Friday, February 23, 2007

On democratic warfare

In the last 40 years, the United States of America has been involved in two full-scale ground wars. They lost both times. America has the largest, most technologically advanced military in human history, but overwhelming size and fancy gadgetry proved ineffective in both Vietnam and Iraq. The Southeast Asian military escapade ended with a short civil war, an empowered China, and a disillusioned home front. We don’t yet know what the end result of this Middle East move will be, but there will likely be a long civil war, an empowered Iran, and a very disillusioned home front. In both cases, lots of American soldiers were killed and even more innocent (and not-so-innocent) civilians were shot and blown up.

With its superior firepower, troop numbers, training, discipline, and communications, the American military seems undefeatable. So why has it failed so miserably in Iraq? The problem, according to Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington D.C., isn’t that difficult assess. In a recent Harper’s Magazine essay, Luttwak argues that America loses because it does not kill enough civilians. (The essay is not available online.)

In Iraq, the U.S. military is dealing with an insurgency; similar in many aspects to the one it faced in Vietnam. The problem for the Americans is not a military one – that country’s armed forces are essentially unbeatable in conventional warfare – it’s a political one. “Unless insurgents confine their operations to thoroughly deserted areas where there is no one to observe them,” Luttwak writes, “they must have at least the passive cooperation of local inhabitants. Whether they fail to report the insurgents to the authorities out of sympathy for their cause or in terror of their vengeance in entirely irrelevant. In either case, the insurgents are in control of the population around them, and not the authorities. That essentially political advantage is enough to allow motivated insurgents to overcome all manner of tactical weaknesses in combat skills and weapons.”

The Iraqi police force and army, considered by many analysts to be the key in seeking out insurgents, is as unreliable as the civilian population, Luttwak argues, for exactly the same reasons as the ones above – they are either sympathetic to the insurgents and their cause, or too afraid for their lives and the lives of their family members to rise against them.

So how is an insurgency defeated? Simple: out-intimidate and out-terrorize the insurgents. Luttwak points to several historical examples to make this point: the Ottomans, Romans, and the Nazis all used terror and intimidation to maintain their vast, occupied empires. Despite some claims by those on the political left, the United States of America is not (yet) a fascist empire. If it were, it could simply raze the occasional Iraqi village known, or suspected, to be harboring insurgents. It is not even necessary to maintain a large ground troop presence to hold the peace. The occasional violent example would convince civilians that siding with the Americans is safer than siding with the insurgents.

It should be obvious why the Americans could never use such tactics. The mere whiff of any such actions would generate tremendous outrage on the home front and in allied nations - as they should. In the end, democracy and warmongering don't mix. The neocons, blinded by ideology, failed (and will probably continue to fail) to consider this elementary strategic concern.

Anyone who has played Sid Meier’s Civilization series knows how difficult it is to win a military campaign while running a democracy. The negative effects leveled onto to your cities when you have military units far from home outweigh the technological and economical advantages associated with an elected government and a free populace. Winning remains a possibility: the diplomatic, cultural and scientific victories are in fact best won through democratic government. But the only governing method guaranteed to earn you a military victory is fundamentalism. And despite the scary rise of the Christian Right, America isn’t there yet.


Blogger Am said...

On a somewhat related note, the situation makes me think of the Russo-Finnish war in WWII when the tiny country managed to fend off the Russian army through guerrilla warfare on skis. Bush should have taken a history class.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Marco Ursi said...

...or played more video games.

3:21 PM  
Blogger clifford d said...

elephants, man.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Marco Ursi said...

If you're still fighting with elephants by the time you develop democracy, you ain't playing right.

7:56 AM  

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