Monday, January 12, 2009
Posted by Daniel Greenfield 6 Comments
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.
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.