Small Wars: The Bane Of Superpowers

Small Wars: The Bane Of Superpowers


An interesting piece by Larry Kahaner, author of AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, which suggests that the Iraq war was doomed from the very start…

The answer lies in the study of “small wars.� At its simplest, a small war is one in which the relationship between the combatants is decidedly unbalanced. One side is not only militarily superior in size but its weapons are state of the art. Some call this Asymmetric Warfare or Fourth Generation Warfare, or the more familiar guerrilla warfare, from the Spanish for ‘small war.’

While the larger force relies on high-tech weaponry and sophisticated air power, contemporary small forces use simple, durable and easy-to-use and obtain weapons, mainly the venerable AK-47 rifle backed up by Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Despite reports of dramatic explosions, the ubiquitous and cheap AK-47 still kills more people in Iraq than any other weapon.

And Larry points to a very interesting book called Small Wars, where one of the main points is the morality of fighting them…something we would do well to consider the next time we want to try and spread democracy:

He notes that the primary object in a small war is to force insurgents to fight on the regular force’s terms by drawing them into conflicts in which their superior firepower and discipline could prevail. Unfortunately, the history of small wars has shown that insurgents play hit and run – striking boldy and then retreating quickly, and rarely engaging the larger force head on.

The other, and much bigger obstacle to winning small wars, brings a moral dilemma. According to Callwell, to win small wars, mere victory isn’t enough, the enemy must be thoroughly and utterly destroyed to the last man, woman, and child – which means enormous civilian casualties. For citizens of most modern democracies, this is an unacceptable stance. The level of violence and barbarism it would take to beat an insurgent force — torture, wholesale executions, leveling of towns — is a place where most democracies refuse to go. This keeps victory out of reach.

Small wars are also lost because of the larger army’s lack of national commitment which ends in inadequate or misspent funds and deployment of too few troops. For insurgents fighting for their own soil, the commitment is 100 percent. If they lose the war they lose everything. Without ‘skin in the game’ national commitment by the larger force’s country usually wanes.

If we don’t learn from the past…

  • BenG

    This notion of ‘Super Powers’ in general is ridiculous. The NFL used to have ‘super power’ franchises back before free agency, salary caps, and draft systems to promote equality. This post shows how modern technology evens out the playing field in war, as well. The question is will this trend continue and make this ancient cold war term more irrelevant?
    This is not the war on terror we ever needed. Maybe this was done because of some unfinished business left over from previous wars. We can’t learn from the past if we keep re-electing the same people who got us into trouble in the first place. Let’s see how the new guys do. Can’t wait till they get their chance.

  • Justin Gardner

    This notion of ‘Super Powers’ in general is ridiculous.

    Hey, Afghanistan arguably ate up so many of the USSR’s resources that it eventually folded in no small part as a result. Will the same thing happen to the US? Hope not, but it’s a lot more likely when we’re spending money like it doesn’t cost anything to print. Just a thought.

  • ME

    The US is nowhere near where the USSR was in terms of military spending as a % of GDP.

    USA is a very wealthy country and can afford our current war in Iraq (though higher taxes (GASP!) might be necessary). Iraq currently costs ~ 1% of US GDP.

    The issue is public support. I have argued from the begininning (though I haven’t seen anyone else make the point) that it is immoral to start a war that will not have continued support till completion. It is easy to see that the US does not have the public will to sustain long-term counter insurgencies, unless it is clearly seen to be in our immediate interest, which is no longer the case (no WMDS, no Al qaeda connection, no threat to US). Bush claims the lesson of Vietnam is that we didn’t bomb enough. With what support? The lesson of Vietnam should be not to get stuck in guerilla wars that have no direct bearing on US security, because we will never have the will to win those.

    The rabbit sometimes outruns the fox because, while the fox is only running for his dinner, the rabbit is running for his life.

  • BenG

    Good points on why the US will not continue to support the war. I would add that the large number of mistakes made by the administration makes it difficult to agree with ‘stay the course’. Now the Baker commission gets a chance, but I don’t have much hope in that effort. Aren’t these some of the same people who got us into trouble before in Iran, who supported Saddam when he was in our ‘best interest’? I also don’t see any military leaders in the group, just more politicians and an ex supreme cour judge?. This is war, stupid ! [to paraphrase the Economist after the election]
    About military spending, which I’m no expert, the war is funded by tax revenue, not GNP, although related. The gov. took in about 1 trillion in taxes [according to a recent post] and the war costs, what, about 400 billion per year ? That sounds more like 4%. And if you factor in what the middle to low income taxpayer pays in taxes as a percentage of wages, I think we’re shelling out a few bucks more than our fair share. So, it’s a hard sell, especially if you’re screwing it all up. The only winners seem to be private company contracts.