How Great Nations Can Win Small Wars

By Yagil Henkin

Iraq, Northern Ireland, and the secret strength of democratic peoples.

We live today in an age of small wars.1 In contrast to the last World War, which ended six decades ago and encompassed dozens of nations, spanning continents and seas, the current age is characterized by a different kind of armed conflict. The primary enemy confronting countries is no longer other countries, but guerilla armies and terrorist organizations—armed groups whose power is measured not by the amount of force they can bring to the battlefield or by the quality of their weapons, but by their ability to wear down the other side and break its will to continue fighting.
Because of the nature of unconventional warfare, many analysts believe that in a conflict between a state and a terrorist or guerilla force, the state, with its larger and better-equipped military, is actually the weaker side. U.S. Army Lt.-Col. Robert Cassidy, an expert in counter-insurgency warfare, writes that “big powers do not necessarily lose small wars; they simply fail to win them…. In the absence of a threat to survival, the big powers’ failure to quickly and decisively attain their strategic aim causes them to lose domestic support…. The war for the indigenous insurgents is total but it is inherently limited for the great power. This is because the insurgents pose no direct threat to the great power’s survival.”2 The militarily weaker side, says Cassidy, hopes to break the cohesiveness of the political consensus backing the enemy’s war effort while exploiting the fact that “big powers are less tolerant of casualties in small wars than their opponents are.”3 Gil Merom of Tel Aviv University points out that the weaker side’s advantage is that it “tends to involve potential catastrophic consequences, while victory promises an ultimate reward: Independence.”4 By contrast, a nation usually does not enjoy the benefits of such unanimity of purpose and tolerance for casualties, and thus sooner or later will abandon the struggle, as in the case of the Soviets after many years of war in Afghanistan.5
According to this widely held view, in a protracted conflict against a weaker but more determined opponent, the likelihood that a nation will lose is further increased when it is a democracy. Whereas non-democratic countries will often use extreme force against the weaker side even to the point of annihilating it or transferring or expelling entire populations, democratic countries, according to Merom, “are restricted by their domestic structure,” which is why “they find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory.”6 According to this view, the weakness of democracy stems from the influence of public opinion on the decisions of political leaders: The public generally frowns upon the use of overly violent means, and it does not have the patience for prolonged fighting. “The interaction of sensitivity to casualties, repugnance to brutal military behavior, and commitment to democratic life,”7 says Merom, often leads democracies into a situation where they cannot or will not use enough force to ensure victory. By contrast, countries that are “less liberal and less democratic can be expected to encounter fewer and lesser domestic obstacles … when they fight brutally small wars.”8
For those reasons, diplomats and military strategists make grim assessments about a democracy’s chances of winning a military struggle against guerilla forces. “The guerilla wins if he does not lose,” said Henry Kissinger. “The conventional army loses if it does not win.”9 Lieutenant-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, when he was the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, announced that “it is impossible to defeat a guerilla.”10 This opinion has become so prevalent in Israel that some of today’s military commanders utterly deny that there is even such a thing as victory in small wars. For example, at the end of 2003, Brigadier-General Eival Gilady, former head of the Strategic Planning Division of the General Staff, said: “When I got this post I saw on plans the words ‘to achieve decisive victory against the Palestinians.’ I asked myself … what kind of nonsense is this? Who exactly are we subduing? What does it mean to achieve decisive victory? We tried to find substitutes for ‘decisive.’ At first I spoke of an ‘impression of victory,’ a sort of semblance.”11 As Major-General Yaakov Or, coordinator of government activities in the territories, declared several years ago, “there is no decisive military answer to popular national conflicts.”12
It seems obvious that if this view is correct, the implications for both Israel and the United States will be profound indeed, as each country decides whether to continue allocating resources and sacrificing lives in small wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Palestinian Authority. But is it correct? Are democratic countries always fated to end up the loser against guerilla or terrorist forces, exhausted and lacking the will to continue fighting? If we take a look at several such conflicts from the last fifty years, the reverse seems to be the case: Not only have democracies been willing to escalate the violence of their tactics, they have also displayed an enormous capacity for seeing a long struggle through to victory.13 And in those cases where democracies in the end turned in defeat—such as France in Algeria or the United States in Vietnam—it was not the broader public but the upper echelons of leadership that determined the outcome. Contrary to the conventional wisdom among experts, democratic citizens do not shrink from a prolonged conflict if they are convinced that the fight is a just one. When they are convinced, their stamina is often far greater than that of their leaders.
On the whole, it is worth living under democratic regimes, even if only for the simple reason that they do not kill their citizens.14 For the most part, those living in liberal democracies need not fear persecution, internal purges, and political assassinations. Moreover, the openness and tolerance of democracies is evident in their foreign policies, especially in their attitude toward countries that also cherish political freedom. It is widely observed that democracies usually do not go to war against each other.
However, when democratic countries sense danger or even the possibility that their interests could be harmed, they are capable of acting decisively against their enemies and even starting full-scale wars. For example, Israel has twice instigated hostilities when it sensed an immediate danger to its existence—on the eve of the Six Day War, and eleven years earlier against Egypt in the Sinai Campaign. Britain declared war on Argentina in 1982 over the strategically unimportant Falkland Islands, and in 2001 the United States launched an all-out war in Afghanistan, despite the distance, inhospitable terrain, and an enemy that had succeeded in thwarting the Soviet invasion a decade earlier. Once a democratic country starts a war, it can escalate the violence to an extremely high level; it is enough to recall that the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon—the United States during World War II—was a democracy. During the same war, Allied forces struck at Germany and Japan with widespread bombing campaigns that claimed vast civilian casualties and reduced large cities such as Dresden and Tokyo to rubble.15
The willingness of democracies to use massive violence is evident not just in conflicts that threaten a nation’s survival. During the Vietnam War, the American military dropped seven million tons of bombs—three and a half times what it dropped on Germany during World War II, resulting in at least 65,000 North Vietnamese civilian deaths between 1964 and 1972.16 During the 1954-1962 war in Algeria, France lost approximately 20,000 soldiers and civilians, but losses among the rebels and the Muslim Algerian population totaled at least 300,000, and some say they were closer to one million.17
While democratic countries thus do not hesitate to exert massive force on the battlefield, moreover, it is worth noting that decidedly totalitarian countries, which have little compunction about using the most extreme measures, have sometimes found it equally difficult to defeat enemies many times weaker than them. That is the lesson the Nazis learned in Yugoslavia, for example, as did the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Yet there are examples of rebellions and guerilla wars that have been successfully quelled by democratic and quasi-democratic states. The British fought from 1948 to 1960 against guerilla forces in Malaya and won, and the war conducted by the Sultan of Oman, with the support of Western democracies, against communist guerillas between 1962 and 1976 also ended successfully, and with far fewer civilian casualties than those recorded in Algeria and Vietnam, in both absolute and relative terms.18
Probably the best example of how a democracy successfully defeated an insurgency in a protracted conflict can be seen in the way Britain handled its conflict with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The IRA’s goal was to unify Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a sovereign nation independent of the United Kingdom. The final and most violent outbreak of the dispute started in 1969 and was triggered by several factors, including the Protestant British government’s discrimination against Catholics. The Provisional IRA and other radical Catholic groups launched a terrorist campaign against the British forces and Protestants, and at first the British methods, designed around fighting insurgents in the colonies, failed against urban insurgents.19 Public opinion and political considerations prevented the British from employing against the Irish methods they had used against the colonies—for example, burning down villages and transferring their residents to other areas, or wholesale administrative detention.20 The blatant discrimination practiced by the British army only helped undermine its cause and push many Catholics into the arms of the IRA. “Bloody Sunday,” in January 1972, in which British soldiers killed fourteen unarmed Catholic demonstrators, increased support for the IRA and inspired the group to escalate its activities.21 In the following years, the policies of successive British governments toward the organization were changed, as reforms were instituted and failed.22 Politicians refrained for a long time from using the words “war” or “civil war” in the context of Ireland (and by doing so they hurt their chance of enlisting public support).23 Human rights violations committed by Britain in Northern Ireland were internationally condemned. Starting in the late 1970s, the separatists achieved a number of resounding successes, such as the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten, a war hero and a member of the English royal family, a bombing in Brighton that narrowly missed the entire British government, several bombings in central London, and a mortar fired at the prime minister’s official residence.

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How Great Nations Can Win Small WarsIraq, Northern Ireland, and the secret strength of democratic peoples.
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