City Journal Winter 2005 | Postmodern War by Victor Davis Hanson
It is still suicidal to meet the United States in a conventional war—at least for any enemy that has not fully adopted Western arms, discipline, logistics, and military organization. The recent abrupt collapse of both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s regime amply proves the folly of fighting America in direct conflicts. The military dynamism that enables the United States to intervene militarily in the Middle East—in a manner in which even the richest Middle Eastern countries could not intervene in North America—is not an accident of geography or a reflection of genes, but a result of culture. Our classical Western approaches to politics, religion, and economics—including consensual government, free markets, secularism, a strong middle class, and individual freedom—eventually translate on the battlefield into better-equipped, motivated, disciplined, and supported soldiers.
To an American television audience, al-Qaida videos of pajama-clad killers in ski masks beheading captives look scary, of course. But a platoon of Rangers would slaughter hundreds of them in seconds if they ever approached Americans openly on the field of conventional battle or even for brief moments of clear firing. In Mogadishu, Somalia, everything boded ill for a few trapped Americans—outnumbered, far from home, facing local hostility in urban warfare—and yet the real lesson was not that a few Americans were tragically killed, but that the modern successors to Xenophon’s Ten Thousand or the Redcoats at Rorke’s Drift managed to shoot their way out and kill over 1,000 in the process.
Nevertheless, the numerous setbacks of Western armies from Thermopylae to Vietnam prove that there are several ways to nullify these military advantages, both on conventional and irregular battlefields. The question is: Are such historical precedents still relevant to the modern age?
From early times, enemies have obtained superficial parity by a sort of military parasitism—by buying, stealing, or cloning Western weaponry. The galleys and guns of the Ottoman forces at Lepanto without exception were copies of Venetian designs, for example, as was the Turkish arsenal itself at Constantinople. In 1850, Japan had virtually no munitions industry, no oceanic fleet, and no organized naval corps; by 1905, its ships were among the best in the world and soundly defeated a Russian armada— but only after tens of thousands of Japanese students for a half century had studied at European universities and military academies. From Europe, the Japanese had systematically imported everything from Western notions of command to advanced optics and metallurgy.
Today, China is a similar example. Like the Ottomans and the nineteenth-century Japanese, the Chinese military believes that it can either purchase or steal Western computer, aeronautical, and nuclear technology—while skipping bothersome Western notions like democracy and free speech—in order to obtain military parity with the United States. The Arab world too has sought to match Israel with MiGs, Scuds, SAMs, and RPGs—technology that it could neither design nor fabricate, but that it believed could give its autocracies the ability to destroy a democratic, highly sophisticated Jewish state all the same. Every rocket-propelled grenade that kills an American in the Sunni Triangle is either imported from the West or fabricated in the region according to Western blueprints and designs.
Yet in the long run, such imported technological expertise cannot be maintained, constantly improved, or used to its optimum potential without free citizens, secular universities, transparent government, and open inquiry. These intangible values and concrete institutions are the real engines that drive the modern Western ability to field high-tech arms and disciplined soldiers in the first place. For all the worry about weapons of mass destruction, neither Iran, nor North Korea, nor Libya, despite the purchased veneer of a sophisticated military, could ever defeat a militarily serious Western state of comparable size unless it underwent radical social and cultural democratic reform—which ironically might then deprive it of any impulse to attack the West in the first place.
It would have been extremely messy to have shot the first 400 looters who began a cascading riot that ruined $13 billion in Iraqi infrastructure. Storming rather than pulling back from Fallujah in April 2004 would have offended the press, the professors, and the Europeans. Arresting or killing Moqtada al-Sadr in June 2003 might have angered the Arab world and invited parlor debate among the mandarins back home, but such measures also would have shown ironclad American resolve and eventually would have impressed even our enemies.
The key in irregular, as in conventional, war remains the will to win. That’s why it was simplistic to suggest in the 2004 campaign that John Kerry was a “flip-flopper,” as if he altered positions solely because of changes of heart. In fact, his support for, or criticism of, the war hinged entirely on the pulse of the battlefield. Winning in Iraq made him shed his Howard Dean pacifism; seeing American inability to put down insurgents turned him back into a war critic. And at times, even our war leaders seemed to overlook this simple and depressing facet of human nature: for all their care to hit only terrorists, to supply money and aid, and to work with the Iraqis, they forgot the one requisite for success—the overarching aim to win at all costs.
Victory always sways the heart even of the most ardent pacifist, just as defeat and humiliation erode the will of the most zealous hawk—although it is hard to confess that most humans still think with the most primitive part of their brains. Amid all the glitter of contemporary culture and technology, the will to fight for victory remains crucial to battlefield success, an odious thought for us postmodern children of the Enlightenment, who feel we should be exempt—as too wealthy, educated, or sophisticated—ever to have to descend to the primeval swamp to destroy bin Ladin and his ilk to ensure our survival. But bin Ladin’s October infomercial mentioned truces and respites, not out of tender concern for the West, but because bin Ladin is beginning to feel, like al-Sadr, that he is going to lose.