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Why Superpowers Can't Win
Tuesday, 22 May 2007 23:02
by Stephen P. Pizzo

It would be nice to believe that the the reason the US can't win in Iraq is because Bush waged the wrong war, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or that he failed to anticipate the post-invasion insurgency. Or that no country can any longer be occupied and subjugated by distant, foreign powers.

Sure, all those things are playing their part in the slaughterhouse that Iraq has become since the George W. Bush & Co. "liberated" the place. But remember, two decades before that the Russians were driven out of Afghanistan. And the French were chased out of North Africa. Each possessed superpower status, manifested in the potentially most devastating military forces in the history of mankind. Yet that status and all that fire power couldn't give the victories, the control or hegemony, they sought.


Blame it on evolution. Attaining superpower status required more of those societies than simply hammering out guns, tanks, submarines, stealth fighters and nukes. All that military/industrial R&D had to move in lockstep with a host of social developments; education, trade ties, advances in science and medicine, information, and the humanities.

One could argue that the former Soviet Union made less progress in some of those areas than Western countries, and they would be right. Which is largely the reason it's now called "the former Soviet Union."

Nevertheless, Russians made plenty of progress as well. And some might argue that they were more smarter than we were in some ways. Rather than continuing to waste national treasure in a mindless and unwinnable arms race, they bailed, figuring that being the world's No. 2 superpower was good enough.

And the Russians were right about that. Because both No. 1, the US and No. 2, Russian, lost wars in piss ant countries against near-primitive irregular forces. Russian was chased out of Afghanistan and the US is about to be chased out of Iraq, and maybe Afghanistan too.

There was a time when both the US and Russian kicked ass. Russian didn't just defeat German invaders but devastated them. The US leveled both Germany and Japan.

So why can't superpowers defeat today's insurgencies, such as those fighting US troops in Iraq or terrorist groups like al-Qaida, Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah?

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Because, we can't fight dirty any more. We used use military tactics designed to make an enemy cry "uncle." But these days we just can't bring ourselves to stoop to the level required to inflict the kind of pain bring an enemy and and it's allies to their knees.

How did we win World War II? Not with tiny troop "surges" or by turning soldiers into community cops. And we didn't do it by building power plants on enemy territory, quite the opposite, we bombed power plants into dust. We bombed dams so farmers couldn't irrigate crops, thereby starving the enemy.

But the biggest difference between "us" then and "us" now is that back then we didn't give a fig about civilians. We didn't use surgical bombing strikes to take out a handful of German or Japanese soldiers, we flattened everything and everyone in their general vicinity.

Today we blanch when we hear on the news that 50 people were killed in Iraq, or that the US lost 10 soldiers in a day. During WW II such a lacklustre day would have been considered a day wasted. Just look at the carnage the last generation shrugged off as "just the cost of war."

"The total estimated human loss of life caused by World War II, irrespective of political alignment, was roughly 72 million people. The civilian toll was around 47 million, including about 20 million due to war related famine and disease. The military toll was about 25 million, including about 5 million prisoners of war. The Allies lost around 61 million people, and the Axis lost 11 million.



Even as Germany was teetering on the brink of defeated, the Allies sent an armada of bombers to Dresden to blanket the city with fire-bombs. In a matter of a couple of hours the entire city was turned into a funeral prier for an estimated 30,000 civilians. Thirty thousand, in a single day! Imagine that.

The tactical theory behind such acts of mind boggling brutality was to send a message to the enemy - "Surrender or we'll level your social and industrial infrastructure and slaughter your people. Your move."

The US sent the same message to Japan, twice, and for the first time with nuclear exclamation mark. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were levelled, killing nearly a quarter million civilians in two days of war.

Both German and Japan surrendered, the war ended and the victors went about the business of getting back to business. Over the next fifty years we changed, for the better. We no longer believe that leveling entire cites filled with civilians is a justifiable tactic of war. Instead we now fight enemies the way like cancer, by targeting the tumors while trying to do as little damage to the victim as possible.

All of which makes us better human beings than we were. But it likely also makes us incapable of winning.

I am not suggesting we go back to the bad old days and ways, I am simply describing our new strategic reality. After all, does anyone doubt that the US and UK could turn all or parts of Iraq into a glass parking lot with a couple nukes? Of course they could. But, thank goodness, they haven't and they won't. Because they can't. They can't because of the developed world would explode in rage and indignation - as would most the American people.

And it's not just the US struggling with this new reality. Look at what's going on in Tripoli Lebanon this week. A handful of al-Qaida fighters - less than 200 - took refuge in the sprawling Palestinian refugee camp and opened fire on Lebanese Army forces.

In the bad old days the military solution would have been to bomb the bajeebers' out of the area, send in tanks to knock down what buildings were left standing, followed by ground troops with orders to shoot anything that's still moving. Non-combatant civilians would have to figure out how to survive on their own and, if they didn't, they didn't.

But the "developed" world will no longer would stand for such wholesale slaughters. So the Lebanese army is reduced to lobbing a few targeted shells into buildings they suspect are being used by insurgents, then calling a cease fire so ambulances can evacuate wounded civilians and the UN rushes in to provide food and water to civilians trapped in the crossfire.

How will the Lebanese stand-off end? I can't tell, but one thing is for sure, it won't end with anything our fathers or grandfathers would have graced with the term "victory." Instead the insurgents will disrupt, then disappear to disrupt another day. How long a civil society can survive such tactics - or whether it can - is the question that remains to be answered.

Ironically, this new reality mankind faces may be far more bleak than anything our parent's generation faced. Maybe they were more brutal in waging war, but that brutality resulted in victory, fortunately for the good guys. We face a much less certain outcome and future. We live in a time when nice guys finish last -- simply because we are nice guys.

I can hear those on the far left pounding their palms to the foreheads shouting, "What the hell is this moron talking about? Doesn't he know that Bush's war in Iraq has killed tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of innocent people?"

Yes, this moron knows that. But imagine if MacArthur or Patton were waging the war in Iraq. Civilian casualties would be counted in the millions, and without a hint of shame or apology.

I'm glad my father's generation defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan. And I am not judging them for the way they went about doing it. It was different time and half-century ago. Their sacrifices gave us the decades of peace during which we were freed to learn, grow and mature as a species.

But now we face the very real possibility that the power to secure victories has passed from us. That maybe today that power is solely in the hands of the world's lowest common-denominators - the under-educated, under-employed, under-socialized and religiously lobotomized.

I don't know how this chapter of mankind's story is going to end. All I know is that this time the bad guys are using our old tactics against us. Civilians are fair game to them. That would you and I this time around. And, when the day comes - and it will - when al-Qaida et al get their hands on nuclear weapons, they will do their best to turn one or more of our cities into another Dresden.

Then what? Do we surrender? Or do we turn our social-evolutionary clock back sixty years and start killing people by the millions again until someone cries "uncle?"
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Comments (2)add comment

a guest said:

Shut up, Pizzo! You are comparing apple to orange. World war II was a war that involved gov't entity. Once the gov't surrender, the war is over. The war today is difference because it's not a war against a particular entity. Sadam and his Baath party is destroyed and Bush declared the war is over! You forgot that the civil in Irag is created by the invader. the "insurgents" are resistance fighters. They are just ordinary people. You gotta wipe them off the map if you want to declare victory. Damn, I freakin' hate your ass. You sound exactly like Rumfeld, the old goat.
May 25, 2007
Votes: -1

Adam said:

i just came across this article, and i feel the same way.
Gaime is totally missing the point. it doesnt matter that the current conflicts in the world arent against an entity that can surrender, you merely have to make the cost of the resistance too great. if the resistance fighters think the cost of doing business is so great that if they keep fighting, there will be nothing left to fight for, they'll stop. take the current situation with hamas in gaza. if this were WWII, gaza would just be flattened.. nothing left. when an enemy realizes that, they stop because theres no possibility for victory. and if they dont realize it, and continue, the fighters nor what theyre fighting for will exist.
May 17, 2009
Votes: +1

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