It is not always easy, in studying world politics, to know when power is really “powerful,” and when weakness is really “weak.” Oddly enough, some states that are presumably very powerful in measurable military terms may occasionally have to yield to others that seemingly lack power altogether. Even more ironically, in the case of Israel versus Hamas, the presumably powerful state is increasingly at the mercy of a brutal criminal organization that is substantially less autonomous than a truly sovereign state, and that has no armed forces even worth mentioning.
A related polarity, also subject to frequent conceptual confusion, distinguishes “victory” from “defeat.” Today, any discussion of our current American conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan must inevitably come down to these two possible war-terminating conclusions, yet these outcomes may still turn out to be less than determinative. This is because the tangible and formal results of these conflicts may have little real bearing on the actual condition of our national security. Whether we ultimately “win” or “lose” in these theaters of military operation, or in any other theaters for that matter, the vulnerability of American cities to both mass-destruction terrorism, and ballistic missile attack will likely remain the same.
The times, therefore, have changed. It was not always this way. At Thermopylae, for example, we learn from Herodotus, the Greeks suffered a stunning defeat in 480 BCE.
But, then, Persian King Xerxes could not even contemplate the destruction of Athens until he had first secured a decisive victory. Only after the Persian defeat of Leonidas and his defending forces, would the Athenians be forced to abandon Attica. Transporting themselves to the island of Salamis, the Greeks would then witness the Persians triumphally burning their houses, and destroying their temples.
Why should this ancient Greek tragedy be significant 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 a prior capacity to win. Without a victory, intended aggressions were never really much more than military intentions.
This is no longer the case. From the standpoint of ensuring any one state’s national survival, the usual goal of preventing a classical military defeat has generally become secondary. The consequential strategic implications of this transforming development are far-reaching, and 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 much 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 we might now be perfectly capable of warding off any tangible defeat of our military forces, and perhaps even of winning more-or-less identifiable victories, but in the end we may still have to face extraordinary or even existential harms.
What does this mean for our 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 enemies, there is really no longer any reason to work out what armies call “force multipliers” or to calculate any pertinent “correlation of forces.”Today these enemies can wreak havoc upon us without first firing a shot.
None of this is because we have necessarily done something wrong. It is simply the natural product of constantly evolving military and terrorist technologies. Nor can this frightful evolution ever be stopped or reversed. On the contrary, our considerable current vulnerabilities in the absence of prior military defeat represent a resolute fact of strategic life that must be both acknowledged and countered.
To ensure that these vulnerabilities remain well below the existential threshold, we will soon have to build a new combat orthodoxy involving deterrence, preemption and war-fighting options, possibly together with bold new ideas for protective international alignments. We will also have to take a fresh look at viable arrangements for both active and passive defenses.
In the end, nothing is ever more practical than good theory. This is especially the case in military planning, where adapting current strategy and tactics to antiquated assumptions can yield disaster. Today, we must recognize that our always-fragile civilizations can be made to suffer enormously without first going down to thunderous defeat. However much this may make us fearful or disconsolate, we will have to adjust accordingly.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor of International Law at Purdue. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he lectures and publishes widely on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. In Israel, Dr. Beres was Chair of Project Daniel. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.