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An Antidote to the Western Way of War?
Posted by: Dale Franks on Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He's also a retired US Army colonel, who writes regularly on military affairs, not only in newspapers, but in respected professional military journals like the Armed Forces Journal. He is often controversial, and is almost always interesting to read.

In writing for The American Conservative, however, he proposes a broad conclusion that doesn't seem warranted.
How is it that the seemingly weak and primitive are able to frustrate modern armies only recently viewed as all but invincible? What do the parallel tribulations—and embarrassments—of the United States and Israel have to tell us about war and politics in the 21st century? In short, what’s going on here?

The answer to that question is dismayingly simple: the sun has set on the age of unquestioned Western military dominance. Bluntly, the East has solved the riddle of the Western Way of War. In Baghdad and in Anbar Province as at various points on Israel’s troubled perimeter, the message is clear: methods that once could be counted on to deliver swift decision no longer work...

What the Islamic Way of War does mean to both Israel and to the United States is this: the Arabs now possess—and know that they possess—the capacity to deny us victory, especially in any altercation that occurs on their own turf and among their own people. To put it another way, neither Israel nor the United States today possesses anything like the military muscle needed to impose its will on the various governments, nation-states, factions, and political movements that comprise our list of enemies. For politicians in Jerusalem or Washington to persist in pretending otherwise is the sheerest folly.

It’s time for Americans to recognize that the enterprise that some neoconservatives refer to as World War IV is unwinnable in a strictly military sense.

This is flat-out untrue.

First, it assumes that anyone believes that a military solution is the appropriate end game for the Global War on Terror. I do not know of a single commentator or policymaker who has ever made that suggestion. The last sentence, frankly, is a complete straw man. There are plenty of people who believe that military force will be required, at diverse times and places to fight this war, but they also are clear in stating that there are political, economic, and diplomatic efforts that are equally important.

Second, the idea that Islamists have found some formerly hidden method of defeating our military might is simply laughable. There is no doubt whatsoever that if the US were to use its full military might on the Mideast, that we could force compliance to our will on the entire region. The end result might be the peace of the grave, but it would be quite peaceful.

Possibly with a dim green glow at night for the next few hundred years.

But, even short of that, in the mundane world of infantry combat, the Islamists have left the field. Every stand-up encounter they have had with US troops, at any level of engagement, has bled them white. So, they simply don't engage us any more, except through the use of things like IEDs, which can be detonated remotely, giving the insurgents at chance to avoid almost certain death through direct engagement.

We certainly have the military power to impose our will.

That we do not do so, says more about our political climate in the US, and in the West in general, than it does about our military capability. Had Professor Colonel Bacevich remarked that Arabs realized that they could deny us victory because our political climate would prevent us from exercising our full military power, that might be true. It would, at any rate, be an interesting point to discuss.

But this flat assertion that the Arabs have found some way to nullify our military power is just non-sensical. They may have discovered an ingrained unwillingness among our policymakers to use our military power, but that's the only sense in which that power has been nullified. If this is what Prof. Bacevich meant, then he certainly chose a particularly obscure way to phrase it.

Prof. Bacevich writes as if the Islamists have discovered something new, and different:
Bluntly, the East has solved the riddle of the Western Way of War.

This is a particularly odd argument to make. Indeed, I would argue that the East has adopted the Western way of war, not discovered some new way of countering it.

Ever since Classical Greek antiquity, the Western way of war has been to seek out decisive infantry clashes with the enemy, in order to eliminate the enemy's offensive power as quickly as possible. The obvious corollary to this idea has always been that, if one didn't have the combat power to accept a decisive infantry clash, then one's primary strategic aim was to avoid defeat by keeping an army in being, and only accepting small-scale clashes to harass the enemy.

This was the primary Athenian strategy under Pericles in the first part of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles withdrew the population from the Athenian countryside, and sheltered them behind the Long Walls. Athens' maritime power allowed the city to be supplied by sea, and her overseas possessions and allies were safe, since Sparta had no serious naval power at all.

As it happens, the Athenians abandoned this strategy, primarily because a massive plague hit the city, causing massive deaths—including the death of Pericles—and Athenian farmers were not happy with replacing their status as free yeomen with that of homeless supplicants to the state. The result, eventually, was a succession of Athenian defeats on land, and loss of the war.

In our own history, George Washington, for nearly all of the Revolutionary War, held his ultimate strategic goal as that of keeping a Continental Army in being. He accepted combat with the British only when necessary, and if possible, only when the Continental Army had a significant advantage. The British Army, for its part, while highly trained and professional, could only send volunteers outside of Britain proper. Washington knew that the Crown could neither denude the British overseas empire of volunteer troops to fight in America, nor could it indefinitely pay the Landgrave of Hesse for German mercenaries. In addition, it could not indefinitely afford to supply and equip the British forces in America to maintain them in a continuous state of war.

So, refusing to accept combat, while keeping an army in being, has been an accepted part of the Western way of war throughout history.

How is what the Islamists are doing in any way novel, or, for that matter, unexpected?

In fact, I would go back to the very first proposition that Prof Bacevich assumes as a given, "that the seemingly weak and primitive are able to frustrate modern armies only recently viewed as all but invincible ". What, precisely, does this mean?

To the extent Israel was "frustrated" in southern Lebanon, it was because Israeli politicians called a halt to the offensive due to international pressure, not because Hezbollah fighters, no matter how hard they fought, dealt the IDF a significant defeat. Moreover, much of the hard fighting done by Hezbollah resulted not from some magical new means of Eastern warfare, but through apparently getting inside Israeli communications, using intelligence, and seeking out decisive clashes.
Hezbollah guerrillas were able to hack into Israeli radio communications during last month's battles in south Lebanon, an intelligence breakthrough that helped them thwart Israeli tank assaults, according to Hezbollah and Lebanese officials.

Using technology most likely supplied by Iran, special Hezbollah teams monitored the constantly changing radio frequencies of Israeli troops on the ground. That gave guerrillas a picture of Israeli movements, casualty reports and supply routes. It also allowed Hezbollah anti-tank units to more effectively target advancing Israeli armor, according to the officials.

"We were able to monitor Israeli communications, and we used this information to adjust our planning," said a Hezbollah commander involved in the battles, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
This is, in fact, the Western way of war, utilized successfully by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein is in an Iraqi jail cell, an elected government is now in power, and the ISF is taking over security responsibility for more and more of the country.

So, how precisely, have the Islamists "frustrated" Western armies? Simply because they fought a harassment campaign rather than rolling over like weasels and exposing their softest parts? The fact that the latter didn't happen has affected, in many ways, the political discussion about Iraq, but from a military point of view it confirms that the Islamists in Iraq recognize their own weakness and inability to create any sort of offensive military strategy.

It seems that Prof Bacevich is arguing that, if the troops there now haven't made Iraq an irenic paradise, then they have been beaten by insurgents who've discovered some radical new method of "defeating" them. From there, he concludes that military power is useless against this wily, new Eastern strategy.

But that conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. What if we were patrolling Iraq with one million US troops, instead of 140,000? How about 2 million? Does Prof. Bacevich believe that the insurgency would still be percolating unchanged, or does he assume that Iraq would be a more peaceful place? If he believes the latter, then he contradicts his own theory about some new antidote to the Western way of war.

Nor, is the conclusion supported by the facts. In Lebanon, Hezbollah used Western methods to get inside the Israeli decision cycle through the use of intelligence. In Iraq, the insurgents have limited themselves to harrassing attacks, while keeping an army in being, a Western strategy of ancient derivation.

With this in mind, perhaps the problem is not, as Prof. Bacevich implies, that the East has found out how to defeat the West. Perhaps the problem is that we simply don't have enough troops in Iraq to do the job properly. Perhaps the problem is that we are not there primarily to fight insurgents, but rather to train the Iraqis to do so.

I can think of lots of explanations that are simpler, conform more closely to the facts, and that don't involve the sudden appearance of Napoleonic genius among our enemies.
 
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Hear, hear.
 
Written By: unaha-closp
URL: http://warisforwinning.blogspot.com/
Bluntly, the East has solved the riddle of the Western Way of War.
Actually, the West has blunted the Western Way of War. Look at the recent Isreal-Hezbollah conflict for examples. The West as a rule tries to fight immaculate, bloodless, uber-humane wars. And there is where the East finds weakness and counters effectively.


 
Written By: Shark
URL: http://
Yes, it’s simply a luxury we have to fight these wars the way we do.

BTW, who was the idiot in Hezbullah who told the world’s press about the breaking of Israel’s radios?
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
I’ve read enough stories about the IDF in Lebanon to make anyone sick.

The truth of the matter is that the IDF got sloppy and lazy. The years of the intifada had made them refocus their training methods and alas with retirements etc. most of the "old knowledge" was gone, at least in the ranks. Add to that the perception, if not fact, that the PM was the closest thing to a "peace" PM Israel has ever had, and lastly add a bit of rivalry between the services and you have the war in Lebanon.

I don’t give any awards to Hezbollah either. Yes, they did better than before, but staging a strategic retreat where you give up miles of territory doesn’t register in book as a "win." The best that can be said is that most of Hezbollah will live to see another day, while giving the IDF a bloody nose.
 
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
Sidenote:
The years of the intifada had made them refocus their training methods and alas with retirements etc. most of the "old knowledge" was gone, at least in the ranks.
Given four years of conflict, nearly 3,000 deaths, and 30,000 wounded, is the US military weaker, or stonger?

 
Written By: bains
URL: http://
Given four years of conflict, nearly 3,000 deaths, and 30,000 wounded, is the US military weaker, or stonger?
It about the same, except for the lessons learned.

I know that 3000 may sound large, but the death rate in the military is about the same as "peace time."
Practically every time the military has large or medium "maneuvers" somebody dies. It’s an unhappy fact.

They lost more that 3000 on Iwo Jima in four days, so the next time you see a WWII vet, say thanks.
 
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
It about the same, except for the lessons learned.
Callous as it is Neo, lessons learned in the face of death are invaluable for the NCO’s and junior staff rotated back in to the training battalions... and of incalculable benefit for the grunts they are training.
 
Written By: bains
URL: http://
The biggest change in warfare not mention in this piece is the "death" of large scale warfare.


Never again in our lifetimes will we see large amounts of arms and equipment massed on the border of another country for weeks before a conflict begins. Iraq will be the last.

Nobody will wait to be hit. Asymmetric warfare will demand a "preemptive" small scale strike.
 
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
Neo,

The "demands" of asymmetric warfare are only ever made upon the smaller of the two sides.
 
Written By: unaha-closp
URL: http://warisforwinning.blogspot.com/
They have discoverd how to defeat our military might by avoiding it. They do not confront our military, they confront the self-imposed restraints upon our military. If we summarily hung terrorists in the village square, took hostages and executed them in reprisal, tortured random civilians for information, made the whole country a free-fire zone, etc., I think we could calm the situation rather quickly. Fewer people, less violence.
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
<>

Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a WW I style war a few years back and again are "massing" soldiers on their borders.

Its only against the far superior American army that other forces start having to think of fighting guerrilla style.

Now, what about say, China, invading Taiwan? They will do that conventionally, and the Taiwanese would try to defend conventionally.

But, should the Taiwanese ALSO be preparing for a post-war insurgency? Could they set up IED caches, or even small workshops for later use?

Another question in similar vein: is Russia losing in Chechenya?
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
Another thing the I want to know? Where are all these endless armies of Jihadists we were supposedly creating in Iraq? The fighting against Americans is all but played out and now you see sunni and shia militias clashing.
Could it be that the muslim Jihadist isn’t some superman after all and the supply of young idiots willing to kill themselves at the behest of an old bearded man in a mosque is perhaps finite?
 
Written By: kyle N
URL: http://impudent.blognation.us/blog
Using technology most likely supplied by Iran, special Hezbollah teams monitored the constantly changing radio frequencies of Israeli troops on the ground. That gave guerrillas a picture of Israeli movements, casualty reports and supply routes. It also allowed Hezbollah anti-tank units to more effectively target advancing Israeli armor, according to the officials.
You mean watching CNN, et al, wasn’t enough for them to figure out where troops were moving...
 
Written By: Keith_Indy
URL: http://
Another thing the I want to know? Where are all these endless armies of Jihadists we were supposedly creating in Iraq? The fighting against Americans is all but played out and now you see sunni and shia militias clashing.
Could it be that the muslim Jihadist isn’t some superman after all and the supply of young idiots willing to kill themselves at the behest of an old bearded man in a mosque is perhaps finite?
Or perhaps they achieved what they wanted by forcing the American troops to mostly operate out of their fortified bases, leaving the countryside open to allow the Iraqis to finally get going in earnest in the sectarian blood fued. Yes the Americans and Iraqi government will continue to interfere, but less so than if they hadn’t been under constant threat.

Just throwing that out there.
 
Written By: ozymandias
URL: http://
"But, should the Taiwanese ALSO be preparing for a post-war insurgency?"

No, not unless they are suicidal. There is absolutely no hope of them winning such a conflict.

***********
"Using technology most likely supplied by Iran, special Hezbollah teams monitored the constantly changing radio frequencies of Israeli troops on the ground."

Do the Israelis use frequency-hopping radios? If so, how can they be monitored?
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
Do the Israelis use frequency-hopping radios?
Even if they do, that’s anti-jam technology not encryption.

I guess they aren’t encrypting their radio nets. That’s sloppy.
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
I mostly agree with Dale: it’s a good post.

Everyone wonders why our will is "blunted", but no one asks why. They knee-jerk blame it on "liberals", and that’s as far as they get.

Picking up on Dale’s themes, I agree - they’ve adopted Western ways of war with enough success to blunt, justified or not, our offensive attacks on their own territory, and our attempts at forced political and societal change.

So what? Can you see them successfully conquering any Western army anytime soon? I sure can’t.

I submit that our lack of "will" is a collective and decentralized decision by the nation state that the benefits are not worth the costs. And I submit that said decision is rational and correct to the subjective extent that any such decision can be definitive.

I think that this kind of assessment is a welcome anecdote to endless rhetorical columns barking at the moon about the impending death of our civilization at the hands of jihad.
 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
Can you see them successfully conquering any Western army anytime soon?
Why do you think that is important? Or relevant?
I submit that our lack of "will" is a collective and decentralized decision by the nation state that the benefits are not worth the costs.
And how do you characterize "defeat"? A collective and decentralized decision by the nation state that further resistance is useless?
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
"Even if they do, that’s anti-jam technology not encryption."

If they hop frequencies, how does one monitor them? If I recall correctly, frequency -hopping radios change frequency many times per second according to some confidential pattern which is changed frequently. How does one follow apparently random frequency changes? I have not been keeping current on all this, but it sounds to me like even the NSA would have difficulty doing this. If the tecnology is so available that even Iran has it to give away, we have problems. Also, if someone can track the frequency changes, they can jam the radios. I think I will continue to be skeptical about this report. To me it sounds like single frequency communications, and certainly lousy radio discipline, the lousy radio discipline fitting into the overall poor(or so I’ve heard) performance of the IDF.
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
"I submit that our lack of "will" is a collective and decentralized decision by the nation state that the benefits are not worth the costs."

I agree that its not just the liberals that are weakening our will. I think our society is uneducated in history and raised on a short horizon for seeing results. These combined mean people just won’t support a long, drawn out process.

Your point could be correct, too.
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
But, should the Taiwanese ALSO be preparing for a post-war insurgency?"

No, not unless they are suicidal. There is absolutely no hope of them winning such a conflict.
Out of curiosity, what makes you think that? There’s a large body of water making resupply and attritional warfare quite costly for China, and China might need to supply millions of troops to crush an insurgency. Plus, the regional environment for China is quite hostile. I think an insurgent program lasting even six months might force a more favorable political settlement, depending on the international backing (assuming the US didn’t intervene on Day One, that is)

China has the ability to level the place, but that would spoil the economic prize they are arguably after. Who knows if they would have the will for an extended slaughter in a war of choice?
 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
The east has not found a way to counter the western method of war, they have discovered a way to counter the western way of victory. Up until WWII, those who lost a war knew that the victors would suppress any flare up of the losers by any means necessary. If it required killing the entire population, so be it. The chance of a western power losing a war has decreased but the chance of losing the "peace" has increased greatly.
Essentially, no eastern power can defeat a western army, but even the weakest has a good chance of recruiting the western media and diplomats,outlasting the will of western countries.
 
Written By: Ken Hahn
URL: http://

 
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