Tuesday, January 31, 2012

When Fools Go To War

What was the central lesson that the Great Powers learned from the carnage of World War II? I firmly believe it was “never again”- that is, “never again will we fight a country that has even a remotely comparable military strength to our own.” Even so, beating the crap out of weak nations is not always as straightforward as one would imagine.

Consider for example the Falklands War of 1982, the first conflict I remember, when the military of Great Britain (small country, medium power) wiped the floor with the amassed martial forces of Argentina (big country, not actually a power). Apparently General Galtieri really wanted some windswept rocks that belonged to us, so Margaret Thatcher had to pummel him into submission with her handbag. Well, the drubbing the Argentines received worked for a while, but now they’re after those rocks again. Worse, we don’t really have a fleet to stop them since the government scrapped most of our Navy to save cash. Oops.

Another war of my youth was Gulf War I, in which Britain and America and possibly some other countries, I can’t recall, dropped bombs on Iraq to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Saddam’s forces folded incredibly quickly; but as soon as Kuwait’s oil was safe, George Bush, Sr. declared the mission accomplished. Saddam then carried on killing and torturing people for a few more years until George Bush, Jr. intervened to finish him off, with, er, mixed results.

The 90s in Europe were a mess as Yugoslavia imploded with great violence. Naturally the flaccid EU didn’t do anything; indeed some Dutch “soldiers” famously hung about gawping as Bosnian Serbs massacred Bosnian Muslims at a UN compound in Srebrenica in 1995. But then America dropped some bombs, and that made everybody friends again, didn’t it?

Well not quite, because in 1998, Serbians started chasing ethnic Albanians out of the province of Kosovo, so America had to drop some more bombs. Fortunately now Kosovo is partially recognized as an independent state, it’s absolutely not run by the mafia, and the Serbs and the Kosovars live together in harmony except for the occasional church burning and maybe a little organ business here and there.

Thus we can see the rule reinforced over and over again: if you must fight a war, make sure it’s against a weak country with a vastly inferior military to your own; otherwise you’ll wind up with millions dead, like in World War II.

Of course there are a few countries nobody should invade, no matter how hopelessly backward they may appear: Afghanistan, for example. You can see why the USSR and the USA found it tempting to get their war on over there: no infrastructure, no modern military, barely educated fanatics in charge, and a hotbed of trouble to boot. But while it’s easy to get in and blow stuff up, it’s very difficult to get out again, especially if you insist on all that confusing humanitarian nation building stuff to accompany the horror show violence, my droogs.

I also wouldn’t recommend anyone invade a jungle country like Vietnam, particularly if your enemy is funded and trained by a superpower. Meanwhile weak nations picking on even weaker targets should be extra-careful, as Mikheil Sakaashvili discovered when he launched an attack on the separatist Georgian province of South Ossetia in 2008. Either he had forgotten that South Ossetia was backed by Russia, or he really believed that the USA would come to his aid and start World War III in support of his nationalist fantasies.

For a long time I thought Sakaashvili’s attack on South Ossetia was the most moronic military action in living memory; however, recent events in Libya have given me cause to reconsider. I understand that the pretext was to prevent a massacre taking place, and that is noble, even if massacres take place all the time and nobody does anything. Indeed, Bashir Assad has been killing people in Syria for months and it’s only this week that Barack Obama finally voiced some tepid criticism. Hardly anyone cares about the Congo, where millions have died in a civil war that started in 1998.

Obviously Britain, France and America calculated that Gaddafi was weak, and that he would be easy to topple. They were wrong. Meanwhile, I don’t see why our leaders place any faith in his opponents, a mixture of jihadis and tribal warlords given to fighting among themselves, killing their own commanders and murdering black Africans. Also, Gadaffi was already selling us oil; indeed the Scottish government had given one of his henchmen a get out of jail free card in order that Britain could get more of it.

It’s all very confusing. At least Sakaashvili’s mad folly was swiftly terminated by overwhelming force; but the Libya war just drags on and on, getting messier by the day. Evidently it’s not enough to be much stronger than your opponent. You must also be wise, or at least not a fool.