Deterrence and Modern Aggressors; Transforming Developments in Military Strategy

Article excerpt


A currently popular movie about an ancient battle holds very deep meanings. At Thermopylae, we learn from Herodotus, the Greeks suffered a terrible defeat. But Persian King Xerxes could not even contemplate the destruction of Athens until he had first secured a decisive victory. Only after the Persian defeat of Leonidas and his heroic defending forces would the Athenians be forced to abandon Attica. Transporting themselves to the island of Salamis, the Greeks would then observe the Persians burning their houses and destroying their sacred temples on the Acropolis.

Why is this ancient Greek tragedy significant for us? Until the onset of our atomic age, states, city-states and empires were essentially secure from homeland destruction unless their armies had already been defeated. For would-be aggressors before 1945, a capacity to destroy always required a prior capacity to win. Without a victory, their intended aggressions were never more than intentions.

This is no longer the case. From the standpoint of ensuring any one state's national survival, the goal of preventing a classical military defeat is logically secondary. The implications of this transforming development are considerable.

After suppressing revolts in Egypt and Babylonia, Xerxes was finally able to prepare for the conquest of Greece. In 480 B.C.E., the Greeks decided to make their final defense at Thermopylae. This particular site was chosen because it offered what military commanders would call "good ground," here a narrow pass between cliffs and the sea a place where a relatively small number of resolute troops could hold back even a very large army. For a time, Leonidas, the Spartan king, was able to defend the pass with only about 7,000 men (including some 300 Spartans). In the end, by August of 480 B.C.E., Thermopylae had become a great Persian victory.

For those states currently in the cross hairs of a determined jihad, and this includes the United States, Israel and much of Europe, there is no real need to worry about a contemporary Thermopylae. But there is considerable irony to such a "freedom from worry." Strategically, it is anything but a blessing. After all, from our present vantage-point, preventing any form of classical military defeat will no longer assure our safety from aggression or terrorism. This means that we might now be perfectly capable of warding off any tangible defeat of our military forces and perhaps even of winning identifiable victories, but we still may have to face extraordinary harms. …