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The War Nerd / September 9, 2008

It’s been tons of funs watching the dust settle over South Ossetia, watching everybody go crazy and do their best to avoid the fact that Putin kicked our proxy ass. If you’ve ever wondered how countries deal with military defeat, wonder no more, because you’ve just lived through it, and if you watched any tv, you saw loser propaganda in action 24/7.

It’s something you’ve almost got to admire (remember that “almost”), the way people put their hands on their ears and hum away the bad news. I can imagine Hitler down in the bunker in his last days: “Ah, vee are holding zee Russians off in zee alley two blocks vrom here! Vee have a full squad of twelve-year old veterans mit almost five bullets left, plenty of materiel! If zat alley holds out, perhabz an army of Aryan ghosts vill come to zee rezz-cue like in mein dream last night!”

It’s not quite that bad, OK, but it’s still a hoot to see grown men making up stories to make themselves feel better. My old public-library war porn mag, Aviation Week, ran a whole series of dumb-ass tech-geek stories about how the Georgian air defenses were “winning,” with headlines like “Georgia Burns Russian Air Force.”

What all that amounted to was that the Georgians shot down four Russian planes, three Su-25s and a recon bomber. Considering that Russia has about 250 Su-25s in service, and the sheer Hell the Russian CAS inflicted on Georgian armored units, that’s a very small price for the Russkies to pay. The only way Aviation Week could make it look like the Georgians had kicked ass was by comparing the Georgians’ performance with the Syrian air defense vs. Israel. The Syrians’ total kills was, you guessed it, zero. That’s the same score they always rack up, has been since 1982. If it’s a Syria vs. Israel dogfight, you can put up the Syrian half of the scoreboard before the game even starts: a big Arabic goose egg. I’d have a better chance than Syria if you gave me a driver’s side mirror and sent me out into the yard to try to blind incoming pilots with the reflection. Or I could stand by the nearest air force runway and yell stuff, try to hurt the pilots’ feelings: “Helmet hair, helmet hair!” I’d outscore the Syrian air defense net easy.

Casualties are no way to score a war anyway, not unless you know how much the attacker considers “unacceptable.” And this is the Russians we’re talking about: they’re not squeamish, whatever else you can say about them. I don’t read the Russian press, but I can bet they’re not wringing their hands over those four pilots shot down, or the few soldiers they lost in the ground war—and they didn’t lose that many anyway; nobody’s even pretending the ground war was anything but a rout.

Consider the way we think about casualties and you’ll see what a tricky calculation it is. Remember when we lost 18 men in Mogadishu in Clinton’s day? That was so horrifying we left Somalia instasntly. So when the 2004 elections came around, I remember some stupid pundit betting his last creds that if US casualties topped a thousand KIA by Nov. 5, Bush was outta there. Well they did, and he wasn’t. We’d adjusted our idea of unacceptable casualties quite a bit already.

From what I know about Russians, I’d say they consider a year without casualties way worse than one where they kick ass in a small war like Ossetia. I read somewhere that Russian villagers used to organize village vs. village fights where every man in the village would get a big club and form a line, then walk into a line of guys from the next village, trying to hit a home run on your neighbor’s skull. They called it “Wall vs. Wall.” The Soviet Army actually had to make that little game illegal in the 1950s because they were having too hard a time recruiting. It seems two out of three village kids were maimed or braindamaged or dead, thanks to “Wall vs. Wall” games, by the time they hit drafting age. And proud of it.

So it’s very, very dicey using losses to make your point. Losing a few men in a winning battle probably made the folks in Moscow happy. People are pretty good at handling casualties, till it’s their own leg getting blown off. Hell, nobody remembers the French lost 1.5 million men out of a population of 40 million in WW I. And they held. They had to put down a lot of frontline mutinies—that’s where Petain made his name–and shoot a lot of gloomy Gustaves (“Cheer up, mon ami, or better yet we’ll shoot you to cheer up the others!”) but they held. So please, don’t tell me that losing four CAS aircraft is going to keep Putin awake nights. Hell, he probably gets his cut on every new Su-25 built, so replacement orders are good news for him.

All you had to do was listen to the new Russian front man, Medvedev, talking to Sarkozy and the Western press to see how cocky the Russians are feeling. Medvedev is one of these short guys, so he loves nothing better than flipping off the world. And that’s what he did, not even pretending to play nice: “We’re staying in South Ossetia for good, we’re staying in Abkhazia, get used to it, Losers!” It was pretty much that simple.

What the war really meant was that Russia found a way to use all that conventional weaponry they paid so much for. It’s not easy these days for a big power to get its money’s worth on all that conventional hardware. It just doesn’t apply to most contemporary warfare; it’s like trying to fix a skin ulcer with a bulldozer. So when a big country can finally unleash all that expensive hardware like we did in the first Gulf War, and Russia just did against Georgia, you can hear the sex-grunt on the home front as loud as through a Motel Six wall, “Oh yeah yeah YEAH! Armored thrust! Oh yeah, GRAD, GRAD, GRAD!”

What it takes is a weak country trying to play like the big boys. That’s what Saddam did against us, and that’s what the Georgians did with a little whispering-in-the-ear from their new neocon friends. These guys are living in the past. You don’t take land these days by sending your lame little conventional army into a place like Kuwait or South Ossetia that’s protected by the big players. That’s dumb. You either make a deal with the big power to betray their local client, like the Indonesians in the sixties persuaded the CIA to let them have the eastern half of New Guinea in return for massacring the whole membership list of the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, or you infiltrate some of your ethnic group in there, peasants who don’t know how to do anything but pop out babies, and wait for the demographic map to change—you know, the Kosovo strategy.

The biggest tactical mystery of the Ossetia war is still the Roki Tunnel, as in, why didn’t the Georgians blow it up? Some interesting stuff has come out since the dust settled. Well, new to me anyway. Like did you know that the Georgians actually did try to blow up that tunnel way back in 1991?

Yup, and they used exactly the method I suggested in my last column, before I even knew they’d already tried it: they sent a truck full of high explosives into the tunnel and blew it up.

I admit I got that idea driving through the Caldecott tunnel to Emeryville, where I spent some time this summer to get away from the Fresno heat. Every time I go into that tunnel I think about how wonderful it would be to make my last commute in a gasoline tanker full of high-octane fuel, with a deadman switch in my hand connected to a detonator duct-taped to the side of the fuel tank. It’d be so damn easy. They don’t even check trucks coming into the tunnel. And you can hijack a gas truck easy: just stage a fake accident, shoot the driver, move the body over to the passenger side and off you go. Commuting to SF and Oakland would get a lot more interesting for a few months, or years.

I’m not saying it would disable the tunnel forever; that’s a tricky prospect. That article I’ve linked to about the Georgians’ 1991 attempt to blow up the tunnel has some interesting stuff about how you go about really destroying a tunnel. Seems you have to know the geology of the rock it’s built into. The Roki tunnel apparently was built on a mix of granite and sand. If you blow up your truck under the granite, you’ve got a chance to repair the break, but if you do it smart and blast a section that’s dug through sand, it’s almost impossible to repair the break.

Of course the Georgians didn’t really have to destroy the tunnel totally, just close it down long enough to keep the Russian Army from reinforcing on the ground. That should have been do-able, with their inventory of planes and air-to-ground guided munitions. You know, I wonder if they fell for that same casualty-shy thinking that you see in the Aviation Week article trying to gloat over downed Russian planes. It’s a problem for American-advised armies; we worry too much about casualties sometimes. I can’t help wondering if the Georgians thought about attacking the tunnel mouth by air and backed off because they thought they’d lose planes. Which they probably would have. And so what? It would have been worth it, way worth it. If you think coldbloodedly about it, blocking that tunnel was worth way more than shooting down a few Russian planes over South Ossetia (if the Georgian AF even did shoot them down; from what I’ve heard, it was SAMs that got those Su-25s). It was a God-given chance to take the upper hand. How often do you fight a campaign where there’s only one road into the battlezone? Incredible they didn’t spend every plane, every commando, every dollar they had getting to that tunnel.

I say “every dollar” because one advantage of dealing with the Russian army is simple old bribery. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to bribe Russian troops. When that crazy Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev was driving his convoy of guerrillas deep into Russia, he had to pass all kinds of Russian Army checkpoints. He dealt with them real simple: “Here’s ten rubles, we’re coming through!” Incredible. You have to understand, Russians and Chechens hate each other like poison, but these Russian troops were willing to let a convoy of Chechen killers armed to the roof racks through their roadblocks just for vodka money. And from what I hear, the Georgians have a long history of playing the Russian system, oiling the wheels with a little baksheesh. Why didn’t they offer to make the guards at the tunnel mini-oligarchs in return for a little help stacking boxes of HE inside the tunnel and running a wire back to the detonator? I just don’t get it.

There’s some kind of big strategic hole at the center of this campaign, when you look at it from the Georgian perspective. It just doesn’t make any sense. I kind of get the feeling somebody in Tbilisi made the fatal mistake of believing what they were getting told by Dick Cheney. Next to marching on Moscow in September, that’s the deadliest thing a war leader can do.

Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to

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