The Tragic Truth of War

What we dare not say: Killing the enemy brings victory.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Victory has usually been defined throughout the ages as forcing the enemy to accept certain political objectives. “Forcing” usually meant killing, capturing, or wounding men at arms. In today’s polite and politically correct society we seem to have forgotten that nasty but eternal truth in the confusing struggle to defeat radical Islamic terrorism.

What stopped the imperial German army from absorbing France in World War I and eventually made the Kaiser abdicate was the destruction of a once magnificent army on the Western front — superb soldiers and expertise that could not easily be replaced. Saddam Hussein left Kuwait in 1991 when he realized that the U.S. military was destroying his very army. Even the North Vietnamese agreed to a peace settlement in 1973, given their past horrific losses on the ground and the promise that American air power could continue indefinitely inflicting its damage on the North.

When an enemy finally gives up, it is for a combination of reasons — material losses, economic hardship, loss of territory, erosion of civilian morale, fright, mental exhaustion, internal strife. But we forget that central to a concession of defeat is often the loss of the nation’s soldiers — or even the threat of such deaths.

A central theme in most of the memoirs of high-ranking officers of the Third Reich is the attrition of their best warriors. In other words, among all the multifarious reasons why Nazi Germany was defeated, perhaps the key was that hundreds of thousands of its best aviators, U-boaters, panzers, infantrymen, and officers, who swept to victory throughout 1939–41, simply perished in the fighting and were no longer around to stop the allies from doing pretty much what they wanted by 1944–45.

After Stalingrad and Kursk, there were not enough good German soldiers to stop the Red Army. Even the introduction of jets could not save Hitler in 1945 — given that British and American airmen had killed thousands of Luftwaffe pilots between 1939 and 1943.

After the near destruction of the Grand Army in Russia in 1812, even Napoleon’s genius could not restore his European empire. Serial and massive Communist offensives between November 1950 and April 1951 in Korea cost Red China hundreds of thousands of its crack infantry — and ensured that, for all its aggressive talk, it would never retake Seoul in 1952–53.

But aren’t these cherry-picked examples from conventional wars of the past that have no relevance to the present age of limited conflict, terrorism, and insurgency where ideology reigns?

Not really. We don’t quite know all the factors that contributed to the amazing success of the American “surge” in Iraq in 2007–08. Surely a number of considerations played a part: Iraqi anger at the brutish nature of al-Qaeda terrorists in their midst; increased oil prices that brought massive new revenues into the country; General Petraeus’s inspired counterinsurgency tactics that helped win over Iraqis to our side by providing them with jobs and security; much-improved American equipment; and the addition of 30,000 more American troops.

But what is unspoken is also the sheer cumulative number of al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists that the U.S. military killed or wounded between 2003 and 2008 in firefights from Fallujah to Basra. There has never been reported an approximate figure of such enemy dead — perhaps wisely, in the post-Vietnam age of repugnance at “body counts” and the need to create a positive media image.

Nevertheless, in those combat operations, the marines and army not only proved that to meet them in battle was a near death sentence, but also killed thousands of low-level terrorists and hundreds of top-ranking operatives who otherwise would have continued to harm Iraqi civilians and American soldiers. Is Iraq relatively quiet today because many who made it so violent are no longer around?

Contemporary conventional wisdom tries to persuade us that there is no such thing as a finite number of the enemy. Instead, killing them supposedly only incites others to step up from the shadows to take their places. Violence begets violence. It is counterproductive, and creates an endless succession of the enemy. Or so we are told.

We may wish that were true. But military history suggests it is not quite accurate. In fact, there was a finite number of SS diehards and kamikaze suicide bombers even in fanatical Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. When they were attrited, not only were their acts of terror curtailed, but it turned out that far fewer than expected wanted to follow the dead to martyrdom.

The Israeli war in Gaza is considered by the global community to be a terrible failure — even though the number of rocket attacks against Israeli border towns is way down. That reduction may be due to international pressure, diplomacy, and Israeli goodwill shipments of food and fuel to Gaza — or it may be due to the hundreds of Hamas killers and rocketeers who died, and the thousands who do not wish to follow them, despite their frequently loud rhetoric about a desire for martyrdom.

Insurgencies, of course, are complex operations, but in general even they are not immune from eternal rules of war. Winning hearts and minds is essential; providing security for the populace is crucial; improving the economy is critical to securing the peace. But all that said, we cannot avoid the pesky truth that in war — any sort of war — killing enemy soldiers stops the violence.

For all the much-celebrated counterinsurgency tactics in Afghanistan, note that we are currently in an offensive in Helmand province to “secure the area.” That means killing the Taliban and their supporters, and convincing others that they will meet a violent fate if they continue their opposition.

Perhaps the most politically incorrect and Neanderthal of all thoughts would be that the American military’s long efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq to kill or capture radical Islamists has contributed to the general safety inside the United States. Modern dogma insists that our presence in those two Muslim countries incited otherwise non-bellicose young Muslims to suddenly prefer violence and leave Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or Egypt to flock to kill the infidel invader.

A more tragic view would counter that there was always a large (though largely finite) number of radical jihadists who, even before 9/11, wished to kill Americans. They went to those two theaters, fought, died, and were therefore not able to conduct as many terrorist operations as they otherwise would have, and also provided a clear example to would-be followers not to emulate their various short careers. That may explain why in global polls the popularity both of bin Laden and of the tactic of suicide bombing plummeted in the Middle Eastern street — at precisely the time America was being battered in the elite international press for the Iraq War.

Even the most utopian and idealistic do not escape these tragic eternal laws of war. Barack Obama may think he can win over the radical Islamic world — or at least convince the more moderate Muslim community to reject jihadism — by means such as his Cairo speech, closing Guantanamo, trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, or having General McChrystal emphatically assure the world that killing Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists will not secure Afghanistan.

Of course, such soft- and smart-power approaches have utility in a war so laden with symbolism in an age of globalized communications. But note that Obama has upped the number of combat troops in Afghanistan, and he vastly increased the frequency of Predator-drone assassination missions on the Pakistani border.

Indeed, even as Obama damns Guantanamo and tribunals, he has massively increased the number of targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists — the rationale presumably being either that we are safer with fewer jihadists alive, or that we are warning would-be jihadists that they will end up buried amid the debris of a mud-brick compound, or that it is much easier to kill a suspected terrorist abroad than detain, question, and try a known one in the United States.

In any case, the president — immune from criticism from the hard Left, which is angrier about conservative presidents waterboarding known terrorists than liberal ones executing suspected ones — has concluded that one way to win in Afghanistan is to kill as many terrorists and insurgents as possible. And while the global public will praise his kinder, gentler outreach, privately he evidently thinks that we will be safer the more the U.S. marines shoot Taliban terrorists and the more Hellfire missiles blow up al-Qaeda planners.

Why otherwise would a Nobel Peace Prize laureate order such continued offensive missions?

Victory is most easily obtained by ending the enemy’s ability to resist — and by offering him an alternative future that might appear better than the past. We may not like to think all of that entails killing those who wish to kill us, but it does, always has, and tragically always will — until the nature of man himself changes.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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