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Fighting The Last War—and The Next
Our government called the terror attacks on our country an act of war and replied with a declaration of war on terrorism. What can history teach us about our prospects in such a war?
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
Generals are always prepared to fight the last war, as the durable and scornful proverb goes. But preparing to fight the last war is not necessarily a foolish thing to do. If military technology is stable—as was the case, for example, in the long age of black powder and fighting sail—the lessons of the last war probably retain their authority. There are exceptions: In a world in which firearms had barely changed for a century, Napoleon consistently beat opponents who tried fighting the last war. But Napoleons are rare. Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Marlborough, Eugene of Savoy, and the Duke of Wellington are famous for having very effectively fought the last war.
Preparing to fight the last war only became a famous blunder during the last century and a half, a period of rapidly evolving military technology and successive revolutions in tactics. The terrible losses of the American Civil War, the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, and, above all, the First World War are part of the reason “fighting the last war” has become shorthand for murderous folly. The blood price paid on the Somme and at Verdun is seen as eloquent condemnation of military rigidity, of generals who couldn’t understand that old tactics were suicidal against new weapons. Fighting the last war became an even greater error when doing so let Hitler conquer Western Europe at a minimal cost, using a technology as subtle and superficially drab as wireless communication.
After 1945, fighting the last war seemed to be a recurring problem. The common view holds that the United States fought in Vietnam with forces equipped for a rerun of the Second World War, and lost as a result. There is something in this: The U.S. Army did much better on the battlefields of Vietnam than was generally acknowledged, but a political model of war drawn from the 19405 did us great harm. How do you win a war when you’re not allowed to occupy an enemy’s home country, when his economic base is off-limits, when his masters appear essentially indifferent to the human cost of engaging American power, and when the public expects wars to end with the clarity and finality that were achieved in 1945?
So the real evidence is strong that generals do fall prey to the temptation to fight the last war and that this can be very dangerous. As we begin to wage war on terrorism, what do the generals—and the politicians—remember about the last war? And what should they be remembering?
As this issue goes to press, in early October, America has just launched the first air strikes in what it promises will be a new kind of war. The situation may have changed beyond imagining by the time you read this. Still, I think there are some historical encouragements, and warnings, that will remain valid throughout a long and trying national effort.
In 1991 the Gulf War led to an American victory of fantastic proportions: Modern airpower and armor destroyed an Iraqi army hundreds of thousands strong, at a price of less than two hundred American dead. This was a brilliant military triumph, although it devolved into a political stalemate and recently seemed to be devolving yet further, into a defeat. The Gulf War is the last war. Is America preparing to refight it? And can this in fact be done?
In the first days after the terrorist attacks, the administration began speaking about assembling a broad coalition against our enemies, whoever they turned out to be. One lesson drawn from the Gulf War was the crucial role for diplomacy in assembling an overwhelming coalition against Saddam Hussein. But was that coalition really crucial to our success against Iraq? And can something like it be reassembled?
Most of the forces contributed by our allies were of doubtful military value. The British armored division was an exception, as were some other coalition units, but much of the non-U.S. allied airpower was obsolescent, and sometimes obsolete. The Syrian unit, often touted as a sign of the coalition’s remarkable political breadth, failed to fire a shot in anger. So what were the Syrians good for? Well, they provided political cover for the Saudis, or so we were told. But if the Saudis, who were under direct and immediate threat, needed political cover in order to defend themselves from Iraqi conquest, what kind of ally were they? This became clear: They were the sort of ally that five years later would refuse to allow effective FBI investigations of the terrorist murders of American servicemen. So the great work of assembling the coalition seems to have been an effort to secure Saudi permission for America to spend her blood and treasure to defend the Saudis. The Saudis, humbly petitioned, grudgingly agreed. If we manage to maintain another such coalition, the price may be steeper. Defending the Saudis, after all, was part of the point of the Gulf War; achieving that end was a strategic victory, no matter how vexing our ally proved to be.
But the price for assembling a new coalition, one modeled on the last, might distort or destroy the point of the exercise. If, as is currently being suggested, we admit the Syrians to a coalition against terror, we will have enlisted in our war on terror a state described by our State Department as an ally of terrorists. If the Palestinian National Authority comes on board, and there are hints that that may be the case, we shall have another. Even the Pakistanis have been active sponsors of terrorism in Kashmir. What sort of war on terror will we be fighting? We may be waging war on Afghanistan, not on terrorism.