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Vol. 12, No. 4, 2013
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critical lessons from the ancient world

Rene Louis Beres


Louis René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international politics. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog (Oxford University Press). This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.


We never seem to get it right about power. When is power really “powerful,” and when is weakness really “weak?” On the surface, it sounds like a very silly question. Still, certain states that are presumably very powerful in standard military terms, may sometimes have to yield to others that seemingly lack power altogether.


In the particular case of Israel, a seemingly powerful state is increasingly at the mercy of “weak” enemy states, and even of assorted criminal organizations (e.g., Hamas) that conveniently masquerade as independence or “self-determination” movements. Significantly, Hamas is substantially less autonomous than any sovereign state; it also has no authentic armed forces worth mentioning.

This brings us to core questions of “victory” and “defeat.” Any assessments of our more-or-less current American conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan must inevitably come down to these two possible war-terminating conclusions. Nonetheless, such “normal” outcomes may still turn out to be less than clear or determinative. After all, the formal and tangible results of these conflicts may have precious little real bearing on the actual condition of American or even Israeli national security.

Whether the United States will ultimately “win” or “lose” in these theaters of military operation, or in any other theaters of conflict for that matter, the vulnerability of American cities to both mass-destruction terrorism and ballistic missile attack will likely remain pretty much the same. Already, the Jihadist training and operational areas are shifting to such places as Mali, Sudan, Bangladesh, Yemen, and perhaps even Chechnya. Shall we send US forces there as well?

The times have changed. It was not always this way. At Thermopylae, we may learn from Herodotus, the Greeks suffered a stunning defeat in 480 BCE.

Then, Persian King Xerxes could not begin to contemplate the destruction of Athens until he had first secured a decisive military victory. Only after the Persian defeat of Leonidas, and his defending forces, could the Athenians be forced to abandon Attica. Transporting themselves to the island of Salamis, the Greeks would then witness the Persians triumphantly burning their houses, and destroying their temples.

Why should this ancient Greek tragedy still be meaningful for us? Until the onset of our nuclear era, 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 had always required an antecedent capacity to win. Without a prior victory, intended aggressions were never really much more than contrived expressions of military intentions.

The times have changed. From the standpoint of ensuring any one state’s national survival, and this includes Israel as well as the United States, the usual goal of preventing a classical military defeat has sometimes become secondary. The consequential strategic implications of this transforming development are far-reaching, and manifestly worth examining.

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 was a narrow pass between cliffs and the sea – a place where relatively small numbers of resolute troops could hold back a very large army. For a time, Leonidas, the Spartan king, was able to defend the pass with only about 7000 men (including some 300 Spartans). But in the end, by August, Thermopylae had become the site of a great and memorable Persian victory.

For those countries currently in the cross hairs of a determined jihad, and this includes the United States, Israel, and even certain parts of Europe, there is no real need to worry about a contemporary Thermopylae. There is, however, considerable irony to any such “freedom from worry.” After all, from our present vantage point, preventing any form of classical military defeat will no longer assure our safety from either aggression or terrorism.

This means that America and Israel might now be perfectly capable of warding off any calculable defeat of their military forces, and perhaps even of winning more-or-less identifiable victories, but in the end may still have to face extraordinary, or even existential, harms.

What does this mean for our common enemies? From their point of view, it is no longer necessary to actually win any war, or – in fact – to win even a particular military engagement. They needn’t figure out complex land or naval warfare strategies; they don’t have to triumph at “Thermopylae” in order to burn “Athens.”

For our common enemies, there is really no longer any reason to work out what armies call “force multipliers,” or even to calculate any pertinent “correlation of forces.” Today, whatever our selected "order of battle" in Washington or Tel Aviv, these enemies can conceivably wreak havoc upon us without first firing a shot. Whether we choose to face the unsettling facts or not, the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan may turn out to be beside the point. For the United States, of course, this would represent an especially painful and poignant development.

We have not necessarily done anything wrong. It is rather the natural by-product of constantly evolving military and terrorist technologies. This frightful evolution can never be stopped or reversed. On the contrary, our considerable current vulnerabilities in the absence of prior military defeat may represent a resolute and intransigent fact of strategic life, one that must soon be duly acknowledged, and sensibly countered.

To ensure that these vulnerabilities remain safely below an insufferable existential threshold, the United States and Israel will soon have to build a new combat orthodoxy involving deterrence, preemption, and war-fighting options, possibly together with bold new ideas for certain productive international alignments. We will also have to take a fresh look at viable arrangements for both active and passive defenses, and at complex corollary preparations for cyber-defense and cyber-war.

In matters of war and peace, nothing is ever more practical than good strategic theory. Today, we must finally learn to face the fact that our always-fragile civilizations can be made to suffer, and to offer obeisance, without first going down to any traditional military defeat. It will be a difficult lesson to learn, but the alternative could prove perilous for both Washington and Jerusalem.


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