Monday, March 20, 2006

Warning: Egghead Alert

Been having some Deep Thoughts lately, sparked by some military historical lectures Ive been listening to as research for Secret Project X-13.

One thing that jumped out at me that really got me thinking was the concept that the "Decisive Battle" was more or less invented by the Greeks, where it came to be inexorably ingrained in the culture of Western Europe and thus America.

See, contrary to how we usually think of the Greeks, as a culture of art, architecture one of the three great flowerings of Drama in the history of the world, athletics and so forth, they were a warlike people. They loved war.

Their most admired city-states, Athens, Sparta and Thebes were also the most warlike. We only think of Sparta this way, but Athens attacked and controlled areas outside of mainland Greeece, founding colonies in Italy (displacing natives along the way) and attempted to conquer Sicily.

The athletics the Greeks are known was admired by them partly for beauty (the reason we most discuss today) but primarily because physical fitness was seen as a great way to become an accomplished warrior.

A man's worth was measured by his military prowess. And if you don't believe me, ask Aeschylus. Here's his epitaph, composed by him well before his death:
This tomb the dust of Aeschylus doth hide, Euphorion's son and fruitful Gela's pride; How tried his valor Marathon may tell, And long-haired Medes, who knew it all too well.
In other words, one of the ten greatest dramatists the world has ever known, celebrated for those talents during his lifetime and the thousands of years since wanted you to three things: he was the proud son of Euphorian, he served a great lord (Gela was the rich noble who was his primary artistic patron) and that he fought with valor at Marathon.

Now the Greeks had a specific idea about war: the two sides lined up on a flat open field, shouted boasts at one another, invoked their gods and then marched toward one another until one side or the other held the field.

Once the superior force had been determined, the other side acknowledged their superiority and then negotiations were held, in which the victor of the Decisive Battle was given due deference.

Rome believed in this philosophy, and once Europe was overrun by the barbarians, who in turn became assimilated into the growing melting pot of Greco-Roman-Germanic Europe, it appealed to their Nordic sensibilities as well.

In essence you have a very influential warlike culture (Greece) passing this macho ethic down to succeeding generations of warlike cultures.

The lecturer then went on to say that you can see this ethos of the Deciding Battle when the nations of Europe make war and in how those wars go.

We do very well when fighting cultures that have a similar warrior ethos, as seen in WW I and WW II. Germany and Japan fought until beaten, then recognized the superiority of their victors and actually attempted to emulate them (since they were proven superior in the Decisive Battle).

On the other hand, when you look at our conflicts with other nations who do NOT share this warrior ethos, we do very poorly.

Viet Nam provides a classic example of this. On January 30, 1968 the North Vietnamese launched a surprise attack timed with the beginning of the lunar new year, an operation known to history as the Tet Offensive.

Initially the attack went very well for the communist-supported forces of the north, in fact spectacularly so. But then the south fell back and called on their American allies for support. The American response was decisive and devastating. The losses suffered by the North Vietnamese forces were staggering, all their initial gains were wiped out.

By all forms of military discussion, the Tet Offensive was a Decisive Battle won by the South Vietnamese and their American allies.

But what was the result of this victory?

The government of South Vietnam was seen as weak and incompetent. They were being overrun prior to the involvement of American forces. They were dependent on foreign armies.

If possible, the response for the American forces was worse. Public opinion dipped sharply after the Tet Offensive. The upbeat predictions of near-victory being made by Lyndon Johnson and General Westmoreland were dealt a severe (and as it turned out fatal in the longterm) blow by the fact that the enemy who was supposedly on the run and preparing to surrender was even able to mount such a serious offensive.

Worse of course was the growing belief among Americans that the government was exaggerating the success of the military campaign. If they had lied about the North Vietnamese preparing to surrender, perhaps the battle hadn't been a victory after all.

And the response of the American military made things worse. General Westmoreland had just won, by all military standards, a Decisive Victory. He was ready to tighten the noose further. He requested an additional 206,000 men, including a full mobilization of the American reserves for what he felt would be a final, devastating counter-offensive.

This move was seen not as the confident preparations for a final battle but rather as a sign of desperation. The increase in troop strength (an increase of 40%) served to feed into the opinion that the Americans had in fact lost the Tet Offensive.

And the response of American political and military leaders to the backlash caused by the Tet Offensive is one of the great signs of public, cognitive dissonance you will ever witness. You can almost see the confusion in the eyes of Generals as they attempt to explain to reporters that the battle was a victory. A Decisive Victory.

The American cause in Vietnam had suffered a blow from which it would never recover. From a battle we won.

Of course everyone can think of other conflicts that this story sheds some light on. Where we win victory after victory on the strategic and tactical level.

Yet every aggressive move seems to cause us to slip a little deeper into that quicksand because our enemy wont play fair. Won't do what they should do: acknowledge our superiority on the battlefield and allow that to translate into political gain.

And so we find ourselves in another mess, partially because we haven't learned from the past but perhaps more importantly because we just can't understand the way our enemies think.

We assume they are just like us. But in many ways the cultures of Asia (and the Middle East) are so alien they don't even have enough of a frame of reference to negotiate.

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