Why It’s So Hard to Win

by Victor Davis Hanson

The American (Sept-Oct 2007)

Is it five or ten or fifteen — years that are necessary to win wars of counterinsurgency such as Iraq? By now, Americans are well acquainted with such warnings that patience — along with political and economic reforms, not just arms — defeats guerrillas.

In these messy fights, Western nations can’t, for both practical and moral reasons, use the full advantages of overwhelming arms against terrorists that hide among civilians. Such conflicts are fought far from home for perceived long-term security interests, rather than the immediate survival of the United States. And when the rising cost in blood and treasure cannot be easily explained, restive voters often give up rather than insist on eventual victory. For confirmation of that fickleness, recall the summary Western withdrawals from Algeria, Vietnam, Lebanon, and Mogadishu.

True, in our occasional despair over the bad times in Iraq, we should remember that ultimately the United States defeated the Philippine insurrectionists (1899–1913), the British won in the Malaysia uprising (1948–60), and, by 1971, the Americans had finally, after nine years, gotten counterinsurgency right in Vietnam before funds were cut off.

So what factors in the 21st century now determine whether a Western nation can still succeed in wars not to their liking?

First, there is the degree to which terrorists can obtain weapons sophisticated enough to kill well-protected soldiers of a far more affluent society. That requisite need not mean parity with the arsenal of the more advanced nation, but rather only the ability to nullify much of its technological superiority.

The terrorist always scores points when his cheap, workmanlike weapons triumph over high-tech gadgetry — think of simple rocket-propelled grenade rounds blowing apart a $2 million Blackhawk helicopter, or simple, imported roadside bombs still immune to the countermeasures dreamed up by a Pentagon task force.

In the past, the ability of insurrectionists to get their hands on Western weaponry required physical proximity to Westerners. But now, in a globalized marketplace where profit trumps ideology and distance has collapsed, successful killers in the Middle East may need only a petro-rich patron, a mail-order catalog, and an overnight-shipping account. The Israelis learned that lesson well enough in the recent Lebanon conflict when they encountered Hezbollah militiamen wearing jeans but also outfitted with sophisticated, off-the-shelf night-vision goggles, body armor, hand-held rockets, and computer-tracking software.

Second is the enemy’s desire and ability to kill the requisite number of Westerners in sufficiently savage fashion — hanging their corpses on a bridge or executing them on the internet — to cause large-scale demoralization on the home front. Savagery is a force multiplier: the more horrific the carnage on the suburban televisions of America, the better.

Losses, and the nature of how they are inflicted, are more critical even than the duration or financial cost of these new wars. Few worry that we have had American troops in the Balkans for nearly a decade — simply because they are not dying or being tortured on the internet.

Nihilism is likewise a terrorist plus. Traditional doctrine insists that blowing up Muslims at an Islamic funeral or beheading innocents will eventually turn the populace against such nightmarish terrorists. Perhaps. But in the short term, such grotesqueries may sooner turn off a refined Western public whose support is critical for the continuation of the war. The more likely response is no longer, “We must defeat such savage bullies,” but rather, “Why would we want anything to do with a society that produces such monsters?”

Third, there is the problem of new global communications — another advantage for insurgents who want to exhaust the West. It is often said that had the weeks in the hedgerows after D-Day (June to late July 1944) or the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944 to January 1945) been televised each hour on CNN or Fox — with real-time email and cell phone communications with beleaguered soldiers in the field — we would never have won either battle. Both victories saw horrific casualties as a result of intelligence failures and sheer incompetence, but our culpable generals counted on enough of a window of public ignorance to rectify their mistakes and continue the battle.

None of these developments means that we won’t win in Iraq, stabilize the nascent democracy there, and help bring prosperity to the heart of the Middle East. But we should accept that in a world of increasing Western material comfort, it is becoming far harder for postmodern societies like the United States and Europe to fight ever more premodern foes.

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

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