Saddam Hussein should remind us that parasitism may provide the only veneer of parity with the West (his parades and monuments at least looked spooky).
Yet such imported technological expertise cannot be maintained, constantly improved, used to its optimum potential, or be integrated effectively into larger tactical and strategic doctrine without some sort of free citizenry, secular universities, transparent government, and open inquiry. Values are the real juice that run the engines of Western societies’ ability to field high-tech arms and disciplined soldiers.
True, Hitler and the Soviet Union thought otherwise—namely that their militaries would be improved, not ruined, by imposing jack-booted dictatorial control. Yet in the long run their warrior vogue was short-lived. And for all the worry about WMD and associated arms flooding into the Middle East, it remains true that an Iran, North Korea, or Libya could never defeat a comparably-sized and militarily-serious Western state unless they underwent radical social and cultural democratic reform as well—which ironically might then lose for them any reason to attack the West in the first place.
The danger of present-day military parasitism in an age of germs, gas, and nukes is not that the non-West can defeat or destroy the West, but that it can inflict enough damage in a moment of complacency and laxity to kill thousands of civilians—or blackmail us that they intend precisely that.
(3). Asymmetrical warfare. Of greater worry is what we might loosely call asymmetrical warfare. Such militarily inferior forces—often not nation states, as al Qaeda and the Iraqi terrorists attest—prefer terrorism, assassination, and bombings to nullify Western military power. What we see as advantage—plentiful supplies, visible hardware, massive firepower—they seek to turn into weakness. As perpetual underdogs, the terrorist enjoys the commensurate wages of satisfaction of upping his betters.
Taking an Abrahms or an Apache out, whatever the cost in lives, purportedly sends a message that the poor, the illiterate, and the ill-equipped can somehow, like David, take down Goliath. And because asymmetrical warfare is inherently political, there is always the expectation that victory can be defined as hurting rather than defeating a superior enemy—to the applause of locals who may cringe at their terrorist-brethren’s methods and aims, but nonetheless like to see a little blood sport from time to time, especially if the dying are rich haughty Americans.
In this sort of one-sided fighting there is one prerequisite: the terrorist seeks never to be openly associated with any conventional military target or identifiable with any supportive infrastructure that is subject to Western military reappraisal. Milosevic’s’ fatal error was that the world finally caught on that his killer goons really were slaughtering on his orders. Thus the people of Belgrade could legitimately pay for their leaders’ facilitation of genocide. And they did, and it stopped.
Indeed, the usual ways that Westerners have overcome indigenous fighters—whether British in Pakistan or Americans in the Philippines— was to identify sympathetic populations and states and inform that their support for killers would earn conventional reprisals. And since most nations were by definition conventional, they took heed that their own palaces might go up in smoke if they did not cease and desist.
If the Israelis could cut off the European subsidies to Arafat’s corrupt apparatus, and its appendages like Hamas—as well as creating a global culture of abhorrence for any who employed suicide bombing—then their present strategy of hunting down terrorists, isolating and humiliating Arafat, and offering freedom and prosperity for hundreds of thousands of Arabs residing inside Israel would end the intifada rather quickly.
So, yes, we must win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis through good intentions and cash if we seek to drain the swamp of terrorism in the Sunni triangle. And yes, we must develop less conventional forces to engage in counter-insurgency to fight such a dirty war where our snipers and stealthy agents kill quasi-civilian criminals. But ultimately, we will not win until we hold accountable states who fund, who harbor, and who turn a blind eye to Baathists and al Qaedists.
A Syria, an Iran, or Saudi Arabia—if we can prevent them from acquiring nuclear deterrence— really will cease giving money, sanctuary, and arms to those who are killing America once they realize that the US military can take out their entire air force, all their tanks, and indeed their entire military. They must come to know such is the price for fighting a surrogate, asymmetrical warfare against Americans in Iraq.
(4) Ourselves. There is also a fourth check on the power of Western militaries: ourselves. Given that Western citizens are often more liberal, consensual, and affluent than their adversaries, they are slow to risk their peace and prosperity to confront danger on the horizon. Civilian audit brings military dividends in the long run by forcing officers to render constant accounts of their decisions. But we also pose enormous obstacles on our armies when their struggle enters the political arena at home.
Precisely because terrorists believe that life is awfully good in the West (and by comparison, bad in their own environs), they compute success by a different arithmetic: killing a few of us, rather than losing a lot of their own, is what concerns them. Bin Laden, Taliban diehards, Saddam’s remnants, and the like all accept that there is a mythical number of fatalities—600? 1000? 4000?—beyond which the American people will decide the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq simply are not worth the effort and anguish. And they are right.
There will always be a very large number of Americans who will think the short-term and daily televised costs of pacifying Iraq are not worth the rather substantial cost. They resent the suffering involved in the nebulous goal of changing the landscape of the Middle East to end state-sponsored terrorism, the petrol-fueled arsenals of tyrants, and Arab autocracies who blame the Americans to their resentful masses for their own glaring political and economic failures.
If we know, then, the nature of our power and the traditional obstacles in its way, what are we doing in response? Quite a lot in fact.
We look carefully at any signs of anti-democratic forces among our Western allies—and should be especially wary of the growing statism in the EU whose government mandates and fiats often reflect resentment of the unbridled freedom of the United States and Israel. We saw the first manifestations of real worry with the French and German tacit support for the survival of Saddam Hussein regime.
We must monitor nations like China or Pakistan who wish to cherry-pick Western culture, importing our military know-how and arsenals without the checks-and-balances that harness such enormous power.
It is precisely because we understand that those who kill us in Iraq cannot be sustained indefinitely by local arms and cash, that we must apply pressure on their sponsors—who really do not wish to lose precisely those assets we can destroy.
Finally, in a consensual society, our leaders must repeatedly and emphatically apprise the people of just how important the present war is—and why each American who is lost is a hero. Our soldiers’ sacrifice and our support and commemoration of that courage will ensure that the world that led to September 11 will be no more. Those who think their surrogates are winning an unconventional war against us must very soon learn they are going to lose a very conventional war against themselves.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson