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John M. Lane
The Changing Nature of Conflict: 1945-1991
In his 1970 book, History of the Second World War, the late British historian B.H. Liddell Hart openly lamented the fate of Europe because of the war. The war “resulted in a Europe so devastated and weakened in the process [of defeating Germany] that its power of resistance was much reduced in the face of a fresh and greater menace [Soviet Union] – and Britain, in common with her European neighbors, had become a poor dependent of the United States.” (Liddell Hart 3) The world was now a bipolar world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. Their rivalry would cast a shadow over the world’s foreign and military policy until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
“Under the Cold War the strongest states on earth formed remarkably stable alliances and devoted an unprecedented part of their wealth to defense. Between 1950 and 1989, military expenditure averaged 9 per cent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) compared to 1 percent between 1919 and 1939. The USSR devoted even more to its military, perhaps even 33 per cent of its GDP, which triggered its economic decline and political collapse.” (Archer et al 549-550) For all the money spent during the Cold War on weapons and preparing for war, the major powers never fired a shot at each other. (Archer et al 550) The specter of massive nuclear arsenals kept both sides from seriously contemplating direct combat as a means of settling their differences.
From the end of the Second World War to the mid-1970s, Britain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands rid themselves of their colonies and came home. In some areas the process was peaceful and relatively smooth, in others, violent and ruthless wars were fought. Either way, by 1975, the colonial era was over. Over time, the leaders of the independence movements had seen that it would be foolhardy to attempt to engage the Western powers in direct, decisive battle, unless they could maneuver them into a situation that equalized chances for success. This is called “asymmetric warfare” It is remarkable similar, almost identical to the type of warfare used by non-western societies dating back to antiquity. Rod Thornton defines asymmetric warfare as “violent action taken by the “have-nots’ against the ‘haves’ where-by the have-nots, be they state or sub-state actors, seek to generate profound effects- at all levels of warfare (however defined), from the tactical to the strategic- by employing their specific relative advantages against the vulnerabilities of much stronger opponents.” (Thornton 1)
The classic use of asymmetry during this era was guerilla warfare against colonial powers. This type of warfare was “so successful against colonial regimes precisely because the [power of] Europeans … rested on a few white soldiers and administrators, much prestige, and the political disorganization of the colonized peoples.” (Archer et al 564) The Europeans did not have the will or resources to keep their colonies.
During this era, most wars took place in Asia and Africa. In China, Mao Zhe Dung used asymmetry to significant effect in the Communist defeat of the American equipped and financed Nationalists in 1949. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh maneuvered the French into an unwinnable position at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and defeated them. Wars between countries in Asia have been relatively short. In “…total wars fought by weak states, more often than not both sides have called a halt long before their resources were exploited, and the butcher’s bill paid in full or decisive battlefield victories achieved.” (Archer et al 552) India-China, 1962, India-Pakistan, 1965 and 1971 are the clearest examples of this situation. The situation in sub-Saharan Africa was and is the most disheartening and sad. Tribes and clans vie for control of finances and resources, leaving governments weak and corrupt. Because of this “its wars have been the most prolonged and devastating anywhere since 1945, killing more civilians than virtually all the conflicts of the rest of the world combined, and have been marked by two central features- stalemate and terror. As a matter of routine, armies have not attacked each other but instead raped, pillaged, murdered, and the starved the enemy’s civilians.” (Archer et al 552)
These wars were fought with weapons and technology provided by the “great powers” The Soviets and their eastern bloc allies flooded the world with cheap assault weapons (the famous or infamous AK-47) and other small arms The Soviets armed Egypt, Syria, Iraq, North Korea, North Vietnam, Cuba, and India with the latest tanks, arms, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft. The Americans armed most of the regimes in Central and South America (Britain would fly against American A-4 Skyhawks flown by the Argentine Air Force and have her ships sunk by French Exocet missiles fired from those Skyhawks, during the Falklands War).
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia use American F-15 fighter aircraft, as does the U.S. Air Force. The only militaries that flew the F-14 fighter jet were the U.S. Navy and the Iranian air force. Both China and the United States armed Pakistan. Using hand-held surface –to-air missiles provided by the United States, “Afghani fedeyin were immediately able to drive Soviet helicopters from the skies and to wreck the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.” (Archer et al 550) After nearly a ten-year struggle, the Soviets left in 1989. Their defeat in Central Asia was a major factor in the Soviet regime’s collapse in 1991. “The competition for markets spread modern weaponry across the world, at a heavy cost.” (Archer et al 567)
That cost would be most clearly seen in the economies of the western countries, especially the United States. “By the 1980s, 30 percent of the engineers in the United States worked in defense related industries, while civilian firms suffered from shortages of such personnel. It is not coincidental that those industrialized states with the lowest per capita expenditure on defense between 1970 and 1990, like Japan, Germany, and Canada, had higher rates of economic growth than those with the highest rates of defense expenditures- the United States and Britain.” (Archer et al 567)
The United States fought two major wars during this era: Korea and Vietnam. Responding to the North Korean invasion of South Korea (June 1950), the U.S. sent in ground forces to repel an attack that had routed the poorly equipped South Koreans. Holding on to a perimeter around the city of Pusan, the United Nations Command built a logistics base, brought in reinforcements, and stopped the North Korean advance. In September 1950, US Marines landed at the port of Inchon, deep behind North Korean lines. Inchon was one of the most daring military operations ever attempted. It cut off North Korean forces in the south and led to the recapture of Seoul. U.N. forces then pushed deep into North Korea (in keeping with the Western doctrine of seeking decisive battle and victory). The Chinese had sent out warnings that it would not tolerate Western forces close to its borders. In November 1950 over 300,000 Chinese troops attacked “in the dead of winter, cutting up better equipped, numerically equal but road bound and divided U.S. forces. The U.S. Army, outthought, outfought, and softened from years of garrison and geishas in Japan, collapsed. The only Allied troops to fight effectively during the rout, like the American marines and the British Brigade, did so through a series of controlled and phased light infantry withdrawals.” (Archer et al 555)
From 1951 to 1953, the fighting stabilized along the hills and mountain of central Korea. Neither side could gain a decisive advantage to declare victory. Negotiations began as the casualties mounted. President Truman chose not to run for reelection, as an angry and confused American public wanted victory (which would have meant invading China and/or the use of nuclear weapons) or an end to the war. A cease-fire was signed on July 27, 1953, ending the fighting. The border, a demilitarized zone, was established mirroring the original 1945 38th parallel dividing line. The DMZ became a deadly “no-man’s land” and is today the most heavily fortified border on earth. A state of war still exists between the United States- South Korea and China- North Korea. No formal peace treaty has been signed.
Vietnam. The debate goes on; the arguments remain fierce and unrelenting. An entire generation remains divided, not only within itself, but with the generation of their parents (the “greatest generation”, the victors of the Second World War) and their children, who still have not grasped the historical significance of what happened in that war. The Vietnam War has been re-fought, for partisan political advantage, in every U.S. presidential election from 1976 to 2020. The recriminations and finger-pointing continue, scabs are torn off old wounds by people who should know better.
The world’s mightiest military force was fought to a stalemate by an asymmetric opponent that would never accept defeat, as defined by a western power. In Vietnam, the U.S. had no real plan, the mission was ill-conceived, and the strategy was counterproductive. Once it became apparent that no amount of bombing, massive, high-tech firepower, or the deployment of more troops would force North Vietnam to give up its ambitions of uniting all of Vietnam under its rule; the U.S. had no rational policy options left. U.S. ground forces never lost a major battle during the entire war, the casualties suffered by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were staggering in scope. Against a determined asymmetric opponent, however, it did not matter. The U.S. would take a hill or a village, clear it of enemy forces, and the “NVA” or “Viet Cong” would be back within days or even hours. Historical lessons are rarely heeded, (especially by Americans). Between 1775 and 1781, the undermanned and outgunned American colonies fought the “superpower” at that time, Great Britain, to a standstill. The Americans did not have to “win”, they only had to avoid “losing”, and keep fighting. As much as they tried, the British could never deliver the “knockout blow”. Back in Britain, opposition to the war grew, including the development of an anti-war movement, and after French intervention and the defeat at Yorktown, the British decided to cut their losses and negotiate a withdrawal. (SOUND FAMILIAR)
Only an invasion of North Vietnam, on the scale planned by the U.S. for the October 1945/March 1946 attack on Japan, during the Second World War (“Operation Downfall”), would have hoped to achieve the outcome American command authorities wanted. One can only imagine what the consequences of that action would have meant to the United States and the world. American ground combat operations began in 1965, they ended in 1971. The last American troops left Vietnam in 1973. President Johnson was forced from office in 1968. President Nixon gradually slowed the war over four years, negotiating with the North Vietnamese, both openly and in secret. The cease fire was announced on a Sunday in late January 1973 by the President himself in a televised statement.
When opponents were foolish enough to face Western armies in direct battle, they were beaten, badly. In 1982 Argentina made the mistake of openly challenging Britain over control of the Falkland Islands (Isles Malvinas). The Argentine military junta had just completed suppressing its people in the “dirty war” (1978-1982), with thousands imprisoned and “disappeared”. The Argentine economy had imploded, so the generals looked for a distraction. They appealed to the long-standing resentment felt in Argentina over British control of islands 400 miles off its coast. “Britain and Spain had both claimed the Falkland Islands, and along with independence in 1820 Argentina had inherited the Spanish rights.” (Anderson 11) Argentina revived the claims in 1910, 1927, 1945, and 1979 (Anderson 12) Argentina decided to act militarily in 1981-1982, under the probable assumption that the British would not respond. In April 1982, the Argentines attacked and overwhelmed the small British garrison stationed on the islands.
. The Falklands War saved the government of Margaret Thatcher, which had become highly unpopular due her economic policies in response to the recession which had hit both sides of the Atlantic. Thatcher decided to fight. A large portion of the British Navy, Army, and Marine elements was sent in a task force over 7,000 miles to the South Atlantic, to fight in a winter campaign (April-June, southern hemisphere and Antarctica was 800 miles to the south). The closest air/ground support base would be on Ascension Island, 3,500 miles from the Falklands. The British declared a 200-mile exclusion zone around the islands. The Argentines sent out their fleet to challenge the zone. A British submarine sank an Argentine cruiser, and the Argentines promptly returned to port. The only combat aircraft the British had were carrier-based Harrier jets, which were “outnumbered ten to one by the Argentine air force, [the British] lost not a single jet to enemy action while destroying more than their strength in Argentine airplanes and winning the war in the air.” (Archer et al 553)
Once British ground forces got ashore, they outfought and defeated the overmatched Argentines in a series of night attacks. The British occupied Port Stanley, the capital, in June 1982. The Falklands Wars was over. Late into the twentieth century, under the right circumstances, the “Western way of war” was still lethal.
In five wars (1947-48,1956, 1967,1973 and 1982), “the tiny nation of Israel fought and decisively defeated a loose coalition of its Arab neighbors, who were supplied with sophisticated weapons by the Soviet Union, China, and France. The population of Israel during those decades never exceeded 5 million citizens. In contrast, it’s surrounding antagonists – at various times including Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf States – numbered well over 100 million”. (Hanson 446) “Between the 1960s and 1980s, the Israeli Air Force routinely defeated twice the number of Arab aircraft. In 1982 it destroyed ninety Syrian jets for two Israeli losses.” (Archer et al 553) Since 1982, no Arab/Muslim country has challenged Israel in a direct military confrontation, knowing the result would be defeat. For all the bluster currently coming out of Iran, the Iranians saw that they are in no position to fight Israel in open battle.
Since the late 1980s, beginning with the first Intifada, the Arabs increased their asymmetric warfare (terrorism and rockets) against the Israelis. The Israeli Army found itself locked in a battle with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah where their overall technical superiority and firepower advantage was neutralized. Funding and support for these groups came from state sponsors, who saw it as a more direct way to attack Israel without risking their armies in what would undoubtedly be more defeats. Those defeats would possibly spell the end of their regimes.
In the 1980s the United States received two more painful lessons in asymmetric warfare. In 1979, the American embassy in Tehran, Iran was seized by Iranian “students” (a violation of international law and custom) protesting the continuing American presence in Iran and support for their former ruler, the Shah. All personnel inside the embassy were taken hostage; eventually all except fifty-two, were released. Increasingly frustrated, the United States mounted a rescue operation in April 1980. The force included Air Force, Marine and Army units, including the newly created “Delta Force”. The commando units would get into central Iran undetected, however violent sandstorms forced vitally needed helicopters to return to Navy carriers in the Persian Gulf. The mission was called off. As units were preparing to leave the landing site, an Air Force C-130 cargo plane collided with a helicopter, killing eight commandos.
In Lebanon in October 1983, a truck bomb killed over two hundred American military personnel in their barracks. Marines and smaller units from the other services had been sent to Beirut, Lebanon, in an ill-defined peace keeping mission after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. They were based at the Beirut airport’s open, almost indefensible space and were literally “sitting ducks”. Despite the tough talk of the American government at that time, there was no retaliation taken for the attack. In February 1984, all American forces were withdrawn from Lebanon. As the decade of the 90s approached, the West had a lot to learn about asymmetric warfare.
Intellectual Property of John M. Lane Copyright@ J.M. Lane – cannot be reproduced or copied without permission.
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