How Great Nations Can Win Small Wars

By Yagil Henkin

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

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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.

Yagil Henkin is a doctoral student in military history at Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Un-Guerilla Warfare: The History of the War in Chechnya, 1994-1996 (Ministry of Defense Publishing).

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