The Specter of Military Defeat

I’ve come to think that the single greatest obstacle that stands in the way of a clear understanding of the predicament of our age is the insistence that the past has nothing to teach the present.  You might think that after the recent crescendo of speculative bubbles, the phrase "it’s different this time" would have gotten a well-earned rest, having been worked nearly to death by the promoters of the dot-com and real estate bubbles.

No such luck; those of my readers who follow the comments on these essays will have noted how often that same claim gets used by those who insist the future must obey the fantasies that modern industrial culture demands of it. Progress and apocalypse, business as usual forever or overnight collapse, are the Tweedledee and Tweedledoom of the modern imagination, and the mere fact that history doesn’t work that way is easy enough to brush aside by claiming that modern industrial society is so much more—fill in your preferred adjective here—than any past society, and therefore it’s perfectly justifiable to dismiss history and insert the warmed-over religious myth of your choice in its place. The fact that the identical argument gets used to bolster arguments for both alternatives simply adds to the irony.

I mention this here because the topic we’ll be exploring over the next few weeks tends to draw the insistence that "it’s different this time" the way a dead rat draws flies. I intend to talk about the role of the US military in the downfall of American empire, and the suggestion I propose to offer is that one of the most likely triggers for an American imperial collapse is the experience of dramatic military defeat. I’m not suggesting, furthermore, that such an experience will happen in spite of the immense power of today’s US military machine; I’m suggesting that it will almost certainly happen because of that vast preponderance of force.

I’ve commented before that nothing seems so permanent as an empire on the verge of its final collapse, or as invulnerable as an army on the eve of total defeat. That’s a good general rule, but it’s even more crucial to keep in mind in thinking about military affairs.  The history of war is full of cases in which the stronger side—the side with the largest forces, the strongest alliances, the most advanced military technology—was crushed by a technically weaker rival.  That unexpected outcome can take place in many different ways, but all of them are a function of one simple and rarely remembered fact: military power is never a single uncomplicated variable.

Any number of examples could be cited, but the one I’d like to bring up here was usefully anatomized in Robert Drews’ 1993 book the End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe of c. 1200 B.C.  I trust my readers will forgive a somewhat lengthy excursus into what, for most people these days, is an unfamiliar corner of the past. Those who know little and care less about the late Bronze Age should follow along anyway; once we get past the exotic details, the story may begin to seem oddly familiar.

The eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century BCE was at or near the cutting edge of technological complexity at that time, and that inevitably expressed itself on the field of war.  Earlier, battles used to be fought by lines of massed infantry using spears, but the rise of a new suite of technologies—the horse-drawn chariot, and new and powerful composite bows—revolutionized warfare, allowing relatively small armies of highly mobile and mechanized troops to run rings around old-fashioned infantry armies and cut them down from a distance with lethal firepower. If you want to call the resulting mode of warfare "blitzkrieg," you won’t be too far off.

Chariots, by the standards of the time, were a complex and expensive technology, and they required the highly trained personnel on the front lines and the large and expensive organizational systems behind the lines that complex and expensive military technologies always do.  The superpowers of the day, Egypt, Assyria, and the Hittite Empire, put quite a bit of their annual budgets into chariot procurement and related costs, fielding anything up to several thousand chariots for major battles; smaller nations, most of them client states of one of the big three, had their own more modest chariot armies. Since a relatively small chariot army could defeat a much bigger force of spearmen, most kingdoms didn’t  bother to have any more infantry than they needed to man the walls of fortresses and add a few extra pompous circumstances to the royal court.

It was a stable, rich, technologically advanced society—and then, over a few decades to either side of 1200 BCE, it crashed into ruin. The Hittite capital was sacked, its empire collapsed, and the Hittites as an independent people vanished from history forever. City-states from Mycenean Greece straight down the eastern Mediterranean littoral to the borders of Egypt were sacked, burned, and abandoned. Surviving documents refer to unknown ships appearing suddenly off the coast, and record frantic pleas to allies for military aid. Finally, in 1179 BCE, the raiders come into the full light of history as the Sea Peoples—that’s the name the Egyptians used for them—launched an all-out assault on Egypt itself.

What made the raiders all but unstoppable, Drews showed, was that they had come up with a suite of military technologies and tactics that efficiently crippled chariot armies. Their key weapon was the javelin. Chariot armies depended on mobility and the ability to maneuver in close formation; swarming attacks by light infantry, who could get in among the chariots and use javelins to injure, kill, and panic the chariot horses, shattered the maneuverability that made chariot armies otherwise invincible. Combine that with fast ships that allowed the raiders to come out of nowhere, annihilate armies sent to stop them, pillage and burn every town within sight, and vanish again, and you have the recipe for a shattering military revolution.

And Egypt?  Egypt survived and triumphed, in a thoroughly Egyptian way.  It was the oldest of the superpowers of its era, and the most conservative; it had a modern chariot army, but it also still had the knowledge base and infrastructure necessary to organize and use an old-fashioned army of massed infantry armed with spears and shields. That’s what Ramses III and his generals did, scrapping their chariots and returning to an older and more resilient way of warfare, and so the Sea Peoples crashed headlong into an enemy that had none of the weaknesses on which their tactics depended. The resulting battles were the kind of straightforward slugging match where sheer numbers count most, and Egypt had them; the Sea Peoples got the stuffing pounded out of them, and the survivors scattered to the far corners of the Mediterranean world.

There were many other factors that fed into the long and bitter dark age that followed the invasions of the Sea Peoples, but let’s concentrate on the military dimension for the time being. Egypt and the Hittite Empire were pretty much equal in military terms; the great battle between them at Kadesh in 1275 BCE ended in an Egyptian retreat, but the forces pitted against one another were of equivalent size and effectiveness.  The loose coalition of barbarian chiefdoms that the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples was immeasurably inferior to either one in conventional military terms—that is to say, they had no chariots, no chariot horses, no composite bows, and military budgets that were a tiny fraction of those of the superpowers of the day. Furthermore, the weapons systems used by the Sea Peoples were radically simpler than those of the superpowers, almost embarrassingly primitive compared to the complex technology of chariot warfare. That didn’t keep them from bringing the Hittite Empire down in flames and posing a threat to Egypt that only a stroke of military genius nullified in time.

The central lesson to be learned from this bit of ancient history is that military power is always contextual.  What counts as overwhelming power in one context can be lethal weakness in another, and the shift from one context to another can take place without warning. Thus it’s never safe to say that because one nation has a bigger military budget, or more of whatever the currently fashionable military technology happens to be, than another, the first nation has more military power than the other. In fact, if the first nation has enough of an advantage, and the second nation has the brains the gods gave geese, the first nation is very possibly cruising for a bruising.

Let’s look at another example, one that I’ve cited here more than once already: the British Empire on the eve of its dismemberment. In 1900, it was official policy that the British military was to be able to take on the next two largest powers in the world at any moment, and beat them both. That commitment drove a hugely expensive naval building program, backed by research and development so rapid that the world’s most powerful battleship in 1906, the then-newly commissioned HMS Dreadnought, was hopelessly obsolete by the time war broke out in 1914.  That and millions of pounds spent elsewhere made Britain, by every conventional measure, the strongest military power in the world at that time.

The problem, as mentioned earlier, was that most of that gargantuan expenditure went into projects that didn’t amount to a hill of beans when war finally came. Britain’s vast naval fleet spent most of the war tied up to the quays, waiting for the inferior German fleet to come out and fight; when the latter finally did so, the result was the inconclusive Battle of Jutland, after which both fleets sat out the rest of the war in port.  A fraction of that money put into developing antisubmarine warfare, say, or jolting the British Army out of its 19th century notions of strategy and tactics, might have had a significant impact on the war, but battleships were central to the British notion of how wars were supposed to be fought, and so battleships were where the money went.

What’s more, after the First World War ended and the Second loomed, the British military remained fixated on the same kind of thinking. While rising powers such as Japan and the United States flung their resources into aircraft carriers and laid the foundations for the future of naval warfare, Britain dabbled in naval aviation and entrusted its defense to battleships. Only a near-total failure of strategic imagination in the Kriegsmarine, Germany’s naval arm, kept that from being fatal; if Nazi Germany had paid attention to its Japanese ally, built half a dozen aircraft carriers before the war, and used those to carry out a Pearl Harbor-style strike on the British Navy in the spring of 1940, Britain would have been left wide open to an invasion across the Channel once France fell. As it was, most British naval forces in the Pacific were efficiently targeted and destroyed by Japanese planes early in the war.

Chariots and battleships are simply two examples of a common theme in military history:  any military technology that becomes central to a nation’s way of war attracts a constituency—a group that includes officers who have made their careers commanding that technology, commercial interests who have made their money building and servicing that technology, and anyone else who has an economic or personal stake in the technology—and that constituency will defend their preferred technology against the competition until and unless repeated military defeat makes its abandonment inescapable. One weapon such constituencies routinely wield is the military scenario that assumes that the enemy must always make war in whatever way will bring out their preferred technology’s strengths, and never exploit its weaknesses. 

As far as I know, whatever literature ancient Egyptian chariot officers, horse breeders, and bow manufacturers may have churned out to glorify chariot warfare to the Egyptian reading public has not survived, but there’s an ample supply of books and articles from British presses between 1875 or so and the Second World War, praising the Royal Navy’s invincible battleships as the inevitable linchpin of British victory.  All this literature was produced to bolster the case for building and maintaining plenty of battleships, which was to the great advantage of naval officers, marine architects, and everyone else whose careers depended on plenty of battleships.  The fact that all this investment in battleships was a spectacular waste of money that might actually have done some good elsewhere did not register until it was too late to save the British Empire.

If my readers have any doubt that the same sort of literature is currently being churned out by the constituencies of today’s popular Pentagon weapons systems, I encourage them to visit the nearest public library and check out a copy of Tom Clancy’s 1999 puff piece Carrier: A Guided Tour of an Aircraft Carrier.  It’s a 348-page sales brochure for the most elaborate piece of military technology ever built, a modern nuclear aircraft carrier, which currently fills the same role in the US military that the battleship filled in that of imperial Britain. You needn’t expect to find substantive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of this hugely expensive technology, or of the global military strategy or the suite of tactics that give it its context; again, this is a sales brochure, and it’s meant to sell carriers—or, more precisely, continued funding for carriers—to that fraction of the American people that concerns itself sufficiently with military affairs to write the occasional letter to its congresscritters.

The inevitable military scenario comes in the last chapter, where Clancy demonstrates conclusively that if a hopelessly outgunned and outclassed Third World nation were ever to launch a conventional naval attack against a US carrier group, the carrier group will probably be able to figure out some way to win. It would be a masterpiece of unintended comedy, if it weren’t for the looming shadow of all those other books before it, singing the praises of past military technologies whose many advantages didn’t turn out to include any part in winning or even surviving the next war.  Nor are carriers the only currently popular weapons system that benefits from this sort of uncritical praise; the US military is riddled with them, and thus with a series of potentially fatal vulnerabilities that rest partly on the unmentioned weaknesses of those technologies, and partly on a series of impending changes to the context of military action that follow from points we’ve discussed here many times already.

To sum up in advance the points I hope to make in the next few weeks, the US military faces at least three existential threats in the decades immediately ahead.  The first is that rising powers will devise ways to monkeywrench the baroque complexity of the US military machine, leaving that machine as crippled and vulnerable as Hittite chariots were before the javelins of the Sea Peoples. The second is that an ongoing revolution in military affairs will leave the entire massive arsenal of the US military as beside the point as all those British battleships were once the Second World War rolled around.  The third is that the decline in fossil fuel supplies will make it impossible for the United States to maintain a way of war that, reduced to its simplest terms, consists of burning more petroleum than the other guy.  We’ll talk about the first of these possibilities next week.

End of the World of the Week #35

One of the more overhyped bestsellers of 1997, Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code got its fifteen minutes of fame by claiming that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament contains concealed letter sequences that predicted such then-recent events in Jewish history as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. What was more, these same codes predicted that the end of the world would occur via a nuclear holocaust in 2006.

The sequences are there, too. The way the Bible Code works is simple: you take the entire Hebrew text of the Old Testament and program a computer to skip through it, taking every second letter, every third letter, every fourth letter, and so on, until you find the sequence you’re looking for.  If this suggests to you, dear reader, that you can find anything you’re looking for, you’re quite correct; according to an online Bible Code calculator I consulted, the phrase "Elvis shot JFK" can be found no less than three times in the Bible using Drosnin’s method.

A believer might take that as proof that Elvis, hidden in a sniper’s perch on the grassy knoll, fired three shots at JFK’s limousine. Those of us less convinced in the accuracy of such prophetic methods are welcome to find other interpretations—and, of course, the hard fact remains that the nuclear holocaust in 2006 didn’t happen.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not