critical lessons from the ancient world
FACING FUTURE WARS
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.