When you look at the fighting in Gaza, or any of the other small, chronic wars we get these days, you notice that traditional war buffs, the ones who like to talk about WW II, don’t have much to say. If they say anything at all, it’s usually, “They should just wipe’em out!” Like, “Israel should just wipe the Pals out!” Or “America should just wipe Iraq off the map!”
And on paper, they’re right. Israel could kill every single man, woman and child in Gaza if it wanted to. And Hell, it probably does want to. So why doesn’t it? America could wipe the Sunni Triangle off the map easily, nuke the whole place or use neutron bombs—Hell, nerve gas, even—if we were worried about limiting damage.
But nobody does this stuff. Why not? That’s the big question. That’s what drives the frustration you’re hearing when these old-school war buffs try to deal with war circa 2008: they think in terms of hardware, and the hardware—the nukes—doesn’t seem to apply, somehow. So why not?
The first key fact is that we’re living in a lull, a pause in longterm military history. We live in the hangover after a wild night, the first half of the twentieth century. That was a binge to end all binges, an era of great, total, merciless warfare. Everybody thinks of the Western Front in the First World War when they think of total war, but there were plenty of other fronts just as merciless, just as brutal, like the Russian Civil War or the Greek-Turkish war in western Anatolia, which was even nastier, if that’s possible, than the Russian fighting. No quarter asked or given on either side.
In this phase, nationalism wasn’t a bad word yet. People were willing to die, more like eager to die, for their countries. Even countries like Italy had a real over-the-top mentality in WW I. Like I’ve said many times, Europe before 1945 was an alien planet that has about as much to do with Europe today as Abba has to do with the dead German guy who did the helicopter music in Apocalypse Now.
The first go-round, from 1914-1918, took a lot out of them, so when the sequel rolled around in 1939, a lot of countries were already moaning and groaning that nobody was going to get them out on the dance-floor again. England and France were going, “Aw no, jus’ lemme set a spell, my lumbago’s actin’ up….” But there were the younger, braver countries like Japan, the US, Germany and the USSR who had that “C’mon, the night is young!” spirit and dragged them up for a second waltz.
That little number lasted until 1945, and it got a little hectic even for the hotshot kids. By the end it was like one of those Itchy and Scratchy cartoons where the cat and the mouse face off with knives and escalate to bigger and bigger guns til the last shot is of a giant pistol blowing up the earth.
And that’s when Phase 2, the Hangover starts. After 1945 everything is different. Until you face that fact you won’t understand modern war at all. We’re living in a lull. Nobody wants to admit that; everybody wants their time on the planet to be the big moment of history, but militarily, this is not a great era. We’re waiting, hedging our bets. Nobody’s willing to play the nukes, and until somebody does, big-time, we’re like old ladies playing the slots, one quarter thrown away at a time, nobody willing to roll big at the craps tables.
When you live in a lull like we do, you think everything’s happening for the first time, when what you really have is the same plays called with different rules. What made me realize that was this article I saw in the Israeli paper Haaretz that summed up a US Army report on the 2006 war between the IDF and Hezbollah. According to this report, Hezbollah had scored some kind of tactical breakthrough by fighting almost like a conventional army, fighting from bunkers instead of relying on mobile warfare. They claimed this was a first in history, a “non-state actor” fighting a successful conventional war.
Well, of course it’s not new at all. What’s new is the squeamish, namby-pamby set of rules that operate since 1945. Those rules are why Hezbollah was able to win. Unless you understand that, you won’t understand how wars work these days.
So let’s take a look at a pre-1945 war for a parallel. Let’s see, where can we find a “non-state actor” trying to use conventional military strategy? About a million places, actually, but my favorite example is one of the biggest and most unknown wars around: Mao’s communists vs. the Nationalists in China in the 1930s. Not many people realize what a huge, ruthless war this was. And almost nobody realizes that it wasn’t a bunch of ignorant peasants duking it out; both sides had expensive foreign advisors, usually Germans for obvious reasons, telling them how to fight.
Mao’s military advisor was a German communist cadre named Otto Braun. He took a Chinese name, Li De, but as you can imagine he wasn’t likely to pass for a local, being a classic German military type, a long skinny skeleton with big glasses and even bigger plans. Mao had been fighting the kind of brilliant rural guerrilla warfare he’d learned from the Hunan bandit chiefs. One of these bandit chiefs told Mao, “All you need to know about war is: circle around, circle around, circle around.” Mao took that lesson to heart, because he discovered if his guerrillas didn’t keep moving away from the Nationalists’ front, they’d get ground up.
Otto Braun convinced the Chinese Communist leadership that these bandit tactics were too low-down and no-count for the People’s Liberation Army. He got them to adopt a “Blockhouse Strategy” which was basically exactly what Hezbollah’s “bunker strategy” was. Only it didn’t work. The Nationalist forces attacked Mao’s bunkers, sustained huge losses but kept attacking, and eventually wore down the Communist defenses. That was the pattern of warfare up to 1945: accept huge losses to take enemy territory, because when you do, you will be able to neutralize those territories for good. So it pays off. You lose, say, 300 men taking a section of Maoist territory by overrunning those blockhouses. You’ve now gained a peasant population of, say, 100,000. You now get the return on your losses: you immediately kill any Communist sympathizers in the region and force all the young men to sign up with your army at bayonet-point. You’ve made good your casualties because, once you control the enemy territory, you change it for good, turn it from red to blue.
You can’t do that now, except once in a while, in remote places like Sudan or Congo where none of the locals have friends in the media. For most other places, where the news cameras are willing to go, this is the era of squeamishness.
Now let me say, before people start writing in with horror stories from Nam or Africa, I’m not saying we’re nice. We’re no nicer than Foch or Kitchener or Ataturk or Chiang or Budyonnov or any of those early 20th-c. maneaters. We’re just more sly and cautious about it, because we’re squeamish, we’re scared, we’re edging back from the cliff out of pure selfish fear. We still do plenty of nasty stuff but only where the locals can’t dish it out in return, like the Brits in Kenya or the French in Algeria in the 1950s or us in Nam in the 1960s or the Russians in Chechnya. What we’re not usually ready to do is what made sacrificing soldiers’ lives worthwhile for attacking armies pre-1945: total, ruthless, unashamed wipe-out of any opposition once the territory was taken.
The best-known case in the Middle Eastern theatre, post-1945, was what the Israelis’ Phalangist allies did in Sabra and Shatilla outside Beirut in 1982. What you saw there was an attempt to do early-20th-century warfare in the wrong era. I repeat: what they did there, wiping out enemy civilians once they’d taken the territory, would have been standard policy for any European army pre-’45. But in 1982 it backfired completely and gave the IDF a bad name it’s never managed to lose.
Got something to say to us? Then send us a letter.
Want us to stick around? Donate to The eXiled.
Twitter twerps can follow us at twitter.com/exiledonline