This articles was originally published in Taki's Magazine on May 6, 2008.
What was the most important battle of the late 20th century? You could argue it was the one that took place on the southern border of Morocco on November 6, 1975. Of course, we’re not talking about another Stalingrad here. In fact, what happened that day isn’t usually called a battle at all. Its official name is “The Green March.” On one side were 350,000 unarmed Moroccan civilians carrying green (Islamic) flags, and on the other -- miles inside the border, because they were hoping not to have to confront any of the marchers -- was a shaky, demoralized token force of Spanish troops pretending to defend a former Spanish colony, the Spanish Sahara.
The Spanish Sahara hangs below Morocco where the Sahara meets the Atlantic like a crumbling brick wall. It was about the least desirable chunk of coastal Africa around, with no water to speak of and a tiny population, which is why the Spanish got it. By the time the European powers were ready to divide up Africa in the late nineteenth century, Spain had long since lost its glory and tended to get the scraps and leftovers.
But one thing we’ve learned over the last century is that on this crowded, hungry planet, there’s no such thing as worthless land. Spanish Sahara has proven that: in the 30 years it’s belonged to Morocco, big money has been made from the fishing off the coast and the huge phosphate mine at Bou Craa, a hundred miles inland.
That’s why the Moroccan King Hassan II, a wily old sultan with friends in the CIA, decided it was worth his while to ship all those loyal subjects down to Morocco’s southern border, hand out little green flags for the cameras, and send them across the border toward those Spanish troops.
The Moroccans had to think outside the traditional military-conquest box, for the simple reason that Morocco’s armed forces are pathetic. They’re so bad their only contributions to military history have been in the “slapstick comedy” department. For instance, the Minister of Defense once tried to have fighters from the Moroccan Air Force kill Hassan II by shooting down his Boeing 727 as it came home from a foreign trip. They failed. Seriously: jet fighters failed to intercept and destroy a big, fat, slow civilian airliner even when they knew its exact flight path. A military like that pretty much has to resort to unarmed conquest, because its chances in a fair fight are zero.
Of course the Moroccans had the advantage of facing a weak, dispirited colonial Spain just at the moment the Spanish dictator, General Franco, finally got around to dying. If you’re old enough to recall those early SNL seasons, you probably remember Chevy Chase’s running joke, “This just in: General Franco still dead!” The reason that joke worked is that it took the old General a long time to die, and that meant that greedy up-and-coming regional powers like Morocco had plenty of time to plan ways of getting their hands on former Spanish colonies.
It may not have been very exciting for combat fans, but it was an extremely effective invasion. The Spanish troops didn’t fire a shot. The marchers walked over the border, got sand in their shoes, shouted about how this sacred patch of waterless, flat desert was now an integral part of the Kingdom of Morocco, and went back home. And since then, the Spanish Sahara has been dominated by Morocco, although the local guerrilla army, POLISARIO, gave them some serious problems for a while.
What makes this weird episode my nominee for “Most Significant Battle of the Era” is that it showed the new way of winning disputed territory. If there’s one thing that we should have learned over the past hundred years, it’s that traditional armed conquests are getting less and less effective. This is one of the most surprising twists in all military history. All through the nineteenth century, the European powers, led by the British and French, took the land they wanted on the grounds that they had better military technology, transport and organization. Locals who disputed that notion tended to disappear as casualties of inevitable progress. And that was just an updated version of what had been happening all over the world for thousands of years: bigger, stronger tribes displace and wiped out weaker tribes whenever they could. That was the norm, even in pre-contact North America, where the Navajo were displacing the Ute in the American Southwest long before the white guys showed up.
Now, even though the balance in conventional warfare is if anything tilting further toward the first world, the technologically advanced and organized countries are in retreat, and the former victims are pushing back, not just claiming their old territories but infiltrating the former colonizers’ countries. What matters now is morale, national will. The Spanish didn’t have it, and the Moroccans did. So even though the Spanish troops could have wiped out those unarmed marchers, they failed to open fire. Weapons are only weapons if you’re willing to use them. A technologically advanced army without the will to fire is no army at all.
Only us dedicated war nerds seem to realize how weird this is, how totally unprecedented in military history. Until the 20th century, the problem wasn’t usually getting militarily superior forces to open fire -- it was getting them to stop before the weaker tribe, army or country was totally wiped out. I don’t know of a single case, before the 20th century, of a militarily superior tribe or nation lacking the will to defend its territory, or for that matter, take the territory of weaker neighbors.
The 20th century was the big turning point. New powers like Germany and Japan tried to imitate the older colonial powers of the 19th century and suffered total, disastrous defeat, even though they usually prevailed on the battlefield. That’s the weird lesson of the two world wars: military superiority in the narrow sense just doesn’t cut it any more. Despite the total battlefield dominance of the Wehrmacht (and to a lesser extent the Imperial Japanese forces), Germany and Japan ended the war not just without additional territory but with their home territories in ruins, their cultures gelded, their birthrates for generations to come among the lowest in the world.
Even the older colonial powers, Britain and France, finished the century in big trouble, without the will to resist the immigrants from the colonies they’d once ruled. We’re at a very strange moment militarily: our weapons still work but our will is gone.
The colonies that were established earliest are the most successful. For example, northern North America, now the U.S. and Canada, passed into permanent possession of the European settlers (or so it seemed, until recently). Two things determined this: first, they were settled in the 17th and 18th century, before conscience set in, and because most of the native population had been relatively tiny groups of hunter-gatherers (which also holds true for Australia, though it was settled much later). Everywhere else -- in Latin America, Africa, Asia -- the locals have been pushing back the colonizers without coming close to what old-style military theorists would call military superiority. That’s what we’re seeing now in South Africa, and more slowly in Europe and the southern United States. In other places, especially those colonized by the French (who were never as good at it as the Brits), huge colonial populations were totally eliminated, like the million-plus French residents of Algeria.
So there’s a shocking lesson that military buffs have been slow to face: military superiority doesn’t matter nearly as much right now as birthrate and sheer ruthless will.
Ah, birth rate -- funny how it’s become such a taboo subject for both Left and Right. The Lefties wouldn’t dream of telling third-world people to limit their baby-making, and most right wingers can’t bring themselves to endorse birth control even if it could slow the destruction of their own countries.
So birth rate is a weapon without a counter-weapon right now. So it tends to win. The Moroccans made it clear that the Green March was all about birth rate. The number of “volunteers” they sent to the border was 350,000, exactly the number of births per year in Morocco. So this was basically a ”Lebensraum” argument like the one the Germans tried earlier in the century. You might have heard about that one, a little dust-up called the Eastern Front. And you might be saying right now that if any policy ever failed decisively, it was the Nazis’ attempt to elbow themselves a little living space from Stalin. Which is totally true. But the Nazis tried it the old-fashioned way, with armed conquest.
To succeed in the post-1918 world, the world Woodrow Wilson dreamed up where “small nations” have rights even if they can’t defend them, you need to use slower, less obviously military methods, like birthrate and immigration. The classic example of this kind of slow conquest is Kosovo. The Serbs could always defeat the Albanians on the battlefield, even when outnumbered, but the Albanians had a huge advantage in the most important military production of all -- babies. According to the BBC, the birthrate of Kosovo Albanians 50 years ago was an amazing 8.5 children per woman.
The Serb/Albanian conflict offers damn near perfect lab conditions to prove my case that birth rate trumps military prowess these days, because the Serbs always beat the Albanians in battle, yet they’ve lost their homeland, Kosovo. Here again, we can blame Woodrow Wilson and his talk about “rights.” In places where tribes hate each other, a tribe that outbreeds its rival will become the majority, even if it can’t fight. So, after generations of skulking at home making babies, letting the Serbs do the fighting, the Albanians finally became the majority in Kosovo and therefore the official "good guys," being oppressed by the official "bad guys," the Serbs. At least that’s the way the nave American Wilsonian types like Clinton saw it. So when the Serbs fought back against an Albanian rebellion in Kosovo, and dared to beat the Albanians, Clinton decided to bomb the Serbs into letting go of Kosovo, the ancient heartland of a Christian nation that had spent its blood holding off the Turks for hundreds of years.
The Kosovo Albanians proved that military skill doesn’t matter, because they tried and failed to conquer Kosovo the old-fashioned way: armed rebellion by the Kosovo Liberation Army. It was a wipeout: local Serb militias, a bunch of tired middle-aged part-timers and cops, crushed the KLA. What happened next is a beautiful illustration of the way losers win these days: the Albanians took the bodies of KLA men who’d been killed in battle, stripped all weapons and ammo from them, and showed them to gullible Western reporters as victims of a Serb “massacre.” It was a massacre, all right, but only because the KLA couldn’t fight worth a damn. Alive and armed, they were a joke; dead and disarmed, they helped win Kosovo by making their side the "victims," which led directly to U.S. military intervention.
To win the way the Albanians won in Kosovo, you need to make a lot of babies. It’s that simple. And to see how it works, you have to drop the namby-pamby liberal idea that people only have babies out of “love.” In lots of places on this planet, baby-making is a form of weapons production.
In some places, it’s open policy. For example, in Palestine there’s an all-out birthrate war going on between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And one of the most frustrating things about this kind of struggle, from the Israeli perspective, is that the worse you make life for the people in the occupied zones, the more kids they have. The Gaza Strip, for instance, has one of the highest fertility rates in the world outside Africa, at 5.6 kids per woman.
The rate for Israeli overall is about 2.8 children per woman, high for a rich country. But the most amazing rates anywhere, even higher than for the Gaza Palestinians, are in the most extreme Zionist groups, the Haredi “ultra-orthodox” Jews. Until recently they averaged eight or nine children per woman. There was actually a big panic in the Israeli settler press when news hit that their rate had dropped to a mere 7.7 kids per woman.
That’s actually higher than the rate for Mali (7.38 per woman), which has the highest birthrate in the world.
The settlers don’t hide the fact that they’re producing as many kids as they can in order to change the demographics of “Greater Israel” in their favor -- above all to make sure the Palestinians never become the majority.
What’s interesting is that there were plenty of voices in the ultra-Orthodox community in favor of using Israel’s military superiority to settle the problem the old-fashioned way, by expelling or wiping out the Palestinians. Those people lost out; their leader, Meir Kahane, was assassinated by an Egyptian cabbie in New York, but he’d lost the debate long before he died. You just can’t get away with those methods these days, not even with every born-again Baptist Zionist in Texas backing you to the hilt.
If you want an example closer to home, just go to Northern Ireland where the Protestant majority the border was designed to maintain has been getting smaller and smaller, thanks to the higher birthrate among Catholics. As of 2001, the Catholics were about 46% of the population, up from 35% in 1961.
But as the dreaded “Catholic Majority” date approaches, a funny thing is happening up in Ulster: the Catholic birth rate is slowing down even faster than the Protestant rate. This always happens when a tribe breaks out of its slums into the middle class. This illustrates one of the real brain-twisters of contemporary demographic struggle: if you really hate the enemy tribe, the best thing you could do would be to make them rich. Rich people don’t have nearly as many kids. Of course there are exceptions like the Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who are fairly well-off and just dedicated to making as many kids as possible, but generally, money distracts people from starting big families. So the old methods of keeping down the enemy tribe are usually counterproductive. If the Ulster hotheads like Ian Paisley had had their way and kept the Catholics down in the slums, their birthrate over the past 30 years would have been much higher and they’d be ready to stage a Kosovo-style “majority rule” coup like the Albanians did against the Serbs, complete with the USAF blowing up every television tower in Belfast like we did to the ones in Belgrade, just to teach those Serbs a lesson: “No TV till you let your little Albanian brother have Kosovo!”
Makin'em rich is the only way you’re going to settle the kind of conquest-by-immigration we’re seeing now in Europe and North America. Nobody will even say honestly how many illegal immigrants there are in the U.S. right now, but just from what I see driving to work, I’m inclined to go with the higher estimates, something up to 20 million people who snuck in from Mexico and points south looking for work.
As far as I know, nobody’s claiming the Latino immigrants decided to have a lot of kids as a way of reconquering Texas and California, the way the Israeli settlers are doing. La reconquista, if it happens, will be an unforeseen result of rising birth rates and falling death rates for countries like Mexico that are just moving up from the third world to, say, the second-and-a-halfth.
By 1970, Mexico was at that dangerous stage where there’s just enough basic medical care to keep people alive, so death rates are falling sharply, but people are still poor enough to want a lot of kids. Between 1970 and 2000, the Mexican population doubled, from 48 million to 98 million. So on one side of the Rio Grande you had a lot of young poor people, and on the other, a lot of money and companies eager for cheap labor. And a muddy little creek like the Rio Grande wasn’t nearly wide enough to keep those two groups apart.
As the population of Mexico increased and the living standard rose, the fertility rate actually went into an amazing dive, to the point that the rate for Mexican women now is only 2.39 kids per woman, just two places up from Israel’s 2.38.
And the only thing that’s brought the Latino birthrate down -- in their home countries, not among the ones who immigrated to the U.S. -- is getting enough money that peasant families start thinking of themselves as consumers, and get more excited about buying a new truck or a flat-screen TV than having little Jos.
This is all pretty slow to unfold, compared to traditional military conquest. Birth rate takes decades to have an effect; the Albanian victory in Kosovo is the result of birth rates from the mid-20th century. And in some parts of the world, like the US and Europe, immigrants have a history of being absorbed by the locals rather than sticking to the old tribal hatreds in the style of the Balkans and the Middle East. It’s a cultural deal, after all, not racial. Studies of the U.S. Hispanic population show that within a generation or two, most American Hispanics are ranting about policing the borders and keeping those damn immigrants out of the country. What’s really weird -- and I can testify to this from my own experiences growing up -- is when the local culture infiltrates the immigrants, like the fact that Mexicans in the U.S. are deserting the Catholics and becoming born-again Protestants. Go to any of the younger, feister churchers in the U.S. like the Church of the Nazarene and you’ll see lots of Mexican families with plenty of kids, singing old Scottish hymns in Tex-Mex English. In fact, I ran into a really hilarious article by a U.S. Baptist writer who worried that the Baptist birthrate is going down while the Nazarenes are having babies at a rate of three-plus per woman. So the nightmare scenario that anti-immigrant bloggers are always predicting, where the U.S. turns into one giant Mexico, might end up being true in what you might call “racial” terms -- I mean, your second-grade class photo might be two-thirds Hispanic -- but those Hispanic faces would have absorbed a whole born-again American world picture that actually comes from the Scots-Irish who settled the American south hundreds of years ago.
This is one point where people’s anxiety over these slow, demographic conquests splits according to their real fears: do you just not want to see that kind of face when you go outside, or do you not want to import the culture of the immigrants’ home country? The whole debate right now is so censored, so totally dishonest on both sides, that nobody will come clean about which it is. I suspect for some people it’s the faces: they want the faces on their street to be the same shape and color they were when they were growing up. If that’s what you want, then no matter where you are, I can guarantee that if you’re rich enough to worry about things like this (as opposed to where your next meal’s coming from), then yup, you definitely have grounds for worry. People move around to where the food is, the money, the good grazing, the jobs. The Germanic tribes who moved in on Europe a couple millennia back took a more reasonable view; they called wars “the movements of the peoples.” The Huns push the Goths off the steppe, and boom! Next thing you know, the Goths are wiping out a Roman army at Adrianople.
The faces are going to change. We are in a new military-historical era, in which the only states with the sheer will to resist slow “conquest” by immigration were the Stalinist states. Of course they didn’t have much of a problem there anyway -- not too many immigrants trying to sneak into North Korea or the old USSR -- but even if they had faced real demographic challenge, they had the will to open fire. The Berlin Wall is a nasty case in point, where the will was used to stop people leaving.
But those Stalinist states are not exactly a growth industry these days, and no liberal democratic state has the will to shoot down unarmed people trying to get in (or out, for that matter). Even the Israelis, who are maybe the fiercest first-worlders on demographic issues, don’t shoot the poor Africans who cross to Beersheba for jobs in the cafes. They just send them back to Sudan to be shot there.
So the movement of the peoples, the slow demographic wars, are going to go on. We just don’t have a counter-move, except maybe bombarding poor people with money to stay home. Basically, no matter where you are, the complexions and the features you see on the streets are going to change. If it’s any consolation to face-fascists, Europeans got their licks in first, so to speak. Not many African-Americans around with pure African blood; not many Mexican Indians without some Spanish in them. So now the faces blend the other way.
For most people the real worry, if they were allowed to even say it out loud, is culture: if you’re French, you really don’t want Paris turning into Kinshasa, because let’s be honest, Kinshasa is a Hellhole. If you’re English, you don’t want London turning into Karachi, because Karachi is a nightmare. If you’re American, you don’t want Houston -- oh Hell, ever been to Houston? If you have half a brain, you don’t want Houston at all, the lousy sweatbox.
The thing is, most of the people who invaded from those places tend to agree with you. That’s why they moved in the first place. Nobody knows what a Hellhole the Congo is like a Congolese. I read somewhere that on the Congo riverboats, they have these slang terms for the different decks. The first-class deck they call “Europe.” The second-class deck is “China,” meaning not that great, but livable. The third-class deck is “Congo,” and nobody wants to be there, least of all the Congolese.
So to assess your situation in terms of the new conquests, you have to decide whether you’re in a Kosovo -- two tribes hating each other forever, turning out babies as weapons -- or that Congolese riverboat, where nobody wants it too “authentic” if they can help it. There’s a lot of blurring and overlap between those two models, sure. Take Northern Ireland: a lot of yelling, a lot of noisy tribal hate, but I just don’t think they have it in them to be another Kosovo. Too interested in TV and cars.
That’s what’s funny about the debate right now: the diehards in the U.S. and Europe wish we had the old ruthless will to seal the borders, but the “weakness” of the advanced countries generally works pretty well to turn the immigrants into immigrant-hating locals in a generation or two. The old model, bayonets on the border, isn’t even in the running. Time to face that fact. So the faces will change.
If you can handle these new faces, you’re likely to be surprised to see your “weak” American or European culture win out, slowly, un-gloriously but surely, and you may live long enough to see a whole new crop of pols who look like they just came from Karachi or Kinshasa until you turn the sound on and hear them ranting about how we need to get rid of all these damn immigrants.
Gary Brecher is the author of the new book, The War Nerd.
. Buy it.