What Wins Battles?

Warriors are not always soldiers.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

One of the great trends of the modern world has been a blind faith in the overwhelming power of technology and material wealth. In military matters, of course, it is natural to equate prowess with plenty of high-tech weapons — as we have seen from the one-sided devastation in the Gulf, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. But just as important as sophisticated guns, armor, and planes are discipline, logistics, communications, morale, and the larger values that sustain militaries — culture, government, economics, and social structures.

In 1991 our tanks were far better than Iraq’s. But had the American crews been in outdated Russian models — and in turn had the Republican Guard attacked in our superior Abrams tanks — I am not sure there would have been much of a difference in the final outcome. Tankers die unless they are highly disciplined. They must be taught fire control, remain in constant communication, and be adept at mobile tactics. Their machines require maintenance on rigid, almost hourly schedules. And their crews must feel, if only in a vague sense, that they are using their expertise gained from long hours of personal sacrifice and physical exhaustion for a good cause — one that reflects not only the professionalism of the U.S. Army, but also is consistent with the values of America.

In that larger context, culture, morale, and training can trump both modern weapons and numbers on the battlefield. The Rangers and Delta Force operatives who were trapped in Mogadishu — like similarly beleaguered and encircled soldiers from Rorke’s Drift to Khe Sanh — were vastly outnumbered. While the Somalis lacked the innate ability to fabricate modern weapons, their imported automatic arsenal nevertheless ensured that there was not that much difference between the rate of fire and lethality of an AK-47 and an M-16. RPGs downed two multimillion-dollar attack helicopters.

What, then, gave the Americans the edge, and allowed them to kill over 50 of the enemy for every one soldier lost — and to escape from an urban hellhole? Not numbers — nor familiarity with the local terrain, nor ease of logistics, nor, as it turned out, surprise or even superior tactics. Clearly, the answer was that the Americans were far better disciplined to fight in close cohesion and in small units. They were much better trained to follow orders and to communicate and exchange ideas freely with officers and subordinates alike — and much freer to change preconceived ideas and alter tactics at a moment’s notice. The outnumbered and surrounded Americans — who were denied the use of armor by the Clinton administration — even enjoyed better morale. They surely felt that their cause — feeding rather than stealing from the starving — was the more moral and lawful mission.

The study of war also tells us that often large, well-equipped armies can crumble quite easily. Thousands of Saddam’s infantry in 1991 simply surrendered to hovering helicopters. In spring 1940, the French army was Europe’s largest — with good weapons, fighting on its home soil, and anchored by elaborate fortifications. Its previous heroics in World War I had proved that Frenchmen once had the ability to keep German invaders out of Paris. Yet their divisions dissolved in little more than six weeks. Why? Fear, despair, and confusion — the harvest of some 20 years of pacifism, moral relativism, and socialism.

Darius III led one of the great armies of the ancient world against Alexander the Great at both Issus and Gaugamela. Despite outnumbering the Macedonians by at least 5-1, holding the high ground, defending his home soil, aided by local populations and possessing keen knowledge of the surrounding landscape, the multicultural imperial army disintegrated in little more than an hour. Alexander’s phalangites — who were trained to march in time, to define discipline as keeping in rank rather than rushing out to engage in individual combat, and to march and retreat on orders — simply tore apart any enemy contingents foolish enough to charge their sea of pikes. In the same manner, the élan and discipline of the Companion Cavalry — mostly horse lords who felt themselves on a near par with their twenty-something leader Alexander — meant that they could plunge into and break apart the Persian line, with little worry that they would be overwhelmed by tens of thousands of enemy infantry. In the mother of all battles, Alexander led his men at Gaugamela from the front; Darius, like his predecessors in earlier invasions of Greece, scrambled for safety to the rear at the first hint of danger.

The Zulus in 1879 outnumbered their British invaders by at least 50-1. At Rorke’s Drift they were equipped with the finest weapons in the British Empire — stolen after their surprise slaughter of a British column the night before at Islawhanda. Nevertheless, less than 100 able-bodied British-surrounded 5,000 Zulus for 16 hours of continual firing. The key to the British victory was not their superb single-shot Martini-Henry rifles — the Zulus had more of them than did the British. The edge, as in the case of automatic weapons in Mogadishu, was in how they were used.

British junior officers maintained strict fire control. Redcoats, again like the Americans in Mogadishu — were masters of firing in concert, knew intimately the range and variance of their weapons, and protected the comrades at their sides. In contrast, the courageous Zulus — like the Somalis — attacked in uncoordinated packs, lacked an overall centralized command, often shot randomly and without careful aim. Few seemed to have any training or knowledge about either the proper tactics of small-arms fire or the standard use and maintenance of modern firearms. Any would-be killer can be given a sophisticated weapon — whether a Somali irregular, an Iraqi tanker, a Zulu warrior, or an Aztec lord — who attempted to turn captured crossbows against the conquistadors — but the proper use of such weapons, not their mere existence on the battlefield, determines whether they turn out to be haphazardly dangerous or instead uniformly deadly.

In 1967 pre-battle accounts in magazines and newspapers showed regional maps of the Middle East with scary tables “proving” why Israel could not win: its tiny military had far fewer tanks, planes, and infantrymen than had the collective Arab world. But such fact sheets could not reveal what is inside a man’s heart, or how he aims a gun, or what he does with a radio, or how he relates to his comrades under fire — or the type of nation that raised, supported, and will cure, pension, and bury him. Had graphs existed to chart morale, gauge past training, calibrate discipline, assess command, and evaluate tactical flexibility, then pundits could have predicted a preordained Arab defeat. A Middle Eastern mob chanting and screaming for blood in the street seems a scary thing; an Israeli armored column or squadron of jets is a deadly thing.

Such age-old, unchanging, and absolute laws are critical when we consider the fascist regime in Iraq. A decade ago, even sophisticated observers simplistically counted tanks and planes. They echoed media accounts of imported Iraqi high-tech antiaircraft-guns and field artillery, related all the horrific stories of the Iranian war, and then without much debate concluded that Saddam’s battle-hardened veterans might kill “20,000 and more” Americans. Instead we were “surprised” that we lost less than 200 soldiers — nearly as many to friendly as to hostile fire.

You see, few military historians had reminded us that Iraqis previously had fought Iranians, not Americans; that their conscripted 18-year-olds did not want to risk being incinerated for a mass murderer — unless they knew that there was some chance of winning or at least profiting from the battle; and that even the best imported weapons can fail if they are not rigorously maintained and constantly modified and modernized. The same bloodthirsty Iraqis who gleefully looted, raped, and tortured the unarmed in Kuwait were weeks later defecating, weeping, praying to their god, and on their knees before Apaches,Abrams tanks, and grim-faced American infantrymen.

If the United States feels that an attack on Iraq is in its national interest and will save lives in the long run, and if the American people believe that their children are fighting and dying to rid the globe of a murderer who in a few years may try to murder them, then the result is absolutely predictable — despite the hysterics of the Arab street and the table-talk in Paris and Brussels. We Americans are lectured to by the angry Muslim world that we are arrogant, and by the envious Europeans that we are hubristic. In fact, most of us are completely unaware just how strong our nation has become in the last two decades — culturally, militarily and economically. In some 2,500 years of Western civilization there has rarely been a single world power that enjoyed such overwhelming military superiority as does the United States at the millennium over both its adversaries and allies — and yet in the last 20 years has used its imperium so consistently to promote democracy, the general tranquility, and world freedom.

Saddam will have the greater number of troops in the theater, the easier logistics, and the more intimate familiarity with local landscapes and people. And like Darius III he too will lose badly. True, the perennial, unpredictable wild cards of battle — inclement weather, unforeseen new deadly weapons, sudden coups, the appearance of an unknown Iraqi Hannibal or Guderian, horrible accidents and rampant confusion — may well alter the planned sequence and progress of our attack. But ultimately we will fight as we live. Thus our military will simply be an expression of our larger values of freedom, consensual government, secular rationalism, capitalism, religious tolerance, individualism, group discipline, civilian audit, self-critique and egalitarianism. And so we will win decisively a war that we did not seek — allies or not.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This