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The War Nerd October 31, 2002
 
The Big Show
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
 
Page 4 of 5
 
For the true war-student, the question is: does this suicidal urge actually do any good, militarily? It turns out to be a pretty complicated question.

For us Americans, the problem is that the whole suicide-mission idea runs counter to the great American tradition, as explained by George C. Scott at the beginning of Patton: "No son-of-a-bitch ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor son-of-a-bitch die for HIS country." Patton was right, as far as most American military history goes: we don't like dying. Hate the whole idea, in fact, and prefer to kill a lot of the enemy while losing only a few of our guys. This is a constant in American history: take up a strong defensive position, make the enemy attack you, bleed him white and retreat before he can even the score. There are plenty of examples: Bunker Hill, the Battle of New Orleans, Fredericksburg (with the favor returned at Gettysburg, when the Feds shredded Pickett's charge), Chosin.... Air power was perfect for the American way of war, because it allowed us to slaughter huge numbers of the enemy without risking a ground advance. The ground troops just have to hold the perimeter so the planes can carry out the offensive part of the campaign. The troops don't move till the earth is so scorched you could fry an egg on every enemy corpse. The "Nuclear Deterrence" strategy was the ultimate version of this policy: nobody thought that the US forces in NATO were really going to stop the Soviet Army. They were just supposed to hold long enough to get the nukes launched.

Masked gunman at the Iranian Embassy in London

Masked gunman at the Iranian Embassy in London

What's weird is that even dumb-ass movies know all this -- it's like even screenwriters have some genetic memory of how to fight US style. Remember Starship Troopers? There are two scenes in that showing the right way to make war and the wrong way. First the Earth generals send infantry storming onto the Bug planet in a mass infantry attack. They get sliced like broccoli by the arachnid hordes. Then the Earthlings fire the general who came up with that bright idea and make war the right way, the American way: they send thousands of ground-attack aircraft to scorch'em from the air, and let the ground troops mop up with those nice little shoulder-fired nukes.

But there are times when the American way isn't enough -- when it really does work to die for your country instead of kill for it. Like the Texans used to say, "Remember the Alamo!" Do you remember the Alamo? I bet you do. Those guys lost the battle -- got massacred -- and still won the war. And the Alamo was a big part of why they won. Strategically, because it delayed Santa Ana long enough for the Texan Army to assemble. And morally, because it became a legend people rallied around.

Tet, in 1968, was a classic way to lose while winning. In sheer coldblooded military terms, it was a victory for the US. In fact, it was a classic US-style victory, because it managed to draw the enemy into attacking in large numbers, setting up the classic American massive firepower response.

But that's where it gets tricky, because much as I hate to say it, war ain't just about war. War's about propaganda. Who gets sanctified, who gets forgotten, who gets written off. And sometimes some poor sons-of-bitches really can win by getting themselves killed for their country. Those VC and NVA who died in Tet lost the battle and won the war. Those shots of the US Embassy under attack, and NVA attacking in force all over supposedly "pacified" provinces of South Vietnam, made the home folks sick and stomped whatever enthusiasm anybody back home had for the war.

It's hard to tell what this latest Chechen raid will do for or against the Chechen terrorists. This kind of war is a long, long process. It takes patience. The Vietnamese, man -- they're like the patron saint of patience. They were willing to absorb pain for decades to have their way.


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Gary Brecher
Browse author
Email Gary at war_nerd@exile.ru, but, more importantly, buy his book.
 
 
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