Sunday, June 18, 2017

Winning edge

In 1884, an Oxford undergraduate, Charles Oman, won the Marquess of Lothian’s Prize for an essay on “The Art of War in the Middle Ages.”  Although he essay is still read and has even been updated to reflect 20th century scholarship, it hardly seems likely to be of more than antiquarian interest in the 21st century. However, this is not the case.

Oman, nothing if not a confident 24-year-old, had a  message for his elders in his essay, although they were too obtuse to learn it until the events on the battlefields of Flanders 30 years later demonstrated how right he was. But there is more to it even than that, because the same lesson — suitably modified for modern times — applies today, and the masters of war of our time are proving as obtuse and stupid as the generals and politicians of late Victorian and Edwardian time.

While the theme of the essay is tactics, the lesson concerns the difficulty of recognizing when the terms of battle have fundamentally changed.

In brief, from the Battle of Adrianople (378), the supremacy of the Roman infantry legion was superseded by the charge of the heavy armored horseman — the cataphract, a development of, primarily, Iranians that spread to dominate Europe and western Asia for over a thousand years, fundamentally reshaping economies, politics and social organization.

From the late 13th century, two innovations began to overthrow the undisciplined, aristocratic knights: the phalanx of Swiss pikemen and the corps of Welsh longbowmen. Yet for over a century, the knights refused to recognize the change, no matter how many of them were slaughtered at, for example, Crecy.

The run of the Swiss and the English was much shorter, less than two centuries, and they, too, were very late in recognizing that a new way of fighting had made them vulnerable.





Push of pike
The introduction of firearms set up a period of innovation and confusion so that for some time there was no obvious best form of fighting, but the introduction of the long-range rifled musket in the 1840s began a new period of mastery.

The generals did not know it, as proven by Grant at Cold Harbor in 1864, and when Oman wrote in 1884, the supremacy of infantry in field works armed with long range weapons was still denied. The supremacy was enhanced by the introduction of breechloaders, repeaters and finally of machine guns. Small armies could defeat big ones, as the Turks demonstrated at Plevna.

The generals, who tend always toward incompetence, did not notice, until July 1 on the Somme in 1916 when more men were killed in a day than had happened since, perhaps, Cannae 2,100 years earlier.

The tank was invented to overcome the fieldworks, but its run was short. It was over for most conflicts by 1945.

For the past 70 years, in most conflicts where one side had tanks and planes and the other did not, the tankless, planeless fighters prevailed. As long as the population shelters him the guerrilla — if he can get submachine guns, rocket grenades and bullets, as he usually could in the age of nuclear standoff between the great powers — prevails.
The United States and the NATO nations spend close to a trillion dollars a year on their militaries. More planes, more ships, more radars — however necessary to deter similar national actors — are unlikely to gain results against committed fighters who have the backing of locals.

6 comments:

  1. For the past 70 years, in most conflicts where one side had tanks and planes and the other did not, the tankless, planeless fighters prevailed.

    Nonsense.

    First, you need to list those conflicts. Then, having done that, demonstrate how being tankless and planeless was an advantage.

    It wasn't.

    Caving to communist aggression was what mattered.

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  2. There was South Vietnam. The corrupt government was supported by 5 -- count 'em, five -- massive air forces. Tanks, too.

    Yet the US driven ignominiously from the field and the ARVN refused to fight.

    Iraq

    Afghanistan

    Somalia

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  3. If memory serves, we cutoff support to South Vietnam, which was a recipe for failure in the face of ongoing Chinese and Soviet support to North Vietnam.

    Obama chose to leave Iraq.

    In Afghanistan, we aren't choosing to do what we could do.

    And in Somalia, we just didn't give enough of a damn.

    As it happens, it seems tanks and planes are doing a fine job against ISIS.

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  4. I guess you want to draw the lesson that whole populations can support aggression from a far superior force for a long time.

    Well, there is a difference from the past and now: previous empires would easily wipe out the whole resisting population, while the present ones usually don't.

    The US coud have killed the entirety of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The USSR could have done it too, both in Afghanistan in the 80's or to Georgia/2008 and Ukraine/2014.

    So there is a condition you did not cite: If, and only if, the side with superior tanks and planes is not willing to wipe out the population, that population can resist for time enough, and most probably the invading forces will quit at some point...

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  5. [Clovis:] So there is a condition you did not cite: If, and only if, the side with superior tanks and planes is not willing to wipe out the population, that population can resist for time enough, and most probably the invading forces will quit at some point...

    That's a shrewd observation: you raise the point that Harry sidesteps. There have been plenty of examples of planes or tanks carrying the day, regardless of how much locals back committed fighters. He gets there by completely ignoring every Israeli-Arab hot conflict since Israels founding, among other things.

    Clausewitz is, except as an exercise in sheer masochism, unreadable. That's a shame, because On War contains a great many important lessons (like Machiavelli). IMHO, among them is this: war is the pursuit of political aims by non-political means.

    Technological superiority cannot overcome a lack of political will (although it can to some degree compensate).

    Ultimately, we didn't care enough whether aggressive communism wiped a sovereign state off the map, even though by the end of the Tet Offensive our tanks and planes had practically wiped the NVA from the field.

    And despite having finally won Operation Iraqi Freedom, the US public decided it had enough of the place. While I think Obama's decision to leave was an epic failure, there is no denying that he was acting in accordance with his mandate; moreover, at the time, there was really no way of predicting the ISIS shit show (keep this in mind next time you malign the Bush administration for its manifold failures of post invasion planning).

    Harry's conclusion for the most part is really quite sound: The United States and the NATO nations spend close to a trillion dollars a year on their militaries. More planes, more ships, more radars — however necessary to deter similar national actors — are unlikely to gain results against committed fighters who have the backing of locals.

    But what he fails to mention is the political dimension. Less than a decade ago, when the unimpeded flow of oil to energy markets was a vital national security interest, we would do what it took to take on the committed fighters, no matter how much local backing they had. After all, commitment isn't a quality allowed only to one side.

    Thanks to the free market, things are now entirely different. The oil rich middle-East is, instead of being pivotal, nearing irrelevancy.

    At the moment, the rest of the world relies too much on middle-Eastern oil for us to put the region on disregard. But it might not be too many more years before that is no longer the case.

    At which point, we will have far less at stake there. The committed fighters might very well carry the day. And will have lost.

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  6. Agree, Clovis.

    Skipper has a silly concept of aggression. He does not know enough about Southeast Asia for me to bother with him; I've already told him I won't engage him on that subject until he can show he knows what actually happened there. But for the argument I made, it counts that the aggressors in Vietnam were the Japanese, French, Americans, Koreans and Australians. The Vietnamese had a civil war. The people who lived there could not be aggressors.

    My reading of the Russians in Afghanistan is that they were indeed prepared to wipe out the population in whole sectors of the country and were prevented by American introduction of shoulder-fired AA missiles.

    The Sudan regime was prepared for genocide, too, and was forestalled by a combination of limited means and outside pressure.

    The Crimean Tatars in the receding past and the Kurds in Turkey in the present might dispute that states no longer are willing to wipe out whole populations. The descriptions of southeast Turkey sound like descriptions of Belarus after the Germans marched through.

    Nevertheless, as a general rule -- not a rigid law -- the terms of conflict have been changed by the Kalashnikov. It's no longer an option to 'civilize 'em with a Krag' as Americans used to brag.

    Firepower has become cheap and democratic.

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