Before the United States enters Syria, it should consider the lessons of history.
There are many reasons why nations lose wars. Sometimes small states are simply overwhelmed by large empires, such as Poland’s fall to Nazi Germany in September 1939 or the invasion of Finland by the Soviet Union in 1939. These outcomes are almost always foreordained by huge imbalances in manpower and national wealth, although the superhuman heroism of the Finns and the weather postponed their inevitable defeat for six months.
But such vast mismatches are history’s exceptions. And, on occasion, even the far weaker power can trump the advantages of numbers and resources of the stronger. The Greeks at Marathon, and a decade later at the battles of Salamis and Plataea, proved that even a massive Persian fleet and army did not doom the badly outnumbered Greek cause.
Generals, good and bad, can transform a war—at least up to a point. Had the Confederacy had leaders like Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and George Thomas, it might have held out for years until offered a negotiated settlement. Had Gen. George Casey remained in command in Iraq after 2006, there would have been no surge and no American salvation. Without Hannibal, the Carthaginians would have lost the Second Punic War a decade earlier. Take Matthew Ridgway out of Korea and the Americans by February 1951 might well have been back to Pusan awaiting evacuation.
Photo credit: TTVo
Technological inferiority—and the permanent inability to rectify it—on rare occasions can lose a war. Hernán Cortes had not one force multiplier, but several—Spanish steel swords, harquebuses, cross-bows, horses, cannon, and body armor—that allowed his conquistadors to craft the destruction of Aztec armies well more than ten times the size of the Spanish and indigenous allied forces at Tenochtitlan. Saddam Hussein in 1990-91 had no answer to the overwhelming American coalition that swarmed his air defenses in a one-sided bombing of Iraq—in the manner that Slobodan Milosevic was similarly outmatched by the NATO air armada that bombed him out power by 1999. Yet, in most cases, even clear weapon superiority—remember both the Russians and Americans in Afghanistan—does not guarantee victory.
How then do nations more often lose wars? In short, mostly by fighting them without careful examination of what are their political aims and whether they have the means to achieve them. It is common for most nations to go to war without its leaders telling the people either what political goals they seek through the fighting or whether they possess the resources to obtain them.
Amid this confusion, a sure way to lose a war is to shed allies and gain enemies. In 431 B.C. Sparta invaded Athens to begin the Peloponnesian War. Both sides had roughly commensurate allies. That parity helped to ensure a stand-off for the first ten years of the fighting of the three-decade long war. But after the catastrophic defeat at Sicily in 413, Sparta and the Peloponnesian League had been joined not just by Thebes, but also by Sicily and soon Persia.
The result was that Athens was defeated in 404 not by Sparta, but rather by the greatest Greek city-states and the Persian Empire combined. The volatile Athenian Assembly was probably right at the war’s outbreak that Athens may have been able to fight Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies to a stalemate, but it never imagined that it would end up fighting allied powers with far more combined resources than its original Spartan enemy.
By May 1941 Hitler had won World War II—at least in the sense that the area of most of the present European Union was under his control. Italy was allied, the Iberian peninsula sympathetically neutral, Russia a partner, America distant and not interested in war, and its sole surviving adversary, Great Britain, was isolated and weak. Yet, by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941, and declaring war on the United States six months later, the Third Reich gained far more powerful enemies than all those it had previously defeated.
Hitler had originally sold the war to his generals on reclaiming lands and glory lost in World War I. But had he warned them in 1939 that he was intent on soon declaring war on both America and the Soviet Union before defeating Britain, they would have thought him insane—especially given the fact that just twenty three years earlier, Germany had lost a winnable conflict on the Western Front by drawing the United States belatedly into World War I. In other words, like Athens, Germany lost to enemies that were not even conceivably enemies when the war started. CONTINUE READING