First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Lessons of War: Anybody Can Lose
When it comes to warfare, pride can kill.
We know it from sports -- the top-ranked team, facing a low-ranked opponent, can often take it for granted that the victory will be theirs. So when the underdog scores a few points, the prideful team doesn't worry. Doesn't worry. And then when it starts to worry, it's too late.
The difference in warfare is that the consequence of losing to an underdog can be devastating and permanent.
We're the top dog right now. All that proud talk about "the world's only superpower." About how in Iraq it's only a matter of how quickly, not whether, we'll win. About all our marvelous weapons and how Iraq has no way to counter them.
But they do have ways to counter our weapons.
All those satellite-guided smart weapons can have their radio signals jammed.
All those bunker-busting bombs are worth diddly-squat if we don't know where to drop them.
Tanks and air power are useful, but not decisive, in urban warfare.
Siege tactics and supply lines work against us and for them, since Saddam feels no responsibility to feed his people and we do.
Not to mention the fact that our armies are no better than our commanders -- not only in our strategy and tactics before we start, but also our doctrines, practices, and responses when things go in unpredicted ways.
How good are our commanders, when we're losing?
How good are our soldiers, when casualty rates are high?
These are unpredictable factors in every war, no matter how well-trained your soldiers are, no matter how high morale is at the beginning.
Even when victory is certain -- as it was for the allies in December 1944 -- the enemy can pull a surprise that is potentially devastating, like the Battle of the Bulge.
Why did we win that battle, after the initial reverses?
Because of the courage, the toughness, the morale of our soldiers. Draftees who had no ambitions for war, citizens of a democracy that Hitler assumed would be soft and reluctant to fight, showed enormous reserves of courage and resourcefulness. Even though they were not defending our native soil, even though our soldiers never spoke of patriotism or the nobility of our cause, these citizens of a democracy knew that they were our country; if they didn't stop the Nazis, nobody would.
And so they fought when fighting seemed impossible.
But who knew? Our commanders hoped. The German commanders hoped not. But nobody knew.
On paper, Iraq is in a hopeless military position. History shows us as winners -- in '91, and last year in Afghanistan. History shows Iraqi soldiers as hopeless losers -- not just in '91, but also in its participation in wars against Israel in past years.
And in all likelihood, we'll win the war just as everyone expects.
But let's learn some lessons from history.
Two books: Michael B. Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. And Walter J. Boyne's The Two O'Clock War: The 1973 Yom Kippur Conflict and the Airlift that Saved Israel.
In 1967, Israel had a reputation for toughness -- they had already crushed Arab armies in 1948-49 and 1956. But their borders were still indefensible, and they knew it.
So Israeli military doctrine was that they had to strike first, so that battles took place only on enemy soil.
The trouble was that Israel was highly dependent on world opinion. And world opinion frowned deeply on any kind of first strike from Israel (sound familiar?).
We forget now that in those days the U.S. was not a supporter of Israel. They were flying French Mirage jets then, and using weapons cobbled together from several nations.
So as Nasser of Egypt mobilized his armies and moved a huge (but undersupplied and badly organized) force into the Sinai, Israel missed many opportunities to strike first and cripple the enemy.
Until finally that missed their last chance. Nasser's army was in place. He gave the order. Egypt was going to get the first strike, and there was a good chance that they would roll through Israel's front-line defenses.
He gave the order. And then, incredibly, rescinded it at the very last minute.
Instead of victory, a matter of hours later Israel achieved tactical surprise and destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground. From that moment, the Israeli victory was almost inevitable, and when Jordan entered the war -- despite Israeli pleas that they stay out -- Israel answered by seizing the West Bank, giving them defensible boundaries.
Most important, however, the 1967 war cemented Israel's reputation for invincibility. In 1948, the Arabs could claim that they were disorganized and unready (though in fact they were more prepared than Israel was). In 1956, they could claim that France and Britain were the key to Israel's victory.
But in 1967, it was Israel alone, against four Arab armies (Iraq sent a formidable army that was defeated with relative ease).
Six years later, however, it was a different story. Everyone "knew" that Arabs couldn't fight. Everyone "knew" that Israel could easily beat any combination of armies thrown against them.
Everyone, that is, except Anwar Sadat.
His objective was limited. He only wanted to seize enough of the Sinai to force Israel to negotiate for the return of Egyptian territory. And because he was a smart man who had learned the lessons from the 1967 defeat, he knew how to do it:
First, the Israelis had pulled away from the edge of the Suez Canal, depending on a strong mobile force to respond to any landing. But, in their complacency -- their "invincibility" -- they had let that force shrink and had pulled it back too far. So the door was open and Sadat knew it.
Second, the Egyptians had surface-to-air missiles supplied by Russia -- the same missiles that had been bringing down American jets in Vietnam. Israel had never faced such weapons.
Third, Egypt had also adopted effective anti-tank weapons carried by infantry.
Fourth, Sadat knew that Arabs can fight, not just defensively, but on the attack -- if they trust their officers, if they are competently led, if they are well-supplied, and if the enemy does not have complete air superiority.
So when the Egyptian army -- preserving its secrecy to a remarkable degree -- crossed the canal and rolled over Israel's defenses, the Israelis were completely taken by surprise. They sent in their jets and they were decimated.
Without air superiority, the Israeli tanks were sitting ducks for the infantry-based anti-tank weapons. To the shock of the Israeli people, they lost the first day of war.
And not just in Egypt. Syria also delivered a well-planned, well-aimed blow against shamefully neglected defenses on Mt. Hebron, and very nearly fought their way through the last Israeli defenses in the north.
Had it not been for heroic, bold, and lucky moves by a handful of Israeli commanders, Israel would have had a bloody war in the streets of its cities, and might have ceased to exist in 1973.
We often forget now what a near thing it was. If not for a massive airlift from the U.S. -- and the knowledge it was coming, which allowed Israel to expend its reserve supplies -- there's no way Israel could have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Reading these two books should be sobering for any American looking at a war against an Arab nation.
First, because it shows the horrible consequences of complacency. An army that believes it can't be beaten is going to get its butt kicked.
Second, because it shows that Arabs can fight, and only a fool thinks they can't. Even the Iraqi army can fight. And nobody has tested them on their own soil, defending their own homes against an invader.
Third, because an army whose doctrine has prevailed in one war tends to continue doing the stuff that worked before -- while the enemy, having learned from earlier defeats, can change its doctrine to neutralize the former victor's advantages.
In other words, in victory we teach our enemies how to defeat us next time.
Sometimes those lessons are wrong -- Osama bin Laden "learned" from the stupid policies of the Clinton administration in Somalia that if you just kill a few Americans, they'll go away. Oops, wrong lesson. Clinton wasn't going to be president forever.
But sometimes those lessons are right, and everything will depend on how quickly we can adapt.
It happens that at this moment, our military seems to be unusually resourceful, smart, and adaptable.
It happens that Saddam is an amazingly self-destructive leader, killing anyone who dares to offer any suggestions. So the chance of Saddam coming up with any kind of effective strategy is slim. But not nonexistent.
Chances are that our war with Iraq will be just as swift and decisive as everyone seems to believe.
But the overall war against extremist, terrorist Islam -- against Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and their sponsors in Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia -- is far from over.
And Iran's military is not as stupidly led as Iraq's. Syria's current leadership is a cipher -- we have no idea what they can or will do. And Saudi Arabia has been armed by ... us.
As President Bush warned us more than a year ago, this will not be a quick war and it will not be an easy war. The initial campaigns in Afghanistan and, probably, Iraq might make it seem easy and quick. But the most dangerous enemies lie ahead.
There's a chance, if we win decisively in Iraq, that we won't have to fight those other enemies.
There's a chance that Iran's people may find a way to throw off the hated rule of the ayatollahs. There's a chance that Syria will decide that the lesson they should learn from the war with Iraq is that they need to cut off all aid for terrorists and in fact become our best friend in the Middle East.
But there's also a chance that they won't. That we'll face a tough war against Iran and Syria at the same time, and maybe North Korea as well. There are all kinds of things that can go deeply, seriously wrong.
There's only one thing certain. The consequence of not fighting now, on their soil, to cut off those governments that make terrorism possible, is to fight them later, on our own soil, with devastating consequences on America and all our allies.
So fight we must, since they decided we were in a war to the death.
Let's just hope that our pride is all talk, and our military plans and fights as if they believed that we could lose.
Because we could.
Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.
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