Academic journal article Parameters

Why the Strong Lose

Academic journal article Parameters

Why the Strong Lose

Article excerpt

The continuing insurgency in Iraq underscores the capacity of the weak to impose considerable military and political pain on the strong. Whether that pain will compel the United States to abandon its agenda in Iraq remains to be seen.

What is not in dispute is that all major failed US uses of force since 1945--in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia--have been against materially weaker enemies. In wars both hot and cold, the United States has fared consistently well against such powerful enemies as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union, but the record against lesser foes is decidedly mixed. Though it easily polished off Milosevic's Serbia and Saddam's Iraq, the United States failed to defeat Vietnamese infantry in Indochina, terrorists in Lebanon, and warlords in Somalia. In each case the American Goliath was militarily stalemated or politically defeated by the local David. Most recently, the United States was surprised by the tenacious insurgency that exploded in post-Baathist Iraq, an insurgency now in its third year with no end in sight.

The phenomenon of the weak defeating the strong, though exceptional, is as old as war itself. Sparta finally beat Athens; Frederick the Great always punched well above his weight; American rebels overturned British rule in the Thirteen Colonies; the Spanish guerrilla bled Napoleon white; Jewish terrorists forced the British out of Palestine; Vietnamese communists drove France and then the United States out of Indochina; and mujahideen handed the Soviet Union its own "Vietnam" in Afghanistan. Relative military power is hardly a reliable predictor of war outcomes.

Why do the strong lose? One must distinguish between general factors common to many cases of great-power losses to weaker adversaries and those that, I argue, may be peculiar to the United States. With respect to common causes of the stronger side's loss to the weaker, Andrew Mack, in his pioneering 1975 assessment, argued that the place to look was differentials in the political will to fight and prevail, which were rooted in different perceptions of the stakes at hand. Post-1945 successful rebellions against European colonial rule as well as the Vietnamese struggle against the United States all had one thing in common: the materially weaker insurgent was more politically determined to win because it had much more riding on the outcome of war than did the stronger external power, for whom the stakes were lower. In such cases:

   The relationship between the belligerents is asymmetric. The
   insurgents can pose no direct threat to the survival of the
   external power because ... they lack an invasion capability. On
   the other hand, the metropolitan power poses not simply the threat
   of invasion, but the reality of occupation. This fact is so obvious
   that its implications have been ignored. It means, crudely speaking,
   that for the insurgents the war is "total," while for the external
   power it is necessarily "limited." Full mobilization of the total
   military resources of the external power is simply not politically
   possible.... Not only is full mobilization impossible politically,
   it is not thought to be in the least necessary. The asymmetry in
   conventional military capability is so great and the confidence that
   military might will prevail is so pervasive that expectation of
   victory is one of the hallmarks of the initial endeavor. (1)

Superior strength of commitment thus compensates for military inferiority. Because the outcome of the war can never be as important to the outside power as it is to those who have staked their very existence on victory, the weaker side fights harder, displaying a willingness to incur blood losses that would be unacceptable to the stronger side. The signers of the Declaration of Independence risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in what became a contest with an imperial giant for which North America was (after 1778) a secondary theater of operations in a much larger war. …

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