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Fighting The Last War—and The Next

June 2024
11min read

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?

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.

The lessons of history do not suggest that the United States can’t wage wars in coalition. But the coalitions that have worked best have been uneasy assemblages of states bound together by genuine and vital (if transient) common interests. Washington has been speaking about persuading our new allies to understand that ending state support for terrorism is in everyone’s interest. But this is plainly false: A number of our theoretical allies are states that have a strong vested interest in employing terrorists, because terrorists have proved a cheap, effective, and apparently satisfying way of striking at enemies. If we intend to fight the war on terror the way we fought the Gulf War, by appealing to some least common denominator of political agreement, we may be in trouble from the start. And we may be in trouble simply by terming a prospective military action a war on terror.

To declare war on terrorism, to call acts of terrorism acts of war, also runs the risk of fighting a previous campaign. War, if it is anything more than a metaphor, is waged by and between states, and when we forget this we are liable to get into difficulties. A few years ago we declared war on drugs, but the results of that war are pretty discouraging, not least because we thereby framed the question in a way that suggests the satisfying outcome of a violent and total result, but also because the tools of war we possess in abundance have not proved very useful. States may harbor drug traffickers, but we have not thought it useful to invade Mexico, Colombia, Burma, or Thailand. Aircraft may fly drugs into the United States, but we do not send F-16s to shoot them down; ships may land drugs on our coasts, but we use Coast Guard cutters to intercept them, not destroyers to sink them. War is something we are good at; suppressing the drug trade is something we are less good at. The price we pay for calling a narcotics problem a war is to cast undeserved doubt on our military capacity.

Is rhetoric about a war on terrorism the same sort of mistake? Maybe, but not necessarily. Terrorism is often used by states that don’t have the means or the stomach to wage a fullscale war and thus wage a stifled one with surrogates. Syria has used terrorists against both Israel and Turkey, Pakistan used them against India, Iraq and Iran against each other and the United States, Libya against a variety of enemies. The Soviet Union backed some terrorists while shunning others (for example, the IRA). The Chinese and Cubans both backed some terrorist organizations. Our own government has supported guerrillas who on occasion used terrorist methods; to pick a relatively uncontroversial example, we backed Afghan mujahedeen who were less than scrupulous in their tactics. This list is very far from exhaustive.

One can certainly make war on states, and there may be advantages to doing so when attempting to suppress terrorism. Most successful terrorists make good use of the resources states can provide; when those resources aren’t available, suppressing terror generally gets easier. States are also clear targets, while terrorists themselves are usually very hard to find. And while terrorists may scorn the risks they run, may even seek martyrdom, states almost never seek martyrdom. States can be deterred by reprisal, or destroyed.

This is indeed what some members of the administration have vowed to do: We are going to “end” states that support or give shelter to terrorists. War is a way of ending states, but ending a state requires military conquest, occupation, and probably the organization of a successor government. It is perfectly possible to do this. Three states that not only supported terrorism but actively practiced it declared war on the United States in 1941. Germany, Japan, and Italy no longer practice terror or support it. But 50 years later, in 1991, when the United States had a good chance to solve a problem of statesupported (and indeed state-conducted) terrorism, it left a terrorist regime in control of Iraq.

Why did the rules ever evolve in a direction that allowed states to shelter terrorists, and use them fairly freely? Some terrorists have been employed by states so strong that we did not think it prudent to go to war with them. Invading East Germany to root out members of the Baader-Meinhof gang would have meant pushing through Soviet Guard tank armies. Guerrillas, who have a tendency to use terrorist methods, and who by the older rules of war were themselves terrorists, were employed by both sides during the Cold War; they often seemed to be the only prudent way of striking at the enemy. And guerrillas often did their work in the reflected glory of the partisans and Resistance fighters of the Second World War. So state support of terror was tolerated, sometimes because it had to be and sometimes because such support seemed morally acceptable, or even morally commendable, in a context of the Cold War and anti-imperialist wars.

The end of the European empires and the disappearance of the Soviet Union did not immediately undo this atmosphere of toleration, and, in any case, the effect of the Cold War on the toleration of state-supported terror was sometimes indirect. Revolutionary Iran was not a Soviet client, but it did employ terror against the United States, and did so with no fear of invasion or of massive bombardment. Perhaps this forbearance, too, was a result of Cold War politics; precisely because revolutionary Iran was not in the Soviet orbit, American administrations were wary of pushing her there.

But this forbearance outlasted the Cold War by more than a decade, and spanned four administrations, each of which announced that America would not tolerate states that sheltered terrorists, and then tolerated them. Why? Perhaps the Cold War-enforced habit of putting up with what would normally be considered acts of war had simply taken root. Perhaps there was a guilty conscience, a hangover from the days of European imperialism, when Western states had regularly taken military reprisals against less-well-armed Asian and African ones. Moreover, our military power so dwarfed that of the Third World states that were provoking us that we may at some level have refused to take even gross insults very seriously. Or perhaps it was the opposite: In the wake of a misperception about the lessons of Vietnam, the terrorist-sheltering states may have seemed rather formidable. Or perhaps it is simply the case that oil, like rank, has its privileges, and the oil states conspicuously sympathized with one brand of terrorism.

Whatever the reasons, by the late 1980s a weak state could wage proxy war against the United States through terrorism, and do so without punishment unless it was caught red-handed, and if it was caught red-handed, the punishment would prove endurable. Now we are pressuring states currently sponsoring or tolerating terrorists to instead take effective measures against them. If we are even partially successful, we may be in for an unpleasant surprise, for this approach refights some very old wars indeed. In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Western states periodically compelled non-Western states to crack down on homicidal and xenophobic elements within their own societies. They did it with both Qing China and Tokugawa Japan, and the result was to erode the legitimacy of both regimes, which subsequently collapsed.

Pakistan, Egypt, and a number of states on the Arabian Peninsula have fragile regimes that have made uneasy peace with indigenous violent xenophobic movements. We may erode the legitimacy of these regimes if we push them hard, and if we do not push them hard, they will likely remain tolerant of at least some terrorists—certainly of ones who strike at the Israelis, or the Indians, or Americans. And Pakistan is now a nuclear weapons state; if its government collapses, its fission bombs will fall into what may be extremely hostile new hands. Pressing for the nuclear disarmament of Pakistan may be both implausible and risky, while failing to disarm Pakistan may in the lone run be riskier still.

Not all military defeats produce dedicated would-be martyrs; some make the defeated party lose all taste for a fight.

In any case, it seems clear that one war that we should not refight is the halfhearted one against terrorist states. A series of minimal responses to stateabetted terrorism has been cumulatively catastrophic; with each mild retaliation, we have taught such states that it is safe to conduct a policy of covert murder against our country’s civilians. Another war we must hope the administration does not refight is our recent campaign against terror conducted on the model of a criminal investigation and prosecution. Criminal investigations are intensely rule-bound, as they must be. A state waging proxy war is by definition bound by no laws, and combating it with laws is to risk entering a onesided suicide pact. Economic sanctions, for instance, can go on for decades with no noticeably useful effect, and states as weak as Libya, Cuba, and postwar Iraq rarely seem to have been inhibited by them. The World Trade Center, on the other hand, disappeared very quickly.

So which wars might we want to consider refighting? Does the more distant past hold any useful lessons? At first glance, it seems to. For decades, sovereignty has been held as absolute; all states are to be treated as formal equals, on the theory that all states observe minimal norms. But the existence of states practicing genocide at home and/or terrorism abroad suggests that all states are not observing what most Americans consider minimal norms. The norm just broken has cost more American lives than were lost on Omaha Beach.

In the nineteenth century, norm-breaking states were not always treated as formal equals, and they risked the loss of their sovereignty. If we discover that a state has backed grievous assaults on us, should we in fact suspend the sovereignty of that state by force of arms—invasion, conquest, and the formation of a new regime? I think it is worth remembering that such a policy was effected as recently as 1945, and with considerable success. There is no obvious reason why it cannot be done again. There will be many bad consequences if we try and fail, and very probably some if we try and succeed, and not all these consequences can even be imagined before we start. But states are often taught by example.

This is not to imply that we have the power to make a political paradise of some pretty unpromising material. We do not; we ourselves are not a political paradise. If we end by setting up a new regime anywhere, it is not likely to be nearly as successful, or as long-lived, as the postwar regimes of Germany, Japan, and Italy have been. This will be sad for its citizens but will not necessarily make the exercise worthless. The purpose of destroying a rogue regime is not only reprisal but deterrence. This we may be able to achieve, for some reprisals succeed.

When the Confederate States of America vowed to enslave any black Union soldier taken prisoner, Abraham Lincoln ordered that if this occurred, captured Confederate soldiers would be set to work in chains. In the wake of this public vow, captured black soldiers were not systematically enslaved. Similarly, Adolf Hitler, not a man easily restrained from atrocity, was deterred from using poison gas against armed enemies by fear of reprisals. No one should pretend that reprisals work reliably; sometimes they set off an escalating spiral of atrocity. If we destroy a state, we will not, of course, deter suicidal zealots. But we may well deter some states that are considering sponsoring them.

Whatever we do, we will surely be called imperialists. But we are called imperialists now, by which our enemies presumably mean impotent and risible imperialists. The existing rules of the international covenant say that we cannot, or at any rate must not, break a state; the numbers of our dead suggest that we may be willing to change the rules. The rules of the state system sometimes change after decisive wars. Perhaps that is the sort of war we should be thinking of refighting.

Another sort of war we might consider refighting is the one that breaks the enemy’s morale. Not all military defeats produce dedicated or resourceful would-be martyrs; some defeats make the defeated party lose all taste for a fight. So we might consider as additional models wars that did not produce quick, decisive victories but that in the long run changed international norms in ways that have so far proved permanent. The U.S. Navy’s campaign against the Barbary pirates spanned 14 years, and the Royal Navy’s campaign against the slave trade lasted longer. But piracy and slavery are nowadays pretty marginal evils, in both cases because although weaker states clung to them tenaciously and profited from them, the practices were systematically put down by force of arms. It may not be likely, but it is scarcely impossible, that the same may become true of state-sponsored terrorism.

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