Small Wars: The Bane Of Superpowers

By  | 

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…