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Monday, January 12, 2009

What Stops Us from Finishing the Fight

Year after bloody year the American Civil War dragged on with a terrible toll in lives squandered while Lincoln replaced general after general, until a terrible lesson was finally learned at great cost. To finish the war and overrun and destroy the enemy's armies.

It was a lesson the British never learned, ponderously moving armies around the map, seizing major cities and remaining unable to crush the smaller Continental forces contending with them. As a result the British lost America, even as they sat securely in major cities like New York and Charleston. And though on paper the war was won, in the field the war had already been lost because they lacked the energy, will and political capital to keep fighting it.

The paradox of a larger well organized force assaulting a smaller and disorganized but more mobile one, is that time is on the side of the guerrillas. A large army costs a great deal to keep in the field, and the more organized the army, the more organized the nation it belongs to which usually cannot spare armies for long from checkmating its other enemies, and cannot long spare a large draft force of men who would otherwise be working.

By contrast all that the smaller force needs to do to win is stay alive, and manage a raid here and there that will require the larger force to commit men to the field to hunt and destroy them.

Time and time again, the British Empire gave up and withdrew or came to terms with smaller, weaker insurgents who managed to continue functioning as a threat. Both George Washington and General Smuts succeeded, not because Yorktown and Okiep were such devastating victories, but because they wore out the morale and energy of an Empire that chose to deal rather than prolong a war it had decided was futile. This of course forewarned that the entire British Empire would in time fall apart when London decided that it took too much energy and monies to maintain.

But this isn't a history, it's what we're facing today. The tide was turned in Iraq in no small part because we chose to cut a deal with Sunni factions that we had previously been fighting, once the strain of the war became too great. But the tide also turned because we used that deal to focus on clear goals with the objective of destroying Al Queda in Iraq, while checkmating the Sadrists with our newfound Baathist allies. The tactics are cynical, but they were the game changer on the ground.

Nevertheless the US and Israel remain handicapped by an inability to finish the fight, brought on by having too many broad goals, many of which are non-military and depend on the cooperation of a local hostile population.

Our strength gives us the illusion of invulnerability, which gives rise to broad overarching goals, that fall apart in the field, where our strength can just as easily turn into a handicap. Technology can help get many things done, but it also creates the illusion that we can do anything. An overreliance on air power is a particular problem as we have to keep relearning over and over again bombing produces a very limited result when attacking insurgents and terrorists on the ground.

Not only is air power expensive and terrorists and insurgents routinely use civilians as shields offering us the Catch 22 of giving them a get out of jail free card or taking the morale and PR hit from collateral damage broadcast worldwide, but the effective yield remains very small. Like using a cannon to swat a fly, air power is too big to effectively use in most instances. Air power is appealing because it promises casualty free operations against undeveloped enemies, but it cannot replace boots on the ground. Accurate strikes against insurgents requires intelligence, which itself usually requires informants in the local population, who are difficult to recruit unless you exercise some measure of control over the local area itself.

Combine broad goals, overreliance on air power and arrogance, and the same fallacy keeps repeating itself. Victory requires quickly and ruthlessly finishing the fight. By contrast long term occupations practically nurture the enemy, which can always retreat from any battle and lay low and rebuild, while draining our strength.

Holding down the fort is well and good if you have the strength, morale and people to spare. But even so, it only prolongs the bleeding while dragging out a drawn out war that only benefits the other side. The longer an occupation goes on, the more guerrilla forces will learn in the field and attract foreign sponsors. The bloody lesson that the Union learned at great cost was that you either finish the fight by taking the battle to the enemy, or be prepared to surrender or spend a long time bleeding.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.


  1. Anonymous13/1/09

    Its funny in that I am reading about the war of Independence, however what you must not ignore is that the British had so much in common with the American colonists and were trying to be reasonable for far too long, contary to what was said about them, their whole strategy at least in the early part of the war was to try to not alienate the people. Britain learnt some hard lessons from that war which helped in dealing with other rebellions.

    You are missing the fact that Britain also dealt very well with quite a number of rebellions.

    Lets take Iraq, the British were right and wrong, the key thing to winning such a conflict is to get sufficient local people on your side and you make sure that they are protected and benefit from this, the Sunni's were taught by Al Queda that their interests were better out of their extreme grip, but they had to learn this themselves and they certainly did, in the south the British were dealing with the Sadrists who were backed and directed by Iran which required an all out destruction of the Sadrist faction that was never seriously attempted.

    I do not think that turning the Sunni's would have been posible unless AQ had proved themselves to be the modern day equivulent of the Assassins.

    What is the goal of Iraq, a game changing situation in the Middle East where the brutality of the Islamists is shown to the Muslim world so they turn away from extremism for a period of time, can modernity expose Islam for what it is, is it the dying gasp of Islam this wave of extremism, or is it the Islamic world finding out theat they are strong once more and therefore the end of the West?

    Militarily I think that Israel needs to go in, find as many missile storage areas as possible, blow them up and any ammunition dumps too, they must also kill as many Hamas as they can find, then withdraw, will Fatah then come in?

    Now in terms of Fatah, Hamas were at least honest in that typical arrogant Islamic way of their intentions, while Fatah is in reality the same, but uses Western diplomacy, however Fatah are incompetent and therefore easier to deal with.

    Israel will never know peace in my view, you will always be attacked, the key thing is to keep making it so expensieve in lives and material that they think twice, I Think that being stuck with a sort of half controlled state like Gaza means that you cannot declare war on them but have to treat them as some sort of civil insurrection when it should be treated as an enemy state that should be brought to its knees, that is what I hope is happening with Hamas now, if so then Israel has the right strategy within its limited room for maneovre.

    Once the West is taught just how large a threat Islam is then Israel will have it chance to do what needs to be done, but Israel needs to get ready to be attacked by all of its neighbours at some point and that includes Egypt in my view, because of the anti-Irael and anti-Jew propoganda in their media, the hatred is still there and is cultivated even if the government looks moderate.


  2. Inspite of the condemnation of Israel from other Arab nations I can't help but believe that they are thinking twice about messing with Israel.

    At least for the time being they see it as a sleepy giant that just woke up. Arabs are taking notice and so is the rest of the world.

    In my uneducated opinion I think the only thing Israel can do at this point is continue to fight with everything it has and recapture Gaza.

    There seems to be more momentum with this war than with Lebanon II. That momentum just might be enough to wake a lot of Israeli liberals and politicians up, too.

  3. Anonymous18/1/09

    My view: Too bad the South was crushed (as you correctly say it was): They were arguably no genuine threat to Washington -- they wanted to SECEDE FROM the Union, NOT REPLACE the Government in Washington. Nonetheless, the South was only defeated when, as you say, the North decided to crush them without mercy.

  4. Anonymous19/1/09

    Is it because of oil our politicians are playing with us - the western population? We are allowed to buy oil from east by letting in mooslems?

    Our media are subjectively aimed to tell what all the "racists" do towards foreigners but the Islamic deeds are plainly written as deeds and soforth inhabitants in western societes have a hard time to be objetive. (this is my opinion)

    If christianity learned one thing the last 1400 years of history it should be that Islam want to qonquer us - are our leaders helping Islam??

    Mooslems in Holland wants their own "spot" to build a mooslem society - and the "extremily open minded" dutch population realized that Islam does not want to intgrate into dutch society.

    When mooslems are enough in numbers they want out of their community and have their own community.

    Why are west letting the mooslems in? Many mooslems leaves Islam by moving to west, but to many mooslems want no part of what our society has to offer - or more precisly: they take what they can but gives nothing back.

  5. Anonymous21/1/09

    Britain only applied 9% of its military might in the American Revolution. She was the world's superpower by virtue of defeating France in the World War of 1756-1763, and consequently saved the Americans to inconvenience of learning French. The Americans didn't like the idea of having to pay for having their bacon saved, even though they only paid 1/50 of the tax levied in Britain - sorta like California saying they don't want to pay for Iraq (may happen). Anyhow, British strategic thinking was that America was more trouble than it was worth, and, even if America did turn to France to win the Revolution for them, Britain would remain America's biggest customer, the Royal Navy could land punishing forces to keep them in line anytime (eg burn Washington in 1812) and the greater Britain's Empire became the more they would need Britain's strategic and diplomatic depth: hence US participation in World Wars 1 and 2. Indeed, that Republic could never last forever and one day (thinking in centuries not lunchhours) Britain might install a King again: which it did on 20 January 2009, with the Coronation of the unconstitutional (for Americans) King Obama the First, who proudly proclaimed his British nationality on his website.
    Clever or what ?



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