TCS Daily

Defeating the Gods of War

By Michael Vlahos - May 1, 2003 12:00 AM

What can the recent war with Iraq teach us? Commentators everywhere are telling us we're the greatest, almost like Gods of War. Of course some aspects of the war are undeniably remarkable. Planning and execution were faultless - cost, time, and outcome couldn't get much better. The soldiering was outstanding - we saw their superlative performance on TV. And U.S. casualties were amazingly low - while tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters killed.

However, we must remember the true state of our enemy. The Iraqi forces were operationally degraded, fighting with 3rd rate equipment. There was no air opposition, and only feeble air defense. Furthermore, their command and control was ripped.

And we had other advantages. We enjoyed extended preparation time in-theater. Ours was the choice of when to attack and thus, the initiative. And we had a comprehensive intelligence picture, accumulated over many years.

In other words, we were facing an intimately familiar, badly weakened, and fatally exposed enemy, passively awaiting our attack.

So it is one thing to assert that we did a nice job. Indeed, given the expectations of the American people, we could do nothing less: we absolutely had to do a nice job.

But let's not go overboard. For example, Ralph Peters writes:

The basic lesson that governments and militaries around the world just learned was this: Don't fight the United States. Period. This stunning war did more to foster peace than a hundred treaties could begin to do.

The strengths demonstrated by American military force were surely exceptional. Like true Gods of War, America now "strides the world like a Colossus." No military in its right mind should wish to challenge us. That does not mean, however, that thus there will be no more war.

Americans inhabit a classical military reality, and why not? - We like what we do best. In another time and place, say in the Victorian era, we could have truly believed that we had ended war forever. In those sunny days there was only one kind of war, and if no one dared fight us then war itself would surely be finished. Peters indeed gives us the reasoning of a sincere Victorian gentleman when he says:

Consider the fear and impotent anger would-be opponents of the United States must feel today ... The Iraqi defeat was a defeat for every other military in the world - in a sense, even for our allies, whose forces cannot begin to keep pace with our own.

In contrast, however, this is the real lesson of the war:

The U.S. has indeed made war impossible - classical war, that is. No waiting enemy can take us on where we are strong - in the place we still think of as "real" war.

But today, unlike Victorian times, there is more than one way to make war. War is about using violence to achieve political objectives. Period. And it's not about how you make it, but what you achieve in the end. War isn't "real" because it's got tanks and planes and ships. It's real because somebody is fighting us, and fighting to win - no matter how they do it. In other words, war isn't about stuff (e.g., technology) it's about a coherent concept of violent struggle. We are so attached to war that puts ordnance on target better than anyone else that we cannot see a completely different paradigm of war emerging in front of us. We have seen its glimpses in places like Grozny and Jenin and Columbo. Call this new war "War by other means."

War by other means is about fighting us not where we are strong, but where we are weak. And just as we have so magnificently demonstrated where we are strong, we have with equal clarity shown others where we are weak. Where are we weak?

  • U.S. military casualties - we now expect almost none; many means disaster.

  • U.S. civilian casualties - the economy dives easily if our way of life is at risk.

  • U.S. acting tyrannically - we cannot betray our values and sacred mission.

  • Collective enemy hatred of us - if unbending, a signal of our failure.

  • Enemy persistence in the face of material US military dominance - the same.

The enemy that knows not simply where we are weak, but figures out how to successfully attack our weakness, has a shot at defeating the Gods of War.

This doesn't mean that the new "war by other means" will be easy for future enemies, or that Saddam Hussein was trying to fight such a war and failed. Indeed, Peters is quite correct to say, "in the final grudge match between Clausewitz and GI Joe, it was a shutout" - as though the Iraqis were mere military antiquarians:

What remains remarkable is how little the Iraqis - and the Russian advisers who helped plan their defense - grasped the profound changes in our military and the American way of war. They clearly had no sense of the battlefield awareness, speed, precision and tactical ferocity of America's 21st century forces.

But as an antique army then the Iraqis were simply roadkill on the highway of war. The past was knocked off by the enlightened present. But this is hardly the future. Even if we are so hip as to be fully "network-centric" - all knowing, pinpoint, and overwhelming - the "American way of war" is nonetheless still classical war, fought between nations and waged in full uniform with traditional weapons.

Again, what the U.S. has ended is simply classical war, and it has ended that paradigm by making it un-useful and thus uninteresting to others. History - in the form of desperate "others" - will create the new paradigm of war. No one can hope to win fighting our kind of war, so they will make war they can win. Ironically, we have destroyed the war we do best - and we will come to ponder this recognition as we struggle to adapt to and defeat the new.

We will struggle for three reasons. We will struggle with the new war because it is alien and unfamiliar to us as war. Even now we still deny it by calling its early signs "terrorism" or "asymmetrical." But we will also struggle with the new war because we will not want to give up the war we like, the war in whose practice we were supreme. Finally, we will struggle with the new war because it may require us to act in ways we find distasteful. Just the other day US troops fired into a crowd at Fallujah, near Baghdad. This is just a taste of things to come. The French remember how they were defeated in Algeria, even as they won every battle. Talk to Sinhalese about the Tamil Tigers, and find out how a hopeless, beleaguered insurgency turned the tide against a dominant government and its military.

In Saddam Hussein and his Iraq, we chose our enemy well. But we should be wary of the future enemy that chooses us.

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