The End of Gasoline Warfare

Last week’s discussion of American military vulnerabilities touched on one of the major issues that ought to be giving Pentagon officials sleepless nights—but only one of them The military downsides of America’s obsession with high-tech gizmos, in a world where complexity just gives the other guy more opportunities to mess with you, are no small matter, to be sure, but those downsides are taking shape in a wider context that has its own bad news to deliver to fans of US global dominance.

To make sense of that context, though, it’s going to be necessary to return briefly to a point I’ve made here more than once before, which is the pervasive misunderstanding of evolution you’ll find straight across the cultural landscape of today’s America. Since Darwin first proposed his eminently simple theory more than a century and a half ago—“How stupid not to have thought of it before,” Thomas Henry Huxley is reported to have said—the great majority of Americans, believers and critics alike, have insisted on redefining evolution as progress: what is “more evolved” is better, more advanced, more progressive than the competition.

Not so. Evolution is adaptation to changing circumstances, and that’s all it is. In some cases, evolution moves organisms in the direction of greater complexity, but in plenty of other cases it’s gone the other direction. Over the two billion years or so since the first self-replicating organisms first appeared on this planet, the no-holds-barred wrestling match between genetic variation and a frighteningly unstable environment has turned out some remarkably weird adaptations—pterodactyls, uintatheria, Khloe Kardashian—but they aren’t the organisms that endure over the long term.  The dragonflies who visit my backyard regularly haven’t changed much since the Devonian, the box turtle we see at intervals out front had relatives munching slugs in the Cretaceous, while the adolescent bat who got lost and ended up in our bedroom one morning a few weeks back would not have been out of place in the forests of the Eocene.  They and organisms like them are survivors because they found a good stable adaptation and stuck with it; while other organisms adapted in ways that turned out to be dead ends.

It’s precisely because evolution is adaptation to circumstances, no more and no less, that it’s possible—and indeed easy—to find precise analogues to Darwinian evolution in fields far removed from biology. War is one of these. Seen from a systems perspective, nations competing for survival, prosperity, and power show plenty of equivalencies to species doing the same thing for the same reasons, and war—now as always, the final arbiter of national survival—follows patterns of adaptation that a Darwinian analysis explains well.

The collapse of Bronze Age chariot warfare discussed a few posts back offers a useful example.  The chariot armies of the late Bronze Age were superbly adapted for their military environment, but like so many highly specialized life forms in evolutionary history, their adaptations limited their ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.  That limit proved to be fatal to many societies along the eastern Mediterranean littoral, and might well have done so even for Egypt if that ancient society had not been willing and able to return to an older and more resilient set of military adaptations.

Our chances are fairly high of witnessing an even more striking example of the same process in the not too distant future.  As discussed a while back in this series of posts, the current American way of war was originally pioneered by the German and Japanese militaries in the years before the Second World War, as both nations explored the extraordinary new possibilities that petroleum had opened up in war.  The destruction of the French army in the spring of 1940 by a German invasion force that had fewer men, cannons, and tanks than its Allied opponents put the world on notice that the old ways of war no longer mattered; the Japanese conquest of the entire western Pacific in a few weeks at the end of 1941 made that memo impossible to ignore, and the United States—to the lasting regret of Germany and Japan—proved to be a quick learner. 

The new warfare depended on the mobility that planes, tanks, and trucks made possible, but it had another dimension that is not always recognized.  The German conquest of France in 1940, for example, did not succeed because the Germans met and crushed the Allied armies in a head-on battle.  Rather, the panzer divisions of the Wehrmacht dodged the big battle the Allies wanted to fight on the plains of Belgium, and cut across France south of the Allied forces, breaking their communication and supply lines, while the Luftwaffe carried out air strikes to disorganize Allied units and crippled their ability to respond to a rapidly changing situation. Compare it to the US invasions of Iraq in 1990 and 2003 and it’s hard to miss the precise parallels; in both these cases, as in 1940 France, what handed a quick victory to the invaders was a strategy that focused on shredding the enemy government’s and military commanders’ ability to respond to the invasion.

The aftermath, though, is telling.  In 1940 as in 2003, the invader’s victory was followed promptly by a sustained insurgency against the occupying forces.  (The only reason that didn’t happen in 1990 was that the elder Bush and his generals had the great common sense to declare victory and get out.)  The same thing has happened far more often than not whenever gasoline warfare on the blitzkrieg model has taken place in the real world.

There are good reasons for that.  Military theorists have postulated any number of conditions that define victory in war, but in practice these all come down to one requirement, which is that the losing side has to be convinced that giving up the fight is the best option it has left.  That was the point of the old-fashioned pitched battle, in which one army offered battle at a chosen location, the other army accepted the invitation, both sides got into position, and then they hammered away at each other for a day or two until one side or the other had the stuffing pounded out of it.  After a few battles of that kind, everyone from the king to the lowliest foot soldier knew exactly which side was going to keep on beating the other if the war went on, and so a peace treaty was normally negotiated in short order. 

Gasoline warfare rarely has the same result.  For those on the losing side—I’m relying here especially on accounts by French and British officers who were in the Battle of France in 1940—the war is a roller-coaster ride through chaos; many, sometimes most, ground units never have the chance to measure their strength against the enemy in combat, because the other side has gone right past them and is deep behind their lines; orders from their own commanders are confused, contradictory, or never arrive at all; and then suddenly the war is over, the government has surrendered, and the other side is parading through Paris or Baghdad.  So there you are; your government’s will to resist may be broken, but yours isn’t, and pretty soon you’re looking around for ways to carry on the fight.  That way lies the French Resistance—or, for that matter, the Iraqi one.

This is why resistance movements sprang up so promptly in every nation conquered by Nazi Germany, and why insurgencies have done the same so often in nations conquered by the United States. It’s the natural result of a way of war that’s very good at bullying governments into fast collapse but very poor at convincing the ordinary grunt in uniform, or for that matter the ordinary person on the street, that the other side’s triumph ought to be accepted without further fuss. (Attentive readers will note here that the logic of the blitzkrieg is weirdly similar to that embraced more recently by believers in the sudden collapse of industrial society; in both cases, the words “what happens next” play an insufficiently large role in planning, and the possibility that people affected by a sudden collapse might do something to respond to it rarely seems to get a look in.)

It’s here that the Darwinian analysis of war mentioned earlier is most relevant, because insurgency is not a fixed thing.  It evolves over time, as different insurgent groups try new tactics, strategies and weapons, and draw on the experience of past insurgencies.  The evolution of insurgency, as it happens, dates from before the birth of gasoline warfare; it emerged as opponents of European colonial regimes in the Third World began to adapt the methods of European revolutionary warfare to the distinctive conditions of their time.  The new model of insurgency saw its first trial runs in South Africa and the Philippines right around 1900; both insurgencies were eventually defeated, but not without serious cost to the two imperial powers in question, and the lessons learned in those wars spread widely—it’s not accidental, for example, that the word “commando” entered military parlance in the very early 20th century from Afrikaans, where it was used for Boer insurgent groups fighting the British.

The evolutionary struggle between gasoline warfare and insurgency has been much discussed in recent years in military journals, although the label that’s been given to state of the art insurgency—“Fourth Generation warfare,” or 4GW for short—confuses far more than it reveals. The notion that military history can be divided into a set of neatly defined generations, each one of which supersedes the one before it, simply restates the contemporary myth of progress in another guise, and is just as arbitrary as narratives of progress normally are; though the technologies differ, 4GW was practiced by Elamite hill tribes against Babylonian armies more than three thousand years ago, and will doubtless still be being practiced by peoples on the periphery of empires as long as human societies are complex enough to support urban imperial centers. 

Despite the problems with the term, and with a good deal of the thinking that’s gathered around it, the debates aroud 4GW have brought up a crucial issue, which is that today’s insurgent groups have been at least as quick to innovate and to adopt the latest technology as their well-funded opponents in the Pentagon and its equivalents elsewhere. Darwinian selection works just as effectively on insurgencies as on species, and the mechanism is much the same—a constant pressure on ecological boundaries, which sooner or later stumbles across every available option for greater success at the hard work of survival.  So far, the military bureaucracies in the world’s great powers have been able to stay more or less abreast of the resulting transformations, but their situation has a lot in common with that of physicians today faced with antibiotic-resistant bacteria:  you can keep on inventing new antibiotics for a while, but the law of diminishing returns is always working against you, the germs are gaining ground, and you know that sooner or later something lethal, communicable, and resistant to all known antibiotics is pretty much certain to make an appearance.

Exactly what form the next military revolution will take is an interesting question.  Some days I suspect that a first draft of it was field-tested by the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon in 2006. To deal with an invasion by an Israeli Army as thoroughly committed to gasoline warfare as any army on earth, Hezbollah adopted a strategy that could probably be called preventive insurgency.  Soldiers, weapons, ammunition and supplies were carefully stashed in underground hideouts all over southern Lebanon in advance of the Israeli invasion, where they could wait out the aerial bombardment and the initial assault, and then popped up unexpectedly behind Israeli lines with guns and antitank rocket launchers blazing.  While both sides claimed victory in the resulting struggle, the fight was nothing like as one-sided as Israel’s two earlier invasions of Lebanon had been Could the same strategy be taken further, and turned into a wickedly effective defense in depth against a conventional invasion?  I suspect so.

On other days, I remember the war between Libya and Chad in 1987, when Libya was a client state of the Soviet Union and had an extensive army and air force equipped with secondhand Russian tanks and planes, and Chad had an army equipped mostly with Toyota pickups packing 50-caliber machine guns, rocket launchers, and half a dozen infantrymen in back.  The Chadian forces won an overwhelming victory, whipping around the Libyan forces via goat trails in the mountains and leaving the plains of northern Chad littered with burning Libyan tanks.  Those armed pickups are called “technicals” in African jargon, and it’s a term you may want to remember; for decades now, they’ve been standard military vehicles all over the continent, and my guess is that it’s only a matter of time before they start being used elsewhere in the world.  Could an army equipped with technicals, and with antiaircraft and antitank rocket launchers a little more sophisticated than the ones in common use just now, copy the Chadian victory against a major power?  Again, I suspect so.

Whether or not these speculations have any bearing on the way things work out, though, the age of gasoline warfare that began with Stukas screaming out of the sky in the spring of 1940 is guaranteed to come to an end sooner or later.  There are two reasons that can be said with a fair degree of assurance. First, of course, is the simple fact that every way of making war eventually runs into something it can’t handle.  If military history shows anything, it’s that the invincible army of one era is the crow food of the next, and far more likely than not the switchover has nothing to do with technological progress; it simply takes a certain amount of time for potential enemies to stumble on whatever trick or tactic will do the job. 

Still, even this factor is less certain than the other, which is that gasoline warfare is only possible in the presence of ample supplies of gasoline. More generally, the contemporary American way of war can only continue if huge amounts of relatively cheap energy can be provided, not only to fuel planes and tanks and ships, but to support the immense infrastructure that makes modern war possible. As that surplus of energy wanes, so will gasoline warfare, and the successful military powers of the future will be those that can figure out ways to project power and win battles with less of an outlay of energy and raw materials than their rivals.

To be sure, some amount of gasoline or the equivalent will be going into war for a very long time to come—the advantages provided by the internal combustion engine are real enough that gasoline will probably still be being used for military purposes long after the private automobile has retreated into legend. My guess, though, is that the last gallons of gasoline to used in warfare will be fueling technicals, not tanks—and long before that happens, a way of war dependent on the extravagant consumption of energy and raw materials will have gone whistling down the wind alongside a civilization that tried to support itself on the same unsustainable basis.


It has been three years now since I took a break from these weekly essays, and for a number of reasons, now’s a good time not to take that any further. The fictional scenario that was going to be the last post in this series of three has unexpectedly grown into an extended narrative five posts long, one that needs to be filled out by a good deal of further research; I also have a contract, finally, for the Green Wizardry book project, and a major writing project on the other side of my career, both of which could use some concentrated attention just now.

This will therefore be the last Archdruid Report post until the beginning of October. I’ll be responding to comments on this post for the next week or so, but after that, you’re on your own for the month of September. Put the time you’d spend reading these essays into digging in your gardens, building solar ovens, learning to brew beer, or in some other way developing skills that will help you weather the opening years of the deindustrial age, and you’ll be ahead of the game. See you again on October 3!

And for those who are worried about missing their weekly dose of apocalyptic fantasy...

End of the World of the Week #37, #38, #39, #40, and #41

Until recently, at least, the usual way to come up with an apocalyptic prediction was to figure out first how the world was going to end, and then try to figure out the date when that would happen. The current 2012 hysteria has taken the opposite approach, first choosing a date and then trying to find some cataclysm or other to justify it—but it’s not quite the first time this latter method saw use.

No, that honor belongs to the redoubtable Charles Berlitz, one of the leading authors in the rejected-knowledge field in the late 20th century.  Berlitz was the man who invented the Bermuda Triangle and rescued the supposed Roswell flying saucer crash from oblivion, so he unquestionably had the skills needed for his apocalyptic magnum opus, Doomsday: 1999 A.D..

How would the world end that year?  Berlitz was nothing if not open-minded.  A convulsion at the earth’s core might cause cataclysmic earthquakes, or an overload of ice at the South Pole might destabilize the crust and send it skidding over the mantle, moving all the continents into new positions and causing earthquakes and floods; a sudden ice age might sweep the globe, plunging much of the northern hemisphere into a deep freeze; there might be a nuclear war, or the earth might get swatted by an asteroid or a really big comet. Hey, it could even be more than one!

Now of course there was no reason to think that any of these things were more likely to arrive in 1999 than in any other year, and with three of the five, there are very good reasons to think that they can’t happen at all. Still, it made for a very successful book—until 1999 came and went uneventfully, that is—and the same logic Berlitz offered is being used today to argue that one or more of an even more diverse flurry of world-ending events will infallibly arrive on December 21 of this year. 

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