The changing road to victory

Throughout the history of warfare, the way to win has been a constantly-evolving dynamic. Early on, it was simple: you won when you had either killed all your enemies, or enough of them that they gave up. It was expensive, but it usually was decisive. One won by destroying the enemy’s ability to wage war.

As warfare grew more and more sophisticated, however, other ways of achieving victory that didn’t involve wholeslaughter developed. Fighting wars began to require not just masses of bodies, but weapons and tools and equipment. Whole industries grew up solely to support a nation’s war efforts. And a second vulnerability was introduced — one could win by attacking those means of support. One now could win by destroying the enemy’s ability to sustain war.

During the American Civil War, the North successfully blockaded the South, preventing them from obtaining weapons and other supplies of war from Europe. They also prevented the South from exporting its own goods, shattering its economy. That, combined with the industrial might of the North, made the South’s defeat inevitable.

During both World Wars, Germany attempted to blockade England via submarine — and very nearly succeeded in starving out the British. The Allies practiced it even more successfully, combining mass bombing of industrial resources (against both Germany and Japan) and waging war against Japan’s merchant fleet. There, in one of the most unsung victories of the war, our submarines managed to utterly destroy Japan’s ability to import natural resources and carry munitions away from the home islands, leading to their inevitable defeat.

In Korea, this simply wasn’t feasible. The sources of production were too far away from the battlefield (in the United States, China, and the Soviet Union) and not politically viable targets. The closest either side could come was in attacking the entry points of the munitions, but that was less than a stellar success. It boiled down into another old-fashioned war of attrition, that ended in a negotiated draw.

The same scenario played itself out in Viet Nam, and to early pundits seemed to be heading the same way. But then a new way of winning a war evolved. It was not possible to achieve victory by bypassing the actual combatants themselves and attack their support mechanisms. One could lose every single battle in a war, and still win, if one could get the enemy’s populace to grow sick of the war and simply want it over. In brief, one could win a war by destroying the enemy’s will to sustain the war.

This lesson was little noted by the superpowers, but carefully filed away by their lessers. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States emerged as not a superpower, but the hyperpower — the single nation in the world with a military that could not be beaten in war, and a support base that could not be crippled by any force on earth. With no hope of being able to destroy either the United States’ ability to make war or sustain war, they fell back on the only strategy that had ever shown itself successful — to attack the will of the American people to continue a fight.

It worked wonders for them. In Lebanon, a single suicide bomber in a truck drove out our forces. In Afghanistan, they discovered that this could also work against the Soviet Union. In Somalia, where a humanitarian relief mission devolved into peace-keeping, and then finally into peace-making, a few petty warlords discovered that by out-savaging us, they could turn enough American stomachs to get us to run away from there as well. The word quickly spread; if you kill enough Americans (but not too many), and seasoned it with a healthy dose of barbarity, you could get the Americans to leave you alone.

And that is what we are facing now in Iraq. There is no way our enemies can hope to defeat us militarily. Nor can they pose any threat to our ability to sustain our forces. And nearly all reliable reports indicate the morale of our forces in Iraq is very high, and the efforts in Iraq is overwhelmingly supported by the troops.

The only way our enemies can win is to attack and defeat the resolve of the American people to continue to support the war. It’s a battle like no other in history, with no clearly-defined combatants or fields of battle.

(I had a personal experience with this tactic recently, in the comments section of another blog. I went in prepared to calmly argue facts and positions; I was greeted with vile invective and insults. I briefly gave in and fought back in kind, but I finally gave up in disgust. That’s when it hit me; my opponent wasn’t attacking my facts or style, but me personally, in an effort to discourage me from continuing the argument. He wasn’t looking to win the argument on its merits, but to drive me off, and I was letting him.

It was what I’ve started calling the “chamberpot defense.” When his position was attacked, my opponent so thoroughly befouled the argument that it simply became too vile to be worth fighting over. He won the argument, but he has to live with the mess he created in the process. It’s related to the scorched-earth defense in war and the poison-pill defense in business.)

Will we win this attack on our will? I think so, but it’s still up in the air. The re-election of President Bush and the gains made by his party in both Houses of Congress were a defeat for those opposing the war, but hardly decisive. It’ll be years, I think, before we can look back and properly judge how the battle went.


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