Section 117

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” -John 8:32

Alexander Phoenix is a tired and misanthropic intelligence officer working for the American military mission in Saudi Arabia. Embittered by the premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2009 and Iran's subsequent annexation of it, Alexander leads a seemingly mundane existence - analyzing threats to American interests by day and binge drinking at night. Yet he is also the last chance to prevent Iran from completing its nuclear weapons program.

Ordered to coordinate efforts with the People's Mujahedin of Iran, a mysterious and controversial resistance group dedicated to overthrowing the Theocratic regime in Tehran, Alexander enters a world far more exciting, and dangerous, than his usual routine of pushing paper in Riyadh. Receiving little aid from feuding superiors, incompetent colleagues, and questionable allies, Alexander races against the clock to stop Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and prevent all out war between America and Iran. But can he succeed in time?

Cannae in Military History and Theory

Posted By on December 11, 2013

imageCannae holds an unique place in military history and theory. It was arguably the most brilliant tactical victory of all time. It was also among the few cases where a significantly outnumbered opponent not only defeated, but completely annihilated, the opposing army. It was so successful that more than 2000 years later soldiers still dream about using a double encirclement to inflict an overwhelming defeat upon an enemy in battle. However, despite the undoubted tactical success Hannibal achieved against Rome at Cannae many of these same soldiers seem to have ignored other less savory lessons from the battle. Indeed Hannibal’s victory at Cannae did not lead to decisive strategic results and ultimately Carthage lost the war. Cannae’s tactical results have tended to overshadow the fact that strategically it accomplished nothing significant for Carthage in the long term.

The “Battle of Cannae” was a pivotal moment during the “Second Punic War” fought between Carthage and the Roman Empire to determine which power would dominate the Central and Western Mediterranean. This conflict was waged a generation after the “First Punic War” where Rome had ultimately triumphed over the Carthaginians. During this earlier conflict the Romans, despite being predominantly a land power, had built up a significant navy and eventually defeated the Carthaginians, who had been the major naval power in the Central and Western Mediterranean. This resulted not only in the Romans becoming the major naval power in the region, but also in the Romans annexing Carthaginian territory in Sicily, and later Sardinia and Corsica, and nearly reducing Carthage to a second rate power. While the Romans basked in the glory of their new power and expansion, the Carthaginians yearned for revenge and decided to seek expansion in Spain where Roman naval power could not impede them.

The main Carthaginian General in Spain was a man named Hamilcar Barca who was, arguably, Carthage’s most skilled commander and one of the few Carthaginian leaders not defeated by the Romans during the “First Punic War.” Hamilcar and his soldiers effectively annexed most of Spain for the Carthaginian Empire and raised and trained an army that would later inflict many impressive defeats upon Roman forces during the next war between the two states. After he died, power in Spain rested first with his son-in-law Hasdrubal, and later with his son Hannibal, who would be both the instigator, and dominant personality, of the “Second Punic War.”

While much of what has been written about Hannibal is suspect due to obviously biased sources and the sheer passage of time, there is no doubt that he was a brilliant general; capable of impressive maneuvers, possessing considerable foresight, and instilling respect from friends and foes alike. He belongs in the same category as Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel, two other commanders who were generally more tactically astute than their opposite numbers, but who were doomed to lose due to their nations’ inferior resources and corrupt political systems. Just like Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel, Hannibal produced the most impressive tactical victories during his respective war and is generally more popular in military history than his opponents who actually won in the end.

The catalyst for the “Second Punic War” occurred at Saguntum, a city allied to Rome south of the Ebro River in Spain. While the Romans accepted Carthage’s dominant position in Spain they had somewhat brusquely limited Carthaginian expansion to south of the Ebro River. This, along with the previous opportunistic Roman annexations of Carthaginian territory in Sardinia and Corsica while Carthage was preoccupied during the “Mercenary War,” provoked considerable anger and indignation in Carthage. The final insult to Carthage occurred when the Romans became allies with Saguntum, a city well below the Ebro and obviously within Carthage’s sphere of influence. From the Carthaginian point of view such a move was insulting and seemed as though Rome viewed them as a second rate power.

In 219 B.C, Hannibal, having seized control of the Carthaginian army in Spain after the assassination of Hasdrubal in 221 B.C, sacked Saguntum after a lengthy siege in open defiance of Rome. Initially, the Romans, in an attempt to prevent war, requested that the Carthaginians condemn the behavior of Hannibal and to turn him and his senior officers over to their custody. When Carthage refused to do so Rome declared war and the “Second Punic War” began.

Whether or not Hannibal attacked Saguntum to provoke war with Rome is questionable, but what is not debatable is that he was well prepared to attack Rome once hostilities commenced. As Roman naval power was more than double of Carthage’s (roughly 220 quinqueremes to Carthage’s 105) there was little chance of landing troops in Italy via ships with a reasonable degree of success. As such, Carthage could either march most of its forces through Spain, Southern France, and then Italy to attempt to defeat Rome on its own territory, or stay on the defense and try to wear Roman forces down and bring them to the negotiation table. In the case of invading Roman territory the Carthaginian forces would have many handicaps including having to march long distances over unforgiving terrain inhabited by often unfriendly inhabitants, as well as the fact that the Romans would have a significant advantage in manpower and resources once they got to Italy. While this would seem to suggest that it would have been wiser for Carthage to adopt a more defensive strategy there are two good reasons they did not.

Firstly, during the “First Punic War” the Romans waged an extremely aggressive war. Even though the war was technically a limited conflict, as it was predominantly over the control of Sicily, the Romans treated it as what would be called, in the 20th Century, a “total war” and mobilized massive forces and sought decisive battles to impose its will upon Carthage. This was in contrast to the Carthaginian conduct during the war which was more cautious and limited as they merely sought to gain advantages to ultimately negotiate from a position of strength. In the end, Roman resources, persistence and boldness prevailed and the Carthaginians realized that in any future conflict that the Romans would either fight until they won or were put in a position they could no longer continue to wage war.

Secondly, Hannibal, the de-facto instigator of the war, was an offensive minded soldier, and preferred risk, decision, and initiative to caution, attrition and waiting. Like all great captains from Alexander to Napoleon he preferred going for total victory, however risky, instead of taking solace in the advantages of the defense.

On paper the odds were heavily stacked in Rome’s favor. Rome had more manpower, more military and naval power, more economic strength, and better political cohesion. Much of this had to do with the respective political systems in Rome and Carthage. The Roman republic, though far from what would today be called a “liberal democracy,” allowed its citizens considerable freedom and the right to choose their leaders. Even more, it usually allowed defeated powers the same rights as Romans and thus often turned conquered subjects into loyal, and productive, citizens. In contrast Carthage was a more authoritarian state and non-Carthaginians were either treated as slaves or second class citizens. The end result being that while Carthage viewed much of its population with suspicion and often had to resort to using mercenary soldiers of variable quality, the Romans had a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of manpower from a generally loyal population base. According to Polybius, the Romans had the potential manpower of 700,000 infantry and 70,000 Cavalry on the eve of war, numbers which the Carthaginians theoretically had little chance of beating in a prolonged war of attrition.

This, in fact, figured into Hannibal’s calculations. With insufficient naval power to land enough troops directly into Italy, faced with the likely prospect of losing a considerable portion of his forces passing both the Pyrenees and Alps to reach Italy, and confronting numerically superior forces given the Roman system of governance Hannibal adopted a very deliberate strategy. He aimed to gain quick and decisive victories over Roman forces to gain favor among Roman enemies such as the Gauls as well as motivating Roman allies to desert in favor of Carthage. The idea being that if he could convince Rome’s enemies and allies that Carthage could beat the Romans in battle that they would join his cause and change the balance of power between Rome and Carthage enough to either defeat Rome outright or enable him to negotiate peace from a position of strength. After Cannae, he arguably came close to doing so.

Hannibal and his army left New Carthage in Spain in the late spring of 218 B.C. and had to cross mountain chains, treacherous rivers, and hundreds of miles of territory filled with generally hostile inhabitants. Of the nearly 100,000 soldiers he left with less than 30,000 successfully crossed the Alps. While Hannibal was focusing on Italy, the Romans decided to send one army to Spain to fight Carthaginian interests there and another one to Sicily to prepare for the invasion of Carthage. This left them relatively weak in Northern Italy when Hannibal appeared in late 218 B.C. While, with hindsight it is easy to censure Rome for its clumsy attempts to stop Hannibal from 218-216 B.C. it is fair to point out that given the incredible distances and horrible attrition Hannibal’s forces suffered from the march from Spain to Italy it is perhaps easy to see why the Romans considered such a strategy as both unlikely and desperate.

Yet unlikely or not, Hannibal’s forces crossed the Alps and soon met a strong Roman army near the Trebia River in December 218 B.C. The “Battle of Trebia” was similar to the “Battle of Cannae” in many ways. The Romans were superior in infantry while Carthage was superior in cavalry, utilized the terrain to their utmost advantage, and had roughly 30 elephants. Hannibal also placed a small force of 2000 infantry and cavalry in broken terrain to the left flank of where he anticipated the Roman line would be once its army crossed the Trebia River. The Romans had close to 38,000 infantry, heavy and light, while the Carthaginians had 28,000. Likewise, the Romans had 4000 cavalry while the Carthaginians had 10,000, evenly distributed along both flanks of their army.

Despite having numerical superiority the Romans were helplessly outclassed at Trebia. Hannibal’s cavalry were both superior in numbers and quality than the Roman’s, his elephants produced a disproportionate psychological effort on the enemy, and the Romans had their backs to the river. The Romans were also tired, hungry and cold (having to cross the Trebia River in icy conditions) as they spent most of the day deploying on the West Bank of the Trebia while Hannibal wisely used his light cavalry and light infantry to delay the Romans and allowed his infantry to rest as long as possible before being deployed on the field of battle.

The battle itself does not take long to describe; the Carthaginian cavalry on both flanks quickly quashed the Roman and allied calvary at which point Hannibal’s Numidian horses turned to harass the flanks of the Roman infantry while his Iberian and Gaulish horses pursued the defeated Roman and allied cavalry. Meanwhile the Carthaginian light infantry and elephants joined in the attack on the Roman centre and the 2000 Carthaginians hiding behind the Roman lines rushed to attack the Roman centre from behind; effectively encircling the Roman army. The only setback to Hannibal’s plan was when 10,000 heavy Roman infantry managed to break through the numerically inferior Carthaginian infantry in the centre and escaped the battlefield in good order. However, this was a minor inconvenience for Hannibal as the Carthaginians managed to kill or capture the lion-share of the nearly 45,000 Roman soldiers and allies at Trebia.

After his unequivocal victory at Trebia Hannibal rested his forces. Unfortunately for him many of his soldiers, and all but a few of his elephants, died in the cold conditions after the battle. However, he soon marched south again, ravaging the countryside to provoke the Romans into battle and trying to recruit Gauls in the area and convince Roman allies to desert by showing Roman impotence by their failure to stop his advance. At the same time the Romans, who were not unduly shaken by their defeat at Trebia, raised another two consular armies to find and destroy Hannibal’s force. The Romans once again elected two consuls for the coming year and the one who would next face Hannibal in battle was Gaius Flaminius.

According to ancient sources Flaminius was a rash and aggressive man who recklessly sought the quick annihilation of the Carthaginian army in Italy as soon as possible, whatever the conditions. Whether or not this is a fair appraisal is questionable as many of the sources of this period were biased, or owed patronage to Roman families who wanted to denigrate their rivals. However, the actual outcome of the next battle between Hannibal and Rome showed that Flaminius was anything but cautious or thorough. But to be fair to Flaminius his predecessors were no less circumspect or unlucky when they charged in blindly to attack Hannibal at Tacinus and later Trebia in 218 B.C. Indeed, Roman commanders and soldiers were by nature bold and aggressive and Flaminius can arguably be considered as a scapegoat for what was at the time a Roman military system that was very slow to adapt to Hannibal’s methods.

As Hannibal marched down the Italian peninsula he was pursued closely by Flaminius, who was eager, and no doubt pressured by Roman public opinion, to bring the Carthaginian commander to battle as soon as possible. The site of the battle between these two antagonists would be on the northern shore of Lake Trasimene. Hannibal had scouted the area and found a perfect area to trap and destroy the pursuing Roman army. The path along the northern shore was generally narrow and dominated by hilly terrain overlooking the lake. The geography was such that it would be easy to seal off the entrance, and exit, of the path near the shoreline, as well as hiding an army in the heights above.

Hannibal’s plan was to march through the pathway during the day, and then double back at night and occupy the high ground before the Roman army arrived the next day. He placed his Spanish and Libyan veterans on the ridge dominating the far exit of the pass where the Romans could see them once they entered the passage (thus trying to lure them into battle). He also placed his Gauls and light troops in the centre to fall on the Roman army once it had advanced sufficiently into the trap, while his cavalry were placed at the rear, ready to cut off the Roman escape route.

At dawn on June 21st, 217 B.C, despite the fact it was misty, and without bothering to send out a reconnaissance force to scout ahead, Flaminius ordered the Roman army to march through the pass. Advancing through the passage his lead troops eventually saw the Spanish and Libyan soldiers holding the ridge commanding the exit of the route and Flaminius ordered his soldiers, still in marching formation, to prepare for battle. However Hannibal’s forces soon descended the hills and fell upon the Roman ranks, who were still generally not formed up to fight, and who were now trapped between the entrance and exit of the pass. The Carthaginians attacked from high ground, and the Romans had the lake to their backs. Under these circumstances; surrounded, in poor fighting formations, and up against Hannibal’s elite forces, there is little doubt that the Roman army was doomed to an unpleasant fate.

In fact the battle was a comprehensive victory for Hannibal who killed or captured all but 6000 Roman soldiers who had been part of the vanguard and managed to escape. However, even this small consolation for Rome was lost when Hannibal’s forces found, surrounded and captured this force the next day. For the price of perhaps 1500 to 2500 casualties Hannibal had more or less crushed a Roman army and inflicted between 25,000-30,000 casualties. The genius of Trasimene was perhaps best described by Robert O’Connell as “the biggest ambush in history, the only time an entire large army was effectively swallowed and destroyed by such a maneuver.”

If this were not enough, Rome suffered a further disaster when the cavalry from the other Roman army in Italy, which had not yet learned of the defeat at Lake Trasimene, was sent to make contact with Flaminius’s force. The cavalry, like Flaminius’s army before it, was ambushed and destroyed by Hannibal’s forces. With one army left and devoid of calvary the Roman republic’s chances of victory against the Carthaginians suddenly appeared slim indeed.

After Rome’s defeats at Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene, and the recent loss of its cavalry, the Roman people finally sobered up to the possibility that Hannibal represented a mortal threat to the Republic. In the near panic, after these setbacks, the Roman senate appointed a dictator to coordinate Rome’s response to Hannibal. Usually the Roman republic was mainly run by two consuls (as the Romans were afraid of giving any man too much power), and the Senate, along with some collaboration with the Tribunes and the masses. However, in emergencies, much like modern day war measures acts in liberal democracies, the Roman republic often resorted to appointing dictators for 6 month terms to quickly and decisively accomplish what needed to be done. Dispensing with long winded debate, and eschewing yellow tape and petty procedures, the Romans generally entrusted the title of dictator to a man of known ability, and integrity, to use all means necessary to save Rome from whatever impending disaster confronted it. In the summer of 217 B.C. the Romans chose Quintus Fabius Maximus to be the savior of Rome. In the event, he was an unorthodox, but fortunate, choice.

He had an impressive enough resumé; having served in the “First Punic War” and having also held the Consulship twice. However, he was also old for a Roman general, at 58, and was not generally popular before, or during, his dictatorship. Either way Fabius Maximus wisely adopted cautious strategy and tactics against Hannibal and ultimately allowed Rome to not only recover from her potentially fatal position in the summer of 217 B.C, but to face Hannibal with considerable, though with hindsight perhaps foolish confidence, the next summer.

Realizing that Hannibal’s strategy involved bringing Roman armies to battle as quickly as possible (and on the ground of his choosing) to destroy them, Fabius Maximus generally avoided battle, stuck to strong positions and high ground, and only engaged Hannibal’s forces in smaller skirmishes whenever the Romans held the advantage. Aware that Hannibal’s weaknesses were his lack of food, supplies and a secure base, Fabius Maximus destroyed, or removed food stocks, along Hannibal’s route, attacked his foragers, sought to wear down his forces via skirmishes and small scale ambushes, etc. Fabius’s objective was simple; either starve Hannibal enough to force him to abandon his campaign in Italy, or give Rome time to amass enough forces to confront Hannibal in battle with sufficient numerical superiority to offer a reasonable chance of victory.

Such a strategy; slow, defensive and attritional, was, and has generally been, unpopular in military history from Darius II’s refusal to enact it during Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire to the Russian’s equivocation during Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. It is not surprisingly that the Romans, being by nature aggressive, offensive minded, and straightforward in their military methods, despised Fabius’s cautious methods. Ultimately, the Romans rewarded Fabius’s efforts with the nickname the “Cunctator” or the “Delayer,” an obvious insult given the inherently bold nature of Roman society. While it is hard to blame the Romans for their displeasure as the Carthaginians burned, looted, and moved across the Italian peninsula with apparent impunity, there is no doubt that Fabius’s strategy was the best option at the time as the Romans could not face Hannibal in open battle with a likely degree of success.

An incident during this time confirms this. Fabius’s second in command, Marcus Municius Rufus, whom he often had a strained relationship with, and who generally urged a more aggressive stance against Hannibal, managed to win a significant skirmish against Hannibal’s forces near Gerunium. The Roman people, not surprising given their displeasure at Fabius’s methods, took the unprecedented step of voting Marcus equal powers as Fabius. Thereupon Marcus openly sought battle with Hannibal with his forces while Fabius continued on the defense with his own. Soon Marcus clashed with Hannibal’s forces and was only rescued by the timely intervention of Fabius’s troops, after which Marcus relinquished ultimate power to Fabius once again. By this time the Romans generally realized the wisdom of Fabius’s policies and the next great clash between the Romans and Carthaginians would not occur until Cannae in 216 B.C.

In the end Fabius’s strategy did not force Hannibal to withdraw from Italy or seriously impact his army’s capabilities. However, it did allow the Romans and their allies the breathing room, from the summer of 217-216 B.C, to amass what was at that time the strongest army ever raised by the republic. Having considerable numerical superiority over Hannibal’s army, and moving against what was hoped to be an increasingly starved and isolated Carthaginian force in Southern Italy, the Romans had more reason to be confident of winning since Hannibal had passed through the Alps two years earlier.

After Fabius’s term of dictator was over the Roman people elected two new consuls; both of whom promised to quit the vacillation of the war effort and bring Hannibal’s army to battle and defeat it. This was understandable as even though Fabius’s tactics had saved Rome from early defeat Roman society, naturally impatient and aggressive, found them weak and indecisive. Yet without the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to judge that the Romans, having survived long enough to amass a clearly superior army, on paper at least, to Hannibal’s, voted to end the rape and pillage his forces were inflicting in Italy.

Given the sheer size of the Roman and allied army amassed this force was clearly meant to find and destroy the Carthaginian army in Italy; a much smaller force would have sufficed to harass, or observe, Hannibal. Once again, without hindsight, the Romans had many reasons to adopt an aggressive strategy in 216 B.C. Their resources, given the time to accumulate after Fabius’s cautious strategy, allowed them to field a significantly numerical superior army to Hannibal’s. Meanwhile, Hannibal, despite winning over much of the Gauls, had still failed to convince Rome’s many allies in the Italian peninsula to desert her. Finally, while not yet at a critical point for supplies or recruits, Hannibal and his forces were intruders in a hostile country, without a secure base of operations or the means to consistently support their needs. Indeed Hannibal’s forces maintained their long and seemingly confusing march since arriving in Italy because they had to keep moving to pillage food and supplies in order to continue operating.

Thus, from a strategic point of view, the Roman objective of 216 B.C. cannot be faulted. Hannibal’s army was the Carthaginian centre of gravity in the war and its destruction would both secure Italy and allow the Romans to take the fight to the Carthaginian homeland as well as their possessions in Spain. Hannibal’s army in Italy was relatively isolated and suffering from supply woes while the Romans could amass a superior army. Finally, the political pressure from allies and Roman citizens upset from Carthaginian excesses on Roman soil could not be easily ignored. The Roman defeat of Hannibal’s army in Italy offered the best strategic results for Rome in the war. Unfortunately for Rome, when the great contest of arms occurred at Cannae it seriously underestimated the tactical sophistication of Hannibal and his army.

The campaign in 216 B.C. from the election of the Roman consuls to the “Battle of Cannae” was not nearly as momentous, or descriptive, as Hannibal’s campaigns in Italy in late 218 or 217 B.C. Suffice it to say once Rome’s policy changed from attrition to decision after the end of Fabius’s term as dictator the Roman army pursued the Carthaginian army until it found a reasonable time and place to engage it. That place was just outside Cannae.

The Roman and allied army at Cannae was massive, with perhaps 86,000 infantry, calvary, and garrison troops. Hannibal’s army was significantly smaller, with arguably 50,000 in all. The Romans enjoyed a clear numerical superiority, especially in infantry. However, the Roman and allied cavalry were numerically weaker than Hannibal’s heavy and light cavalry, at approximately 6000 to 10000 respectfully. Additionally, Hannibal’s cavalry were also better trained and motivated than their Roman opponents who they had consistently beaten in battle since the beginning of the war. As for the infantry balance while Rome’s scores of heavy legions were generally better equipped than their Carthaginian counterparts, Hannibal’s 8-10,000 Libyan soldiers at Cannae were the best infantry on the field. Perhaps more important was how each side deployed their soldiers on the battlefield. As will be seen, Hannibal deployed his forces in the most efficient means possible whereas the Romans used their numerical superiority in a wasteful fashion.

The terrain at Cannae favored Hannibal’s army. Varro, the Roman consul who was in charge of the army during the battle, chose to deploy in the area because he thought the hills near Cannae on one flank, and the Aufidius River on the other, would offer his outnumbered and outclassed Cavalry a chance to hold their ground as the infantry battle would be decided. Without hindsight this was not unreasonable; at Trebia the Roman centre had burst through the Carthaginian centre and even at Lake Trasimene the Roman vanguard had punched through the trap and initially escaped. In both of these battles the Roman cavalry had been either outflanked or surprised but at least at Cannae they had a chance to hold out. Yet unfortunately the ground at Cannae, though narrow enough to prevent the Roman and allied cavalry from being outflanked, was also ideal for maneuverability and Hannibal’s more nimble and sophisticated forces used it to defeat the more cumbersome Roman army.

The Roman army at this time was led by two consuls, who shared command by exercising control of the army on alternate days. During the battle itself command was exercised by Gaius Terentius Varro, who was stationed with the allied cavalry, while his co-consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus was stationed with the Roman cavalry. The Romans typically placed their leaders in positions that were considered critical and it is no surprise that both consuls were placed on the flanks where the Romans were outnumbered and outclassed by the Carthaginians. Likewise Hannibal positioned himself in the centre, with his hard pressed infantry, to motivate them to hold out long enough for his cavalry to turn the tide of battle.

On August 2, 216 B.C, Varro, who was determined to bring Hannibal to battle, and who held command of the Roman army that day, decided to cross the river and deploy his army for battle. Hannibal, who had been hoping for a chance to decisively destroy another Roman army since Fabius’s days of delaying, took up Varro’s challenge and met the Romans on the field. As stated above, Varro deployed his army between the Aufidius River and the hilly terrain near Cannae in the hopes that his inferior cavalry would not be outflanked and would be able to hold out long enough until his massive Roman infantry force would overwhelm the significantly outnumbered Carthaginian infantry in the centre. Likewise, Hannibal’s plan was for his infantry in the center to fight a delaying action long enough for his cavalry to rout their opposite numbers, and then with the help of his Libyan infantry, completely destroy the Roman infantry.

As such the Romans deployed with their allied cavalry on the left, their infantry in the centre, and the Roman cavalry on the right. While it is hard to determine precise figures, most sources suggest the Romans had perhaps 3600 allied cavalry, 70,000 infantry and, 2400 Roman cavalry on the field itself, and perhaps 10,000 leftover or garrison troops in the camps nearby. Simultaneously, Hannibal deployed his army opposite the Romans and had his Numidian (or light cavalry) on the right to oppose the allied cavalry, his infantry (Gauls, Spanish and Libyans) were in the centre, and his Spanish and Gaulish (or heavy cavalry) were on the left to oppose the Roman Cavalry. As for numbers, most accounts suggest Hannibal had 40,000 infantry and 10,000 Cavalry (the lion-share of which were with the heavy cavalry on the left). If these figures are correct Hannibal fought the battle at Cannae outnumbered by 50%.

A few important considerations should be noted. Firstly, as stated many times above, the Carthaginian cavalry on the flanks both outnumbered and outclassed their Roman equivalents. Secondly, despite the fact the Roman infantry significantly outnumbered the Carthaginians they were hamstrung by several handicaps. While the Carthaginians were deployed in loose and flexible formations the massive Roman legions were deployed in a dense phalanx formation where soldiers were simply deployed in ranks, one after another, with little room. Usually the Romans deployed in looser maniples and in 3 main lines (the Hastati, the Principes, and the Triarii). Generally the first line was composed of greener troops and there were spaces in between for the Principe line, composed of more seasoned soldiers, to advance into if and when the battle demanded. Finally, the last line was composed of the most experienced troops who could reinforce the first two lines if things became critical.

The Romans choose the phalanx formation for Cannae because it was ideal for a slogging match as it was close, dense, and had considerable staying power. However, it also allowed little maneuverability and only the men fighting at the front, or if they were in contact with the enemy on the sides, the flanks, could engage the enemy while the rest would be stuck behind their comrades waiting for them to fall in order to advance and fight the enemy. The phalanx would win in a slow battle of attrition if whomever used it had numerical superiority and could not be outmaneuvered on the battlefield. Unfortunately for the Romans at Cannae they enjoyed the former, but not the latter. Indeed, despite the fact his infantry were considerably outnumbered Hannibal, as will shortly be described, deployed and maneuvered them in perhaps the most economical means possible.

While both sides deployed on the field, the skirmishers and light infantry fought in the centre. Like most battles in this age the skirmishers inflicted little casualties and had little, if any, impact on the subsequent battle. As already stated the cavalry of both armies were stationed on the flanks, with the Roman cavalry facing Hannibal’s heavy cavalry and the Latin cavalry facing the light Numidian cavalry. Likewise the Roman infantry deployed in a dense, but unwieldy, Phalanx formation. However, Hannibal deployed the bulk of his infantry (composed of Gauls and Spaniards) in a looser, more maneuverable, formation. This was shaped as an ark, or arrow, pointed towards the centre of the Roman infantry. Finally his Libyan infantry, his best soldiers, were deployed as two phalanxes both behind, and on the flanks, of his central infantry force. The purpose of these unorthodox deployments will be described shortly.

The main battle opened with the Carthaginian heavy cavalry rushing its Roman equivalent while the Roman infantry pushed towards the front of the Carthaginian ark in the centre. Hasdrubal’s cavalry fought the Romans in close order rather than mounting a charge that was typical in this era. While his force did outnumber the Roman cavalry this advantage was not apparent as the narrow space of the battlefield only allowed him to deploy his advance forces against the Romans. However, in the event, his advance forces were enough as his better trained and motivated forces defeated the Roman cavalry, who were probably used to losing against the Carthaginians after 2 years, in a short but vicious fight that was fought significantly on foot. After routing his opposite number Hasdrubal, much to his credit, began to reform his cavalry forces for the next stage of the battle rather than pursuing the Roman cavalry. However, before this brief but decisive engagement ended, the Roman infantry in the centre met the advanced Carthaginian forces which were deployed at the centre of the ark pointing towards them.

Unlike the quick and decisive engagement between Hasdrubal and the Roman cavalry on the left flank the battle between the infantry in the centre would prove to be a slow, brutal, and attritional struggle. The Romans, being generally better equipped and enjoying superior numbers, inexorably pushed back the weaker Carthaginian forces who were both deployed and ordered to fall back as slowly as possible to allow their cavalry counterparts time to turn the tide of battle. Hannibal himself was in the centre with his brother Mago to motivate his men to hold out as long as possible. Trying to delay the Romans from bursting through the centre Hannibal ordered his echelons stationed back on both sides of his centre ark to not advance, but to wait until the ark pulled back and then fight the Romans at the same time. Thus, the Romans would have to fight harder and harder as it came up against a Carthaginian line that became stronger and stronger as it retreated and absorbed its rear echelons. The added benefit, of course, was that the rear echelons would be more fresh than the Romans who would become increasingly tired from advancing and fighting.

However, despite Hannibal’s brilliant deployment of his infantry, and his inspirational leadership, Roman numbers began to tell as their massive force first pushed the Carthaginian ark back until its echelons formed into a straight line, then pushed it outwards in the opposite direction, and then finally managed to break Hannibal’s Spanish and Gaulish infantry in the centre and began to rout the Carthaginian forces. But while the Roman infantry finally broke the Carthaginian centre and began pouring through, its legions were no longer organized fighting units, but a massive mob intent on pursuing what they thought was a defeated enemy. In the end they would be sadly mistaken, but meanwhile another decisive engagement was occurring on another flank of the battle.

The battle on the right flank between the Latin cavalry, led by Varro, and Hannibal’s Numidian light cavalry was generally a less exciting affair than the great clashes occurring on the left and centre flanks. Ironically, both sides had been ordered to merely hold their enemies long enough until the battle would be won at another point on the field. The fighting on this flank, unsurprisingly, developed into a stalemate as neither side had the ability, or the will, to decisively defeat their opposite numbers. Most of the combat on this flank initially consisted of the Numidians using their superior speed and maneuverability to quickly ride up to their Latin enemies, throw their javelins and retire before their enemies could close in and attack them. Given that Rome and Carthage saw this flank as a sideshow both sides saw such an indecisive exchange as acceptable.

This ancient version of a “phony war” ended abruptly when Hasdrubal’s heavy cavalry, having been wisely reformed for another decisive attack instead of pursuing the already routed Roman cavalry, descended upon the rear of the Latin cavalry. Varro and the Latin cavalry, seeing this new unpleasant development promptly fled the battlefield before Hasdrubal’s heavy cavalry managed to close in and inflict a single blow upon the enemy. While history has generally judged Varro’s conduct in a less than kindly manner, a few considerations should be noted before adopting an overly harsh view towards his actions.

Firstly, one should consider his position when the Latin cavalry fled; his forces were caught in between the hilly terrain at Cannae to his left, the Roman infantry to his right and the Numidian cavalry to his front. Had he not retired sooner his forces would also have been confronted by Hasdrubal’s cavalry to the rear. In effect, he and his forces would have been surrounded, encircled, and likely destroyed in a very short time. Given the actual developments currently, or soon to occur on the battlefield, it is all but certain that any delay an alternative decision to stand, fight, and die, made by Varro would not have given any meaningful advantage to Rome, or result in any less of a victory for Hannibal in the battle.

Secondly, it is probable that much of the criticism Varro has received throughout history is because Polybius, one of the main historians of the battle, was a benefactor of Varro’s co-consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus’s family. Considering the latter died in the battle (while Varro escaped and survived), and considering Paullus’s family had more status and power in Roman society than Varro’s it is no surprise that they could afford to find scholars and historians to put a good spin on Paullus’s conduct at the obvious expense of Varro’s reputation. While none of this suggests Varro’s conduct at Cannae was impressive or that he should not shoulder much of the blame for its outcome, to place all of the responsibility on him for Rome’s failure would be both unfair and academically dishonest.

Either way the result of the fleeing of Varro and the Latin cavalry was another important victory for Hannibal’s forces and ultimately proved decisive at the end of the battle. Hasdrubal allowed the Numidian cavalry to pursue the Latin cavalry and once again focused on reforming his disorganized heavy cavalry for one last purpose which would seal the fate of the Roman army at Cannae.

Meanwhile, the Roman infantry in the centre were still confident in their initial rout of the Carthaginian centre and pouring through the gaps in an attempt to destroy their enemies against the back of the river. As stated above, by this time the Roman legions breaking through in the centre were no longer organized fighting units but mostly a blood lusting mob advancing towards what was thought to be a defeated opponent. Unfortunately for them Hannibal had been expecting such an outcome and had placed his Libyan infantry, his equivalent to Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, in positions both behind, and to the flanks, of the Carthaginian centre in two extended phalanx formations.

These Phalanxes were perfectly positioned to counterattack the Romans in the centre as they were deployed in considerable depth (as opposed to the regular Carthaginian infantry that had been deployed in a linear fashion to face the Romans) and the Roman forces passing in between the two flanks were now disorganized, well forward and exposed. Not only were the Libyans Hannibal’s best infantry, but they were also better equipped than their Carthaginian colleagues, having looted the Roman dead from Trebia and Trasimene. This likely played in their favor as many of the Romans were confused that similarly dressed soldiers as themselves were advancing towards them via the flanks.

Once the Romans in the centre had moved sufficiently into the trap the Libyan formations on both their flanks turned and advanced to attack. The Libyan phalanxes soon made contact with the Romans pouring through the centre and quickly stopped what had been the latter’s considerable momentum. This result was hardly surprising as the Libyans were veterans, in good order, and were still fresh as they had not yet been involved in the fighting, while much of the Romans were composed of greener troops, were hopelessly disorganized, and were considerably tired after heavy fighting. This latest maneuver by Hannibal regained the initiative for the Carthaginian infantry as it allowed the erstwhile retreating Spanish and Gallic infantry in the centre the chance to reform and re-join the battle line, as well as putting the Roman infantry, now surrounded on 3 sides, onto the defensive. The Romans were now gripped in a metaphorical vise, and having no effective reserves (having thrown all available forces towards the centre to accomplish their initial breakthrough) struggled to form coherent lines of defense.

If this were not enough, Hannibal’s army was now poised to unleash its last impressive maneuver upon the hapless Romans. By now Hasdrubal, having sent the Numidian cavalry to pursue the Latin cavalry, had once more reformed his heavy cavalry and proceeded to launch it in several devastating charges against the exposed Roman rear. This sealed the fate of the Romans as they were now more or less surrounded and had no room, or time, to organize their massive mob of fighting men into effective formations.

At this point the conduct of the battle became nothing more than a protracted, and attritional, slaughter. There were to be no more brilliant maneuvers, feigned withdrawals or major tactical decisions; just organized butchery. Apparently, this final stage of the battle was anything but brief and lasted most of the day until a very small portion of the original Roman army decided, or was allowed, to surrender.

Perhaps it is not surprising that most scholars of Cannae have focused predominantly on Hannibal’s amazing maneuvers and have usually glossed over this last part of the battle where in fact the vast majority of Romans were killed. No doubt it was more convenient to look at a map and think of the battle in terms of arrows and statistics than to imagine the sheer hell it must have been for the hapless Romans as they were trapped, stalked and hacked to death. Such scholars probably find it unsettling when historians such as Robert O’Connell describe how “at the end of the fight, at least forty-eight thousand Romans lay dead or dying, lying in pools of their own blood and vomit and feces, killed in the most intimate and terrible ways, their limbs hacked off, their faces and thoraxes and abdomens punctured and mangled.” However it would be foolish and dishonest to deny that Cannae’s enviable place in military history was bought, like all other feats in military history, without considerable human misery, suffering and death.

All of this suggests that Cannae would be a model of Clausewitiz’s school of military thought and not Sun Tzu’s. Admittedly, Hannibal was a master of maneuver, deception and knowing the enemy, three things constantly emphasized by Sun Tzu. However, Hannibal’s focus on destroying the enemy army, his deliberate use of maximum violence, and his primary focus on winning battles, are all staples of Clausewitizian doctrine. Sun Tzu, who cared more about maneuver and attempting to win without fighting wrote that “a surrounded army must be given a way out.” Unfortunately, for the Romans, Hannibal had no intention of letting them escape at Cannae and instead slaughtered them in a more Clausewitizian fashion. Hannibal’s maneuvers during the battle were simply means by which he could later kill as many Romans as possible, not to win the war with as little violence as possible.

As for results, Hannibal, despite operating with few supplies in a hostile country, and despite being outnumbered by 50% had not only defeated, but virtually surrounded and destroyed, a considerably superior enemy force. Cannae would prove to be Hannibal’s greatest battlefield victory and turn him into a legend.

The statistics regarding the battle are staggering to look at, especially if we remember that Cannae occurred nearly 2200 years before the horrors of the “First and Second World Wars.” In one day, the Roman army lost between 50,000 and 80,000 men and horses. Such discrepancies depend upon the sources, the difference between counting Romans who were captured on the battlefield versus those captured the next day at the Roman camps, estimations between wounded and dead, etc. Yet despite such varying estimates there are a few telling points.

Firstly, it seems as though the majority of Roman casualties were deaths; as in most of their army did not surrender. Secondly, including those who were killed, captured, wounded, or escaped, the vast majority of the Roman army was effectively eliminated at Cannae. In fact, in the end the Romans managed to scrape together perhaps 10,000 men (out of what originally may have been 86,000) who had not been killed or captured by Hannibal’s forces at Cannae, or in the surrounding area. Finally, as will be shortly noted, the casualty ratio was vastly in favor for the Carthaginian forces. All this Hannibal accomplished against a force that outnumbered him by 50%. If Roman losses from 218-216 B.C. including the disasters at Trebia, Trasimene, and other skirmishes and fighting are added the potential Roman military casualties thus far in the conflict ranged between 100,000-150,000. Considering Rome and her allies supposedly had 700,000 men available for war, and considering many of Rome’s allies would in fact shortly defect to Hannibal, it looked as though the Romans would eventually be bled to death.

To put it bluntly the Roman army at Cannae was destroyed as a fighting force, in both numbers and capabilities. In their long history Rome would suffer maybe one of two military disasters on such a scale. Meanwhile, the Carthaginian casualties have been estimated between 6500 and 8000, although this is unsatisfactory as there is no confirmation if these are total casualties, including wounded, or just deaths.

A few mores statistics help illustrate Hannibal’s victory at Cannae. No less than 1 consul (Paullus) 1 pro-consul, 2 Quaestors, 29 military tribunes, 80 senators, and a number of ex-consuls, praetors and aediles perished in the battle. Besides the slaughter of such a significant number of soldiers the Roman defeat at Cannae also deprived the republic of a high proportion of its military and political leadership. To put it in perspective imagine what would have happened if Hitler had not halted outside of Dunkirk but instead captured and destroyed the bulk of the B.E.F. in France in 1940. As most of Britain’s subsequently best generals escaped as well, it is interesting to wonder how different the war would have been had they been captured.

Why did Hannibal win the “Battle of Cannae?” Certainly there are no lack of factors that led to his victory. The terrain, though initially chosen by Varro to offer some protection for his outclassed cavalry forces, ultimately favored Hannibal’s cavalry instead. Additionally, Hasdrubal, the Commander of Hannibal’s heavy cavalry, deserves much credit for not only quickly dispatching first the Roman and then the Latin cavalry, but wisely refraining from pursuing either of them and focusing instead on quickly reforming his forces for more important purposes on the battlefield.

Hannibal himself correctly anticipated how the Romans would deploy and act and deployed his own forces in perhaps the most economical means possible to give his outnumbered forces the best possible chance to succeed. His use of forward echelons for his Spanish and Gallic infantry to give them staying power and time, the deployment of the majority of his cavalry on the left flank to quickly overwhelm the weaker Roman cavalry vs. the stronger Latin cavalry on the right, and his placement of the Libyan phalanxes behind his main infantry line to trap the Roman infantry as they burst through his centre were all brilliant stratagems.

On the other side, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Romans did much to hurt their chances of prevailing. As already stated, Varro’s decision to fight at Cannae due to the terrain was theoretically sound but proved to be disastrous in practice. Likewise, while the Roman decision to deploy in a colossal phalanx formation was both simpler for their inexperienced army and gave them much staying power, it was wasteful (as most of the troops would be deployed too far back to do any fighting) and offered little chance for maneuver; which ultimately reduced the Roman legions into little more than a rambling mob when confronted by Hannibal’s maneuvers. Additionally, the Roman plan for the battle was anything but subtle: Hold on the flanks with the cavalry long enough for the massive infantry force in the centre to crush its weaker Carthaginian equivalent.

It was a simple, and obvious, plan and while Adrian Goldsworthy in his brilliant books on Cannae and the “Punic Wars” reminds us that there were many ways that Hannibal could have lost the battle it is hard not to contrast the Carthaginian’s complex maneuvers with Rome’s frontal assault and the sheer imbalance of casualties and conclude that a potential Roman victory at Cannae was both unlikely and undeserved. There are plenty of examples of simple battle plans triumphing over elaborate ones in military history but Cannae was not among them.

Finally, besides the terrain, deployments and maneuvers, it is fair to suggest that at Cannae the Carthaginians generally had the advantage in leadership and experience. There was simply no Roman equivalents to Hannibal and Hasdrubal, men who had been engaged in constant warfare in Spain for years while the nature of Rome’s system of governance precluded its leaders would command for more than a short period of time. Likewise, while many of his troops had perished from the march from New Carthage to across the Alps the cream of Hannibal’s army, once again veterans from years of campaigning in Spain, were clearly superior to the generally green militias Rome mobilized infrequently. While it should be noted the Roman army at Cannae did have some experienced legions that had fought against Hannibal, or served under Fabius Maximus, there is no doubt that Hannibal’s forces were generally better led and more seasoned.

As for the strategic results of Cannae these can be categorized between what Hannibal’s victory accomplished in both the short and long term. In the short term it finally accomplished what Hannibal had been seeking since his descent of the Alps in late 218 B.C; the desertion of several Roman allies and a secure base of operation. Rome was further weakened by the entry of Macedonia into the war on the Carthaginian side, as well as defections to Carthage in Roman occupied Sicily and Sardinia. Theoretically such a defeat, and subsequent shifts in the strategic situation should have either resulted in a Roman surrender, unconditional or negotiated, or ultimate Roman defeat in the war.

However, it did not. Instead of coming to terms Rome shrugged off its losses and revitalized its war effort. Finally realizing the folly of engaging Hannibal’s superior forces head on Rome adopted an indirect strategy to combat Carthage. This involved wearing down Carthage by winning the military context in Spain and Sicily and then invading North Africa and bringing the war to Carthage itself. This was ironically helped by Hannibal’s new position after Cannae where he was responsible for guarding his new allies in Italy. This limited his mobility as he had to ward off sieges and attacks against Rome’s deserting allies and while he still managed to inflict some impressive defeats against Roman forces he never again achieved the decisive results gained from 218-216 B.C.

While Hannibal remained undefeated in Italy, in the end the worsening situation of Carthaginian forces in North Africa forced him to return home in a last ditch attempt to stave off defeat in 202 B.C. Here he faced Roman forces under Publius Cornelius Scipio, who had emerged as Rome’s best general of the conflict. The last great battle of the war occurred at Zama and while not as memorable, or sophisticated, as Cannae it was still similar to it in a notable way. While Scipio and Hannibal’s infantry fought a mostly attritional battle the Roman cavalry, supplemented by deserting Numidians routed Hannibal’s army and effectively won the day. This battle sealed the fate of Carthage and Rome triumphed in the “Second Punic War.” Thus in the long term, Cannae did not result in a Carthaginian victory.

There has been some controversy as to whether or not Hannibal wasted his victory at Cannae by camping near Capua and securing his gains instead of marching directly on Rome after the battle. While this seems like an attractive “what if scenario” it was both unlikely and unrealistic. It was unlikely because Hannibal’s set strategy from the beginning was to isolate Rome from its allies, and unrealistic because not only was Rome too far away from Cannae (perhaps 250 miles) to warrant the likelihood of a successful march, but his army was also considerably weakened from its losses in the battle and finally Hannibal did not have the means to launch an effective siege of Rome. Some authorities on the subject have suggested that the mere presence of Hannibal at the gates of Rome after Cannae may have been enough to scare Rome into surrender but this ignores both the stubborn nature of Roman society and the fact that a later Carthaginian incursion near Rome in 211 B.C. had little effect on Roman morale. It is possible that an all out effort against the city of Rome by Hannibal after Cannae may have won him the war, but the odds were considerably against it.

As for Hannibal himself, while he remained in Carthage for sometime after the conflict and held high office in an attempt to re-establish Carthaginian power and prestige, a combination of Roman antagonism and political rivalry eventually forced him into exile. However, this was not enough for the Romans who were terrified of Hannibal and constantly paranoid that he would somehow raise another army to attack them again. Therefore he spent the last years of his life pursued by Roman agents until he was finally cornered in modern day Turkey more than 3 decades after Cannae. Rather than face capture and the potential ridicule of being paraded in Rome Hannibal poisoned himself and left a note which read “let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.” This was the fate of Rome’s greatest enemy.

Then, there is the disproportionate affect Cannae has had upon subsequent military theory. Needless to say, and given Carthage’s eventual defeat in the conflict, the predominant focus of subsequent generations of military theorists has been upon explaining, and codifying, the reasons for Hannibal’s unequivocal tactical victory at Cannae versus the final strategic results of the war. Soldiers are generally practical and straightforward by nature and not surprising given the threat of death usually look at solutions that provide immediate results. Perhaps it is no secret that victory in battle is often the key to victory in war, but such a narrow focus on the tactical and operational levels can cheat soldiers when even overwhelmingly tactical results on the battlefield do not transform into decisive political or strategic effects with the potential to end the war on their side’s terms. Hannibal himself was a shrewd politician and strategist, and the fact that he ultimately lost despite being a master of war at all levels should have been a sober reminder to succeeding generations of soldiers.

Unfortunately, the most important lesson of Cannae, that even a perfect tactical victory does not necessarily lead to decisive political effects to end hostilities, has been lost upon countless soldiers, and politicians, throughout history.

A look at some of the more brilliant military tactical victories of the last 2 centuries confirms this. The German encirclement of Soviet armies at Kiev in 1941 may have netted the greatest number of prisoners in the history of war up to that point in time, but it also meant that the subsequent effort against Moscow would be frustrated due to the arrival of the Russian winter. Likewise, the completely one sided victory Israel achieved against Syria’s SAM (surface to air missile) batteries and Air Force in 1982 in the Bekaa Valley did not allow her to pacify Lebanon and secure her northern border. Even Nelson’s famous triumph at Trafalgar had limited strategic success; while it secured England against invasion it did not stop Napoleon from gaining his greatest victory at Austerlitz, or dominating most of Europe for another decade.

Tactical triumphs that have led to decisive political successes are even rarer in unconventional warfare. The unequivocal American success against the “Tet Offensive” in Vietnam in 1968, France’s harsh methods that all but destroyed the F.L.N. insurgents in Algeria, and Israel’s countless tactical victories against Palestinian and other irregular groups since 1948 all failed to lead to a satisfactory peace, let alone victory. While it is easy for historians, or armchair generals, to cite a few examples and imply they prove their point, military history, especially the last 200 years, suggests that tactical victory does not determine political, or strategic success, on its own.

Yet despite this unpleasant truth, Cannae has been used as a model, or template, for soldiers for generations to find and seek a supposedly perfect battle to win their respective conflicts. Unsurprisingly, the Prussians, and later the Germans, who placed perhaps too much emphasis on winning the tactical contest in battle have shown the most interest in Cannae. Frederick the Great, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Alfred von Schlieffen, and countless German soldiers in both world wars fantasized about inflicting another Cannae. With a few exceptions, they failed.

Frederick the Great had his master-pieces at Rossbach and Leuthen but it was diplomatic luck, as in the death of the Russian Tsaritsa, and not battlefield prowess, that saved Prussia in the “Seven Years’ War.” Moltke’s victory at the “Battle of Königgrätz” during the “Austro-Prussian War” is admittedly both a tactical and strategic success as it quickly won the war, but victory would end up being more prolonged and costly for him in both the “Second Schleswig War” and the “Franco-Prussian War.” Alfred von Schlieffen is said to have been obsessed with Cannae, making countless diagrams and studying it in minute detail. Not surprisingly his plan to defeat the French in 1914 at the beginning of the “First World War” was said to be heavily based upon it. Unfortunately for Schlieffen his meticulous study of train schedules and tactics he hoped would grant him total victory floundered against political considerations (such as Britain’s entry into the war) and unforeseen circumstances (such as the sheer logistics of the endeavor and Russia’s surprisingly quick mobilization). Perhaps he would have been wise to heed Moltke the Elder’s dictum that no plan “survives contact with the enemy.”

Likewise, military history from both world wars shows a remarkable tendency on the part of the Germans failing to secure political and strategic success from considerable tactical victories. Somehow it did not matter how many Russians they killed, how many ships they sunk or how much territory they overran; the Germans still lost both conflicts. Certainly in “World War 2″ the Germans had a few windows of winning, such as after the “Fall of France” or during “Operation Barbarossa,” but in general any objective strategist in their position would probably have questioned how much tactical success it would have required to win when they were fighting the whole world.

However, the legacy of Cannae was not limited to Germany. Its influence was so widespread among military circles that Dwight D. Eisenhower suggested that “every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation; so far as conditions permit, he tries to duplicate in modern war the classic example of Cannae.” Even as late as “Desert Storm” General Norman Schwartzkopf, the commander of Coalition forces that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces, said “I learned many things from the ‘Battle of Cannae’ which I applied to Desert Storm.” While Schwartzkopf’s execution of the liberation of Kuwait was indeed a tactical equal of Cannae and led to a satisfactory peace in the short term, many of the seeds of the modern “War on Terrorism” were sown in that conflict that it could almost be suggested that the Coalition’s triumph over Iraq was a “pyrrhic victory.”

Yet not all great commanders fantasized about Cannae. Ironically, given his aggressive nature, General Patton seems to have been more realistic about the likelihood of duplicating Hannibal’s great feat. He once wrote “there is an old saw to the effect that: ‘To have a Cannae you must have a Varro’…in order to win a great victory you must have a dumb enemy commander.” While the controversial case against Varro has been discussed above, there is no doubt that the greatest military victories in history have usually been as much of a result of incompetence on one side as brilliance on the other.

None of this is to suggest that Cannae was not a decisive victory, that Hannibal was an ineffectual commander, or that tactical success should be underestimated in war. Obviously wars are generally won by success on the battlefield. Hannibal’s victory at Cannae against superior forces was indeed a rare, and imaginative, phenomenon in military history and there was nothing wrong with succeeding generations of soldiers studying and trying to imitate it. However, despite such a lopsided victory Hannibal eventually lost the war and it merits questioning why the reasons for his ultimate failure have never been studied by soldiers with the same degree of thoroughness or enthusiasm as they have regarding his tactical successes. War is a comprehensive activity and as Clausewitz noted “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” Tactical victory on the battlefield is an important, usually critical, factor for victory in war, but if it does not lead to favorable strategically or politically results its greatest legacies usually remains in books instead of favorable outcomes at peace conferences. Unfortunately for Hannibal, this was to be the fate of his greatest triumph at Cannae.


Bagnall, Nigel. The Punic Wars: 264-146 B.C. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.

Fields, Nic. Hannibal. Oxford: Osprey, 2010.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. Cannae. London: Cassell, 2001.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Fall of Carthage. London: Cassell, 2004.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. Roman Warfare. London: Cassell, 2000.

O’Connell, Robert. The Ghosts of Cannae. New York: Random House, 2011.

Article from “Roman Empire”: The Battle of Cannae.

Article from “The Romans”: Battle of Cannae.

Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Cannae”: [December, 2013]

Why America Should Intervene in the “Syrian Civil War”

Posted By on August 29, 2013

putinThe time has come for the United States, preferably backed by NATO and hopefully by the United Nations, to intervene decisively in the “Syrian Civil War.”  By “intervene decisively” I mean that the United States should use military power to fatally weaken the Assad regime as well as equipping and supporting moderate and trustworthy rebel factions to overthrow the regime themselves.  Toothless words uttered at the U.N. and sanctions will not, and have never, solved such conflicts.  This type of intervention would not require the Americans or NATO to commit to an extensive and costly ground war such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, but to use their advantages in air power and special operations much as they did with considerable success in Libya in 2011.  While intervention, as such, in Syria would likely be more difficult, both militarily and politically, than in Libya there are no indications that it would be extremely risky.  Additionally, whereas there are many advantages from an early American intervention there are also considerable risks of continuously sitting on the sidelines and hoping for the best.  If it can be proven beyond a doubt that the Syrian government was responsible for widespread use of chemical weapons against its own people then military intervention by America and NATO against the Assad regime would be justified.

The first, and most obvious, reason for intervention would be the current humanitarian crisis in Syria.  After two and half years of war the death toll has surpassed 100,000 (a much higher number than how many Palestinians the Israelis have killed during the last 65 years) and there are an estimated 1.7 million Syrian refugees who are either dispersed in their own country or living in dreadful refugee camps in neighboring countries.  Additionally, there is the alarming use of a considerable number of chemical weapons by the regime against rebel forces and civilians.  Not since Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and the Iraqi people has there been such a widespread use of such weapons in any conflict.  Back then the United States and NATO not only did nothing, but also backed Iraq to various degrees; it would be disgraceful for them to remain silent and do nothing again.  There is no reason to believe that the number of deaths, refugees, and use of chemical weapons will not continue to rise prohibitively until the conflict ends.  With American aid the conflict would most likely end much sooner and lead to less suffering in the long term.

There is also the fact that many of the Syrian people (safe, of course for the minority who support the Assad regime out of self-interest or perks), the Syrian National Council and most of the Syrian resistance groups have openly called for, and desperately need, both outside intervention and material support.  While there is no way to know for sure, as the Obama administration could be using proxies or CIA black operations to equip the rebels, it seems as though the rebels are generally outmatched against the Assad regime.  Incidentally, while the western world searches its conscious regarding what to do to help the Syrian people the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians have not hesitated to support Assad, both diplomatically and materially (including delivering weapons) and help him stay in power.

There are certainly no lack of precedents where giving rebel groups sufficient weapons and supplies has ultimately proved decisive.  The Chinese aid to the Vietminh against the French, the American aid to the Mujaheddin against the Soviets, and of course NATO’s aid to the Libyan rebels are obvious examples.  And while skeptics would point out the long term instability and calamity regarding the aftermath in the cases of Vietnam and Afghanistan the main mistakes were made after the wars were over and the host country failed to properly set up the new governments, both structurally and financially, for success

While skeptics and pessimists point out the risks of intervention there are also many risks of non-intervention.  Although there is no way to tell, in the case of non-intervention, who will triumph in the “Syrian Civil War” the chances of a faction winning in such a case who would be friendly to American and Western interests would be low.  In the case of Assad’s regime holding onto power the status quo would remain, in the case of an anti-western jihadist or secular faction winning power it could arguably become much worse, and in the case of a moderate faction it could arguably get better.  However even in the latter case the political capital the West would hold with such a faction would be limited as America would have sat out the conflict instead of helping them when it mattered.

But if America and NATO intervened they could choose which factions to support (hopefully the more moderate and pro-western ones) and prop them up with the ultimate aim of installing them, at least initially, in place of Assad.  While admittedly this would be anything but easy in such a messy situation as a civil war with countless factions it would certainly be more likely to benefit Western interests than sitting back and hoping a moderate faction would ultimate triumph (which would be unrealistic as the more hard core Islamic factions tend to be the most organized; as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have shown).

It must be remembered that there is more at stake regarding this conflict than Syria itself.  In fact, Syria’s position in the Middle East is an extremely important one.  Syria has, or has had, an important role regarding Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran.  Regarding Lebanon, it has continuously backed the militant group Hezbollah; allowing it to both fight Israel as well as challenging the Lebanese army and government (both usually reliable western allies).  Regarding Israel it has been in a state of war since 1948 and has continuously fought the Jewish state conventionally or via proxies for over 65 years.  Regarding Gaza it has backed Hamas both diplomatically and materially against Israel.  Regarding Jordan it has continuously undermined the Hashemite Monarchy (a moderate and useful ally for the West) and tried to raise the masses against it.  Regarding Turkey it has occasionally provided support for Kurdish separatists in southern Turkey.  As for Iran it has been its major ally in the Middle East, continuously opposing the West and the more progressive Arab moderates since the late 1970s.

Think of all these conflicts and contexts and imagine how different they could develop if factions, either more pro-western and less anti-Israeli, or more anti-American and more hostile against Israel came to power.  While citing extreme examples is arguably unfair the following should at least be able to put things into perspective:  In the case of a more enlightened government coming to power in Damascus there could potentially be a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty, Hezbollah and Hamas would become weaker or even forced to come to terms with Israel instead of further bloodshed, Iran would lose its best ally and Syria could have more constructive relations with her neighbors and the West.  In the case of a more hostile government coming to power there could be further conflict between Syria and Israel, more support for terrorist groups, potentially more support for Iran and a further deterioration of relations between Syria and her neighbors and the West.

In fact the “Syrian Civil War” is perhaps the pivotal battle in the Cold War in the Middle East between America and her allies which favor slow reform to address the many grievances in the region vs. Iran, Syria and their proxies which seek to violently overthrow the status quo and generally want to see a more conservative, Islamic fundamentalist, Middle East.  This latter group supports widespread terrorist groups and insurgencies which have not, and never will, lead to democracy or prosperity for the region, as well as fomenting violence between Hezbollah and Israel and Hamas and Israel.  Critics of American foreign policy as well as their less than enlightened allies among the Arab states can certainly find much to criticize about both but they certainly cannot make a convincing case that a Middle East dominated by Iran, Syria’s Assad and terrorist groups would make for a safer, or more stable, region.  The very reason most of the Arab countries are U.S. allies is that they fear Iranian influence and Islamic fundamentalism more than America.  It is telling that during the “Arab Spring,” the “Libyan Civil War” and in the current Syrian crisis the Arab people and resistance factions have usually turned to the Americans, not the Iranians or Al-Qaeda, for help.

Likewise, decisive intervention in Syria also gives America the chance to eliminate Russia and China’s last major ally in the region.  While the Soviet Union had plenty of allies in the region during the “Cold War” since the 1990s Russia’s influence has been steadily waning.  Additionally, both the Russians and Chinese are still bitter about the overthrow of Gaddafi who was another key ally (not least because the new Libya has turned to the West instead of them).  Just as in the case of Iran a Middle East dominated more by Chinese and Russian influence than by American would not lead to more democracy or prosperity for its people.  While Western media (somewhat perversely) has traditionally focused on the many wrongs America has inflicted on the Arabs and the Muslims, the Russians and Chinese have killed and oppressed many more.  Russia killed arguably 2 million people during their occupation of Afghanistan and countless Chechens in two separate wars and certainly treats their Muslim population much worse than America treats its own.  China also arguably killed millions of their Uyghur population in the northwest Xinjiang province and also severely limits their rights.  In fact, whereas there has only been one successful terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists on American soil since 9/11 (the Boston marathon) there have been several notable ones in Russia and China, including a small scale insurgency by the Uyghurs against the Chinese state.

While naive idealists and apologists for neo-communists and Islamic fundamentalists would rather see America withdraw from the region, realists, and those who are informed about the fragile context of the region, understand American influence is a necessary evil.  This does not mean that America has not committed grave errors with tragic consequences for the inhabitants of the region, but it does mean that in the case of total American withdrawal that Russia, China, and especially Iran would fill the vacuum and the long term results would be much worse.

Finally there is the fate of Syria’s considerable stocks of chemical and biological weapons (among the largest in the region).  While in lieu of the Iraq fiasco 10 years earlier it is understandable that few want to debate the potential threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction once more it is an issue that needs to be addressed eventually.  It only makes sense that the Americans and NATO make sensible plans to secure these weapons rather than trusting that whomever triumphs in Syria will not use the weapons against them or give them to terrorist groups.  And before someone mentions the tired old saying of “no blood for oil” it should be noted that there is very little oil in Syria!

These are the reasons why America should intervene militarily, but another question is could it?  Plenty of skeptics point out that a Libyan style intervention would be more difficult in Syria. Indeed, much of the fighting in Libya was in desert terrain which is more ideal for the use of Airpower than the mostly urban battlefields in Syria.  Additionally, the Syrian regime has a much stronger and more modern military, especially regarding SAMs (surface to air missiles) and AA (anti-aircraft) defenses.  Then there is the matter of logistics as NATO had many bases close to Libya which allowed their air forces to attack it efficiently whereas they have few close to Syria.  Finally, there is the fact that whereas Gaddafi (perhaps foolishly given his end) gave up his chemical and biological weapons before the Libyan intervention Assad still has his.  These are all valid points and an American and NATO intervention in Syria would not be an easy feat.

However, these factors can most likely be mitigated and the U.S. effort would certainly not involve scores of ground troops (although it is likely special operatives would be used as they were in Libya).

Regarding the urban battlefield it should be stated honestly that there would be considerably more collateral damage than in Libya and that it would be much harder to hit targets accurately than in the desert.  However, whereas it is easy for insurgents and individual soldiers to hide inside cities it is much harder, though admittedly not impossible, for them to hide the considerable numbers of tanks, trucks, planes, artillery pieces, equipment and supplies that is needed to run an army.

Besides which even if American Airpower did not physically destroy many of these assets (as it often remarkably has not in past situations as in Kosovo and the air campaign in the “Gulf War”) it would likely prove decisive in other ways.  Firstly, to avoid being hit the Syrian army would have to hide most of this equipment and go onto the defensive; indeed it would change its mission from quashing the rebels to that of mere survival.  This would give the Syrian resistance breathing room and allow them to reorganize and better equip themselves and ultimately to take the offensive and overthrow Assad.  Secondly, the air offensive would also have a moral effect; encouraging the rebels and discouraging the Syrian regime’s soldiers.  Most soldiers are aware of the fact that no conventional army in modern history has won a war without  air superiority.  Thirdly, much of the NATO’s first strikes would be against the Syrian’s command and control capabilities and as a result the Syrian army would inevitably lose its cohesion and thus lose much of its edge over the rebels.

As for the fact that the Syrian armed forces are both larger and better equipped than Libya’s was on paper, the last 65 years of military history in the Middle East should dispel the notion that it would be able to seriously withstand American and NATO’s military might.  The Israelis alone, with a smaller population and resource base vs. Syria have consistently bested the Syrians, even when the latter have had considerable numerical superiority and often just as good, if not better, technology and equipment.  In 1967 the Israelis destroyed the majority of the Syrian Air Force on the ground and won aerial supremacy in a matter of hours (even though they were also fighting the Jordanians and Egyptians at the same time).  In 1982 the Israelis also destroyed the entire Syrian SAM network in the Bekaa Valley (the most concentrated and extensive air defense system outside the Soviet Union in the world at the time) in a matter of hours without the loss of a single plane.  They also shot down nearly 100 Syrian planes, again without loss, in a matter of days.  The Israelis even managed to bomb a suspected nuclear plant in Syria in 2007 without any loss or Syrian retaliation (likely as the result of cyber-warfare that shut down the entire Syrian anti-aircraft defense network).  There is simply no reason based on history or the comparative balance of forces that the Americans and NATO, who have vastly superior Airpower and technology, and indeed who have given Israel much of their military technology, will not be able to quickly over power the Syrian air force and air defense network and then have the liberty to bomb at will any target they please.

Since 1944 the Americans have never been without air superiority in any conflict; it is hard to believe that Assad’s Syria will be the exception.  While it is wise to admit that Airpower has never won wars on its own, and that any Syrian intervention (if the objective was to remove Assad from power) would arguably be more difficult and take longer than it did in Libya, which took many months, there is certainly little risk that it would result in significant, or even negligible U.S. or NATO casualties.  There will never be an Iraqi style intervention with an invasion or prolonged occupation by Western group troops in Syria; neither the Obama administration, nor the American people, has the political will.

As for logistical constraints, America and NATO could potentially find it more difficult to use Airpower in Syria than in Libya for the fact that there are fewer, and less developed NATO bases from which to launch such a campaign from.  Besides the obvious use of aircraft carriers and ships and submarines with precision guided missiles, there are the British bases on Cyprus, which in terms of numbers and capabilities are much less impressive than those used in Italy to launch the Libyan intervention.  Admittedly this is more of a problem for the Europeans, who generally do not have the amount of carriers, the aerial refueling capabilities, nor the considerable military logistical network that the Americans have.  It is probable that the Americans, who would carry out most of the tasks anyway, would be able to carry out such a mission, but for the Europeans they would either have to limit their consignment of troops and supplies to the few carriers they have and to whatever capabilities the Cyprus bases can accommodate, or secure the use of bases in neighboring Arab states or Turkey.

Turkey, itself a NATO member, seems like the obvious choice with its respectable military and extensive air bases.  However, it is questionable how willing the Turks would be open to such a move.  While they certainly have no warmth for Assad, having had to host thousands of Syrian refugees and to deal with many Syrian manipulations over the years, it is debatable how much the Turks would want to risk fighting a Syrian regime that has shown itself willing to use chemical weapons.  The use of other countries in the region seems even less likely.  Jordan is militarily weak vs. Syria, Iraq would unsurprisingly be reluctant to once again having western forces deployed on its soil, Lebanon is virtually a Syrian vassal state and the presence of Hezbollah (which has considerable power within the Lebanese government) rules out its use.  It is also obvious that the Arab world would not tolerate American or NATO planes bombing Syria from Israel and given the current political turmoil in Egypt it would probably not assent to helping NATO either.  Thus it is inevitable that the lion-share of any military action against Syria will be mounted by the Americans with a more limited effort by NATO.

However the considerable stocks of Syrian chemical and biological weapons are definitely a more dangerous factor.  While the risk to American and NATO personnel of such weapons would be low considering they wouldn’t be inserting ground troops the Syrians could launch attacks against NATO bases in Turkey or Cyprus, or against U.S. allies in the region.  However, given the inherent unreliability of chemical and biological weapons, as well as the huge conventional advantage of U.S. and NATO forces the vast majority of such weapons would either be shot down in flight, destroyed on the ground, or their delivery systems rendered inoperative via cyber-warfare (where the Americans have the indisputable advantage in the world).  While it would be foolish to dismiss the potential risks of such weaponry the history of war and the technological imbalance between the Syrian and western forces suggest there is little risk to America or her allies.

Yet the Syrian people would still be vulnerable to these weapons and it is possible the regime would escalate such attacks in desperation.  While none of this should be discounted the fact remains that there is considerable evidence that the regime is already launching chemical attacks against their own population while the rest of the world does nothing.  Additionally, as stated above, if the west does not intervene it will not be able to secure such weapons when the Syrian regime finally collapses and there would be a significant chance of them falling into the hands of factions that are irrevocably hostile to American and western interests.  Admittedly, it would be no simple task to secure such weapons and there would exist a chance of such weapons landing in hostile hands anyway, there would be better odds of limiting the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons if America intervened.

The time for American intervention in Syria is now.  All efforts at diplomacy or mediation have failed.  After two and a half years of civil war more than 100,000 people have died, more than 1.7 million Syrians have become refugees and the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against its own people.  The Syrian National Council, most resistance factions and much of the Syrian people have called for decisive intervention on their behalf.  The Americans and NATO need to prop up the more moderate factions in Syria and groom them for power so that the next government in Damascus is friendly, and not hostile, to both her neighbors and western interests.  Likewise, the elimination of the Assad regime would be a major blow to the Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese; all of whose interests’ in the region are more cynical and sinister than America and the West’s.  Additionally, while it would be risky to confront a regime with chemical and biological weapons it is arguably more risky to hope for the best and that such weapons would not ultimately fall into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who may think of using them against Israel or the West.  While such a military venture would be more difficult and potentially last longer than the one mounted in Libya in 2011 it is well within America and NATO’s capabilities to do so.

Opponents of intervention are afraid of Syria becoming “another Iraq” while advocates of intervention want to stop another slaughter as occurred in Darfur or Rwanda.  However Syria is neither Iraq, Darfur nor Rwanda.  There is no political will in either the American people or the Obama administration for a ground war or occupation; there will not be “another Iraq.”  However America and NATO have the potential to use Airpower and special operatives, and prop up rebel factions, to allow them to overthrow Assad themselves.  This is not fantasy; it has precedents in Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Libya in 2011.  In these three situations no considerable ground forces were involved in the defeat of the enemy government and the only reason American ground troops entered Afghanistan in big numbers was to find Bin Laden in lieu of the attacks on the World Trade Centre.  Before intervening the Americans should be able to prove beyond a doubt that the Syrian regime used widespread chemical weapons against its own people to satisfy world opinion and not repeat the same mistake regarding Iraq 10 years earlier.  While war should not be taken lightly and the risks should be carefully weighed there is a good case to be made for immediate American intervention in Syria.

A Basic Overview of the Middle East as of 2013

Posted By on May 15, 2013

ME13The following is not an academic paper or formal essay but a simple overview of many important considerations regarding the Middle East.  While most of the paper is based on facts, statistics and various sources the author has taken considerable artistic license regarding many assumptions and conclusions.  Therefore this paper should not be seen as more than a starting point for further learning on the subject.  The author neither claims to be an expert on the region, nor that the general data listed below constitutes a full picture of the region; considerable information has had to be left out for the sake of brevity.  He also realizes that many of the assumptions and conclusions reached are often subjective and therefore should mostly be considered as educated opinions rather than unequivocal truths.


The major oil states of the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, which holds nearly 20% of the world’s proven oil reserves while Iraq, Kuwait and Iran also hold approximately 10% each which compromise another 30%.  Algeria, Libya, and the United Arab Republic likewise have significant levels.  Most other countries in the region have at least some oil, while perhaps only Israel and Yemen have insignificant amounts.

Ultimately the region has 60% of the world’s proven oil reserves.  While this should in theory give these nations much power and prosperity, in reality Western military supremacy, authoritarian governments, and the domination of oil revenues by the ruling elites of these nations mean that most are relatively weak, dependent upon U.S. backing, and their populations relatively impoverished.

Population levels:

Pakistan has the largest population, around 180 million.  After this Turkey, Iran and Egypt all have major populations, between 70-80 million each.  Below this, countries like Sudan (after the loss of South Sudan) Algeria and Afghanistan have more than 30 million countries while countries like Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have significant populations around 20-30 million.

Most other countries do not have significant numbers of populations, though countries like Israel and Jordan, with less than 8 million each hold disproportionate importance relative to their population levels.  Of course smaller terrorist and resistance groups, the Palestinians, the Alawites and the Kurds are other examples of this phenomenon.

The total population of the Middle East depends upon how many countries are included, such as if you only count the proper Middle East versus the greater Middle East (which regrettably is subject to several different interpretations regarding which countries are included).  Regarding the former, which spreads from Egypt to Iran and Turkey to Yemen the population is roughly more than 300 million, but if one includes other countries like Pakistan, North Africa, Sudan, Somalia, the Central Asian republics and even countries in the Caucasus the numbers could very well include between 700-800 million.  Obviously the ultimate population levels depend on how many nations are included.

It should be noted that most countries in the region have much higher birth rates compared to most western countries, and this combined with political repression, a massive poverty rate, and the continuing scarcity of vital resources such as water, food and eventually oil, suggests that the already considerable levels of turmoil and frustration which inevitably lead to fanatical ideologies and the rise of violence are likely to increase in the decades to come.

Military power:

Israel and Turkey have the most powerful, best trained, and most advanced militaries.  None of the others come close though Egypt, Saudi Arabia Pakistan, and arguably Iran have significant capabilities.  Syria is notable, at least for its numbers, while the Jordanian military is small but man for man arguably the best in the Arab world.

Regarding weapons of mass destruction only Pakistan and Israel have nuclear weapons.  Iran is probably developing them, while Iraq and Syria were arguably frustrated from making them due to American and Israeli military efforts.  Regarding chemical and biological weapons Israel, Pakistan and Syria, among others, have considerable stocks.  As far as is known no terrorist or resistance groups possess WMDs.

As for asymmetrical military capabilities Hezbollah is easily the most proficient regarding terrorism and guerrilla warfare (and has a considerable stock of cheap and simple rockets to hit Israel).  Al-Qaeda and the Taliban also still pose significant terrorist threats.  Hamas’s capabilities at terrorism and guerrilla warfare are not as potent as they used to be but like Hezbollah they have a significant stock of rockets to target the Jewish state.  Groups to watch in the future include the Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian militants from their recent respective civil wars. 

Put in perspective the Israelis, the Americans and the western backed armies in the region have indisputable advantages in conventional wars and thus their enemies have resorted to guerrilla warfare and/or terrorism since the end of the “Israeli wars” and other notable conventional conflicts like the “Gulf War,” in an attempt to counteract this.  This has led to mixed results.  Certainty the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly to the U.S, yet ultimately have failed to defeat American interests in both these countries.  Likewise, Hezbollah and Hamas have held out against Israeli assaults, but Israel shows no signs of giving up its conquests in the West Bank or even making significant political or diplomatic concessions.  Finally, the countless insurgent and rebel groups in the various Arab countries have all either failed, or only succeeded with American or outside aid, regarding their respective conflicts.  While many insurgencies have previously enjoyed successes against former colonial occupiers their victories against modern enemies has been extremely limited.

Meanwhile the quest to procure WMDs is mostly for the sake of deterring foreign aggression in the case of the region’s governments, or for the potential of launching devastating attacks in the case of terrorist groups.  The ultimate prize would be nuclear weapons, especially since no country which has held them has ever been successfully overthrown, as well as the fact that nothing would signify a terrorist victory more than a mushroom cloud over Tel-Aviv or New York.

Types of government:

Perhaps only Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and Iraq are legitimate democracies, although if you include countries that merely elect people this would include the Palestinian governed areas, Lebanon and the new Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan.  These latter nations should be watched attentively.  Additionally it should be noted that Iran had a relatively democratic government in the early ’50s that was subsequently overthrown by an American and British sponsored coup.

Much of the rest of the countries are either Monarchies (some more enlightened than others) such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, or dictatorships like Syria, Sudan, Algeria and the late administration in Yemen.

Iran is the only current fundamentalist regime although the Taliban were arguably much more fanatical when they ruled Afghanistan.  Hezbollah is a fundamentalist proxy of Iran and although it is not in charge in Lebanon it still has significant power in its governance.

It goes without saying that the terrorist/resistance groups in the region seek to overthrow their respective governments or at least want more inclusion in power.


The majority of inhabitants in the region are Muslim, of which the two main denominations are Sunni and Shiite.  Most countries have a Sunni majority, although Iran, Iraq and Bahrain have Shiite majorities.  Israel obviously has a Jewish majority and not surprisingly there are few Jewish people in other countries in the region.  There are also significant Christian populations in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.  The Alawites in Syria hold most power despite being a small minority.  There are countless other religious sects or denominations as well.

Perhaps the most threatening religious groups would be the more extreme believers of Wahhabism in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran’s fundamentalist regime (and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon), Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups (including the more fanatical Jewish groups in Israel and the West Bank).

It is also worth mentioning that the majority of Muslims are not Arab, and do not predominantly inhabit the Middle East.  Indonesia is primarily Muslim, Nigeria and Black Africa have many Muslims, as do Russia and China, and there are of course plenty of Muslim communities in other regions, especially in Western Europe and North America.

Ethnic composition:

Perhaps the biggest myth about the Middle East is that the population is almost exclusively Arab.  Pakistan with its considerable population comprises mostly of Punjabis and Pashtuns.  Among the most populous nations Turkey is mostly Turkish, and Iran has a Persian majority.  In Israel there is a significant mix of races due to the vast immigration after the holocaust.  In Somalia and Sudan the population is mostly black.  Finally the Kurds have significant numbers in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey comprising roughly 30 million and their efforts to gain autonomy, or even semi-autonomy, has resulted in extreme bloodshed.

Needless to say there are many other considerable groups.

Ideologies since “World War 2″

During the last 70 years the Middle East has witnessed a vast menagerie of competing ideologies, secular or non-secular, in many attempts to achieve good governance, prosperity or establish a widely accepted philosophy for living.  Try picturing all the ideologies thought up and fought for, or against, in Europe and the Western world over several centuries, but in the case of the Middle East it occurred in mere decades since the “Second World War.”  These ideologies, whether Islamic or secular, regional or nation based, have, with a few exceptions, ultimately failed to bring lasting happiness, prosperity, or stability to the region.

Pan-Arabism, the attempt to merge all Arab countries into one state failed due to petty infighting, corruption, and the lack of trust among various Arab leaders.  The Arab monarchies with their rubber stamping parliaments are also nearing extinction due to their refusal to offer of any real democratic reform and sharing next to none of their oil wealth with their people.  Secular and socialist countries such as Ba’athist Syria and Iraq (when under Saddam Hussein) have killed more people than even the religious fanatics and mismanaged their economies so poorly that even Iraq’s oil wealth, and Syria’s domination of Lebanon, were not enough to fix their economic woes.  The Islamic Republic in Iran was admittedly popular at first, but the 8 year long “Iran-Iraq War,” economic stagnation, lack of any real democratic reform, and the growing numbers of young, unemployed and desperate youth is slowly catching up with it.  Finally there are the remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has more popularity than most westerners would admit, but has not been able to arouse the same impressive resistance against the occupying Americans as the Afghanis have done so brilliantly in the past against the British, the Russians, and even Alexander the Great.

Somehow Liberal democracy has gained little currency in the region.  Maybe this is the result of the nearly impossible attempts to separate church, or in this case Mosque, and State, the fact that most of the inhabitants in the region are relatively uneducated, the various efforts made by self interested elites to keep economic and political power, or maybe even the consideration that the masses in the region could arguably be skeptical of an ideology that the Western world promotes so much, yet has done so little to actually implement in the Middle East.  Put simply perhaps the inhabitants see the hypocrisy of Western nations giving lip service to democracy while often supporting brutal despots and tyrants in the region.

However, as previously mentioned, it would be wrong to say that the region does not have any democracy as Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan all have more or less legitimate democratic governments, while it is hoped that Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya will soon develop them.  Lebanon, and even the Palestinian territories also have many elements of democracy (at least elections), and some of the Gulf countries have various elections at lower levels of governance.  And less people in the West succumb to ethnocentrism it should be remembered how long it took countries like Britain, America, and even Canada between establishing democratic governments and ending slavery, giving women the vote and giving equal status to minorities.  This process lasted decades to centuries and was not accomplished in a matter of years.

It is hoped that with the rise of media and information technology, leading to more education and widespread communications, that the masses in the region will ultimately be able to control their fates (however considering many of the region’s despots have effectively used such technology in efforts to crush such dissent this may seem overoptimistic).  Either way there is little doubt that various forces, including fanatics, militants, or elites who have no wish to share power or wealth, will do everything in their power to frustrate such progress.

Modern History:

While the Middle East obviously has a long history perhaps it is easier to focus on the last century.  Although far for perfect it is easy to divide the history of the region into several periods.  While there is little room here for more than a small, and admittedly  unsophisticated, historical narrative the main points can be easily articulated.

At the beginning of the “First World War” most countries of the region were either colonies, or protectorates, of the British, French, Russian, Turkish, and Italian Empires.  The inhabitants of these nations had little say in their governance and generally hated their imperial overseers who plundered much of their resources and drew up frontiers and governments more for the convenience of themselves than to correspond to the existing cultural or social makeup of the various peoples.  During the war the British, with some French help, defeated the Turks, conquering all of their foreign possessions, and became the foremost power in the region (arguably holding this position until the Suez conflict in 1956).

However, instead of granting independence to many of the inhabitants in the region as had been implied by several agreements with many Arab leaders the British and French annexed their conquests and held the region under their thumbs during the interwar years.  During these years the British put down several rebellions, notable in Iraq and in Palestine in which there was considerable violence between the Arab majority at the increasing levels of Jews that were emigrating there (obviously a portent of things to come).

“World War 2″ also witnessed calamitous events.  The fighting in North Africa and Syria, the putting down of a rebellion in Iraq, the Anglo-Russian invasion of Iran, and the holocaust (which led to massive Jewish emigration to, and eventually the establishment of, Israel) all promised to alter the complexion of the region.

Indeed, the war weakened Britain and France so much that it ultimately led to de-colonization of the region, the establishment of Israel, and eventually the relinquishment of Britain and France as the main power brokers in the region (to be replaced by America and the Soviet Union).  Thereupon these two countries tried dividing the region into proxies to serve their own purposes.  Considering there was already a mini Cold War in the region between those countries with conservative monarchies and those with  more revolutionary ideologies it made sense they would be absorbed into the greater “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Russians.

Major events during this period include the establishment of Israel, the multiple “Arab-Israeli wars,” the “Algerian War,” the “Iranian Revolution,” the “Iran-Iraq war” countless other revolutions, insurgencies and coups, the “Soviet Afghan War” “the First Intifada” and the “Gulf War.”  These violent events, along with the various failed ideologies that dominated the region for the last half a century ultimately resulted in growing frustration in the Arab world, Islamic fundamentalism, considerable anti-American, anti-western and anti-Israeli sentiment in the region, and paved the way towards “9/11″ and the considerable clashes between western and Islamic forces in the 21st century.

With America’s triumph in the “Cold War” and the “Gulf War” it appeared at the time that the U.S. was in a position to solve the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as well as dominate most of the region’s issues and thus play the role Britain did during the interwar years.  However, their efforts at the former failed by the end of the millennium and their influence regarding the latter was limited.  The failure to fix the Palestinian problem, the vain efforts to put Saddam Hussein in his place after the “Gulf War,” and the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia after the “battle of Mogadishu” encouraged many of America’s enemies that she could be defeated and forced to withdraw its forces from the region.  These, along with the factors mentioned above, drew a direct line from the end of the “Second World War” to “9/11.”

Which leads to the calamitous 12 years since the devastating attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.  There has certainly been plenty of history between Sept 11, 2001 and 2013.  Not since the “Iran-Iraq war” has so much blood been spilt in the region in so short a time.  Major events during this time frame include “9/11,” “the war in Afghanistan,” the “Iraq War,” the “Second Intifada,” “the Second Lebanon War,” the “Gaza conflict,” the “Arab Spring,” the “Libyan intervention,” the “Syrian Civil War,” etc.  These events have influenced the Arab world and the Americans differently.

On the one hand it could be argued that the considerable turmoil of the last 12 years has considerably damaged American power and prestige in the region.  Certainly the “Iraq War,” the backing of Israel’s many military ventures, rogue actions such as Drone attacks, and the considerable financial, human, and diplomatic costs of these endeavors  have taken its toll on American political will, her reputation, and her geopolitical position.  On the other hand most of the regimes in the region continue to stagnate and have not improved their positions vis a vis the Americans, the Israelis and the West.  Thus relatively nothing has really changed regarding the balance of power and considering that nations and people’s in the region have turned to America, and not Iran or fanatical organizations like Al-Qaeda, in lieu of the “Arab Spring” there is no indication that America’s influence in the region has significantly less clout than usual.

It is more likely America’s enemies will burn out before she does, but whether they are replaced by more moderate, democratic, or at least more stable elements, or whether they are replaced by more fanatical or hostile forces remains to be seen.  Certainly the history of revolutions, coups and ideologies in the region during the past 70 years which failed to produce freedom and prosperity could at least suggest that one should be cautious at hoping for the best.


Unfortunately there is nothing clear cut in the Middle East about various alliances, sympathies or alignments.  While there are simple examples such as Israel and Turkey being formal allies of the United States, or that Syria and Iran are also close allies, it is generally more complicated than that.  Generally one could suggest that the main contest in the region is between nations that support the status quo, supported by the Americans (and Israel tacitly) and other nations, or groups, that want to change the status quo (often in drastically different ways), led by Iran and her principal ally Syria.

In the simplest, though not entirely accurate, terms one could say the former group includes Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the Gulf States, Pakistan, Lebanon, and militant groups like Fatah (or friendly militants in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan) etc, while the latter would include Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, several branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, various terrorist or militant groups, etc.  Then there are the extreme hardcore groups that are enemies of both which obviously includes Al-Qaeda.

As noted above these latter groups often have many differing goals, some of which compete with each other.  For example, Iran arguably simply wants to emerge as the dominant power in the region, no doubt at the expense of America.  Syria and Hezbollah share this goal, while Hamas and Fatah both want to lead the Palestinian cause as well as liberate the Palestinians from the Israeli yoke.  Various groups want to overthrow their governments and install more or less Islamic regimes, while others like Al-Qaeda want to unite all the nations in the region under an Islamic Caliphate like in bygone days.  There is also significant religious and ethnic infighting, such as the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, the hard pressed Alawites and its few allies vs. the majority of groups in Syria, and the Kurdish groups fighting for more autonomy in their respective nations.  There are countless more examples.

If this were not complicated enough, there are significant elements among the supposed “status quo” nations that lean more towards the revolutionary side.  For example, while Egypt is usually seen as a U.S. ally it is conceivable that under the new Muslim Brotherhood regime it could eventually join the other camp (hence why the Americans have yet to cut off the billions of dollars of aid they give to that country).  Also there are significant forces in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, that have fanatical sympathies, often supporting the Americans with one hand, and arming terrorists with the other.  Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan are also odd case studies.  Lebanon’s government and military is generally pro-west while Hezbollah, which holds considerable power in the country, completely opposes such an alignment.  Iraq,  Afghanistan, and Libya all have competing militias and groups that are fighting each other for various aims, but ultimately are either pro, or anti-U.S.

Which leads to the point that nations and groups in the region often change sides, sometimes due to coups, sometimes due to foreign intervention, sometimes due to ideological shifts, or simply out of changing interests.  Egypt for instance went from being an implacable enemy of the West, to being its best ally (and may switch yet again), while Iran was arguably America’s best ally until the “Iranian Revolution” and is now its worst enemy.  Iraq has also gone back and forth several times, and even terrorist groups like Fatah and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed sides.

Finally the situation of Israel is extremely complex.  While America, and until recently, Turkey have been steadfast allies, Jordan, and the Gulf countries have often been tacit allies, and even Iran was an Israeli ally before the “Iranian Revolution.”  Of course this is usually in secret as all factions in the Middle East, safe of course America, openly side with the Palestinians even though all of them generally do nothing to significantly aid them.

The quintessential point being that while there are generally some alliances and alignments, they are rarely longterm and that there is significant infighting in many nations themselves.  If all of this has confused the reader that was precisely the author’s intention, as he himself has yet, and probably will never, be able to understand the various relationships between nations in the region.  The alignments are not simple as in both world wars such as the Triple Entente and the Central Powers, or Axis and Allies.


As noted above the Middle East covers, especially if the greater Middle East is included, a large geographical area.  In the latter case it stretches from the Atlantic to Pakistan, and Kazakhstan to Sudan.  While traditional literature would suggest most of the region is dessert terrain this is an over-simplistic, and inaccurate, conclusion.

Much of the region, including its major rivers such as the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Indus have significant agriculture and vegetation.  Likewise while there is plenty of dessert terrain in North Africa and the Gulf countries there is no lack of mountain terrain in places such as Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Northern Iraq, the Caucasus, etc.

As for population centers there are plenty of large urban centers such as Cairo, Alexandria, Istanbul, Tehran, Baghdad, Islamabad, Karachi, Damascus, Aleppo, Tel-Aviv, etc.  The idea that there is a prevalence of rural communities and nomads is erroneous.

Regarding geopolitics the region’s geography is notable for its many maritime choke points where considerable levels of world trade, and especially its oil exports, pass through.  Considering the region contains most of the world’s proven oil reserves, and considering it is also a major hub of international commerce, the control, or denial, of such checkpoints has always been an important consideration for most major world powers.

These choke points include the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden, and the Hormuz strait.  It is no coincidence that the British Empire at its height and America since the “Cold War” have done so much to control these vital lines of communication to guarantee their access to world trade and oil supplies. 

Major regional issues:

Being the powder key that it is the Middle East has no lack of significant issues.  The most well known is obviously the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict.  However other major issues include the “Syrian Civil War,” the war in Afghanistan, the “Iranian Nuclear program” and the region’s considerable social, political and economic strife, to name a few among many.

The “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict arguably only effects the Palestinians but the masses in the region, and especially their corrupt leaders, use it as an excuse to justify any violence, or at least any displeasure, against Israel, the U.S. and the West.  This is obviously hypocritical given the fact Egypt and Jordan have previously annexed Palestinian lands, how poorly most of the countries in the region have treated Palestinian refugees and the fact that the Arabs have killed more Palestinians than the Israelis.  Additionally one could easily point out how many countries in the region treat such minorities as the Kurds and Shiites arguably just as bad as the Israelis treat the Palestinians.  Certainly a case could be made that there is a double standard regarding how world opinion disproportionately focuses on Israel’s crimes versus those of her neighbors.

However, solving it would remove a sore point, but considering all the bruises in the region it would not solve the rest of the major issues.  Certainly it would not stop the Iranians from wanting nukes or dominating the Middle East, end the fighting among the countless groups with their various interests, or improve the political or economic status of the inhabitants in the region.  The conflict itself seems unsolvable as Israeli security concerns, or down right attempts at annexation stall progress at one end, and unreasonable Palestinian demands and outright hated of Israel from other countries stall it at the other.  While it would be arrogant for the author to suggest he had a formula to solve the conflict, perhaps a concerted effort by the Americans to pressure the Israelis to compromise on one side, and another effort by the Arabs to pressure the Palestinians on the other would likely yield fruit.  However given the power of the Jewish lobby in America, as well as the fact it is not in the interest of the ruling elite in the Middle East to do so suggests that this formula has little chance of ever being adopted, let alone succeeding.

The “Syrian Civil War” is important as Syria’s position in the region has immense geopolitical importance.  Being Iran’s chief ally, its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, its border with Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, and its considerable stocks of weapons of mass destruction (which will fall into the hands of whoever wins) are some of the many important considerations.  In the best case scenario a relatively pro-western faction could emerge victorious, end the Iranian alliance, isolate Hezbollah and restrain Hamas, make peace with Israel, and be a force for stability in the recognition.  In the worst case a regime even more hostile to the status quo could emerge, intensify the current turmoil and even give WMDs to terrorist groups.  Given the many competing insurgent groups with their differing aspirations and goals it is hard to predict the end result.  While it is debatable if direct American military intervention in the conflict would be wise certainly a case could be made for America and her allies to support and prop up the more moderate insurgent groups to prevent the more extremist groups coming to power in Damascus at the end of the conflict.

The resolution of the “Afghan War” is also of great importance.  Considering that America’s abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s led to the rise of Al-Qaeda and terrorism it is obvious that preventing the Taliban or other entities that hate the West from gaining power there would probably be a good thing.  Yet despite all the cynicism regarding the current administration in Kabul there are good reasons to be somewhat hopeful.  The Iraqi experiment has so far survived despite the American withdrawal, and in previous situations where other governments were initially propped up by foreign influences (such as South Vietnam, Batista’s Cuba, and even the government the Russians installed in Afghanistan) they ultimately collapsed more to do with the foreign governments pulling the plug on all aid (monetary, military and diplomatic) than weaknesses on the indigenous governments part.  In other words if the American government continues to give the government in Kabul significant aid after all U.S. troops withdraw it will probably survive.

The Iranian nuclear program is arguably the biggest concern of Israel, the U.S, the West, and the nations in the region that favor the current status quo.  While many Israeli and Americans like to emphasize the potentially apocalyptic consequences of Iran getting the bomb it would arguably not be so detrimental to the bigger picture so long as the Iranians did not plan on nuking Israel or giving nuclear weapons to terrorist proxies (no doubt significant caveats).  While there exists enough evidence to suggest that Iran is more or less a rational state that would not risk annihilation by doing so, no one can guarantee that Iran would not do so either.  However, it is perhaps reassuring that since 1945 no country has used nuclear weapons, including Stalinist Russia or Maoist China.  Either way Israel and the U.S. both have nuclear weapons and an overwhelming advantage in conventional military power and it is therefore hard to see Iran getting much advantage out of possessing nuclear weapons.  It could arguably trigger a nuclear weapons race, or give Iran more clout in the region, but more likely the increasingly unpopular Iranian regime will eventually burn out like the Soviet Union did before her.

The social, political, and economic strife obviously fuels all of the above, as well as all other major issues in the region.  These were also factors for the significant strife, wars, revolutions and other unpleasant events which occurred in the West during the last few centuries as well.  Massive unemployment, overpopulation, the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, lack of freedom and severe discriminate are just some of the many issues affecting the societies in the Middle East.  While the author has no idea of how or where to start in order to fix such problems it is plain that rectifying them would go along way to alleviating most of the region’s problems.

General summary of main points

-Despite holding more than 60% of the World’s proven oil reserves many of the region’s regimes are unstable and weak, their populations frustrated an impoverished, and are often at the mercy of foreign influences

-the Middle Eastern nations have a considerable population base which in most cases will grow exponentially vs. most western nations
-however the lack political freedom, the considerable economic difficulties in the region, and the scarcity of resources such as food, water and even oil suggests that with increased population growth many of the current problems in the region will probably get worse, rather than better, over the foreseeable future

-Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and western backed nations have an unsurpassable conventional military advantage over rogue states such as Iran and Syria
-however Iran and Syria have resorted to using proxies to fight their enemies, while non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and various insurgent/terrorist groups have used asymmetrical methods such as guerrilla warfare and terrorism to compensate for their weakness in conventional warfare capabilities
-only Israel and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, though Iran is thought to be developing them
-the development of WMDs is sought by regimes to deter foreign aggression (such as invasion by the United States) and by terrorists to launch potentially devastating attacks against their enemies

-most of the countries are ruled either by monarchies or authoritarian regimes
-Iran is technically the only fundamentalist regime in the region
-there are few legitimate democratic governments though many other countries have, or are developing, some democratic policies or procedures
-resistance/terrorist groups are either trying to overthrow their respective governments or at least want more autonomy, or say, regarding their governance

-the vast majority of inhabitants are Muslim, of which the two main denominations are Sunni and Shiite
-most Muslims do not inhabit the Middle East
-most countries have a Sunni majority but Iraq, Iran and Bahrain have a Shiite majority
-Israel obviously has a Jewish majority, and there are significant Christian communities in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt

-despite having an Arab majority there is a significant non-Arab population in the region
-Turkey is predominantly Turkish, Iran is mostly Persian, and Israel has a very mixed racial background (mostly due to emigration before, and after, the holocaust)
-the population of Somalia and Sudan is mostly black
-Pakistan is mostly Punjabis and Pashtun

-the Middle East has gone through countless ideologies since the end of the “Second World War”
-these include Pan-Arabism, the retaining of Monarchies, various forms of Socialism, and various interpretations of Islamic fundamentalism
-none of these ideologies have brought freedom, stability, or prosperity to the inhabitants of the region
-liberal democracy has not “yet” been implemented in any serious way (safe of course Israel)

-most of the Middle East was occupied by foreign powers before the beginning of the “First World War”
-during the war Britain and France defeated the Turks and established themselves as the dominant powers in the region
-”World War 2″ led to the establishment of Israel, decolonization, and Britain and France ultimately being replaced by America and the Soviet Union as the dominant powers in the region
-various coups, revolutions, insurgencies and conflicts during the “Cold War” led to rife instability, economic stagnant, general frustration, and rising anti-Israeli, anti-American, and anti-western sentiment in the region
-despite victory in the “Cold War” America did not effectively exploit her dominant position in the region in the subsequent decade and thanks to several U.S. failures in  the area her enemies felt encouraged enough to confront and attack her
-this resulted in the escalating terrorist attacks during the 1990s to “9/11″ and triggered considerable clashes between American and western forces vs. Islamic ones during the  next decade
-however pent up frustration among the region’s masses has also led to the “Arab Spring” and it is debatable if the more extremist and anti-western regimes and groups (including Iran and Syria as well as Al-Qaeda) can survive indefinitely

-the Middle East can generally be divided according to two camps, one that favors the continuation of the status quo, and the other that wants to challenge it
-Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, potentially the new Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and the Gulf countries, and various pro-western militant groups such as Fatah are mostly aligned with the former
-Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and anti-western militant groups mostly align with the latter
-however such a division is imperfect as many elements on both sides sympathize more with the other side (as elements of the Saudi, Pakistani regime sympathize more with the latter group whereas dissidents in Syria and Iran sympathize more with the former)
-allegiances in the region often change side (as Egypt and Iran changed sides in 1979, Iraqi insurgents changed sides after the American surge of troops in Iraq in 2007, as well as the countless different changes due to revolutions, coups, ideological shifts, etc.)
-America and Israel have confusing relationships in the region as most states are openly against them but often align their interests with them in secrecy

-geographically the Middle East is extensive, arguably spreading from the Atlantic to Pakistan and from Sudan to the Caucasus
-besides the considerable desserts of North Africa and the Gulf States there are the considerable rivers such as the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Indus
-the popular perception of the region comprising mostly of rural areas and nomads is false as most of the inhabitants live in massive urban areas around such cities as Cairo, Alexandria, Istanbul, Tehran, Baghdad, Islamabad, Karachi, Damascus, Aleppo, Tel-Aviv, etc.
-the Middle East contains significant maritime checkpoints such as the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz
-much of world trade and a disproportionate amount of oil exports pass through these checkpoints and thus most major world powers compete to control them

-major issues in the region include the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the “Syrian Civil War,” the current war in Afghanistan, the “Iranian Nuclear Program,” and the considerable social, political and economic strife in the region
-solving the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” would remove a sensitive issue with fuels much animosity in the region but would not solve the other major issues affecting the area
-the “Syrian Civil War” is important due to the serious influence Syria holds regarding Israel Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hamas
-the victory of a pro-western faction in Syria would serve the American, Israeli and the more pro status quo nations’ interests in the region while the victory of an anti-western faction would arguably be more beneficial to those countries and groups that wish to challenge the status quo in the region
-the end result in Afghanistan is important as the victory of the current government would probably result in more stability, both for the region and the world, while the victory of more radical elements would probably increase turmoil, violence and terrorism just as the emergence of the Taliban after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 did so
-the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons is arguably the single greatest concern of the Americans, the Israelis and the more pro status quo nations and groups
-in the worst case scenario the Iranians could nuke Israel or give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups
-more likely the Iranians may gain some additional political and diplomatic in the short term, but the fact Israel and America both have both nukes as well as a considerable advantage in conventional warfare capabilities, and the growing levels of dissent in Iran suggests that Iran will not profit in the long term
-the social, political and economic strife in the region provides much fuel to the violence, turmoil and many issues in the region
-until they are solved or at least alleviated there is little chance of fixing the long term issues in the region


Beckett, Ian.  Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies.  New York:  Routledge, 2003.

Darwish, Nonie.  The Devil We Don’t Know.  Hoboken:  John Wiley and Sons, 2012.

Freedman, Lawrence.  The Cold War.  London:  Cassell, 2001.

Herzog, Chaim.  The Arab-Israeli Wars.  London:  Greenhill Books, 2005.

Kaplan, Robert.  The Revenge of Geography.  New York:  Random House, 2012.

Lewis, Bernard.  The Crisis of Islam.  Holy War and Unholy Terror.  Toronto:  Random House, 2004.

Lewis, Bernard.  What Went Wrong?  The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2003.

Oren, Michael.  Six Days of War.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 2003.

Polk, William.  Violent Politics.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2007.

Ross, Stewart.  The Middle East since 1945.  London:  Hodder Headline, 2004.

Rubin, Barry.  Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East.  New York:  Routledge, 2009.

Shlaim, Avi.  War and Peace in the Middle East.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1995.

National Geographic Atlas of the Middle East.  Washington D.C:  2003.

CIA’s World Fact Book Online:

Wikipedia Article on the “Middle East”: [May, 2013]

The Importance of “D-Day” and “The Battle of Normandy”

Posted By on April 1, 2013

photo1944On June 6th, 1944 the western allies launched the greatest amphibious assault in history in Normandy to destroy Nazi Germany and liberate Western Europe.  Despite enjoying air and naval supremacy there was no guarantee they would successfully invade the continent, let alone defeat the German army in France.  To win the campaign the allies relied upon air supremacy, an elaborate deception campaign, and their ability to significantly reinforce and supply their forces much quicker than the Germans.  The successful execution of the Normandy campaign was the quickest way to defeat Germany, allowed Britain and America to liberate Western Europe before the Russians, and thus won both the war and the subsequent peace to the best advantage possible for the western allies.

While there has been considerable debate, during the war and in hindsight, as to whether or not an allied invasion of Northern France was necessary, there were many important reasons to justify its necessity.  During the war some thought strategic bombing could bring Germany to its knees.  Additionally, while the Americans were always committed to such an invasion as soon as they had entered the war much of the British political and military elite, including Churchill and Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Francis Brooke, were wary of the likelihood of extensive casualties and preferred focusing on the Mediterranean instead.  The British fear of high casualties was obviously due to the memory of the bloody battles waged on the Western Front during the “First World War.”  Indeed, Britain suffered significantly more deaths in this conflict than she would in the fight against Nazi Germany.  The British preference for making the main allied effort in the Mediterranean was to safeguard Britain’s imperial interests there, especially safeguarding their lines of communication to India, as well as hoping to forestall the Soviets from conquering all of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

In the case of the former consideration it was understandable that the British were concerned about casualties due to the ever decreasing amount of manpower they could deploy against the Germans, but as the Russians on the Eastern Front were already, and would continue, to fight and destroy the majority of German forces and as the Americans with their army would do most of the fighting on the Western Front, this was not of critical importance.  In the case of the latter considerations while it is hard to blame the British for wanting to safeguard their own imperial interests the added prospect of wanting to forestall the Soviets in Eastern Europe and the Balkans was unrealistic given the logistical constraints and the topographical nature in the region that would have severely limited the advance of the western allies.  Considering how long and costly the Italian campaign was it is hard to see the western allies making major gains in this theatre of war.

Additionally, such campaigns were unlikely to offer the chance of severely damaging the German war machine or ending the war as soon as a campaign in Western Europe would.  Finally, there was the chance if the allies had spent all of their efforts in the Mediterranean where the terrain did not favor quick advances or mobile warfare the Soviets could have gobbled up all of Germany and Western Europe (territories that were certainly more valuable in the geopolitical sense of populations, resources and economics).  Considering how much more valuable, from a realpolitik view Western Europe is more than Eastern Europe and the Balkans (especially given the later prospect of the Cold War), and considering the western allies could not have seriously forestalled the Russians in the East or the Balkans anyway, it would have been foolish not to have invaded Northern France.

While the western allies were right to invade Italy in 1943 (which ultimately secured British interests in the Mediterranean) as they did not have the capabilities then to invade Northern France, they were right to keep operations in the Mediterranean limited.  The invasion of Italy knocked Germany’s most important ally out of the war, forced significant German forces from more important fronts, improved allied sea communications, and gave the western allies useful amphibious, as well as combat, experience that would prove decisive in 1944 in Normandy.

Arguments made in hindsight suggesting that the allies should not have invaded France, or should have done so in 1943, are likewise disingenuous.  The main reason pundits and armchair generals believe the invasion was not necessary was that it could be argued the Red Army would have won the war without such a campaign anyway.  This is probably, though not unequivocally, true.  While given the Soviet’s superior manpower and more efficient means of producing more viable weapons than the Germans suggests it was only a matter of time before the Reds would have defeated Germany there are significant factors to consider.

Firstly, German industrial production during 1944 nearly caught up to the Russians and as German weaponry was generally superior this could have eventually evened the odds and arguably allowed the Germans to at-least produce a stalemate.  Indeed, the main reason German industrial production was finally pulverized was due to the western allies’ strategic bombing campaign in the last year of the war, especially after France had been occupied and there was no longer a buffer zone between their air forces and the Reich.  The majority of bombs dropped on Germany as part of the campaign occurred after July 1st, 1944, perhaps more than 70% of the total 1,360,000 tons of explosives.

More over, while the Russians would continue to fight the lion-share of German forces, after the invasion of Normandy it would become less lopsided between them and the western allies.  Indeed, before the invasion the western allies fought a fraction of the German army compared to the Soviets.  For example the highest number of German divisions the western allies had to face at once from 1941 until “D-Day” was less than 25 (the most being in Italy), while the Soviets fought as many as 180 by the time of Kursk in 1943.  However, by 1945 the proportion of German forces facing the western allies became considerably more even at around 40%, principally in France and Italy.  Needless to say, had the western allies made the major effort in the Mediterranean the Germans could have held them up with much smaller forces, given the logistical and topographic difficulties the allies would have faced, and devoted much more to the Eastern Front.  While none of this suggests Germany would have won the war, it is conceivable they could have managed a stalemate, or at least the war would have gone on much longer, with much more death and destruction overall.

Why they could have managed a stalemate is because the Russians may have decided to make a separate peace with Germany.  While not probable, it certainly had a better chance of happening had the western allies made their main effort in the Mediterranean.  Considering that German industries would have produced much more weapons (as their buffer zone in Western Europe against the allied bombers would have remained unoccupied), since the Russians would have been forced to continue to fight the vast majority of German forces, and as once again the western allies would have disappointed Stalin by failing to launch a significant “Second Front” to release considerable pressure off the Eastern Front, it is conceivable such a move by the West would have been enough to push Stalin to conclude a separate peace.  Without Russian forces the western allies would still have had air and sea superiority and kept England afloat, but certainly could not have liberated Europe by themselves.

There remains the argument that the western allies could have waited for the completion of the atomic bomb.  Certainly those who argue it was justified to drop nukes on Japan could not object to dropping some on Germany.  Yet the consequences of waiting for the bomb would have been that the war in Europe would have probably lasted until at least August 1945, which in fact was when the 2 bombs were dropped on Japan.  The obvious consequences being that the war would have been prolonged, much more people would have died, and that the war in the pacific would also have taken longer as the Russians would not have been ready to attack Manchuria as quickly (as the fight against Germany would have been prolonged) and the U.S. would have had to expend much more time and effort to build additional nukes to drop on Japan.

If the argument is simply one of wanting to spare U.S. and British lives then not having a campaign in Western Europe would certainly have done so.  Yet regarding most other countries, Axis or Allied, or regarding soldiers or civilian, Jews or Chinese, etc, all of them would haves suffered and lost countless more people.  Either way if you look at U.S. and British casualties, military and civilian, for the war they suffered much less, in
numbers and proportionately, compared to most nations, big and small, powerful or weak.  For a few examples the Soviets lost at least 20 million soldiers and civilians, the Chinese arguably lost 10 million, a small country like Poland lost roughly 5 million, and of course 6 million Jews died during the holocaust.  Meanwhile Britain and America got off lightly in comparison with less than half a million lost each. 

As for the controversy whether or not the western allies could have invaded Northern France earlier than 1944 there are several reasons to suggest it was unlikely.  From an aerial point of view the Luftwaffe was not decisively weakened until the Spring of 1944 thanks to the introduction of P-51 Mustangs and fuel tanks which allowed them to escort  American heavy bombers to Germany and back.  This means that had the allies tried to invade France in 1943 their air forces would have had to fight a still potent Luftwaffe in the air while simultaneously trying to cover the invasion, interdict German reinforcements from reaching the battlefield, as well as providing close air support to troops on the ground.

It also means that the strategic bombing campaign to soften up German communications and logistics in Western Europe to delay German reinforcements to Normandy would have been much more difficult to conduct, both thanks to the lack of long range fuel tanks, and because much of the navigational aids and bombing practices which aided the strategic and tactical fighter bombers had not been sufficiently developed or tested by then.  It was only after the aerial battles over Germany and France in the spring of 1944 that German airpower was thoroughly neutralized in the west and thus the allies had free rein to use their tactical and strategic airpower more or less unhindered to prepare for the invasion, launch the invasion, and dominate the fighting in Normandy.

From a naval point of view an invasion in 1943 was also unlikely.  In fact the U-Boat menace was only defeated in the summer of 1943, which finally allowed the allies to change priorities from just keeping England alive to building up significant forces of U.S. troops in the British isles to even contemplate an invasion of Europe.  Indeed it was only in 1944 that enough U.S. forces had been sent to England that such an invasion was even feasible.  Additionally, the specialized landing craft that were needed to land troops on the beaches only become plentiful in 1944.

Plus there was the consideration that the western allies did not even agree on the objective of invading Western Europe, let alone commence serious planning, until after the “Tehran conference” in November 1943.  Finally, it could be argued that the western allies did not have enough combat experience in 1943 to land and defeat the German army in France.  American forces in early 1943 were mostly green and only had limited experience fighting the Germans in North Africa.  It could be argued that even the British were not well prepared despite the fact they had years of experience.  Given the often mediocre performance of their army in the “North African campaign” this was no small consideration.

It should noted that the experience of the western allies in Sicily and Italy was often brutal and the conduct of their armies in such battles as Salerno, Anzio and Monte Casino is often described by historians as less than charitable.  General Omar Bradley, who had been an advocate of landing in France as early as possible, quickly realized after the “Torch landings” in North Africa that the allies were not ready to invade France in 1943.

As for the planning of operation “Overlord” there were many components.  The first consideration was where the landings should take place.  Due to logistical constraints and the range of allied warplanes the viable places to land were restricted to around Calais and Normandy.  The advantages of Calais was that is was very close to the British isles, only 21 miles in fact, the terrain was generally open (and thus facilitated mobile warfare) and that Calais was much closer than Normandy to Germany and the Ruhr, its industrial heartland.  Conversely, Normandy was further from the British isles, much further from the Ruhr, and littered with less favorable terrain for mobile operations.

However, there were two reasons, in the end decisive, why the allies chose Normandy instead.  Firstly, the Germans expected that the allies would land in Calais and had thus massed the majority of their western forces there and secondly the fortifications on the Atlantic wall were strongest there while they were considerably weaker in Normandy.  Given these considerations it was wise the allies chose Normandy.

Once the landing zone had been chosen the allies had to plan pre-invasion operations, the landings themselves, and how to fight the battle in Normandy.

The operations mounted leading up to the invasion were crucial for the success of the campaign.  As the allies had overwhelming naval supremacy in 1944 and had decisively defeated the U-Boat menace in mid-1943 there was little to worry about the naval situation.  However, in early 1944 the allies did have to worry about at least 3 major issues prior to invasion.  These included wearing down the German air force in Western Europe to guarantee aerial supremacy, convincing the Germans that they would land around Calais instead of Normandy to prevent the German army from concentrating its forces in Normandy, and destroying or neutralizing communications and logistics in Western Europe to isolate Normandy from, or at least delay, German reinforcements.

How the German Luftwaffe was worn down in Western Europe has been briefly described above.  Needless to say the Luftwaffe bled itself white trying to stop the American day time bomber fleets from decimating Germany.  While the Germans had held the upper hand in 1943 when U.S. fighters did not have the range to escort their bombers to Germany and back the situation changed drastically in early 1944 with the introduction of long range fuel tanks to allied fighters, especially the P-51 Mustangs.  Not only were these fighters superior to the German Me 109s and FW 190s but the Americans also enjoyed numerical superiority.  This, along with the fact that the American airmen at this point generally had more training time, meant the Germans were at a severe disadvantage in the air.  The end result being that the German planes were shot out of the sky in disproportionate numbers.

While it is true that German production allowed them to replace their fighters much of the time the real issue was that the Luftwaffe was losing its best pilots and combined with the shorter training programs the Germans had versus the Americans meant that more planes were being shot down in greater numbers as time went on.  Thus by the summer of 1944 not only were the western air forces much stronger and more experienced but their opponent across the English Channel was weaker in terms of numbers, experience and quality.  Perhaps the best examples of this was that on “D-Day” itself the allied air forces launched nearly 14,000 aerial sorties vs. 260 by the Luftwaffe.

The next major issue facing the allies, how to convince the Germans they would be invading near Calais instead of Normandy, was vital for the success of the whole operation.  If the Germans had correctly identified Normandy as the landing site they could have stationed the majority of their troops and tanks there.  Either the invasion and ground campaign in Normandy would have been much lengthier and bloodier than it ended up being or the Germans might have defeated the invasion outright.  To fool the Germans the allies concocted perhaps the most famous and sophisticated deception plan in the history of war.

As Abram Shulsky wrote in Silent Warfare “the prerequisites of successful deception is blocking true signals and manufacturing false ones.”  In the case of “Overlord” this meant hiding both the build up of forces in South West England as well as the indications that Normandy was the site of the planned invasion while simultaneously creating the illusion of built up forces in South East England and implying the real target of invasion was Calais.  Regarding the former a major effort was given to camouflaging and hiding the considerable forces in South West England, limiting signals communications in this area, enforcing a blackout at night, etc.  In the case of the latter a huge army of dummy tanks, vehicles and supplies were placed in the open in South East England.  As well, a considerable volume of fake signals communications was used in this area, and German reconnaissance planes were not seriously interdicted from viewing the area.  Significantly General Patton, who had been sidelined since Sicily for slapping a soldier, and who was arguably the western General the Germans feared the most, was put in charge of a massive fake army just across from Calais.

A major coup at deceiving the Germans was the “double cross system” which involved using the German spies captured in England to transmit false information suggesting that Calais was the target of invasion.  Finally, in the lead up to the invasion the area around Calais was subjected to a disproportionate amount of aerial reconnaissance and bombing versus Normandy to settle any remaining doubts for the Germans.  After the invasion itself the emphasis of the allied deception effort switched to encouraging the Germans to believe that the landings in Normandy was just a feint and that the major allied effort would still mounted around Calais.  Part of this effort involved showing the Germans the allies had considerably more forces than they actually had.  Indeed, the Germans thought the western allies had nearly 90 divisions in England to support the invasions when in reality they only had 37 initially.  As the German army in Western Europe had 60 divisions this illusion was necessary to keep them from concentrating against the allied bridgehead in Normandy.  Yet perhaps the number of German divisions was not as serious as it would appear as they were significantly undermanned, due to losses, compared to the allies’ divisions.

In the event the allied deception plan, before, during, and after the invasion, succeeded beyond all expectations.  The Germans massed the lion-share of their army around Calais before the landings, and even after the invasion kept most of it there until the allies broke out of Normandy into the French countryside and thus the battle for Western Europe had been effectively lost.  The Germans even fell for a bogus allied plan suggesting there would be landings in Norway and stationed 400,000 troops there that ended up sitting out the rest of the war.

The third major issue in the lead up to the invasion for the allies was destroying or neutralizing the key communication and logistics hubs in Western Europe to isolate Normandy and interdict, or at least delay, German reinforcements from reaching the area, and thus allow the allies to build up forces in Normandy quicker than the enemy.  To accomplish this feat the allies used their heavy strategic bombers as well as smaller fighter bombers in the weeks prior to the invasion.  The strategic bombers focused on the railways, specifically marshaling and repair yards, as well as coastal areas and German air defenses, while the fighter bombers targeted vital bridges and tunnels.

Just getting the heads of the strategic bombing forces, Air Marshal Harris and General Spaatz, to relinquish their bombers to attack such targets was a hard fought battle by the Supreme Allied Command of the invasion, Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Both of these airmen were convinced that strategic bombing could win the war on its own, either by destroying German morale or attacking vital choke-points in the German war effort such as oil facilities.  They guarded their bombers jealously and it took a threat by Eisenhower to resign to pressure Churchill and other leaders to get the airmen to relent.  However, even after this Churchill further delayed the use heavy bombers because he was afraid that the projected collateral damage of the bombing campaign would result in significant French civilian casualties.  It would take pressure from President Roosevelt to convince Churchill to give in.  At this point it was early May and the allied air forces had less than a month to complete their objectives.  Fortunately though the bombers had already been attacking railway communications in Eastern France and the Ruhr and in the event the reduced time to strike around Normandy did not significantly effect the results.

Even so it is debatable if the heavy bombers were even effective in their goals.  While they did reduce rail traffic in France by two thirds the Germans compensated by prioritizing the rails for military use and employed mobile repair teams.  The collateral damage of the massive air strikes was between 10,000-15,000 French civilian deaths and considerably more injured.

However, while the results of the heavy bombers were disappointing the much fewer, and considerably more precise, strikes mounted by the fighter bombers were far more decisive and cost significantly fewer civilian lives.  These knocked out 74 vital bridges and tunnels and effectively sealed off Normandy from the rest of the country and would seriously delay German units reaching the battlefield.  Indeed, what would have normally taken hours to traverse ended up taking days.  This combined with allied aerial supremacy that made the movement of vast forces in daylight suicide meant that it took longer for German forces to reach Normandy from Eastern France than it did for the same forces moving from Russia to Eastern France.  This gave the allies a key advantage regarding logistics and during the “Battle of Normandy” they would receive reinforcements and supplies much quicker than the Germans.

Initial planning for the invasion itself began in 1943 under British General Frederick Morgan.  However, serious planning and the real impetus to launch the operation only began after the “Tehran conference” where President Roosevelt and Stalin effectively bullied Churchill into committing to invade France in 1944.

The original plan was modest and consisted of merely three divisions landing on the beaches of Normandy.  The American General Eisenhower, who would be Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion, and British General Bernard Montgomery, who would conduct the actual invasion and campaign in Normandy, found the forces committed in this plan too small and the frontage to be attacked too narrow.  They ultimately decided to expand the invasion force to 5 divisions to invade the beaches via amphibious assault while 3 air borne divisions would drop on the sides to distract the Germans, secure the invasion’s flanks, and take key bridges and junctions to limit the effectiveness of any German counterattack.  The amphibious force itself consisted of two American divisions, one landing on Utah beach on the Cotentin Peninsula and the other at Omaha beach, and two British and one Canadian divisions landing at Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches.  The 3 Airborne divisions consisted of the 101st and 82nd American airborne divisions landing near the American beaches, and the 6th British airborne near the British beaches.

The basic strategy of the campaign was for the British to take the city of Caen (Normandy’s biggest city), hopefully the first day, gain a secure position to allow the build up of troops and capture airfields, and then hold down the lion-share of Germans forces in their sector. It was hoped this would allow the Americans to take Cherbourg (among the largest ports in Europe) to ease the supply situation, and then move south, break out of Normandy and rout the German army in France.  After the capture of Paris the campaign would be over and the allies would head for Germany and the Ruhr.  In the event progress would be much slower and costlier than anticipated.

Regarding the leadership of the campaign the allies made the right choices.  While Eisenhower, who would be in overall command, had little combat experience he was a solid organizer and diplomat who knew how to command respect and could make difficult subordinates and allies work together.  These qualities may seem trivial but in fact were of the utmost importance given the significant rivalry and distrust between the American and British forces and due to the fact that most of the other potential candidates were either prima donnas, lacked tact, or at least did not understand the diplomatic niceties the held the western alliance together.  General Marshall was modest enough, but not as diplomatic as Eisenhower (as well President Roosevelt felt he was irreplaceable in Washington to organize the war effort at home).  General Alanbrooke, Britain’s top soldier and arguably the allies’ best strategist, was perhaps too brilliant and often impatient with the countless soldiers and politicians who did not possess the strategic foresight he was blessed with.  Indeed, his war diaries are filled with caustic criticism of his American allies, his colleagues, and even his political superiors.  General Montgomery had considerable combat experience and was well qualified to execute the kind of set-piece battle the first part of the campaign in Normandy would essentially be.  However, his well known arrogance and self-promotion alienated allies and colleagues alike.  General Patton, the western General the Germans feared the most was likewise a prima donna and a loud mouth.

With hindsight Eisenhower was the obvious choice.  The Supreme Allied Commander was in reality a political, and organizational position, and as long as he had competent subordinates to conduct the actual battles Eisenhower’s lack of combat experience was no real issue.

As stated above the conduct of the actual invasion force and the “Normandy Campaign” was bestowed to General Montgomery.  This was a good compromise given the set piece nature of the invasion, and Eisenhower’s relative lack of combat experience.  However, it would be an understatement to say that Montgomery was controversial.  Besides his obviously arrogant demeanor, many felt as though he was inflexible, cautious, and slow.  During the “North African campaign” many senior officers felt as though his caution allowed Rommel’s army to escape early annihilation.  While a case can be made that Montgomery’s tendency to micromanage often produced indecisive results on the battlefield, it was arguably needed in the first phases of the Normandy campaign where overwhelming force and circumspection was needed against a German army that had more experience, better tanks and enjoyed terrain that favored the defense.  However, the charges against Montgomery that he was overly cautious perhaps deserves less censure considering he had to manage an ever decreasing pool of manpower for the British army, as well as the fact that the German army had consistently bested the British during the first years of the war.

The other obvious candidate to conduct the actual invasion and campaign was General Patton.  General Patton’s philosophy of war was the opposite of Montgomery’s, it was aggressive, risky, and mobile, whereas Montgomery’s was slow, cautious and attritional.  While obviously talented General Patton was arguably not well suited to the first phase of the campaign where caution, attrition, and overwhelming force were the order of the day.  Considering Patton would have preferred attacking the Calais region where the majority of German forces and best defenses were located had he commanded the invasion the result would have been much bloodier and riskier than under Montgomery.  However, none of this suggests that Patton was not a good general, nor that Montgomery was a better one.  While Montgomery was the right choice to conduct the invasion and first stage of the campaign, Patton’s aggressive style meant that he was the best choice to conduct the pursuit, and rout, of the German forces after the breakout of Normandy had been achieved.  In the event Patton would decimate the German army in France once he was unleashed upon it after the Americans broke out of Normandy.

Operating under Montgomery was General Omar Bradley, who would control the U.S. First Army, and General Dempsey, who would control the British 2nd Army.  Both of these armies were part of the 21st Army Group commanded directly by Montgomery.  Both officers were well respected and popular with their men.  When enough American forces had landed later in the campaign these would split into the 12th American Group under Bradley while the 2nd British army and newly formed 1st Canadian army would merge to become the new 21st army group under Montgomery.  At this point Eisenhower would relieve Montgomery and take command of all allied forces.  In the event Eisenhower would only relieve Montgomery once the campaign was over.

While the allies were preparing to invade France the German army across the Channel was preparing for the massive assault.  The overall commander of the German forces in Western Europe was the old fashioned Field Marshall Von Rundstedt.  While generally seen as competent according to most sources he was somewhat cautious.  Indeed, many historians have blamed his circumspection during the “Battle of France” for giving the British army the chance to escape, as he and Hitler had ordered the German Panzers to halt and recuperate during the part of the campaign where they could have seized the channel ports before the the allies reached them to evacuate.  He, like the rest of the German high command who fell for the allied deception effort so thoroughly, believed the allies would land around Calais.

Yet despite having nearly 60 divisions at his disposal he had to spread them out along the coast to guard against raids and just in case the invasion occurred somewhere else.  However, the real issue was where to station the panzer (armored) divisions and how to use them against the allied invasion.  Von Rundstedt, like much of the conservative officers in the German army, favored holding the Panzers in a centralized position, and once the location of the invasion had been determined, and when a considerable portion of the Allied forces had landed, too throw the bulk of them against it.

His subordinate, who would directly command the German forces opposing the invasion, was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox.”  Rommel was, and probably remains, Germany’s most popular General.  He was bold, aggressive and always took the initiative.  He was somewhat disliked by the older German generals for his brashness, but ironically he was also well respected, even liked, by much of the allies.  He also had an extremely impressive record, both as a young officer in “World War 1″ by captured thousands of allied soldiers due to his cunning, and as a General in “World War 2″ by consistently defeated significantly stronger forces in France and then in North Africa.  Montgomery, who would face him in Normandy, had finally routed him in North Africa, though not without first amassing vastly superior resources.

Rommel’s view of how to defeat the allied invasion differed from Rundstedt’s.  Whereas Rundstedt wanted to hold back the German tanks to counter attack en mass once the allies had come ashore in significant numbers, Rommel believed the allies could only be defeated at the water’s edge and wanted to keep the Panzer divisions near the beaches of the likely invasion points (mostly near Calais, but also some at Normandy and other locations just in case).  While Rundstedt’s argument made sense from the point of view of saving the Panzers for a massed blow against any allied bridgehead, Rommel argued that allied aerial supremacy would inevitably wreak havoc among such armored divisions massing to attack it after it had been established.  Having seen, unlike many of the German generals stations in France, the power of the western allied air forces in North Africa at decimating his supply lines, as well as breaking up German assaults against tenuous allied bridgeheads in Italy Rommel was undoubtedly right regarding this strategic debate.  While there is no guarantee that the Germans would have succeeded in pushing the allies back into the sea on “D-Day” had their armored forces been stationed near the beaches given the overwhelming numbers and firepower the allies devoted to the assault there is little doubt such a strategy stood a better chance of success than Rundstedt’s.  Considering the allies’ superior capabilities to reinforce Normandy quicker than the Germans and that once they had established themselves ashore their air force would have stopped any significant German counter attack, the idea of holding back the German tanks was strategic suicide.

In the end it was Hitler, as always, who broke the impasse and decided the course of action.  It was a compromise that suited neither school of thought.  Most of the valuable Panzer divisions would be held in reserve, some would be deployed near Calais, a few in Southern France and other locations, and a single one would be deployed near Normandy.  Thus Germany’s armor in France would be too dispersed to either mass for a theoretical counter-attack against a built up allied bridgehead, or to defeat any initial invasion on the beaches themselves.  Perhaps most absurdly the release of the armor reserves for combat could only be granted by Hitler himself.  In the event the allies invaded in the early morning of June 6th and as none of Hitler’s subordinates bothered telling him before he woke up in the afternoon precious hours were lost.  Even worse for the Germans was that since the allied deception plan had worked so comprehensively they believed that the landings in Normandy were a diversion and kept most of the reserves in place to defend Calais.

Regarding the planning of the amphibious aspects and the initial part of the “Normandy Campaign” the architects of the operation kept in mind the many lessons that had been learned, often at significant human cost, during amphibious assaults launched earlier in the war.  While the pacific campaign obviously involved countless such endeavors the amphibious assaults launched in the European theatre of operations were more relevant as the topography, nature of the fighting, and the enemy was significantly different than in the pacific.  Besides a few commando raids launched in France and Norway the major amphibious assaults launched by the allies in Europe prior to “D-Day” were the “Dieppe raid” in August 1942, the “Torch landings” in Algeria and Morocco in November 1942, the invasion of Sicily in May 1943, the invasion of Italy in September 1943 and the landings at Anzio in January 1944.  The lessons learned from these operations were crucial for the successful outcome in Normandy and warrant detailed analysis.

The “Dieppe raid” was launched in August 1942 due to a combination of factors including the British wanting to appease the Russians, the Canadian government wanting to see its troops going into action before the Americans, and to test the feasibility of seizing a port via direct assault.  In the event the Russians were not impressed, the mostly Canadian force suffered heavy casualties, and the attempt to take the port failed abysmally.  The main lesson of the raid was to illustrate, both in planning and execution, how not to conduct an amphibious assault.

The main landing site, which the author had a chance to tour in 2004, was poorly chosen with cliffs dominating the flanks, a shoreline with an incline where the invading troops could not see the city or port until they had climbed it, and a beach covered with countless small, sharp stones that immobilized most of the tanks that made it ashore.  The plan also suffered from the lack of a sufficient aerial or naval bombardment (thanks to Air Chief Marshal Harris’s stubbornness and the Admiralty’s fear of German airpower operating near the English Channel) which ultimately neither kept the Germans’ heads down, or neutralized their defenses.  The landing craft were also generally inadequate to land soldiers, tanks and supplies quickly, or efficiently, on the beaches.  For the troops and tanks that did manage to advance some distance up the beaches there were tank traps, obstacles, and other defenses that stalled their progress.  The creation of specialized tanks and deploying combat engineers to blow up such defenses would not be introduced for quite some time.  Finally the element of surprise was lost due to French double agents and a German naval convoy that ran into the invading armada early in the operation.

Perhaps no amphibious assault launched in Europe during the war is more controversial than the “Dieppe raid.”  It was by far the most disastrous, and most poorly executed.  There was much to learn from it:  The futility of attacking a port head on, the need for extensive naval and aerial bombardments, the necessity of accurate intelligence regarding the landing zones, the importance of specialized landing craft, the consideration for specialized tanks and combat engineers to clear beach obstacles and defenses, and achieving the element of surprise.  After the war the British and Canadians predictably blamed each other, while some like Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had ultimate responsibility for the raid, suggested that “for every man who died in Dieppe at least 10 more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944.”  However, the most disappointing thing about the raid was that many of its lessons were not implemented in later assaults and had to learned again before the Normandy landings.

The “Torch landings,” which gave the allies a foothold in the Western Mediterranean, and the invasion of Sicily, which toppled Mussolini from power, were not nearly as disastrous due to the lack of enemy resistance in the former, and the landings being unopposed in the latter.  The main lesson from Torch, which had been apparent at Dieppe, was the need to create specialized landing craft, especially to quickly land troops and tanks on the beaches (as the landings there had been scattered and time consuming), while perhaps the main lesson from the invasion of Sicily was to not fly gliders and paratroopers directly above the invading armada (hence why the aerial assault on “D-Day” was mounted on the flanks) as many seamen misidentified them as enemy units and opened fired and caused many casualties.  Yet perhaps the criticism of not having sufficient specialized landing craft at Torch is unfair as the interval between Dieppe and Torch was less than 3 months, which is hardly a realistic timeframe to develop, test, produce, and deploy such equipment.

The invasion of Italy in September 1943, especially around Salerno, and the assault around Anzio in January 1944 were more dangerous affairs and edged towards failure, once again illustrating that an allied invasion of France in 1943 would have been a very risky venture.  The invasion of Italy began with a British attack across the Strait of Messina to the toe of Italy, followed by the main attack at Salerno a few days later.  The former attack led by Montgomery met little resistance but his advance to relieve the allies at Salerno was slow due to a lack of transport and his ever cautious nature.  Meanwhile, even though the invasion at Salerno did not accomplish all of its initial objectives, not least due to lack of surprise as well as the fact the allies did not even mount a preliminary bombardment, it managed to establish two beach heads on a broad front.  However, the front was too broad as the two beaches were too far away to support each other and thanks to the poor supply situation the beach heads were severely undermanned initially.  Additionally, the topography benefited the German defenders more so than the allies, as it would during most of the fighting in Italy.

Being able to reinforce the landing area quicker than the allies Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, amassed significant forces and tried to overrun the beaches before Montgomery’s forces arrived.  Due to their superior numbers and having more combat experience they came close to doing so but in the end the allies’ supremacy in firepower (artillery, aerial and naval) pushed them back and saved the situation.  Realizing he couldn’t push the allies back into the sea Kesselring retreated to the Gustav defensive line constructed by the Germans south of Rome to delay the allied advance up the Italian peninsula.

The assault around Anzio was launched in early 1944 to outflank the Gustav Line, to force the Germans to split their forces and hopefully either allow the allies to overrun a weakened Gustav line, or move onto Rome.  The force landed around Anzio was too small, initially only 36,000 men, to accomplish anything significant and the Commander of the force was not given express orders to quickly seize the high ground around the beachhead or act aggressively against the Germans.  While the landings achieved complete surprise, unlike at Salerno, the passive conduct of the allies around Anzio enabled the cunning Kesselring to seize the high ground around the beaches (which  allowed the Germans to see and shell any allied position), reinforce the area quicker than the allies and launch brutal counter attacks that once again nearly defeated the allied lodgment.  Unsurprisingly the allies were once more saved by their superior firepower and the battle around Anzio degenerated into stalemate for the next few months.

The lessons from Salerno and Anzio were as vital as those from Dieppe.  Obvious lessons from the latter, including using an overwhelming preliminary bombardment, and the importance of achieving surprise were noted more thoroughly.  More crucial though was the fact that the numbers of troops in the initial landings were not strong enough, and that on both occasions the Germans were able to reinforce their armies around the beach heads quicker than the allies.  Additionally, the practice of assaulting on a broad front, as at Salerno made sense to land more troops quicker and to give the Germans a bigger target to attack.  However, such a broad assault would only work if there were enough troops to man the whole front (as the gap between the allied forces at Salerno had allowed the Germans to attack them piecemeal).

Solving the broad front dilemma and reinforcing allied soldiers were not hard tasks.  The allies simply needed more ships, especially specialized landing craft, considerably more American forces transported across the Atlantic, and more experience in amphibious operations.  Additionally, as either directly assaulting a port, or the hope of capturing one early on after an amphibious assault was seen as unlikely the allies created two massive artificial ports via old merchant ships and piers (called Mulberries) and would tow them across the English Channel after “D-Day” to ease the supply situation.

As for the need to prevent the Germans from quickly reinforcing the battlefield around any beachhead, the allies began to experiment with interdiction efforts via airpower to slow German reinforcements during the “Italian Campaign.”  While the lack of sufficient aircraft and experience and the topography of Italy made interdiction efforts in Italy mostly mediocre they did pave the way, as stated earlier, towards the successful interdiction campaign launched before and during the “Normandy Campaign.”  This along with the deception campaign designed to initially convince the Germans that Calais was the target of invasion, and later that Normandy was a mere diversion, decisively gave the allies the advantage of reinforcements and supplies during “D-Day” and the “Normandy Campaign.”

The invasion itself was set for June 5th, 1944.  However, during the 4th the senior allied meteorologist estimated that the weather during the 5th would be unfavorable for invasion and the allies decided to postpone the assault at least 24 hours.  Yet the next day the meteorologist suggested that a window of opportunity to invade existed for 48 hours after the 5th.  He believed that the next earliest opportunity to invade afterwards would be 2 weeks later.  Eisenhower queried the rest of his staff, Montgomery was willing to go, the airmen were hesitant, but Admiral Ramsey, who was in charge of the naval effort said that if there was no firm decision within half an hour they would have to stand down.  After a short pause Eisenhower, who bore ultimate responsibility, sanctioned the invasion by simply saying “okay, let’s go.”  It was fortuitous that Eisenhower did not postpone the invasion for two weeks as in the event the worst storm the English Channel had witnessed in 40 years occurred and it would have been disastrous for the allied armada.

Ironically thanks to the poor weather the Germans were convinced that no invasion would occur.  Indeed, the German navy canceled their daily patrol of the Channel, much of the senior leadership in France travelled to Rennes to conduct war-games, and Rommel left for Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday.

As stated above the allies’ plan was to land 5 divisions on the beaches of Normandy, as well as dropping 3 divisions of paratroopers on the sides of the amphibious force to confuse the Germans, protect the invasion’s flanks, and seize important bridges, roads and junctions to frustrate German counter-attacks.  The British would hopefully take Caen the first day, secure a good defensive position in the east, and make feint attacks to suggest the main allied assault would be directed from here to breakthrough to the Seine river.  This was designed to ease pressure off the Americans to allow them to focus on taking Cherbourg to ease the supply situation, and then move mouth south and breakout of Normandy.  Thereupon the objective would be to encircle, or at least defeat, the German forces in France and the Low Countries, invade Germany and overrun the Ruhr, and with the Russians advancing from the east, occupy the country and end the war in Europe.  Like many plans in war it was simple, direct and strategically sound.

However, as Clausewitz noted “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”  While the plan for the “Normandy campaign” was easy enough its execution would prove to be much more complicated than originally hoped.  While it is unfair to seriously criticize the western allies given hindsight and the fact they overwhelmingly won the contest in Normandy, there is little doubt their estimations on how the campaign would develop was overly optimistic.  The hope Caen would fall the first day, that Cherbourg could be captured with its port facilities largely intact, the idea that they could make swift advances in such a small, enclosed, area full of Germans soldiers who were ordered not to retreat an inch in topography that clearly favored the defense (especially in the American sector) were all examples of wishful thinking.  With hindsight the campaign in Normandy was always more likely to have evolved into an unsophisticated battle of attrition than swift maneuvers conducted by great captains of history.

Given the relative advantages of the western allies versus the German forces this seems inevitable.  While there are exceptions and it often fluctuated during the conflict it is generally true that throughout the war the German ground forces were better trained, better equipped (in quality, not quantity), had more combat experience, and when not hamstrung by Hitler or his political sycophants, better led.  To compensate for this the allies resorted to better production (superior numbers), logistics (superior mobility and resupply), intelligence (both in knowing the enemy’s intentions and concealing their own) and especially firepower (air power, artillery and often even naval bombardments).  Simply put the German ground forces were man for man and tank for tank superior to the western allies and to compensate for this the allies used numerical superiority and firepower to win battles, and their superior intelligence and logistics to supply their forces quicker and deceive the Germans of their intentions.  This is how the battle in Normandy was won and while there is no lack of armchair generals who argue the German army was better than its western equivalents they seem to forget that in the end the the latter’s methods of waging war were ultimately superior to what turned out to be narrow, outdated, Prussian militarism.

The “Normandy Campaign” commenced on June 6th, 1944 and was supported by approximately 12,000 aircraft and 7000 vessels, while nearly 160,000 allied soldiers crossed over to France the 1st day.  The initial assault was made by the paratroopers and gliders who landed on the flanks with the amphibious assault following a few hours later.  A massive naval and air bombardment preceded the latter forces landings, much directed at Normandy but most of which was directed around Calais as part of the allies’ ongoing deception campaign.

Despite being scattered hopelessly across Normandy the airborne troops managed to accomplish their goals of confusing the Germans and capturing vital points to protect the beaches.  Regarding the beaches the British and Canadian forces at Sword, Beach, and Juno did well and did not suffer heavy casualties thanks in no small part to the specialized tanks that had been developed after Dieppe to clear the beaches.  However,   the counter attack by the 21st Panzer division (the only tank division stationed near Normandy), and the unrealistic plan to take Caen the first day of the invasion would frustrate the allies efforts in the campaign for weeks to come.  Meanwhile the Americans got lucky at Utah beach when they landed in the wrong spot, which had less troops and defenses, and established a respectable perimeter and suffered the least casualties that day.

However, at Omaha beach the Americans had considerable trouble and nearly lost their foothold.  The first waves were slaughtered on the beaches and little progress was made until commanders convinced their men to fight or die, as Colonel George Taylor famously declared “there are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die” and several destroyers came in close to bombard the Germans.  The slaughter on Omaha was a combination of bad luck and bad planning.  The defenses here were the strongest in Normandy, allied intelligence had missed that the Germans had been recently reinforced, the high ground overlooking the beach decimated the U.S. forces, and most of the tanks in the initial assault sent to the beach sank when their landing craft collapsed in the channel.  Additionally, the naval bombardment was too short and the bombers dropped their loads too far inland because they were afraid of hitting their own men.  Fortunately despite the horrific losses the U.S. forces rallied and secured a tenuous beachhead.

At the end of the 6th of June the allies were cautiously optimistic.  While they had not taken Caen and the Omaha beachhead was less than ideal, they had secured a bridgehead on the continent and given their advantages in airpower and logistics had every reason to be confident of pushing inland and defeating the Germans.  As for the Germans despite the landings they were still convinced this was a diversion and the main assault would still occur near Calais.  However, they had not stopped the invasion on the beaches and thanks to allied air power that would break up their panzer formations in the next days, and throughout the campaign (showing that Rommel had been right in his recommendations about deploying the tanks prior to invasion), it slowly dawned on the Germans fighting in Normandy, if not the leadership in Berlin, that the invasion could not be contained or repulsed and that the war was lost.

From this point until the end of July the campaign in Normandy evolved into a slow battle of attrition.  The British and Canadians’ objectives were to take Caen, hold down most German forces in the region, and convince them that the major allied effort to break out would come from their front.  Meanwhile the Americans sought to take Cherbourg to ease the allies’ logistics then turn south to break out of Normandy.  The Germans went from trying to mass their forces to throw the allies back into the sea to desperately trying to contain the ever swelling numbers of troops and equipment the allies landed in Normandy.

The immediate aim of the allies was to link up the beach heads, bring in more troops and supplies, and secure their positions on land against counter-attacks.  Thanks to the strategic bombing campaign that decimated France’s infrastructure the allies were able to reinforce their army quicker, and their air supremacy frustrated any chance of the Germans maneuvering and counter-attacking during the day, the allies faced no major threat against their lodgments and managed to connect all beachheads by June 12th.

However, despite safeguarding their position it would take significantly longer for the allies to accomplish their next objectives.  While the U.S. effort to take Cherbourg was not unduly time consuming, being secured on the 26th, the Germans sabotaged it enough (as they would do for most ports) to render its importance for logistics less than adequate.  Yet this was the only significant bright spot for the allies during June as the Americans were stalled from breaking out of Normandy due to the closed in terrain comprising of flooded areas and bocage in their sector, the British and Canadians became bogged down trying to take Caen, and the brutal storm that hit the channel two weeks after the invasion destroyed one of the two Mulberry ports and set back the allies logistics and resupply effort significantly.  Indeed from June 19-22nd the allies rate of resupply fell from 22,000 tons to 1000 per day and to would take until the end of July to recuperate.

While the Americans struggled with the Germans in the Bocage country Montgomery was desperate to take Caen and the area around it.  Having failed to take Caen the first day Montgomery went on to launch several offensives from then until the Americans broke out of Normandy in late July.  These operations can be described briefly.

The operations were generally designed to either take, or encircle Caen, and then later to secure the surrounding area, wear down the German army in Normandy, and distract them from attacking the U.S. forces in the West.  They were preceded by disproportionate firepower (often with hundreds of heavy bombers), often made significant initial gains, but were usually checked by the German defenders.  Given allied air supremacy and numerical superiority several critics, then and since, have suggested that the slow progress of Montgomery at Caen and the vital lodgment around it before the Americans broke out of Normandy was an indication of his excess caution at best, or being a mediocre general at worst.  Yet while Montgomery was often caution and was certainly not the great captain he pretended to be there were many legitimate reasons why the British and Canadian forces in Normandy did not achieve the spectacular advances hoped for.

As stated above the German troops and tanks were generally better than their allied counter parts.  Additionally, just as at Stalingrad, Monte Casino and other urban battlefields in the “Second World War”, the effort to dislodge the Germans from Caen was bound to be slow and costly.  Perhaps more importantly, the Germans defenders around Caen deployed defense in depth and were masters of camouflage.  For example, when the British launched “Operation Goodwood” after having taken Caen the Germans defensive zone generally consisted of 5 lines.  This included:

1).  A light infantry screen to absorb the artillery, naval and air bombardments.

2).  A small tank force to launch an immediate counterattack.

3).  Small villages full of infantry with anti-tank weapons.

4).  Several 88 mm anti-tank batteries stationed on the Bourguebus ridge (which dominated the battlefield).

5).  Another infantry and tank reserve behind this.

If you look at this deployment it is ideal to stop the sort of attacks the British were launching.  The first line, which would absorb most of the initial allied firepower, was lightly held and not expected to stop the advance.  If the British initial attack did not go well the 2nd line of German tanks would either stop it, or at least fragment its cohesion.  However, if the attack continued it was hoped either the 3rd line of anti-tank personnel in the villages, or the batteries on the 4th line on Bourguebus ridge, would end it.  Failing that, a last ditch counter-attack by fresh forces in the 5th line (who could be used at any point in the operation) could be launched.  Considering that the German troops generally had more combat experience, that their tanks were superior, that they were camouflaged and fighting on terrain they knew, such a deployment compensated for their lack of airpower and numerical inferiority.

However, the main reason the British and Canadians had such a rough time in the campaign was that the Germans massed the majority of their forces, especially their tanks, against them instead of the Americans.  This was due to the fact that the area around Caen was more suited to mobile warfare and because it was closer to the Seine and thus a breakout from the allied beachhead in this area was seen as more disastrous than from the American sector with broken terrain and further away from the Seine.  If you look at the statistics of the “Normandy Campaign” most German troops and the vast majority of German tanks were deployed against the British and Canadians.  By June 13th the Germans had 4 Panzer divisions near Caen and hardly any tanks confronting the Americans.  By the end of June there were 700 tanks there compared to 140 opposing the Americans, and at the end of July (right before the U.S. forces broke out of Normandy) there was still 650 German tanks around Caen and 190 confronting the Americans.

This was actually what the allies had hoped for, the whole concept of the campaign in Normandy was for the British to hold off the main German forces to allow the Americans to break into the countryside and then encircle them.  Though it is obvious that it would have been better if Montgomery had taken Caen the first day, or if he had secured more territory around the city earlier to gain a better position or allow allied airfields to be deployed in France faster, the fact remains that his main purpose was holding down the lion-share of the German forces in Normandy to allow the Americans to win the campaign.  While the British and Canadian campaign in Normandy was an un-glorified catalogue of small advances and attrition it was completely vital and no less important than the subsequent American breakout, and then encirclement, of the German forces.

As the British and Canadians were struggling around Caen the Americans, after having taken Cherbourg, tried advancing south to break out of Normandy.  However, progress was slow and costly due to several factors.  Despite having airpower and material supremacy the Americans found it hard to dislodge the German defenders from the Bocage terrain, with its large hedgerows that concealed them.  Besides this the Americans also had to deal with flooded areas and marshlands.  Additionally, the Germans, just like around Caen, adopted defense in depth.  Finally, the American advance also suffered due to the small scale and broad nature of Bradley’s early attacks which allowed the numerically inferior Germans to defeat them rather easily.

To regain the initiative the Americans introduced a few stratagems.  Initially they adopted “marching fire” which meant they would advance slowly and shoot at every conceivable hiding spot the Germans could use.  While this did allow them to move forward it was also exceedingly slow, very costly regarding ammunition, and often resulted in considerable collateral damage.  It was also not always effective against the hedgerows that littered the terrain.  To solve this issue, the Americans simply installed “metal teeth” to the front of tanks which scooped out the hedgerows and exposed the Germans trying to hide behind them.  Bradley also came around and started to launch larger attacks concentrated on a more narrow front.

These new stratagems, combined with attrition that slowly ate away at an enemy that received few reinforcements due to the allied interdiction campaign, and the fact that the British held down the lion-share of the German forces near Caen, finally allowed the Americans to break out of Normandy in late July.  When Bradley launched “Operation Cobra” to this effect it was proceeded by 1500 heavy bombers and considerable fighter bombers and artillery.  This use of extensive firepower decimated the Germans in its path but also caused significant allied friendly fire.  Undeterred Bradley continued the advance and by August was breaking out of Normandy and threatening the rear of the German forces operating there.

At this point things became increasingly desperate for the Germans.  While they had received reinforcements in a very unpredictable and piecemeal fashion, the allies now had millions of troops in Normandy and had roughly 4500 tanks versus perhaps 850 for the Germans.  By early August the Germans finally realized that Normandy was not a feint and that there would be no allied assault near Calais.  Thus Hitler finally authorized the transfer of significant reserves from there to reinforce Normandy.  In the event these forces would not arrive in time to effect the struggle.  He also ordered the new German commander in France, Field Marshal Von Kluge (who replaced Runstedt due to the latter suggesting the war in the West was lost and that Germany should make peace), to mount a counter-offensive against Bradley’s forces breaking out of Normandy.

Looking at a map it seemed plausible to cut off and destroy the extended American forces moving south on a narrow front from Normandy but in practice it was impossible given allied air supremacy and superiority of numbers, and the dilapidated state of the remaining German forces.  However, Kluge dutifully assembled 400 tanks for a last ditch effort and attacked at Mortain towards the coast to stop the breakthrough.  Thanks to intelligence warnings Bradley assembled adequate forces to combat the threat, and these along with significant artillery and airpower easily broke up the assault and inflicted significant casualties on the Germans.

With the failed German counter-attack at Mortain it was a matter of time before the German army in Normandy would be encircled.  Field Marshal Model, who Hitler often used to rescue dire situations, was sent to replace the hapless Kluge in mid-August after the fiasco at Mortain.  Like every other German commander he quickly realized the futility of the German position in France.  However, unlike the other commanders who had little political clout with the German leader, Model successfully lobbied Hitler to finally allow the German forces to retreat.  The order was given just in time to allow some forces to retreat through the ever narrowing Falaise Gap.

The conduct of the allies regarding the Falaise Gap is one of the more controversial aspects of the campaign.  After the failed German counter-attack at Mortain General Montgomery, who was still in command of all allied ground forces in Normandy, ordered the U.S, British and Canadian forces to encircle the German forces near Falaise.  What should have been an easy victory was delayed due to several factors.

Firstly, Patton’s 3rd army, the most powerful allied formation, had initially been ordered to take the ports in Brittany after breaking out of Normandy.  This had been the plan from the beginning and considering the issues the allies were having with resupplying their forces it made sense.  With hindsight the German garrisons in Brittany would hold out in, or destroy, the port facilities and thus defeat the purpose of this advance, but the allies had no way of knowing this would occur at the time.  Either way the time Patton spent advancing in Brittany could have been used to close the Falaise Gap much sooner.  Secondly, the Canadians, who had been given the task of closing the Gap on the other side, were not given enough support from Montgomery to complete their task.  As good as the Canadian soldiers were they simply did not have the means necessary to do so on their own.  Finally, Bradley and Montgomery did not effectively coordinate with each other to close the gap, essentially fighting their own wars when the operation should have been conducted as a single battle.  Not surprisingly in various histories of the campaign written after the war blame is often assigned based on the nationality of the author (the Americans blame the British, the British blame the Americans, the Canadians blame both, etc.).  A more objective verdict would suggest that in a military alliance where no country yet dominated the decision making process that all countries bore some responsibility.

However, the criticism of the allies regarding the outcome of the Falaise Gap is mostly unwarranted anyway.  Looking at the statistics of the operation itself, and comparing it to the bigger issues of the war, the suggestion that the allies lost a great opportunity at Falaise is absurd.  Most estimates regarding the German forces at Falaise cite roughly 50,000 captured, 10,000 dead and that at most 50,000 got away (however leaving most of their equipment behind).  Yet 50,000 soldiers with no equipment is of little consequence in a war of millions of soldiers and countless machines.  By this point the western allies had 3 million soldiers in France, the Russians considerably more on the a Eastern Front, and even the Germans and their allies could still scrounge up a few million to fight as well.  If you look at the amount of planes, artillery and tanks at this point in the war the numbers were even more lopsided against the Germans.

Somehow several histories of the war suggest that these 50,000 soldiers retreated across the Seine, were re-equipped, and after having been reinforced by some token German forces managed to stall the allied advance in late September and doomed the chance of the western allies winning the war in 1944.  This is ludicrous, the allied advance on the Western Front was brought to a halt due to their tenuous supply situation.  Only with the invasion of Southern France, the capture of Antwerp and the clearing of the Scheldt (not accomplished until late autumn) did the allies finally solve their logistical problems.

While the German army in Normandy was being routed around Falaise the Allies launched an amphibious assault in Southern France on August 15th.  This assault, dubbed “Operation Dragoon”, was originally planned to take place around the time of Normandy, but the lack of sufficient landing craft, and British skepticism regarding its strategic usefulness, saw it shelved for the time being.  However, after “D-Day” a combination of factors facilitated its rebirth.  Arguably the most important of these was regarding logistics in Normandy as the destruction of one of the Mulberry ports in June, and the German sabotage of port facilities in Cherbourg both significantly decreased the allied ability to resupply their forces.  Additionally, after “D-Day” the scarce landing craft became available for another operation.  Finally, French pressure to liberate Southern France and the prospect of using the considerable Free French forces in the Mediterranean for operations in Europe enticed the Americans to resurrect Dragoon.

In the event the operation went relatively smoothly, Southern France was liberated quickly and the German forces there were mostly captured or pushed back to the Reich.  Needless to say allied airpower and material superiority, the fact the German army in Northern France was all but defeated by the time Dragoon was launched, and the poor state of German forces in Southern France, were all major considerations.

While there has been some criticism of the operation because it diverted divisions from Italy, and deployed significant allied resources towards Southern France where the Germans would have been cut off after Normandy anyway, such criticism ignores more important factors.  Regarding taking considerable resources from Italy this was not important as the main purpose of the Italian campaign, knocking Italy out of the war and forcing the Germans to divert forces from Russia and France, became redundant after “D-Day”.  After this point it would have been strategically and logistically unrealistic to expect significant results from this front such as advancing on Vienna or Central or Eastern Europe.

And while it is easy looking at a map of Europe to suggest that liberating Southern France and fighting the Germans there would be less useful than cutting them off and devoting as many forces as possible to North West Europe it ignores the decisive importance of logistics in warfare.  During the campaign in Normandy, the pursuit across France, and the advance to the Ruhr logistics was the Achilles’ heel of the allies.  The destruction of one of the Mulberry ports, and the German demolition/holding onto port facilities in Western Europe were unequivocally the limiting factors regarding allied operations and thus the seizure of the significant ports in Southern France (including Toulon and Marseilles) was of vital importance in sustaining the allied advance against Germany.  In the event France’s southern ports would supply 1/3rd of all supplies for the campaign from “D-Day” to the capitulation of Germany, and considering the only other major coup for allied logistics occurred after the seizing of Antwerp and the clearing of the Scheldt estuary, which nearly took until December 1944, the importance of “Operation Dragoon” cannot be overestimated.  As the allied forces devoted to it was not much larger than 200,000 while several million were involved in Normandy it is unfair to suggest that it represented a serious drain on allied resources.

After the closure of the Falaise Gap and the liberation of Southern France the remaining German forces in France were essentially routed and retreated in disorder.  With the liberation of Paris on August 25th the “Normandy campaign” was successful concluded.  Significantly, while the fighting in Normandy had taken considerable longer than anticipated the capture of the French capital occurred ahead of schedule.

What about the German conduct of the Normandy campaign?  With all the criticism heaped on the allies in countless histories it is sometimes convenient to forget they won.  Yet unequivocally the Germans deserve much more censure regarding their conduct.  Strategically their deployment of tank divisions before the invasion made no sense, Richard Overy even suggested that “the allies could not have disposed German forces more favorably if they had done it themselves.”  Regarding intelligence the vast majority of scenario German commanders never questioned that Calais would be the target of invasion, or that after the invasion itself Normandy was a mere diversion.  Operationally the policy of never allowing even limited retreats to more defendable positions forced the Germans into a battle of attrition they could never hope to win.

However, to be fair the Germans were brilliant, as always, when it came to tactics.  They were masters of cover and camouflage, their system of defense in depth was hard to crack, and the allies needed considerable airpower and numerical superiority to win any significant engagement.

Either way after the allies established a secure foothold on the continent on “D-Day” it is likely the Germans were doomed to lose the campaign.  Allied airpower and artillery would break up any significant counter-attack, the interdiction campaign would limit the rate of reinforcements and the western allies superior numbers and logistics would have overwhelmed the Germans eventually.  The only chance, not even a good one, of the Germans winning in Normandy would have been to defeat the allies at the water’s edge by stationing panzer divisions near the beaches.  Failing that the best they could have done would have been to send most of their forces from Calais to Normandy to prolong the fighting and inflict more casualties.  Otherwise little else would have made a difference.  The odds were so stacked against the Germans that even the wounding of such a leader like Field Marshal Rommel in late July by a British plane arguably changed nothing.

The “Normandy Campaign” lasted from “D-Day” on June 6th until the liberation of Paris on August 25th.  The allies accomplished all their goals with the important exception of capturing enough port facilities to adequately supply their forces.  Statistics vary according to different accounts but the allies suffered roughly 220,000 casualties while the Germans suffered approximately 400-500,000 casualties, perhaps half of them being taken prisoner.  There was also roughly 20,000 French civilian deaths, and many more injuries, during the campaign on top of the previous casualties taken during the bombing offensive against French infrastructure.  While the allies suffered significantly more losses than the Germans regarding tanks and airplanes they could afford such losses and had plenty of them at the end of the campaign while most of the German divisions, and almost all of their equipment, had been wiped out in the campaign.  It would be the tenuous supply situation for the allies, not German resistance, that would slow the advance in late 1944.

Even worse for the Germans was that during the “Normandy Campaign” the Russians, who had and would continue to fight the lion-share of the German army, launched a massive assault against Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front and inflicted upon the Germans their greatest defeat of the war.  While the battle in Normandy was slow and attritional the Russians managed to destroy 30 German divisions in less than 2 months and reached the eastern outskirts of Warsaw.  Having to halt their advance due to logistics the Russians spent the rest of 1944 knocking out most of Germany’s remaining allies in Europe including Finland, Romania and Bulgaria (only a rump state of Hungary survived).  Besides the loss of so many forces and allies the loss of the Romanian Ploesti oilfields, Germany’s last major source of oil, was a particularly harsh blow to Hitler, who had obsessed over them for years.

These setbacks, along with the German collapse in Western Europe, effectively sealed the fate of the Third Reich and it was only a question of time until the war would be over.  While there would be plenty of disappointments and setbacks after the “Normandy Campaign” including the failure of “Operation Market Garden,” the severe problems with logistics and the German counterattack in December which resulted in the “Battle of the Bulge” there was no question that the war was as good as won.  Even though there would be plenty of historians and armchair generals who would criticize the campaign itself, the allied conduct afterwards, or the failure to take Berlin before the Russians, the fact remains that once the allies won the “Battle of Normandy” when the Germans failed to throw the invasion back into the sea on June 6th the issue of the war was essentially decided.

Regarding the situation vis a vis the Russians the partition of Germany had already been agreed upon beforehand and there was no way the western allies would have reached Poland or most other East European nations before the Soviets anyway.  All the accounts written by naive historians or the memoirs of bitter allied Generals or politicians who begrudged the Russians seem to forget that the Soviets destroyed the lion-share of the German army and that after having losing nearly 27 million people they were not about to let the western allies overrun their buffer zone in Eastern Europe.  Frankly liberating Western Europe and Western Germany, which were geopolitically more important than Eastern Europe anyway, was the best the western allies could have hoped for at this point in the war.  There is no doubt that the Soviets would have conquered all of Europe if they had the chance, and that it was right for Britain and America to confront them during the “Cold War” but provoking them and risking another conflict at the end of “World War 2″ would have been absurd and likewise unacceptable to public opinion in the democracies that had been taught that the Russians were their friends during the conflict.

The invasion of Normandy was the quickest way to end the “Second World War” in Europe and necessary to prevent Western Europe and most of Germany from falling to the Soviets.  The allies were not predestined to win and while failure would probably not have lost the war the end result would have been significantly less favorable to Britain, America, Western Europe, and democracy in general.  The allies won the campaign due to their deception campaign, aerial supremacy, and their ability to significantly resupply their forces quicker than the Germans.  Despite the fact that the campaign in Normandy took longer, and was more costly than originally anticipated, the western allies eventually accomplished all of their war aims while the Germans were comprehensively defeated.  The invasion of Normandy was arguably the most important campaign launched by the western allies during the war and effectively won both the war and the subsequent peace.


Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt.  Silent Warfare:  Understanding the World of Intelligence.  Washington D.C:  Potomac Books, 2012.

Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman.  War Diaries 1939-45 Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke.  London:  Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001.

Ambrose, Stephen.  Eisenhower and Berlin 1945.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2000.

Beevor, Antony.  D-Day:  The Battle of Normandy.  London:  Penguin, 2010.

Beevor, Antony.  The Second World War.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2012.

D’este, Carlo.  Decision in Normandy.  New York:  Konecky and Konecky, 1994.

Keegan, John.  Churchill’s Generals.  London:  Abacus, 1999.

Overy, Richard.  Why the Allies Won.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1996.

Warner, Philip.  World War 2:  The Untold Story.  London:  Cassell, 2002.

Article from “Air University Review”:  Attrition and the Luftwaffe by Williamson Murray, April 1983.

Article from “Angelfire”:  World War 2 Statistics [1999]

Wikipedia article on “Operation Overlord”: [March, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “Western Front (World War 2)”: [March, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “World War 2 casualties”: [March, 2013]

Why Geography Does Not Favor China

Posted By on February 4, 2013

ChinaFor more than a decade various intellectuals, pundits, and statesmen have all predicted that China is on the path towards not only being the next superpower, but even surpassing the United States in power and influence.  However, while there are certain indicators to suggest that China’s international importance will continue to rise, there are many reasons to be skeptical of China becoming the most dominant world power any time soon.  For one thing geography is generally against her.  While geography is only one factor it is arguably among the most important.  Geography has the potential of seriously limiting China’s emergence as a superpower.

Looking at the history of great powers and superpowers there seems to be several geographic considerations that do much to determine which nations become powerful.  Undoubtedly some of these, such as having a significant population, a decent sized country, and holding, or at least having access to, considerable resources, China undoubtedly has.  However, these are but a few geographic considerations among many and they are not inherently decisive.  China’s recent history of domination by Western imperial powers and having much of its country occupied during the 1930s and ’40s by Japan (a country much smaller, less populated, and having fewer resources than China) provides ample proof.  Of course geographic considerations by themselves are only part of the story and several other factors including, but not limited to, political, economic, and military are often just as important, if not more so.

Yet, keeping these latter considerations aside, and wishing to find the foremost important geographic factors that lead to nations becoming superpowers, it is necessary to look at the few nations that have accomplished this feat.  When defining superpowers  it is necessary to mark key differences between major powers, and superpowers.  These differences can be more subtle than one would think.

For example, while many scholars would argue that Germany was a stronger country in “World War 1″ than Britain, the British Empire could be considered a superpower while Germany could not.  While Germany had more military power in Europe and more industry than Britain, the British Empire was the foremost world power, had the ability to project power globally, was endowed with more economic power (which it used to prop up her allies financially), and thanks to the Royal Navy, could blockade Germany, starve her people and destroy its economic potential (which was a big factor in deciding the war).  Some could argue that had Germany defeated France and Russia it could have theoretically built a navy to defeat England and become a superpower, but the point is that Germany despite all of its military prowess was at a heavy disadvantage in terms of numbers, resources and money, and never had time to emerge as one.  The same principle applied during the “Napoleonic Wars” where Britain’s naval power limited French power to Europe and British economic influence propped up her European allies.  Again the same principles influenced the “Cold War,” where NATO seapower and U.S. economic dominance mostly limited Soviet power projection and contained it until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In these three cases; Germany, France and Russia were strong on land, but weak (at least vs. their enemies) at sea and in economic terms.  The enemy’s control of sea lines of communications which gave them the ability to amass superior economic and financial resources were in the end decisive.  Of course some could argue that had Germany, France, or Russia been successful at quashing their enemies on land they would have had a much better chance of achieving superpower status, my argument is that much of the reason they failed was their inability to effectively challenge the naval and economic dominance of their enemies.  While it may appear simple, these considerations are arguably among the most important in determining the emergence of superpowers.

The majority of potential or real superpowers throughout history have had significant naval capabilities.  Persia, Rome, Spain, Netherlands, Japan, France, Germany, Britain and America all had significant or dominant naval capabilities.  Alexander the Great’s first priority when conquering the Persian Empire was overrunning the Eastern Mediterranean to eradicate Persian naval power.  Rome, despite the common perception of not being an important maritime state, only gained serious influence in the Mediterranean by beating the Carthaginians, themselves traditionally a maritime power, at their own game (a point Alfred Thayer Mahan makes in the intro of “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History:  1660-1783).  Spain used her navy to conquer a vast empire and project her power across much of the globe, though ultimately failed to subdue England by the “Spanish Armada” and never focused on the economic or financial practices or institutions needed to develop into a true superpower.  The Netherlands become an economic titan by her control of the sea lanes, but her small population, having to defend itself on land against hostile neighbors, and being boxed in geographically by Britain across the English Channel, doomed her chances of becoming a superpower.  Japan should have, in theory at least, had the same chance as Britain at becoming a superpower but her lack of focus on economics and protecting her sea commerce, and her decision to fight all the main powers in Asia and the Pacific (on land and at sea) with no real allies during the “Second World War” was foolhardy.  From 1939 to 1945 Japan fought Russia, the world’s biggest country, China, the world’s most populous country, Britain, the world’s biggest empire, America, the world’s leading industrial and economic state, and countless other nations.

The situation of France and Germany, both of which developed significant maritime capabilities, has been described above.  Which leaves Britain and America, arguably the world’s only true superpowers.  Besides having dominant navies, as well as unrivaled economic and financial capabilities, they had geography on their side.  Unlike the previous nations mentioned (excluding Japan) the U.S. and U.K. have had no significant land rivals for most of their histories and thus have generally not had to invest in large, expensive armies and have had little fear of been overrun by hostile nations.  If you look at the history of the previous nations they are filled with numerous invasions and bloody wars, while the history of America and Britain is, at least in comparison, relatively mild.  This has allowed them the stability to develop democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and significant naval power.

The geography of America and the British isles is advantageous from a global standpoint.  Besides the previously mentioned points both countries have great topography to construct good ports, long coastlines that are not boxed in by other powers, and are located in good positions that they can project power abroad as well as control/bloke other nation’s sea lines of communication.  This along with Britain securing colonies and ports along vital maritime choke points (such as Gibraltar, Suez, Hormuz and Malacca, etc.) and America making alliances or stationing forces in proximity to these locations has allowed these two nations to dominate the world’s sea lines of communication and project power across the globe virtually unimpeded.

Thus a key component of Superpower status is maintaining the world’s sea lines of communication for trade and power projection.  China is at a geographic disadvantage regarding this.  While China certainly has a long coastline and excellent ports they are both considerably boxed in, or surrounded by, potentially hostile nations.  South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and especially Taiwan (all American allies) would put a serious brake on Chinese naval ambitions in the event of heightened international relations or war.  Even Vietnam, with its considerable coastline, is becoming weary of Chinese influence and has grown closer to America.  The prospect of Sino-Vietnamese conflict is not far-fetched, for most of Vietnam’s history China has been seen as its gravest threat and the two nations fought a brief war in 1979.  The same goes for India (also a likely U.S. ally against Sino expansion), while it does not border Chinese waters, its growth is destined to match that of China’s and it could also place naval forces astride the sea lanes China needs (especially the Strait of Malacca) to get many vital resources and minerals from Africa and the Middle East.

China’s only potential remedies to this situation would depend upon either building a navy that could dominate Asia and hope that America would eventually withdraw into relative isolation, and thus allow China hegemonic power in East Asia, or build such a fleet and convince enough of her neighbors to align themselves more with her instead of the United States and thus eliminate her geographic isolation.  Both of these considerations depend upon the relative balance of strength (military, diplomatic and economic) between America and China.  The key question is whether America is able and willing to commit to defend its paramount position in the region and prop up her allies in the long run, or whether China can gain such a dominant position in the region that her neighbors decide to reorient their interests towards Beijing.  Neither of these are inevitable.  America could easily one day conclude that a more isolationist policy would better suit her interests (especially given the excessive costs of trying to be strong in countless areas of the globe) whereas on the other hand a strong alliance between even a weakened America and her Asian allies (especially if backed by strong nations like India, Japan, and potentially even Russia) would probably be enough to maintain the balance of power in Asia.

China could also seek hegemony on land, as historically France, Germany, and Russia have.  However, just as at sea China does not have an advantageous position on land either.  Much like Germany throughout her history China has to deal with several land powers.  India and Russia are obvious significant competitors, while Vietnam (especially if it grows closer to America’s orbit) would be a moderate threat.  North Korea is an ally and provides a buffer zone from South Korea, but a unified Korea (especially a pro-American one) could present a potential threat as Manchuria and China’s industrial and economic heartland are close to the Yalu river (a key reason the Chinese intervened in the “Korean War”).  Anyone who thinks that conflict is impossible between these nations should remember that China has gone to war with all of them in modern times:  India in 1962, Russia in 1929 and 1969, Vietnam in 1979 and South Korea and America during the “Korean War” (1950-53).

While just as at sea there is little chance of there being a major land war in Asia, it does however force China to spend significant money and resources to be the dominant land power in Asia if it wants to be the regional hegemon.  However, as dominating the sea lanes is also a prerequisite of being a hegemon as well, China would also be forced to build a fleet to secure these as well as having to maintain the ability to project power abroad.  In other words China would need to have the best army, as well as the best navy (and even air force as the former two depend much upon Airpower) in Asia and the Pacific to be the foremost power in the region, let alone a superpower.  Even if America withdrew from the region into isolationism, regional powers could theoretically pull together and strain China’s effort.

The cost it would take China to be the dominant military power in East Asia and the Pacific would be astronomical if not impossible.  If one looks at world defense expenditures things do not look promising for Chinese hegemony.  According to SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) in 2012 China spent 143 billion (USD) on their armed forces vs. 711 billion by the United States.  While one could argue, disingenuously, that the Americans have to spread their resources globally, China’s real or potential rivals also have significant defense budgets.  Japan spent 60 billion, India spent 49 billion, and Russia 72, while other nations like South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan spend smaller but still respectable amounts of money.  Thus, even if Chinese spending somehow one day overtook that of the Americans, or even if America withdrew into isolation, China would still be surrounded by a ring of other powerful countries with significant military power.

Historically it is difficult, if not impossible, to be dominant on land and at sea.  Germany and Russia tried to and failed, Spain during the 16th century came close to but failed at the “Spanish Armada,” and Napoleon overextended himself trying to hurt Britain from invading Egypt and Spain, building a big fleet, as well as trying to subdue Russia.  Britain and America both succeeded as superpowers because they could concentrate on naval power and prop up allies to fight their enemies while expending limited forces on land.  However, China’s geographic position resembles Germany between 1914-45.  While she is destined to be the most powerful country in the region, her coast is boxed in by a coalition of strong naval power, and has multiple rivals on land.  While China has obvious advantages vs. Germans as in a massive population, more resources and strategic depth, she also has some of the same shortcomings such as a considerable dependence on imported resources.

Indeed, China is dependent upon imports for 55% of its oil, and an ever growing percentage of its coal (from 114 million tons in 2009 to over 250 million tons in 2012).  These are both necessary to fuel its economic growth, let alone run its country and heat its people.  Additionally, China is even more dependent upon seaborne trade than Germany and thus prolonged hostilities (which would also be detrimental to America and other powers) would arguably be more crippling to China.  Thus an argument could be made that no matter how strong and efficient China can be, just like Germany she is doomed to be held back from superpower status via geography.  On the other hand, many histories suggest Germany could have won the “World Wars” and nations have succeeded in overcoming geographic conditions throughout history.

Thus to in order to dominate Asia, let alone the world, China faces considerable obstacles on land and at sea.  On land India will always be a rival, the Korean Peninsula will likely be a source of anxiety for some time, Vietnam is drifting more into the American orbit, and even Russia could eventually turn against her (considering the massive Chinese emigration patterns into the Russian Far East where a mere 6 million Russians are up against 100 million Chinese in Manchuria).  As the Russian Far East is rich in resources and materials that China needs, this is not an academic factor.

At sea the odds are even more lopsided against China.  South Korea, and Vietnam box in China’s coast from the South and North.  Additionally, all the countries in the “First Island Chain” including Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore all fear Chinese expansion and are U.S allies.  India is also a U.S. ally and many of these nations already have naval agreements with the Americans.  Meanwhile the U.S. has bases in these countries, as well as in the “Second Island Chain” of the various island groups in the mid-pacific.  In the event of war or international crisis the U.S. and her allies could use their superior naval power and geographic control of the various sea routes and choke points to box in China’s naval power to her coast, limit her power projection abroad, as well as effectively neutralizing her seaborne trade.

China also faces issues regarding her political geography.  While globalization and trade have indeed lifted countless millions of Chinese out of poverty, the results have been uneven.  Just as in old China the urban and coastal areas have reaped much of the benefits whereas inner and rural China is still relatively backwards and poor.  Unsurprisingly the people in these region are often bitter with the unequal distribution of wealth and dissidence will arguably continuously mount.  Ironically, even among the emerging Middle Class in the coastal and urban regions, the gaining of more wealth, education and exposure to the outside world via traveling, social media, and the Internet, will also lead to rising level of dissidence.

In fact such levels have risen significantly since 1989 (the year of the “Tiananmen Square massacre”) from roughly 8700 mass group incidents in 1993 to 87000 in 2005 to 180000 in 2010.  Many have pointed out that most of these protests have focuses on smaller issues rather than advocating systematic chance in China.  However, anyone who thinks that the repressive Chinese state can cow the masses indefinitely should keep in mind that a steady growth in dissidence increases the chances of spontaneous revolutionary movements such as the unexpected “Arab Spring” as well as the “Tiananmen Square Protests” in 1989 of occurring.

While less of a problem due to their relatively small populations and remote locations, the Tibetans and Turkish Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as other minorities with separatist aspirations also present significant sources of domestic tension.  The Communist Party of China has 3 course open to it to deal with such mounting levels of dissidence.  They could try mass repression (as in even more severe then now, perhaps imitating the doomed Assad regime in Syria), appease disenfranchised Chinese with financial or political incentives, or a controlled move towards more democratization as Taiwan and South Koreahave done.

The first option would probably fail in the long run due to world media, international pressure, the rising levels of Chinese dissidence in spite of existing high levels of repression, and the fact that such repression would undermine all the economic progress China has made in the last few decades.  The second option would also probably fail in the long term due to the current slow down in the global economy, the prevalence of corruption in Chinese society (according to the Corruption Perception Index of 2012 China ranked 80 out of 176 countries while its main rivals, the U.S, Japan and Taiwan scored much better at 19, 17, and 34 respectively), the sheer numbers of people that need to be appeased, and the fact that even if it worked the better off people would probably want political change eventually anyway.  The third option, perhaps the one most likely to succeed, and most beneficial to peace (as democracies do not fight each other) is arguably not likely due to the lack of democracy in Chinese history, the monopoly of power and perks enjoyed by the Communist Party of China, and the tempting prospect of eventually emerging as the most powerful country in the world by the regime’s leadership.

Of course the Chinese Communist Party could very well hold onto power without repression, appeasement, or reform, and if one looks at their calamitous history of beating the odds against the Chinese Nationalists, the Japanese, the Americans and later Russians during the “Cold War” and even civil dissent (as seen by the “Tiananmen Square Massacre”) it would be a mistake to underestimate it.  Yet historically such regimes usually end sooner or later and the odds are against the CCP being an exception.  The important questions are whether or not such a collapse will occur before China becomes too powerful to easily contain, launches an aggressive foreign policy that could lead to serous strife (such as an attempt to annex Taiwan by force), and whether or not the succeeding government in Beijing is less threatening to Asian, or Western interests.

However, even if CCP surpassed all these challenges there is the added prospect that despite what all the pseudo-economists and pundits say China is not destined to enjoy indefinitely the impressive economic growth she has had thus far.  As Ruchir Sharma noted in an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Broken BRICs” very few nations historically enjoysuch growth levels (over decades) for so long.  Indeed, despite enjoying double digit growth rates for the past few decades China’s rate has slowed in recent years to 7% or lessjust as other growing economic titans have before.  For example, during the ’80s the economic growth rate of Japan led many to believe she would eventually overtake the American economy, only to eventually level out and then to grow in a more limited fashion.  While there are reason to suggest that China could outdo Japan in this respect the history of economics suggests that China is much farther from gaining equality, let alone superiority, vs. the U.S. economy than is usually imagined.

Certainly regarding GDP (PPP) per capita China and other developing nations may never reach parity with the U.S. or her allies.  For example, when the International Monetary Fund ranked countries regarding GDP (PPP per capita) in 2011 the U.S. Taiwan, and Japan stood at 6, 20, and 25 respectively while China ranked at a distant 93.  Put another way the U.S. figure was 48,000 vs. 8000 for China (in other words America’s GDP per capita was 6 times that of the Chinese).  The political-geographic consequences of this should not be ignored.  A higher GDP per capita generally represents a more educated, professional, and innovative population and workforce (though not always considering some of the higher ranking countries qualify almost exclusively due to their excessive oil wealth as seen by many of the Gulf countries).  Such a population is generally more loyal to the state, is economically more efficient, and produces more technological and innovative solutions to the various problems presented to the nation.  While they also usually demand more economic and political incentives than less developed populations, they undoubtedly make the nation stronger.

Put simply nations with a higher GDP per capita produce a more loyal, educated and innovative populace that facilitates their nations becoming stronger (militarily, politically and economically) than nations with lowers levels of GDP per capita.  For example while Egypt and her traditional Arab allies have had much more economic potential (especially in workforce, industry and resources) than Israel, the Jewish state has been more politically cohesive, and willing to channel the abilities of her population, while Egypt and her allies have less stable governments and often stifle the abilities of their peoples to maintain control.  This has enabled Israel to produce a superior military (which contrary to popular perception was not always more technologically advanced thanks to American support) and an electronic and commercial based economy that has allowed her to defeat Arab armies that have enjoyed superior strength as well as Arab economies with considerable oil wealth.  Likewise, despite having a bigger population, and more resources than the U.S, the Soviet Union, thanks to her backwards policies, repression, and bureaucracy, was clearly defeated in the Cold War by American innovation and technological superiority.  The ease in which the U.S. won the “Gulf War” where an strongly equipped Soviet style Iraqi army was defeated by a technologically and better motivated Western army is perhaps the best example of how matched the two sides really were in the long run.

China admittedly has a better chance vs. the Soviet Union as she has adopted free market reforms and is less dogmatic when it comes to ideology, yet China’s police state which stifles innovation and open exchanges of ideas more so than liberal democracies, and her much lower GDP per capita vs. the U.S. suggests that in the long run she is at a disadvantage in winning the battle of history.

Frankly having such a massive population is probably a disadvantage given the logistical difficulties of feeding and supporting such a number of people, trying to appease so many of them via economic rewards, and the astounding environmental and health costs China’s industrial and economic progress have created.  For example, according to the Environmental Performance Index (basically a ranking of nations according to how well they manage environmental issues) in 2012 China scored poorly at 116 out of 132, while the U.S. Japan and Taiwan ranked 49, 23, and 29 respectively.  Likewise according to the World Bank in 2007 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in China.  Air pollution is among China’s worse health issues; last month in Beijing it reached a record level at 30-45 times the recommended safety level according to an index which measures particles of matter in the air.  In economic terms MIT estimated “that lost labour and health care costs associated with pollution cost the Chinese economy $112 billion in 2005.”  There is no reason to believe this has not gotten worse in the last 7 years.

Yet despite all the seemingly unfavorable geographic disadvantages China has there is no guarantee her rise to superpower status can be blocked.  Many of the same disadvantages effected Russia yet the Soviet Union became a superpower (at least in name) and if could be argued that her economic backwardness (something China does not suffer from) was the primary reason it ultimately collapsed.  Additionally many of the geographic disadvantages China have are political and could change over time.  For example, it is possible that China’s ever increasing economic dominance of Taiwan, South Korea, and many of her neighbors could eventually swing them into its orbit and away from America’s sphere of influence.

Indeed, a unification of China and Taiwan, and even the unification of Korea under Seoul’s control would arguably eliminate the need for the latter’s military resistance to Beijing (South Korea is more scared of North Korea and China is already her main trade partner).  Likewise other nations such as India, Vietnam, the countries in the “first Island Chain” and even Russia could eventually conclude that it is better to accommodate rather than resist Chinese hegemony in Asia, especially in the case of a weakening, or potentially isolationist, America.  However economic interdependence has not always stopped war as the relative globalization that occurred before 1914 did not prevent the world from plunging into war.  If something relatively minor like an assassination of a third rate power’s monarch could propel the world into war as it did in 1914 who is to say that something absurd like the saber rattling between China and Taiwan, or China and Japan could not someday lead to war.

This is why American steadfastly and commitment to her allies in the Pacific and East Asia is crucial.  Just as British control of the seas, and economic and military support of her European allies was necessary in deterring, and ultimately defeating Germany, American support of her Asian allies is necessary to contain Chinese dominance (militarily, economically, demographically, etc.).  Even if China becomes more powerful than America an alliance of U.S. and Asian allies could contain her.  Germany was easily more powerful than Britain in both World Wars, but thanks to her naval dominance, and Germany having to fight multiple allies on land and sea, Britain was victorious regardless.  No matter how powerful China gets, the Unites States and other powerful countries like India, Japan, and other nations can deter her (especially if they control the vital trade routes on land and at sea).

China is not blessed by geography, despite the size of its country, the length of her coast, her massive population and considerable resources.  China faces multiple rivals on land and sea, forcing her to dilute her military strength to combat countless potential scenarios.  China likely does not have the potential to address these multiple threats and achieve superpower status as long as the Americans maintain its commitments to her Asian allies or China’s neighbors do not feel as though they have no choice but to accommodate Chinese hegemony.  While China certainly has a lot of resources and population, she depends a lot upon imports (such as oil and coal) that can easily be cut off by sea via American and her allies naval power.  Additionally, China’s political geography, including a significant rural and urban split, potentially separatist minorities, and the ever increasing desire of her masses for economic prosperity and political reform threaten the Communist regime’s very survival.  Finally uncertain economic, environmental and health considerations pose many hurdles to Chinese ambitions.  A powerful China is not necessarily a grave threat to world peace or stability, but America and her Asian allies would be wise to contain her influence and deter her from excessive expansion (economic, demographic or military) to maintain the balance of power in Asia, if not the world.


Bernstein, Richard and Ross Munro.  The Coming Conflict with China.  New York:  Random House, 1998.

Corbett, Julian.  Principles of Maritime Strategy.  New York:  Dover Publications, 2004.

Herzog, Chaim.  The Arab-Israeli Wars.  London:  Greenhill Books, 2004.

Isaacs, Jeremy and Taylor Downing.  Cold War.  London:  Abacus, 2008.

Jaco, Charles.  The Gulf War.  Indianapolis:  Alpha Books, 2002.

Kaplan, Robert.  The Revenge of Geography.  New York:  Random House, 2012.

Lynch, Michael.  Modern China.  London:  Teach Yourself, 2006.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History:  1660-1788.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1987.

Paret, Peter.  Makers of Modern Strategy:  From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1986.

Rothenberg, Gunther.  The Napoleonic Wars.  London:  Cassell, 1999.

Article from “The Atlantic”:  Dependence on Middle Eastern Oil: Now It’s China’s Problem, Too by Damien Ma, July 2012.

Article from “China Daily”:  China’s coal imports to maintain growth in 2013 by Xinhua, December 2012.

Article from “Foreign Affairs”:  Broken BRICs by Ruchir Sharma, December 2012.

Article from “Green House”:  MIT: China’s pollution costs $112B in annual health care by  Wendy Koch, 2012.

Article from “Huffington Post”:  Beijing’s Air Pollution Steps Get Poor Reception Among Some In China’s Capital by Reuters, January 2013.

Article from “Insight”:  Innovation score and GDP per capita – 2011, May 2012.

Corruption Perception Index 2012.

Environmental Performance Index 2012.

Wikipedia article on “Coal in China”: [February, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “List of countries by GDP (PPP) per capita”:  [February, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “List of countries by military expenditures”: [January, 2013]

Wikipedia article on “Pollution in China”: [February, 2013]

A Brief History of the Gulf War

Posted By on November 22, 2012

In the summer of 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait.  Catching the rest of the world by surprise Saddam Hussein assumed the Americans and the West would accept his fait accompli and do nothing.  He was wrong.  Given Kuwait, and neighboring Saudi Arabia’s considerable oil reserves, and Saddam’s reputation as an unstable maverick, the U.S. decided to make a stand and fight for Kuwait.  In perhaps the most efficiently waged conventional war in military history the American-led Coalition decisively defeated the Iraqi army and drove it from Kuwait at negligible cost.  However, despite being victorious in the short term the long term effects of the “Gulf War” would ultimately prove much more calamitous for America and the West.

The origins of the “Gulf War” date back centuries in general, and the 1970s in particular.  Ever since Islam became a contending power in the region the area between Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and the heartland of Persia (modern Iran) has been an extremely volatile flashpoint.  The Ottoman Empire, and the Persian Empire (especially after the latter became dominated by Shiite ideology instead of the traditional Sunni Islamic doctrine) in particular saw each other as apostates and constantly sought each other’s destruction.  Even after centuries of Russian and British Imperialism, the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, and the creation of new nation states in the region after the “First World War” this seemingly intractable conflict passed on to Iraq and Iran with little respite.

The more immediate causes began in the 1970s when an increasingly powerful Shah of Iran, strongly backed by the Americans, forced a weaker Iraq to acquiesce in an unbalanced treaty to give Iran more influence on the Shatt al-Arab river, which serves as a de-facto Iranian-Iraqi border, to Iran (the British had previously negotiated a treaty favoring Iraq in this respect as Britain was traditionally the power broker in the region and Iraq had been her colony).  Saddam Hussein was the Iraqi Vice-President at this time and never forgot the humiliation this treaty reaped upon his country.  However Iran, with its ever growing military that was on the cusp of becoming the foremost military power in the region, was seen as too tough and the Iraqis felt as though they were not strong enough to challenge them.

The “Iranian revolution” of 1979 seemingly changed all of this.  The ever increasingly  fundamentalist, and anti-American tone of the revolution shut out U.S. military aid, neutralized the effectiveness of the Iranian Army (which had been pro-Monarchy) and encouraged the Iraqis to believe they could fight and win a short, decisive war, to their advantage and redraw the balance of power in the Gulf.  Additionally, the new leader in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, a power hungry fanatic who disguised his intentions to take over Iran posing as a moderate democrat, urged the Shiites in Iraq (who were both oppressed under Saddam and compromised the majority of Iraq’s population) to overthrow the Baathist regime in Iraq and even sponsored terrorist attacks encouraging them to do so.  While Saddam Hussein is rightly seen by history as a cruel, ruthless and cynical man who cared nothing about his own people there is little doubt that the new regime in Iran did much to provoke his wrath.

The resulting “Iran-Iraq War” was a lengthy, indecisive, and violent conflict.  Essentially, the Iraqis invaded Iran thinking they could easily occupy a few strategically important points, destroy the new theocratic regime in Iran, and become the new power brokers in the Gulf.  However, Iraq’s overconfidence proved to be a major error.  The Iranians rallied to defend their country, the new regime was bolstered, not shattered, and Iraq found itself bogged down in an attritional struggle its smaller population vs. Iran could not afford.  Eventually Iraq was pushed out of Iran and the Ayatollah decided to invade Iraq to destroy the secular Baathist regime and spread the Iranian revolution aboard.  However, like the Iraqi invasion of Iran, this was also a mistake, as the Iranian forces (with few tanks and artillery and based mostly on fanatical conscripts with little military training) were slaughtered using human wave tactics against a mostly modernized Iraqi army defending its own territory.

This farce continued for nearly 8 years until Iraq, backed by considerable international aid, sufficient military reforms, and the collapse of Iranian morale, counter-attacked and pushed the Iranians out of Iraq and accepted a cease fire that ended what was arguably the most pointless war in modern times.  In the end the butcher’s bill was nearly 1 mission casualties, cost Iran and Iraq together more than a trillion dollars, and resulted in no territorially, strategic, or economic gains for either side.

Iraq had won the conflict militarily, but economically the country was in ruins.  While Saddam Hussein felt as though he had been fighting for the rest of the Sunni world he was soon angry at what he felt was their ingratitude.  During the war Iraq had acquired considerable debt, mostly owed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  Despite the fact Iraq, in his view, had been fighting to stop the Iranians from spreading their revolution across the region Saudi Arabia and Kuwait felt little sympathy for Saddam Hussein, did little to ameliorate Iraq’s economic malaise, or ease up regarding the vast debt it owed them.  Even more insulting to Iraq was the Kuwaiti practice of slant drilling, which allowed Kuwait to drill for oil across the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.  Frustrated by these considerations Saddam Hussein met with Kuwaiti officials to try to help Iraq’s economic woes and stop Kuwait from stealing Iraqi oil.

The meeting did not go well and resulted in the catalyst which initiated the “Gulf War.”  While it appears that initially the Saudis and Kuwaitis were prepared to appease the Iraqis it seems that the Kuwaiti foreign minister had a change of heart and did not show much sympathy to the Iraqi position.  At one point one of the Kuwaiti diplomats implied that Iraqi women were whores.  This infuriated Saddam and within a few days he ordered the Iraqi Army to invade Kuwait.  As absurd as it sounds this fits perfectly well in a region that always seems to find extremely foolish reasons to go to war.  The false intelligence reports produced by the Russians that influenced the Arabs to provoke the Israelis in 1967, and Israel’s decision to bomb Lebanon, the 5th time in less than 30 years, after Hezbollah kidnapped 2 of its soldiers in 2006, are two notable examples of this irrational phenomenon.  It is very likely that Carl Von Clausewitz, the brilliant Prussian military theorist, would never have thought that policy makers were capable of such idiocy when he wrote that “war is nothing more than a continuation of politics by other means.”

Either way in early August 1990 the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait and secured the small kingdom with little difficulty.  The invasion took the region, the West, and the United States by surprise.  While some scholars suggest that the Americans should have had an inkling of what was going to happen because Saddam Hussein had recently been threatening and had used bellicose language towards Kuwait, and had recently met with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq to determine the American position regarding the political stand off between Kuwait and Iraq, no one in Washington D.C. expected the situation would escalate into war.  To be fair Arab leaders use bellicose language and threats all the time (usually to satisfy domestic opinion) and it almost exclusive never results in conflict or war.  Perhaps it is much safer to assume that much like Pearl Harbor, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and September the 11th, that America’s intelligence community failed to predict Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  Yet considering Saddam Hussein made the decision to invade Kuwait spontaneously it is perhaps unfair to seriously criticize America’s intelligence organizations.

Indeed, perhaps the best indication of Washington’s ignorance about the gathering storm in the Middle East was that the Elder Bush regime seemed oblivious and unsure of what to do in the aftermath of the fall of Kuwait.  In fact, it was arguably Margaret Thatcher, who apparently lectured Bush about the lessons of appeasement during the 1930s, and the Saudi King, who requested American ground troops to protect Saudi Arabia, that convinced George H. Bush to make a stand in the Gulf.

Interestingly, Osama Bin Laden had offered the Saudi King to raise 100,000 mujaheddin (holy warriors) to expel Saddam’s army from Kuwait.  While the King did not say why he refused Bin Laden’s offer it was probably because he assumed that bands of lightly armed fanatics would arguably not have done well fighting the strong conventional Iraqi Army in the largely open dessert that was Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia.  Considering a prior mujaheddin force had suffered disproportionately heavy casualties fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, a country well suited for Guerrilla warfare and terrorism, it is incomprehensible how Bin Laden thought he would do better in terrain that gave an indisputable advantage to the Iraqis.  In fact when asked by the Saudi defense minister what his holy warriors would do in the face of Iraq’s 4000 tanks, considerable artillery, Republican Guard divisions and stocks of biological and chemical weapons Bin Laden replied “we will defeat them with our faith.”  Perhaps there is a reason that the majority of respected military treatises are written by cynical atheists, and not idealistic zealots.

Either way, once the Saudi King requested American military aid, George H. Bush deployed advance forces to the Gulf and proceeded to amass a respectable international Coalition to isolate Saddam on the world stage, and prepare to liberate Kuwait by force if necessary.  The Coalition eventually amassed was an odd assortment of Western European and Asian democracies, traditional allies in the Middle East, a rogue Syria, and Canada.  Notably absent was the state of Israel, due to Arab hostility, perhaps illuminating how little strategic use the Jewish state gave the Americans in the post Cold War era.  Saddam Hussein for his part was left with diplomatic support from the Palestinians, as he had been a steady financier of their activities, and a reluctant Jordan as the majority of its population was Palestinian.

Perhaps most surprisingly was that the Soviet Union, which was in its dying days as a superpower, unexpectedly decided to remain neutral and did not back Iraq, which it, along with France, had done so much to build into the world’s 4th largest army.  Because of this, and probably because China was keen to repair its international reputation after the “Tiananmen square massacre,” there remained no country to veto the U.S. resolutions at the U.N. which brought together the Coalition and authorized the use of force to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

This was in contrast to the situation leading up to the “Iraqi War” a decade later when France and Russia conspired to prevent America from getting U.N. authorization to invade Iraq.  While with hindsight there is no doubt that America was incorrect, if not misleading, regarding its justification for going to war (as in Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and links to Al-Qaeda) both France and Russia’s motives were cynical and transparent as not only were they the two major countries who had armed Iraq during the 1980s, but also significant importers of Iraqi oil.  While America somehow gets the most censure for its limited support of Iraq during the “Iran-Iraq War” they had only provided 200 million dollars of military aid to Saddam vs. nearly 40 billion given by Russia and France.

Yet despite the building of such an impressive Coalition in 1990 the question remains as to why George H. Bush felt as though he had to go to war.  While the aforementioned reasons such as Margaret Thatcher and the King of Saudi Arabia’s appeals did much to motivate the President these were subsidiary considerations at best.  Clearly the Americans’ close connections with the Gulf countries, making of a clear example of Iraq to other rogues states, and liberating Kuwait from Saddam’s tyrannical rule, were also important factors, but there was another, arguably decisive, reason involved.  That reason was oil.

Roughly speaking, Iraq by itself controlled 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves, Kuwait another 10%.  Saudi Arabia, within reach of Iraq’s vastly superior army, had 20%!  America was, and still is, mostly non-dependent upon oil from the region, but the same could not be said about Japan or much of Europe.  If Saddam Hussein conquered Saudi Arabia he would control nearly 40% of the world’s proven oil reserves.  While this undoubtedly gives ammunition to the typically one sided types who think that America, Israel and the West are always the bad guys and lends some credence to slogans such as “no blood for oil,” it does not address the consideration that maybe a rogue state such as Iraq controlling such an important commodity is arguably not a good thing.

Even though it is not difficult to find dirt on any nation, democratic or despotic, Iraq especially deserved condemnation as a rogue state.  While most dictators in the Middle East do not shy away from blood letting, Saddam Hussein in particular was a very dangerous man.  His constant backing of Palestinian and other terrorist organizations, his brutal suppression of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, his invasions of Iran and Kuwait, and his use chemical weapons made him a pariah even among his repressive neighbors.  To suggest that the Americans should have done nothing and let such a state wield so much clout in an geopolitically crucial region is laughable at best, and foolish at worst.

Given the considerable stakes, and since Saddam Hussein was unwilling to backdown and lose face, it seems that with hindsight there was very little chance diplomacy could have averted war after Iraq had conquered Kuwait.  Nonetheless it would take the Coalition many months to complete its build up in Saudi Arabia and be ready to initiative offensive operations against Iraq, and in the meantime several initiatives were tried by the Soviets and the U.N. to attempt to solve the crisis peacefully.  Needless to say, all these initiatives failed and when Iraq failed to withdraw from Kuwait according to the deadline the U.N. and Coalition had set for January 15, 1990 the defensive deployment to Saudi Arabia, “Operation Desert Shield,” became “Operation Desert Storm,” the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait via offensive means.

On paper at least, the opposing sides did not seem as unbalanced as later events would prove.  Iraq supposedly had more men and tanks in the theatre of war and much of their artillery outgunned the Coalition’s.  Iraq was also thought to have an advantage in staying power as the Western Coalition members in particular were afraid of a long war and significant casualties.  Iraq also had eight years of recent combat experience fighting the Iranians while the Americans last major ground war had been 20 years earlier in Vietnam, which they had lost.  Most pundits, think tanks, and military experts predicted that the war would be long, bloody and attritional.  There were rumors that the Americans had shipped 100,000 body bags to the Gulf in the expectation of heavy casualties.

In fact Saddam Hussein’s plan, if it could be dignified as such, was essentially to stage a repeat of the strategy that defeated the United States in Vietnam; prolong the war, inflict significant U.S. casualties and wait until the American people tired of the conflict and forced its army to withdrew.  How he intended to wage such a war in a situation so different from Vietnam remains a mystery.  In Vietnam the terrain, rules of engagement, and faulty American military doctrine had prevented the U.S. from prevailing.  Essentially, the jungles of Vietnam were unsuited for the conventional oriented strategy of the U.S. army to find and destroy the opposing enemy, who were mostly, but not exclusively, insurgent forces that used Guerrilla Warfare to strike enemy weak points and then withdraw.  The rules of engagement were also a handicap to the Americans as the military was often prevented from using whatever force they felt necessary due to sensitive political considerations (such as limiting civilian casualties or the presence of Chinese and Soviet personnel in Vietnam).

What Saddam did not know, or ignored, was that the situation in Iraq and Kuwait was much more advantageous to the Americans than in Vietnam.  The terrain, mostly open desert, clearly favored the conventional doctrine of the U.S. army and the Coalition  commanders nearly had a freehand in using unlimited force to accomplish their goals.  While Iraq supposedly had some advantages in numbers and ability to stomach casualties, in reality they were completely outclassed by the Coalition.

In terms of leadership, training, doctrine, technology, firepower, communications, naval and Airpower the Coalition had an indisputable superiority via a vis the Iraqis.  Any advantage, real or imagined, that the Iraqis had in the coming conflict was quickly quashed by these factors.  While Saddam Hussein hoped to use his bulky military to prolong the war and destroy American political will, the Coalition planned to use their advantages in technology, communications, and mobility to quickly neutralize the Iraqi armed forces and force them from Kuwait.

Perhaps the two most important assets the Americans had during the conflict was in air power and net-centric warfare.  Air power, especially air supremacy, is a dominant consideration in conventional warfare and its impact on the “Gulf War” will be discussed shortly.  Net-centric warfare is less well known, but arguably as decisive.  It allows a major advantage to a combatant who has invested heavily in communications and information technology to allow an accurate picture of the battlefield, the quick dissemination of reliable intelligence to troops on the ground, and facilitates quick decision making among rank and file.  Put simply it lets the side with superior communications to make quicker, and more informed, decisions during war.  While not an example of net-centric warfare per se a good example was the “Battle of France” in 1940 when the Germans, who had radios in their tanks and aircraft, managed to efficiently coordinate their forces while the French, who had more forces in general, had few modern communications and conducted themselves in a mostly clumsy manner.

The American strategy during the “Gulf War” was in general reliant upon Airpower.  It consisted of two phases once “Operation Desert Storm” began.  The first phase, lasting 6 weeks, was a multi-layered aerial campaign designed, in general terms, to undermine Iraq’s ability to wage war.  During the second phase, lasting a mere 100 hours, Airpower was almost exclusively devoted to providing air support and interdiction during the ground war that decisively defeated the Iraqi army and liberated Kuwait.

The first phase in the aerial campaign had at least five major objectives.  These included:

1) Destroying or neutralizing the Iraqi Air Force and Iraq’s anti-aircraft capabilities to gain air-supremacy over the battlefield.

2) Disrupting the Iraqi military’s Command and Control capabilities to isolate the Iraqi troops from their leadership and prevent them from effectively coordinating their forces.

3) Eliminating Iraq’s existing or potential Weapons of Mass Destruction (besides his known stock of Biological or Chemical weapons, Saddam had a relatively advanced Nuclear Weapons program).

4) Taking out Saddam’s mobile Scud launchers.

5) Softening up Iraqi forces, physically and morally, prior to the ground campaign.

Obviously the success of the aerial campaign would depend upon whether or not Coalition air forces could accomplish the first objective.  While the Iraqi Air Force was modern and competent enough, having fought against Iran for 8 years, it was obviously not going to fare well against a Coalition of the foremost Western military powers endowed with the best available technology in aerial warfare.  After fighting a few futile battles against the Coalition the majority of the Iraq’s warplanes flew to Iran and other countries and stayed grounded for the remainder of the war.  When Saddam Hussein asked Iran to return the planes after the “Gulf War” the Iranians more or less responded by saying “give what back?”  Thanks to the mauling the Iraqi army suffered due to the conflict Saddam had little recourse against Iran but to brood.

Iraq’s anti-aircraft capability in SAMs (surface to air missiles) and AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) were, at least in theory, a more potent threat to Coalition warplanes.  Iraq had approximately 7000 AA Guns, 7000 radar guided missiles, and 9000 heat-seeking missiles, served by modern Soviet and French command and control systems and crews that had plenty of experience fighting what had initially been a superior Iranian Air Force during the “Iran-Iraq War.”

Unfortunately for the Iraqis, and arguably helped by Reagan’s massive defense spending during the ’80s, American Airpower, including its Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) capabilities, was vastly superior to the newest soviet technology.  The Iraqi radars could not track the new American stealth fighters and bombers, and their missiles and guns could do nothing to take out all the precision guided munitions that quickly crippled Iraq’s anti-aircraft system.  Within a few days the lion-share of the task was over and the Coalition was free to bomb the Iraqis anywhere with near impunity.  Often the warplanes employed jamming and spoofing techniques to neutralize Iraqi radars while other times warplanes simply flew above the effective range of much of the AAA and SAMs.  While the Coalition’s immediate success was seen as a military revolution by many, a few military experts who had remembered the Israeli air force’s brilliant victory over Syria’s SAMs in the Bekaa valley in 1982 (which had been the most dense deployment of the Soviet’s most modern anti-aircraft assets in any conflict during the “Cold War”) were hardly surprised.

The aerial campaign’s objective’s 2 and 5 were also extremely successful and were the result of good intelligence, first rate communications, and the application of overwhelming firepower.  Precision guided munitions, which comprised between 7.5 and 10% of aerial munitions during the war, were mostly used to take out smaller and more dangerous targets such as AA defenses, headquarters and communications centers while the majority of the rest of the more simplified iron bombs focused on large targets or significant concentrations of Iraqi forces (mostly tanks, APCs and artillery).  This part of the aerial campaign worked so well that Iraqi military communications were more or less cut, and Iraqi troops were so demoralized that they put up little resistance once the ground campaign began in late February.

Coalition efforts to take out Saddam’s scud launchers were less successful.  Thanks to their mobile nature, the practice of moving after every launch, and their haphazard deployment all across Iraq, Coalition warplanes found it difficult to find and destroy them.  While from a military and strategic point of view the scuds, few in number and notoriously inaccurate, were an inconvenience at best, from a political and diplomatic standpoint they potentially threatened the cohesion of the Coalition.  As stated above Israel was never invited to take part of the Coalition due to the fact that most of the Arab members loathed the Jewish state.  The Arab countries arguably hated Israel more than they did a rogue Iraq.  Saddam Hussein tried to exploit this by using his scud missiles to target Israel, hopefully provoking them to retaliate and thus somehow collapse the harmony of the Coalition.

Thanks to their inaccurate nature, and extensive Israeli precautions, the limited amount of scuds that hit Israel inflicted few casualties.  However, the Israelis, always keen to enact their long standing strategy of deterrence via overwhelming force, wanted to hit back hard.  Fortunately, President Bush promised the Israelis that hitting the scud launchers would become a top priority for the Coalition and despite the fact that postwar research revealed that not a single scud launcher was hit from the air there was probably enough air missions launched, as well as special forces devoted to finding them on the ground, to at least keep the scud launchers moving or hiding and thus decrease the amount of salvos they could shoot at the Jewish state.

The amount of sorties devoted to scud hunting was clearly regarded as controversial by the military establishment.  While some studies suggest that roughly 2500 air sorties (2% of all strikes) were devoted to the threat General Schwarzkopf, in his memoirs, suggested that anti-scud missions represented a third of all daily combat missions.  While it is hard to explain such a disproportionate difference in estimates, and while it is easy to criticize so many air sorties on missions that clearly did not succeed in hitting a single scud launcher, the political importance of maintaining the Coalition’s cohesion clearly justified such means.  Additionally, it is obvious that the considerable amount of scud missions did not significantly distract Coalition Airpower from completing its other missions.

The attempts to seriously destroy Iraq’s WMD capabilities were also limited.  This was mostly the result of the countless wide ranging facilities across Iraq, the continual movement of WMD assets across the country, and the limited intelligence available to the Coalition.  While considerable damage was done, and much of its existing stocks of biological and chemical weapons were eliminated, Iraq still had considerable amounts left, as well as the continued ability to create them at the end hostilities.  Likewise, as the Gulf War Air Power Survey noted a few years after the war, Iraq’s Nuclear Program was only delayed, not halted, by the considerable efforts of Coalition warplanes.  Fortunately, and despite all the bureaucratic interference and Iraqi intransigence, it would appear that U.N. inspectors after the war ultimately succeeded in neutralizing Saddam Hussein’s WMD capacities.  Had this been confirmed prior to 2003 and had Saddam Hussein been more cooperative there is a good chance the subsequent invasion of Iraq would never had occurred.

Other targets of the air campaign included power plants, oil targets, infrastructure and interdiction.  In general the point of these strikes were to cripple Iraq’s ability to wage war, isolate the Iraqi army from supply, and prevent them for escaping encirclement and destruction once the ground campaign commenced.  While these efforts seriously inconvenienced the Iraqi war effort, resulted in many shortages for the Iraqi army, and helped produce the rout of Iraqi forces during the ground campaign, in the event the annihilation of the Iraqi army would prove to be elusive.

As for how many Iraqi tanks, armored vehicles, artillery pieces and men were neutralized during the air campaign this depends upon what criteria is used to measure its effectiveness.  While sources vary perhaps a good indicator, according to the Gulf War Air Power Survey previously cited, could be gleamed from the observation of a sample of Iraqi tanks found that had been either destroyed or abandoned during the conflict.  Of the supposed 2633 Iraqi tanks that had been neutralized during the conflict observers collected extensive data regarding 163 of them and noted a few interesting findings.  Of these tanks perhaps 10-20% of the had been hit by air munitions, 30% by ground forces or artillery, and almost half had not been hit at all.  This means that not only had the ground campaign damaged or destroyed more tanks than airpower, but that much of the time the Iraqi tank crews had fled instead of fighting.  Even though this data was collected from a small sample of the total tanks neutralized, it seems to make sense considering that as soon as the ground conflict began most Iraqi troops either surrendered or fled, rather than stand and fight.

While the small number of tanks destroyed or hit by air munitions almost seems to suggest that Airpower was not as decisive in the conflict as is generally thought, it should be noted that it was because of the awesome display of Coalition air power that Iraqi crews abandoned their tanks and Iraqi soldiers surrendered, or fled, in droves.  The Iraqis quickly discovered that they were outgunned and that their tanks and vehicles were being targeted more extensively than they were and thus they often wisely abandoned them.  War is based just as much (in fact often more) on psychological as material factors, and these abandoned Iraqi vehicles were clearly victims, directly or not, of Coalition air power.

This was not without precedent as the same phenomenon was observed during the “Six Day War” in 1967.  While most accounts of that war give disproportionate credit to the IAF (Israeli Air Force) the Israeli ground forces destroyed more tanks and armored vehicles.  As in the gulf conflict the IAF destroyed or damaged a small amount of such vehicles, but its psychological effect helped to decisively rout the Arabs and allowed the Israelis to capture scores of Arab armored vehicles intact.

As soon as the air campaign had mostly completed its objectives by late February, Coalition air power was re-directed towards supporting ground forces attacking the Iraqi army and liberating Kuwait.  The plan for the ground campaign was devised by General Norman Schwarzkopf, the defacto commander of Coalition forces, and was loosely based on Hannibal’s perfect victory over Roman forces at Cannae in 216 BC.  Essentially the Iraqis were fooled into believing the main attack would be a frontal assault against the Saddam line (which stretched from the Kuwaiti coast, to along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border and then covered some distance along the Saudi-Iraqi border as well) supported by an amphibious assault near Kuwait city.  The Coalition accomplished this feat by an electronic deception campaign which convinced the Iraqis that the majority of Coalition forces were in the east of the frontier and by the 17,000 U.S. marines that were openly practicing amphibious assaults in the Gulf.

While Iraqi attention was focused on the Kuwaiti coast and the Saddam line the strongest parts of the Coalition, including the French and British contingents and best U.S. armored forces, were stationed far to the West.  Their objective was to sweep around the Saddam line, engage and destroy the Iraqi army (especially the strong republican guard divisions) in Kuwait and southern Iraq, and then liberate Kuwait.  These forces were only supposed to commence their advance a few days after the Coalition forces assaulting the Saddam line had pinned the Iraqis to the front so that the forces in the West had a better chance of encircling the Iraqi army from behind.  It was hoped that with such a coup de main and Coalition air power having softened up the Iraq army that the ground campaign would be relatively brief (General Schwarzkopf estimated it would take 3 weeks).

It may seem incredible that the Iraqis did not consider that the Coalition would try to outflank the Saddam Line, but the deception campaign, lack of knowledge about GPS (which helped the Coalition navigate the desert) and the typical inclination of dictators to believe they are infallible probably explains this gross miscalculation.  Besides, military history is full of examples of countries over-relying on defensive lines that can easily be outflanked from the Maginot Line in France to even the Great Wall of China.

The ground campaign began on February 24th 1991, was concluded in 100 hours, and can be described briefly.  As stated above the plan was for Arab and U.S. Coalition forces in the East to assault the Saddam line to distract the Iraqi army so that the stronger part of the Coalition forces to the West could encircle it from behind.  Yet ironically, thanks to the comprehensive aerial campaign the Iraqi troops were thoroughly demoralized and surrendered in droves as the Coalition forces in the East began their advance.  In fact, concerned that the Iraqi army would begin retreating before he delivered his coup de grace from the West, General Schwarzkopf ordered his left hook to advance much sooner than he had anticipated.  The result was predictable as the Iraqis, already demoralized and surprised by the unexpected Coalition advance to outflank the Saddam line, were quickly routed and unceremoniously began to retreat.  Whenever the odd pitched battle occurred, such as the “Battle of 73 Eastings,” it was one-sided and quickly won by the better trained, and equipped, Coalition forces.  Even the much feared Iraqi Republican Guard turned out to be a paper tiger.

While there are many factors that help explain why Coalition forces achieved such a decisive victory against the Iraqi army at such small cost perhaps the relative imbalance regarding their respective armored forces is illuminating.  The Coalition had superior tanks with better trained crews.  They had first rate intelligence thanks to GPS and their satellites (which meant they knew where to find the Iraqi tanks), could shoot at three times the Iraqi tanks’ range, had better munitions to penetrate enemy armor, and had thermal and laser sights (which the Iraqis did not) which greatly increased accuracy.  This along with air supremacy and the demoralization of Iraqi forces prior to the ground campaign, was decisive.  These same considerations, the Coalition’s advantages in training, equipment and technology, arguably applied in every other consideration during the “Gulf War,” and one can only wonder how Saddam Hussein thought he had a chance in hell of holding out against such disproportionate odds.

An interesting factor regarding the ground campaign was how little ground forces had to rely upon air power to defeat Iraqi forces.  Much of the Iraqi army surrendered or fled, and the Coalition usually defeated resisting elements with tanks, artillery, MRLSs  (Mobile Rocket Launch System) and infantry.  While admittedly the ground forces obviously had a relatively easy task, mostly thanks to the overwhelming and demoralizing air campaign, Coalition forces still participated in a few pitched battles, especially with Saddam’s Republican Guard divisions.  In these encounters the Coalition ground forces dominated these lopsided engagements, thanks to the factors mentioned above, and often required little air support.  In the end, while air power gets credit for thoroughly demoralizing the Iraqi army and reducing its ability to resist, the Coalition ground forces destroyed more tanks, vehicles and men.

The lesson here is not that one of the two branches is better or more effective than the other, but that both are necessary to succeed in warfare.  This lesson was seemingly lost in the “Kosovo War” in 1999 and the “Second Lebanon War” in 2006.  In the Kosovo conflict Airpower, much like during the “Gulf War,” destroyed relatively few tanks, APCs or artillery and whatever psychological effect it created was limited by the severe restraints placed upon its use by political considerations and the lack of ground forces to threaten Serbia.  In fact, many commentators have suggested that the withdrawal of Russian diplomatic support for Serbia, not NATO’s military efforts, was the decisive factor that ended the conflict.  Likewise, in 2006 the first rate IAF failed to destroy Hezbollah, let alone destroy or neutralize its ability to launch rockets at Israel, without ground forces putting pressure on them or overrunning its launch sites.

The quick time it took the Coalition to accomplish its objectives (100 hours vs. Schwarzkopf’s initial estimate of 3 weeks), along with the lopsided casualty ratios, illustrate how much of a cakewalk the “Gulf War” really was.  Estimates for Coalition casualties are easy to determine due to far fewer losses, better records, and the fact most of its members were liberal democracies.

Coalition military casualties numbered roughly 500 dead and 800 wounded.  Of this around 200 were killed in action, while nearly 300 were the result of accidents and friendly fire.  Most of the casualties were American due to the fact the lion share of all forces, ground, naval and air, were from the United States.  At least 1000 Kuwaitis were killed during the Iraqi occupation while Israel, which was not part of the Coalition, lost a handful of civilians due to Saddam’s scud attacks.  As for equipment the Coalition lost few armored vehicles and 67 aircraft.  This was not a significant number due to the fact the Coalition had 1800 warplanes and launched 111,000 air sorties during the war.  To put it in perspective this represented a mere 3% of all deployed warplanes, or the equivalent of losing 1 plane per 1650 sorties (these loss rates were much more favorable compared to American aerial losses in “World War 2,” Korea, and Vietnam).

Iraqi casualties are more difficult to ascertain due to their greater losses, the paranoid nature of the former Baathist regime, and the controversy regarding how many deaths the war cost Iraq in the long term.  As for casualties caused directly by the war estimates have varied from 8,000-150,000 soldiers and between 2300-3500 civilians killed (not including wounded).  A more certain figure was the roughly 86000 Iraqi soldiers who were taken prisoner.

It is likely that military casualties were in the lower range of estimates, no more than 20,000 at most.  While air power and the ground war did cause massive destruction it was not as overwhelming as is usually thought.  As noted above, out of a sample of 160 Iraqi tanks the Coalition found that were neutralized only 10-20% were hit from the air, 30% from ground forces, and almost half were simply abandoned.  While such percentages probably fluctuated dependent upon where Iraqi equipment was stationed, and to the degree of the effectiveness, and amount of, firepower devoted to neutralizing it, as an average standard it mimics similar statistics from conventional warfare in the 20th century.  Not only were much less tanks and armored vehicles hit than originally thought, but it turns out that the Iraqis quickly distanced themselves from them once they realized the Coalition were more interested in hitting these vehicles than attacking soldiers on the ground.  Most Iraqi soldiers were spread out over long distances, entrenched in the desert, and were usually not actively targeted until the ground war, which lasted only 100 hours.  Most of them either deserted before the ground campaign, or fled or surrendered once it began.

As for how much Iraqi equipment was destroyed these numbers are difficult to cite with certainty as well.  The generally cited figures suggest that Iraq deployed to the Kuwaiti theatre of operations roughly 4300 tanks, 2900 armored vehicles and 3100 artillery pieces while the Coalition had fewer tanks, but more armored vehicles and slightly more artillery.  In the air it was very lopsided as an estimated 700 Iraqi planes faced at least 1800 Coalition planes.  But of course the Coalition’s real advantages were in technology, training, firepower and communications.

Most estimates suggest that somewhere between 2500-4000 tanks, 1800-2400 armored vehicles and 2100-2600 artillery pieces were destroyed or captured by Coalition forces.  These varying figures are even more complicated by the controversy as to how many were neutralized by air power vs. ground forces.  If the rough estimates cited by the gulf air survey cited above are correct, then perhaps 40-50% (10-20% by air power, 30% via ground forces) of Iraqi tank losses were due to enemy fire while 50-60% were abandoned by their crews.  It is likely, though not definitely, that the same percentage could apply to armored fighting vehicles.  Of course it is implied that the demoralizing effect of the air campaign did much to motivate the Iraqis to abandon their equipment.  However, in the case of artillery, the most feared and respected Iraqi combat arm, it would appear that counter fire from Coalition ground forces neutralized a significantly higher percentage than air power.  This was due to the significant threat it posed to Coalition ground forces and the fact that once the Iraqis had warmed up their artillery batteries and fired, the Coalition’s sophisticated radar systems pinpointed and neutralized the majority of them with artillery and MLRSs.  As for the Iraqi air force, as stated above it fought for a few days and then flew most its plane to Iran and other countries, never to return.

However, despite the admittedly unsatisfactory estimates regarding Iraqi troop and equipment losses the results of the military contest were unequivocal.  Kuwait was liberated with ease, Iraqi forces surrendered en masse or fled in an disorganized rout, and Saddam’s army was forever destroyed as an effective fighting force.

Once the Iraqis began their retreat from Kuwait, though not before setting Kuwait’s oil wells on fire, they quickly became bottlenecked on the highway from Kuwait City to Basra.  However, besides their own forces the Iraqis also withdrew from Kuwaiti with as much loot as they could bring with them in a fleet of busses, cars and every other imaginable vehicles available.  This was the last act in a systematic Iraqi campaign to steal anything of valuable in Kuwait that was not bolted down enacted since Saddam’s army invaded in the summer of 1990.  The American brass, infected with Clausewitzian doctrine that emphasized that “next to victory the act of pursuit is most important in war,” acted decisively as soon as they noticed the Iraqi bottleneck on the highway.

In a typical tactic used to ambush enemy convoys from Vietnam to Chechnya American warplanes first bombed the front and rear of the Iraqi column, and then indiscriminately strafed the column end to end.  Despite the postwar outrage regarding what was unequivocally a legitimate act of war, there were relatively few casualties, civilian or military, as most of those stuck on what was later named “the highway of death,” wisely abandoned their vehicles and fled into the desert.  However, the potential political implications of the incident did much to quickly end combat operations in the Gulf.  This was where the supposedly clean part of the “Gulf War” ends and all the messy and unresolved issues of the conflict began.

While the original goal of the Coalition, the liberation of Kuwait with minimal casualties, had been accomplished with surprising ease, many Coalition (especially American) soldiers wanted to up the ante by toppling the rotten regime in Baghdad as well.  This should not have come as a surprise to many as George H. Bush had called upon the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein.  Unfortunately this was a mostly cynical decision on the part of the U.S. administration, as future events would subsequently confirm, considering neither the Americans, or anyone else in the Coalition, made serious efforts to aid the Iraqi people to do so.

Why the Coalition never made serious plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein, yet encouraged the Iraqi people to launch an insurrection without the intent to provide significant assistance to them is one of the mysteries of the “Gulf War.”  Firstly, it should be pointed out that neither the Americans, the Coalition, or the U.N. ever seriously considered, let alone planned, to invade and occupy Iraq, once the liberation of Kuwait had been completed.  The Americans were not keen on occupying a foreign country as memories of the protracted and bloody conflict in Vietnam were still recent.  The Coalition, particularly the Arab members, were also horrified at the prospect of Western and American troops occupying one of their neighbors considering the region had thrown off the cuffs of Western imperialism a mere generation ago.  Finally, the U.N. and all of its bleeding heart apologists would never have sanctioned any operation such as the occupation of Iraq without U.N. authorization.  While countless people since, including those for and against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, argue that the Coalition should have invaded Iraq back in 1991 the truth is that there was almost no political will back then to do so, and that included most of them at the time as well.

The decision not to back the Shiites and Kurds against Saddam Hussein once they took up arms was also likely a result of lack of contingency planning and political will on the Coalition and U.N.’s part.  Most likely President Bush and his commanders encouraged the Iraqis to revolt in the hopes that either a regime change in Baghdad would make a ground campaign to liberate Kuwait unnecessary, or at least force the Iraqi army to fight on several fronts and dilute the forces opposing them in Kuwait and southern Iraq.  In other words, the Coalition’s pleas for the Iraqi people to rebel against Saddam was arguably primarily motivated by a desire to ease the liberation of Kuwait, not to free Iraq from tyranny.  As soon as Coalition forces had freed Kuwait their main rationale for advocating open rebellion against the Baathist regime in Baghdad became redundant and thus their support for the Iraqi people abruptly stopped.

Whether of not Bush knew that the Shiites in the South, or the Kurds in the North, would rise against Saddam is unimportant; the results are well known.  Without foreign assistance, and thanks to an important miscalculation in the ceasefire agreement that allowed the Iraqis to continue to operate their helicopters in the war zone, the Iraqi army quickly quashed the rebellion in the South and nearly destroyed the one in the North.  While it had proven itself to be unable to wage modern warfare, the Iraqi army still had decades of experience of systemically oppressing its own people.

After all the high minded rhetoric Bush had used to justify the conflict in the Gulf, the passive stance of Coalition forces in the face of Saddam slaughtering his own people disgusted public opinion in the West.  Because of this the Americans belatedly created a no fly zone in North and South Iraq and prevented the Iraqi army from quashing the Kurds just in time.  While Saddam Hussein had more or less been de-clawed, the episode cast a dark shadow over what had up to then been an unequivocal decisive Coalition victory.

Having survived the war and subsequent insurrection, more thanks to American discretion than to his own prowess, Saddam Hussein claimed victory.  This is a typical stratagem used in a region full of militaries that are more designed to keep rulers in power than fight wars, and half baked insurgencies and terrorist networks, most of which have failed abysmally to accomplish their goals.  From the combined Arab armies failing to crush Israel in 1948, to the disaster of the “Six Day War” in 1967, from the multi-hood of terrorist organizations dedicated to eradicating Israel, to the “Iran-Iraq” war which caused a million casualties for no purpose, there has never been so many “victories” for so little gain.  Yet perception is important in the Middle East, and Saddam Hussein would prove to be a considerable inconvenience to the West during the next decade.

Perhaps of graver consequence is that it is not hard to draw a line from the “Gulf War,” to 9/11 and the “Iraq War.”  While the “Gulf War” did not guarantee these later events would happen, it is safe to say they would not have occurred without it.  Osama Bin Laden’s decision to wage holy war against the United States was a direct result of Americans troops being stationed in Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Mecca and Medina (Islam’s most important cities).  While Bin Laden hypocritically accepted U.S. military aid to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, he was obviously less grateful that the Americans had saved Saudi Arabia, his own country, from the grip of Saddam Hussein.

Encouraged by the Mujaheddin’s success in Afghanistan against the Soviets and U.S. withdrawals from the region such as from Lebanon after the “Barracks bombing” in 1983 and Somalia after the “Battle of Mogadishu” in 1993, Osama Bin Laden was convinced he could slowly bleed the Americans until they lost political will and left the region for good.  The next decade would witness an escalation of Al-Qaida attacks against U.S. interests, from the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, the attack on the USS Cole off Yemen in 2000 and finally to the deadly attacks on September 11, 2011.

The “Iraq War” originated from the end of the Gulf conflict.  The decisions not to overthrow Saddam Hussein, to refrain from helping the Shiites and Kurds, and to impose sanctions and no-fly zones on Iraq left an ugly, and unsolved situation, at the heart of the Middle East.  Iraq’s substantial remaining weapons of mass destruction were clearly a concern as he had not only used his chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iranians but had also been a few years away from acquiring nuclear weapons on the eve of the “Gulf War.”  However, with hindsight, and as stated above it would appear that despite the relatively long and toothless implementation of 17 U.N. resolutions Iraq’s WMD capabilities were eventually neutralized.

Yet despite this, and the fact that supposed Iraqi connections to Al-Qaida were unequivocally false in lieu of the American invasion in 2003, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein’s regime remained an untrustworthy rogue state.  Saddam’s efforts to give sanctuary to those responsible for the first “World Trade Center bombing in 1993,” his continuation of building lavish palaces for himself while his people starved and his support of terrorist organizations all suggest he was not keen on trying improve the reputation of his country.  While none of this suggests that America had indisputable justification for going to war against Iraq in 2003, Saddam and his rotten Baathist regime undoubtedly deserved their fate to be consigned to the ash-bin of history.

Another consequence of the Gulf conflict was to further convince the Arabs and Iranians  the futility of engaging the Americans and Israelis in direct conventional warfare.  With the exception of two instances, the recent history of conventionally warfare between the Arabs and Westernized forces has been a catalogue of unequivocal Arab defeats.  Only Jordan’s seizure and retention of the West Bank in the 1948 conflict, and Egypt’s initial efforts during the “Yom Kippur War” in 1973, were clear successes, and even then they did not win their respective wars.  Barry Rubin, in an excellent study on modern conflicts in the region has noted that the same qualities that allow Arab militaries to keep their political leaders in power (promotion based on loyalty rather than competence, the creation of competing rather than collaborative structures in the forces, and encouraging subordinates to be suspicious instead of trusting of each other) have an extremely debilitating effect on their performance when engaging in conventional warfare.

However, in the same study he notes that the Arabs are also very adept, at least at the tactical level, regarding irregular conflict such as guerrilla warfare and terrorism.  He stresses tactical level because despite Arab prowess at irregular warfare the majority of insurgent and terrorist causes in the region, much like in the rest of the world, have failed to accomplish their goals.  Of the few victories, mostly against occupation by colonial or foreign powers, it has always been the result of the occupying force losing political resolve, rather than suffering military defeat at the hands of the insurgents.  While it could be argued that the insurgencies were often the major cause of the occupiers losing their resolve there is an important lesson here.

The main point is that in most situations where the insurgents won the other side typically has not faced annihilation, or even risked major interests during such conflicts.  Russia in Afghanistan, France in Algeria, and Israel in Lebanon all withdrew in good order, not having been defeated on the battlefield, and certainly did not lose much when they left.  Arab insurgencies and terrorist organization such as Al-Qaida, Hamas, Fatah, and the Muslim Brotherhood have had less success against despotic regimes and Israel that were fighting for their survival and have had no where to go.

Due to the fact the Arabs have been unsuccessful in conventional warfare at the tactical level, and irregular warfare at the strategic level, they have adapted, at least in Hezbollah and Hamas’ cases by imitating a stratagem used by Saddam Hussein during the “Gulf War.”  One of the few Iraqi successes during the conflict was the inability of the Coalition planes to find and destroy Saddam’s mobile scud launchers.  While the scuds were faulty in a conventional warfare setting due to their notorious inaccuracy, its random trajectory was actually an asset in the use of terrorizing civilians.  In fact the Iraqis had used scuds as such in the “Iran-Iraq War” and had killed 1000s of Iranians in Tehran and other cities.  They were perfect weapons for terrorist organizations.

The modern origins for such tactics originate from the V-1s and V-2s during “World War 2.”  Like scud missiles they were tactically and strategically ineffective yet caused considerable civilian casualties and forced the British to invest disproportionate resources to combat them.  Much like the Coalition in the “Gulf War” and the Israelis in 2006, the British tried to solve the problem via Airpower, but the mobile nature of the V-1s and V-2s made them hard to find, let alone, destroy.  However, unlike those previous conflicts “World War 2″ was an all out war and the British ultimately did what was necessary and used troops to overrun the launch sites and thus pushed the German weapons out of range of England, defeating their purpose.  This lesson, the necessity of ground troops to overrun hostile launch sites to effectively neutralize such irregular weapons as hastily assembled mobile rocket or missile weapons of terror was lost on the Coalition in 1991 and the Israelis in 2006.

However, the Israelis clearly got the point and during the “Gaza War” in 2009 they used ground troops to occupy much of the launching points of such weapons and severely constricted Hamas’s capabilities to terrorize Israel.  Yet, despite the failure of insurgent and terrorist organizations to change the political landscape of the region in their favor, they are extremely resilient and adaptive, and as long as they, or the conditions that facilitated their existence, exist, the cycle of violence and instability will continue.

Yet despite all of the negative consequences of the “Gulf War” it would be wrong to suggest that it was an unjust, or even futile, conflict.  The Coalition clearly accomplished its stated aim by Liberating Kuwait.  Those who feel as though it was wrong to push Saddam’s forces from Kuwait should ask the Kuwaitis if they preferred the rule of their monarchy or Iraqi jackboots.  While Kuwait is not a liberal democracy, it is relatively stable, prosperous and safe compared to most countries outside of the United States and Western Europe.

However Kuwait did tarnish its reputation after the war when it deported an estimated 450,000 Palestinians from the country in revenge for the P.L.O.’s support for Saddam Hussein during the conflict.  This act provoked little media attention or public outcry but was another example of how the Arab world treats the Palestinians no better than the Israelis.  Yet this should come as no surprise as most of the people who demonize Israel in the West are generally ignorant regarding, or simply do no care about, the countless unjust things the Arab countries have done to the Palestinians over the years.

Despite this tragedy the American military won a quick and decisive victory which repaired its tarnished reputation from Vietnam and allowed it to regain its confidence.  This, along with the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of year, left America the world’s sole superpower and confirmed the victory of democracy and capitalism vs. communism.  While undoubtedly the Americans and the West have done many immoral things in the name of expediency there is no doubt that their victory was preferable to a communist one.

A simple look at some statistics should confirm this.  Whatever crimes, real or imagined, the Americans committed in Korea, Vietnam or Central America they are far from the scale of Stalin killing 14 million of his own people, Mao killing tens of millions of his own, Pol Pot 2 million of Cambodia’s mere 7 million, and the mass starvation and deprivation of the Orwellian regime in North Korea.  Another good indicator, besides death counts, would be emigration patterns.  During the “Cold War” many more people fled from communist countries to the West than vice versa.  In Vietnam 1 million people fled the South after the division of the country in two in 1954 and another 2 million fled from the South after its conquest by North Vietnam in 1975.  In Berlin, so many people left the Soviets had to construct a wall to keep people in.  Two million people even fled from Cuba, supposedly the model communist country (how many Americans do you see floating on rafts to get to Havana?).  To suggest that the Communists had right on their side during the “Cold War” is blatantly naive.

Additionally, while the ill effects of “the Gulf War” are known it is worth speculating what would have happened if the Americans, and the Coalition, had done nothing.  As difficult as it is to imagine what if history, the likely results would not have made for a more peaceful, or stable, world.  Firstly, Saddam Hussein would have been in control of at least 20% of the world’s proven oil reserves, and without American protection, could have easily overran Saudi Arabia and conquered another 20%.  While there is no way to know whether or not he would have invaded Saudi Arabia, if he had never been punished for invading Iran or Kuwait there would have been little reason for him to expect that further bellicose actions would have been resisted.  Just as Hitler in the 1930s, appeasement would never have constrained Saddam Hussein.  It is possible that without American intervention that Bin Laden would have eventually launched a holy war against Iraqi troops in Kuwait, instigating a brutal conflict, a sharp rise in the price of oil, and perhaps even an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia.  As unlikely as this scenario seems, it had no chance of happening as soon as the Americans guaranteed to protect Saudi Arabia.

Finally, without the “Gulf War” and subsequently U.N. inspectors scouring Iraq Saddam Hussein would probably have finished his nuclear program during the 1990s and acquired nuclear weapons.  Given that Iraq was a rogue states, had invaded two countries that posed no real threat to her, had launched scuds against 2 more, was a well known sponsor of terrorism, and had even used chemical weapons, its entry into the nuclear club would hardly have been reassuring to the relatively peaceful status quo during the 1990s.  No matter how bad the negative effects of the “Gulf War” were there is no doubt that a nuclear armed Iraq, threatening the majority of the world’s proven oil reserves, would have been a much worse alternative.

The “Gulf War” was an awesome display of American military and diplomatic strength.  Despite fears of significant casualties the U.S. led Coalition drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait after a quick campaign with little loss.  Iraq was neutralized as a major threat to the region and to the world’s major oil reserves.  However, the long term effects of the conflict paved the way towards 9/11, the “Iraq War” and further asymmetrical fighting between conventional Westernized forces and Arab insurgent and terrorist groups.  While the Coalition was right, both geopolitically and morally, to liberate Kuwait, and while it would be wrong to blame all of the subsequent rise in violence between Islamic groups and the West solely on the conflict in the gulf, there can be no question that the “Gulf War” was the prologue to the “war on terror.”


Cohen, Elliot and Thomas Keaney.  Gulf War Air Power Survey Summary Report.  Washington D.C:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.

Creveld, Martin Van.  The Age of Airpower.  New York:  Public Affairs Books, 2011.

Jaco, Charles.  The Gulf War.  Indianapolis:  Alpha Books, 2002.

Keegan, John.  The Iraq War.  Toronto:  Key Porter Books, 2004.

Lewis, Jon.  The Mammoth Book of Battles.  London:  Robinson Publishing, 2000.

Rubin, Barry.  Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East.  New York:  Routledge, 2009.

Scales, Robert.  Firepower in Limited War.  Novato:  Presidio Press, 1995.

Schott, Ian.  World Famous Battles.  London:  Magpie Books, 2004.

Shlaim, Avi.  War and Peace in the Middle East.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1995.

Wragg, David.  Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory.  Phoenix Mill:  Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Article from “Global Security”:  Baath Ground Forces Equipment by John Pike, September 2011.

Article from “Routledge”:  Air Power in the Six-Day War by Kenneth Pollack, June 2005.

Website on the “Gulf War”:  1991 Persian Gulf War unofficial war summary page, November 2012.

Wikipedia article on the “Gulf War”: [November, 2012]


Why the Italian Campaign during the Second World War was Justified

Posted By on September 16, 2012

Among the many controversial operations launched during the “Second World War” the invasion of Italy is among the most debated.  While Winston Churchill touted the Mediterranean as the “soft underbelly of Europe” the Italian campaign ultimately cost the allies more casualties than the Germans for what were arguably few obvious results.  However, the much maligned Italian campaign was probably the best the Western allies could have done in 1943 and produced more benefits than has generally been recognized.

It is difficult to articulate what the allies could have done in the summer of 1943 that would have done more to damage the Axis war effort than invading Italy.  The supposedly obvious answer would be a cross channel invasion of France that would have taken off pressure from Soviet forces fighting on the Eastern front and shortened the length of the war.  While supporters of this view usually cite the fact that Germany had fewer divisions in France in the summer of 1943 than when the allies actually invaded in 1944, they ignore more important considerations.

These considerations include that the allies had only just gained the advantage in the “Battle of the Atlantic,” during the summer of 1943 which was necessary to keep Britain in the war, and build up sufficient U.S. forces in Europe, let alone launch such an ambitious invasion.  In fact, the turning point for the allies in the Atlantic came only in May following a disastrous period where the Germans had been sinking ships at a faster rate than at any other time in the war.  May was also the month the considerable German and Italian forces in North Africa were forced to surrender and it would arguably have been difficult, if not impossible, to transport significant forces from the Mediterranean to Britain and launch an invasion of France in the summer of 1943 as the allies were just starting to recover from the shipping losses of the previous five months.

Additionally, the allies had yet to gain air supremacy over France, in order to dominate the air space over the invasion area and interdict enemy forces trying to reinforce the German army in Normandy.  While the allies certainly had air superiority (as in they had more warplanes than the Germans) they did not have aerial supremacy which meant they could fly anywhere, or bomb anything, at will.  For example, while the Germans always had aerial superiority over the R.A.F. during the “Battle of Britain,” they never wore down the R.A.F. to achieve air supremacy to allow them to mount an invasion of Britain.  While it is plausible the allies may have had enough planes to cover an invasion of France in 1943 it would have been in the face of a still relatively strong Luftwaffe.  This means that the allies would have been forced to spend much more effort defending the landings, and escorting their bombers, and less emphasis on ground support and interdiction, both of which were crucial in the “Battle of Normandy.” Thanks to the allied aerial supremacy in 1944 they could accomplish all these tasks rather simply, but it would have been extremely difficult in 1943. 

It should be kept in mind that the U.S. bombing offensive against Germany was ultimately unsuccessful in 1943 and therefore would not have been very effective during the summer at destroying German communications such as railroads, marshaling yards, tunnels and bridges that did much to isolate the German army in Normandy from sufficient reinforcements the following year.  Only the introduction of fuel tanks and better aircraft gave the U.S. air force the edge over the Luftwaffe to wear it down in the spring of 1944.

Add this to the facts that the allies did not have overwhelming forces in England to land in Normandy, the shortage of landing craft in the European theatre (which was barely addressed in time in 1944), and that the allies did not even have an agreed upon invasion plan until late 1943, it is hard to see how a cross channel invasion in 1943 would have succeeded.  There is also the point that the allies had not sufficiently mastered amphibious warfare by the summer of 1943 as seen by the near disasters at Anzio and Tarawa that occurred after that period.  Pundits who cite the fact that the Allies landed more troops the first day on Sicily than Normandy conveniently ignore that there were no serious fortifications on the southern Sicilian coast and that the landings were virtually unopposed.  Even when all these conditions had been rectified in the summer of 1944 the invasion of Normandy could arguably have failed, or at least been much more bloody, had the Germans not have been so thoroughly deceived by the massive disinformation campaign launched by the allies that convinced them to concentrate most of their forces in France around Calais instead of Normandy. 

Once a cross channel invasion in 1943 is ruled out there was not much for the Western allies to choose from.  An invasion of Norway would have been both logistically difficult and offered few strategic rewards.  An invasion of Greece would have arguably been the same unless it could have enticed Turkey to enter the war much earlier, though there is little reason to expect it would have (and even then Turkish belligerence would hardly have proven to be decisive in any case).  Finally, an invasion of Corsica, Sardinia, and/or Southern France would have likely been unpractical due to the considerations listed above, as well as the lack of sufficient port facilities in the Western Mediterranean to support such endeavors.  

Therefore, in the summer of 1943 all the allies could do towards causing significant damage to the Axis war effort was to mount an invasion of Sicily and Italy.  While such operations had little prospect of defeating the German army decisively in 1943, or to seriously appease the Russians, who were fighting the overwhelming bulk of the German forces, it offered the allies significant strategic advantages.

Firstly, it offered the chance of knocking Italy out of the war.  While “World War 2″ literature is generally uncharitable regarding the performance of the Italian armed forces, the fact remains that Italy was Germany’s most important ally in Europe and had significant amounts of troops and naval assets to oppose the allies.  Perhaps most threatening to the allies was her sizable navy and geographic position that cut Britain’s tradition trade route to the Far East via the Mediterranean.  The British estimated that securing the Mediterranean would drastically shorten their sea lines of communication and save the allies a million tons of shipping a year (not a bad consideration as the allies were on the brink of losing the “Battle of the Atlantic” during early 1943). 

There were a considerable amount of Italian divisions that either fought against the Western allies and Russians, or served as garrisons in Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece and France.  While admittedly they did not always fight well, they at least freed up many German divisions to fight elsewhere.  Knocking Italy out of the war had the potential to force the Germans to send a significant amount of divisions there, usually from the Russian front, as well as to replace the Italian forces garrisoned across Europe.  The number of troops the Germans had to disarm and replace was not insignificant, it involved nearly 250,000 in the Aegean and Greece, 150,000 in Yugoslavia, and 600,000 in Italy.  A week after the Germans had initiated operation “Achse” to forcibly disarm the Italians after Italy’s surrender to the allies, the German high command estimated it had completely disarmed 56 Italian divisions, and partially disarmed another 29.  To suggest that eliminating nearly 1,000,000 soldiers from the enemy’s order of battle in wartime (even if they were of questionable quality) would not produce positive strategic results would be absurd.

Besides these advantages there were other benefits that were produced by the Italian campaign.  While the Russians were not pleased that the Western allies decided to attack a subsidiary objective instead of invading France, it was the best they could do and arguably did enough to steer Stalin away from being serious about exploring a separate peace with Hitler in 1943.  Many scholars, pundits and academics often forget that Russia did most of the fighting in Europe during World War 2 and that they, not the Western allies, broke the back of the German army.  They seem to forget that while the British and Americans were invading tiny Sicily in 1943 that the German army was far from defeated and was launching the greatest battle in “World War 2″ around the Kursk salient on the Eastern front.  It was only after this intensely contested battle (in which the Russians lost far more men and tanks than the Germans) had been won by the Soviets that the initiative really passed to the allies.  Thus, while the battle in Italy may not have impressed the Russians, it at least convinced them that the Western allies were doing something significant to fight the Germans. 

Also, the numerous amphibious assaults launched during the Italian campaign (Sicily, Salerno and Anzio) gave the allies considerable experience in amphibious warfare.  Keeping in mind the poor showing at Dieppe in 1942, the slaughter the Americans experienced at Tarawa in late 1943, and even the near disaster at Omaha beach on D-Day, the allies seemed to have needed all the experience in combined operations they could get.  It is simply too optimistic to believe that the allies could have successfully landed in France in 1943 considering their less than impressive record regarding amphibious assaults, let alone all the factors mentioned above.  Additionally, much like the Desert campaign, it gave the allies valuable experience in fighting the German army before the main contest, in Normandy, the following year.  While this seems like a rationalization, it should be noted that besides the fighting in Algeria and Tunisia following the Torch operation, the Americans had no other combat experience fighting the German army, and the potential consequences of a complete reversal in Italy were a lot less grievous than if the allies had failed invading France.

However, despite the advantages the invasion of Italy gave the allies there is arguably much to criticize regarding the Italian campaign.  While it made sense to invade Italy from a political and strategic point of view, the allies could not have asked for a worse battlefield from a tactical point of view.  With its narrow length, mountain terrain, and lack of open areas, Italy was arguably a defender’s paradise.  Despite the overwhelming numerical, material, and firepower advantages of the allies, the Italian campaign was epitomized by attrition and produced few moments of spectacular military excellence.

Put bluntly, the Italian campaign was useful in appeasing the Russians, diverting German forces from vital fronts, giving the allies valuable experience, but not as a means of severely degrading German military power.  This was all that was ever realistically expected of it.  Despite Churchill and other British strategists’ wishes to fight a major war in the Mediterranean, there was never any chance of it happening considering the Americans, who were always unequivocally committed to invading France, were destined to have the final say in strategy due to their unquestionable material supremacy vis a vis the British.

However, if there were sound strategic and political reasons to invade Italy, the execution of the campaign itself was controversial to put it mildly.  It is one thing to suggest the topography of Italy is generally not suitable for maneuver warfare (which is true), but quite another to imply that it was the route of all the setbacks during the Italian campaign.  Napoleon’s decisive campaigns in Italy, the German victory of Caporetto during “World War 1″ and Germany’s swift conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941 show that well trained, well equipped and sufficiently motivated forces can accomplish significant offensive gains in mountain terrain.  This is not to suggest that the allies could have decisively defeated the German army in Italy in “World War 2″ but that they arguably could have conducted the Italian campaign with more skill.

Even though the allies ultimately triumphed in Italy, the campaign itself, much like the North African venture, showed that the allies had much to learn when fighting the German army.  The snail’s pace in the Sicily operation, the near disaster at Salerno, the “beached whale” as Churchill put it, at Anzio, and the brutal slogging matches at Monte Casino, were catalogued by what were arguably poor operational and tactical decisions by the Western allies.  And perhaps the one chance of inflicting a serious defeat on the German army in Italy was wasted when General Mark Clark decided to take Rome for the sake of glory instead of surrounding a good part of the German 10th Army. 

While allowances such as Italy’s horrible topography, the undoubted tactical superiority of German forces over the allies, and least of all hindsight, do much to explain the relatively unexceptional military results shown by the allies advancing up the Italian peninsula, there is little doubt that the execution of the Italian campaign did not mirror the considerable strategic and political advantages it ultimately conferred towards the allied war effort.  Yet, much like the overly criticized British army during the “First World War,” the allies in Italy ultimately won the military contest and deserve respect rather than condemnation.

Indeed, the Axis leadership was hardly blameless regarding their performance regarding its operations in the Mediterranean theatre of operations.  The failure to take Malta and secure Rommel’s lines of communication in Libya, the decision to reinforce a doomed battle in Tunisia, and the practice of contesting every inch of Italian soil instead of initiating sensible withdrawals when necessary, provide sufficient evidence that on the strategic level at least the Germans did not live up to their Clausewitzian reputation.  In fact, whereas the allies were arguably correct in their strategic appraisal of the Mediterranean theatre of war, but not as proficient regarding their tactical means to accomplish their objectives, the Germans fought the Italian campaign with considerable tactical skill at the expense of critical strategic considerations.

Simply put, the Germans could have defended Italy with far less resources (which were needed more critically in Russia or Western Europe), had they decided to enact a strategy of gradual withdrawal up the boot of Italy, instead of fighting linear defensive battles across southern and middle Italy.  While such battles caused severe allied casualties, they also tied down significant amounts of German forces that could have been used elsewhere.  Likewise, such stationary defense allowed the allies to deploy their unmatchable superiority in numbers and firepower, that no matter how long or how costly, would eventually triumph over the Germans.  In other words the Germans could easily have sacrificed space for time in Italy and reinforced more important fronts instead of subjecting their forces to brutal attritional slogs that they had no chance of winning.  Given the Russian and Western allies’ vastly superior resources and manpower, the Italian campaign definitely provided a bigger inconvenience to the Germans than it did to their enemies.

The invasion of Italy was the best option available to the Western allies in 1943 and did much to further the allied war effort.  The allies did not have the resources, or the experience, to invade France and inflict a decisive defeat upon the German armed forces in 1943.  The campaign knocked Italy out of the war, forced the Germans to send many divisions needed more critically elsewhere to the Italian peninsula, and to replace Italian garrisons across Europe.  Doing so took significant pressure off the Russians on the Eastern front, increased the Western allies proficiency at mounting amphibious assaults and gave them (especially the Americans) vital experience fighting the German army.  While the Italian campaign lacked the glamour of the Normandy invasion or the mind boggling scale of the titanic struggle on the Eastern front, it was a necessary, if inglorious, undertaking.


Beevor, Antony.  The Second World War.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2012.

Bishop, Chris.  German Campaigns of World War 2.  London:  Grange Books, 2001.

Churchill, Winston.  The Second World War:  Closing the Ring.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951.

Lewis, Jon.  The Mammoth Book of Battles.  London:  Robinson Publishing, 2000.

Macksey, Kenneth.  From Triumph to Disaster.  London:  Greenhill Books, 1996.

Warner, Philip.  World War Two.  London:  Cassell, 2002.

Article from the “Comando Supremo, Italy at War”:  The Second World War in Italy: was it worth it?  The folly and brutality of war, from Sicily to the Po Valley by Michael Howard, June 25, 2008.

Wikipedia article on “Operation Achse”: [August, 2012]

The Myth of Successful Defensive Lines

Posted By on August 12, 2012

Throughout history nations have made considerable efforts to find solutions to defend themselves against external threats.  Perhaps the best example would be the creation of vast and expensive defensive lines to protect their countries from invasion or infiltration.  Yet despite the considerable time and resources that have been expended into such endeavors nearly all without exception have inevitably failed to accomplish their ultimate goals.  Defensive lines throughout history have typically failed to safeguard countries from external aggression. 

If we look at defensive lines in military history they typically fall into two categories; those designed to stop conventional attacks by an invading army, and those designed to stop insurgents, bandits, or terrorists, from infiltrating sovereign territory.  In the case of the former they have almost always failed to protect their respective countries while in the latter their success is often limited to the short term.  Obviously the first thing to consider is how defensive lines are supposed to work.

Firstly, it should be noted that defensive lines are an inherently passive means to protect a country.  They are designed as a physical means to prevent an enemy from invading or violating a very specific geographic location.  The supposed logic behind their construction is that either the enemy would try outflanking the defensive line, thus allowing the defender to concentrate his forces against the attacking force, or the aggressor will be forced to attack the defensive line and play right into the defender’s hand.  While this seems self evident and simple in theory, few things in military theory translate smoothly into practice.

In the case of constructing defensive lines in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency the primary focus is decreasing terrorism from external forces in the former and limiting aid to insurgents already inside friendly territory in the latter. 

While no expert would challenge the assertion that a defensive line can protect vital territory and offer the defender some degree of strategic options it is usually the case that elaborate defensive lines inevitably lead to a defensive attitude.  And herein lies the quintessential flaw of defensive lines; they promote passiveness, intentionally or not, and concede initiative to the enemy.  Perhaps the best example of this would be the “Maginot mentality” that afflicted the French army during the “Second World War.”  The French, who had suffered six million casualties during “World War One,” constructed the Maginot line to deter another German invasion.  However, despite being one of the great engineering marvels of the 20th century, the German air force flew over it and the German army outflanked it by going through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forests.  While it took more than six years to build the Maginot line, it only took the Germans six weeks to conquer France.

Perhaps, and as absurd as it sounds, the majority of times defensive lines have failed is when they are simply outflanked and the defenders (having a mostly passive disposition) are unable to react effectively.  Some of the time the defenders had built a defensive line to a certain length and then relied on supposedly impassable terrain, neutral borders, or sheer distance to do the rest.  There are too many examples to cite but obvious ones include the aforementioned Maginot line, the Metaxas line in Greece, the French border fortifications before the “First World War,” and the Saddam Line.

Regarding the Metaxas line the Greeks built it to protect against a Bulgarian invasion, but when the Germans invaded Greece in 1941 they outflanked it by going through Yugoslavia.  The Franco-German border fortifications prior to 1914 were likewise rendered redundant by the “Schlieffen plan” that by passed them by going through neutral Belgium at the start of the “First World War.”  As the for the Saddam line the Iraqi forces simply thought that coalition forces would get lost in the desert as they had before them.  Unfortunately for the Iraqis the advent of GPS made the task of outflanking the Saddam line child’s play. 

Even defensive lines that cannot be outflanked, and are manned by competent soldiers can be defeated.  In these situations it is usually a case of the attacker concentrating enough numbers and firepower and breaching part of the line.  While this often results in disproportionate casualties for the attacker, a successful breach usually renders the whole line useless as the rest of it is then open to being bypassed or flanked.  This highlights perhaps the biggest liability of defensive lines; they are inherently passive and are only effective at the points at which they are attacked.  While perhaps the best that can be hoped from defensive lines is that they provide a trip wire to slow enemy forces to allow the defender to concentrate their reserves for a counter attack, all too often they are expected to halt the enemy almost exclusively by themselves.

Perhaps the best example occurred during “World War 1″, arguably the conflict most associated with the power of the defense, when the Germans relied upon the “Siegfried line” to protect their occupation of north eastern France.  While it certainly withstood many assaults it was breached twice relatively easily by well executed British attacks in 1917 and 1918.  During the former the British were unable to exploit the breach due to a lack of sufficient reserves, but in the latter the successful breach unhinged the whole line and the Germans were pushed back and forced to accept a humiliating armistice.  This was against perhaps the most powerful defensive line in history up to that point and backed by well trained and seasoned troops. 

Another poignant example would be the multiple defensive lines the Germans held in Italy, especially the Gustav and Gothic lines, and the Atlantic Wall that was supposed to repel an allied invasion of France, during “World War 2.”  Keeping in mind the natural defenses the Italian peninsula offers, and the skill and tenacity of the German soldiers, these should have been ideal defensive lines.  Indeed, the allies only breached these defenses after long and costly battles, especially around Monte Casino.  However, numbers, firepower and stubbornness can, and often does, eventually succeed and the German defensive lines in Italy were all ultimately overrun.  While one could argue that the allies only succeeded due to their material advantages, it should be born in mind that 99 times out of 100 it is the weaker adversary (at least in terms of numbers and resources) in any real, or potential, conflict that builds defensive lines, and it should not come as a surprise that their enemies are willing to use their superiority in order to defeat them.  Yet to be fair to the Germans it could be argued that they constructed such defensive lines in Italy to delay the allied advance up the Italian boot, not to stop them indefinitely. 

As for breaching the Atlantic wall the allies benefited from overwhelming firepower, meticulous planning and a brilliant deception plan that led the Germans to believe the invasion was supposed to take place in the Pas-De Calais region.  Additionally, besides the fact the Germans simply did not have the time, or resources, to adequately fortify the whole Atlantic coast of occupied Europe, the German high command doomed any chance of repelling the allied landings when they failed to concentrate their panzer divisions near the beaches of the most likely landing sites.

An almost amusing example of how easily supposedly strong fortifications can be breached would be the Egyptian conquest of the Bar-Lev line guarding the east bank of the Suez Canal in 1973.  The Israelis had constructed a massive sand beam nearly 100 feet tall almost running the entire length of their side of the canal.  It was said to be so strong that some armchair generals believed it could only be breached by nuclear weapons.  In the event the Egyptians defeated the formidable sand beam in a matter of hours by simply watering it down with high pressure hoses!

However, it can be assumed there are examples of defensive lines succeeding outright in conventional warfare.  Yet, admittedly the author is only familiar with one example and that is the Lines of Torres Vedras guarding the British presence in Portugal during the “Napoleonic wars.”  However the lines of Torres Vedras succeeded due to very specific conditions; conditions which other defensive lines seldom meet. 

Firstly, the defensive lines could not be flanked because they were built from coast to coast and the British navy controlled the sea lanes.  Secondly, the French army in Spain did not possess the necessary firepower to breach its powerful fortifications.  Thirdly, the British had conducted a scorched earth policy while retreating through Spain and the French army was suffering from significant shortages.  Lastly, the front on which the lines were constructed was relatively narrow which allowed the British and Portuguese forces to man the defenses in strength.  Needless to say such conditions have seldom been met in the history of warfare and this probably helps explains why so few defensive lines have been as successful as those of Torres Vedras.

A seldom mentioned consideration regarding the inherent liabilities of defensive lines is that they tend to be inordinately expensive to build.  While they usually look impressive one wonders how many planes, tanks, artillery pieces, or other critical weapons of war could have been built in their place.  Indeed, while touring the Maginot line near the beginning of “World War 2″ Field Marshal Alanbrooke was fascinated by such a marvel of engineering but was ultimately unimpressed saying it “gave me but little feeling of security, and I consider that the French would have done better to invest the money in the shape of mobile defenses such as more and better aircraft and more heavy armored divisions than to sink all this money into the ground.”

However, if defensive lines mostly fail in conventional warfare, they can be quite successful, at least in tactical terms, in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.  Indeed, given that insurgents and terrorists are by nature usually weaker in numbers and firepower than their opponents they find it nearly impossible to breach, let alone neutralize, defensive lines.  While admittedly defensive lines have been used less extensively against irregular opponents, not least because it is much easier for them to infiltrate across long borders, or via the coast vs. divisions of soldiers, when they have been used they generally have a better track record then those designed to stop conventional attacks.  The usual, though not exclusive, prerequisites for this success are obvious; relatively short borders, open terrain, and well armed and motivated forces patrolling the area in question.  Needless to say, these are conditions that are seldom met as successful insurgent movements tend to thrive in countries with porous borders, difficult topography and corrupt government and military personnel.

While it can be exhausting looking for examples of defensive lines that have succeeded in conventional warfare, there are plenty of examples regarding the success of defensive lines in asymmetrical warfare, at least in a tactical sense.  The Morice Line during the “Algerian War,” Hadrian’s Wall, Chiang Kai-shek’s use of Block House warfare against the Communists during the “Chinese Civil War,” and the barriers erected by the Israelis to surround the Gaza Strip and West Bank were all unequivocally successful in severely reducing the capabilities of insurgents, terrorists, freedom fighters, or whatever terms people label such irregular movements depending upon their political biases or sympathies. 

The Morice line was built on the Algerian-Tunisian border by the French during the “Algerian War” to stop the vast flow of weapons, men, and supplies reaching the F.L.N. (an insurgent movement dedicated to liberating Algeria from French rule) fighting inside Algeria.  While the French usually have a bad reputation, mostly deserved, regarding their policies aimed at quashing the F.L.N. insurgency, the construction of the Morice Line, and an equivalent line along the Moroccan-Algerian border, proved to be an unqualified tactical success.  Indeed, these defensive lines all but cut off the F.L.N. from the outside world and quashed any chance of them defeating the French militarily inside Algeria.

Hadrian’s wall was also successful as it stopped barbarians from invading Rome’s colony in Britain.  As the border between the colony and barbarian territory was not very long, and as the Romans had naval supremacy, it was not unduly hard to plug this hole in Rome’s territorial expansion.  While it is not clear regarding the ultimate purpose(s) of the wall, it is clear that no major hostile forces infiltrated Rome’s British colony as long as it was adequately garrisoned.

Chiang Kai-shek’s use of block house warfare in the “Chinese Civil War” is admittedly a bit different regarding defensive lines as the defenses were not located on any border and were not meant to be permanent but the same principles regarding its use applies.  Instead of trying to keep insurgents out of specified territory, the plan was for Chinese nationalist forces to enter communist areas, build block houses and defenses, secure the area, then move further into the interior and repeat this process again and again.  The Chinese nationalists did this on all sides of the communist region to surround the whole area, then used the multiple layers of blockhouses and defenses to squeeze the communists and limit their mobility.  This was significant because whereas conventional forces fighting irregulars rely upon numbers and firepower to win engagements, irregulars use their usually superior knowledge of the terrain and maneuverability to engage in surprise attacks against soldiers to compensate for their material disadvantages.  Isolated from other insurgent forces, cut off from their support base, and at a distinct advantage when fighting the well placed, numerically superior and better equipped nationalist forces, the Chi-Coms (Chinese communists) were eventually forced to break out of the encirclement and conduct a desperate retreat of more than 6000 miles to north eastern China.

Likewise the barriers built to stop terrorist infiltration from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to Israel have proven to be a significant tactical coup.  Given the open terrain, the relatively short borders, and the considerable amount of men and resources the Israeli Defence Forces have invested in the project, it is no surprise that terrorist attacks launched from Gaza and the West Bank have fallen to virtually nothing.  Whatever the moral or humanitarian effects these walls have had regarding the Palestinian populations of these territories (and they are not inconsiderable) there is no doubt the barriers have accomplished their stated aim.

However, while the author has stated that defensive lines in asymmetrical warfare can have exceeding good tactical returns, he also noted that they are not as successful in the long term, or in strategic terms.  Once this implication has been considered, it is no surprise that just as in conventional warfare defensive lines are ultimately unsuccessful in irregular conflicts as well. 

Looking at the last four examples, one sees that the insurgent/terrorist movements in all these cases were not decisively defeated at all.  The F.L.N. held on in Algeria until the ultranationalist Pied Noires and overly militant French army shot themselves in the foot, and alienated so many Frenchmen regarding their brutal behavior, that even the proud Charles De-Gaulle decided to give up Algeria.  Hadrian’s wall did nothing to stop the growing decadence in the Roman Empire that ultimately led to the Romans abandoning their British colony.  Even the 6000 mile retreat of the Communists in China was not enough as the “Sino-Japanese conflict” severely degraded the Nationalists and ultimately strengthened the Communists so much they won the military contest after the “Second World War.” As for Israeli success regarding her walls surrounding the West Bank and Gaza, it may have more or less stopped border intrusions, but did little to stop her enemy’s from acquiring rockets and missile that have led to two significant wars, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, let alone crush the said organizations bent on her destruction.

Inevitably, this is a consequence of the inherent differences regarding victory in conventional war vs. victory in asymmetrical warfare.  While victory in the former is usually the result of military means (taking a capital city, destroying an army, cutting off a force’s lines of communication, etc.) victory against terrorists or insurgents is usually the result of more economic, political, or diplomatic considerations.  These usually involve winning the relevant populations’ hearts and minds, addressing grievances, and improving their political and economic standing.  Or alternatively, a disproportionately bloody solution can work if the population believes the assailant will do anything necessary to quash dissent.  Britain’s successes in the “Malayan Emergency” and in Northern Ireland are examples of the former approach, while the German genocidal tendencies in Namibia and Syria’s massacre of 10s of thousands of its own citizens in Hama in 1982 are examples of the latter approach.  Needless to say the former solution is suitable for democracies, while the latter solution is used almost exclusively by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.  Either way it is apparent that while defensive lines can serve a purpose regarding such means, they are obviously not decisive in themselves.

None of this is to suggest that defensive lines or fortifications do not have an important part in warfare, conventional or asymmetrical.  In the case of acting as a so called “trip wire” they can fragment an enemy’s advance of at least determine their likely axis of advance.  Additionally, they are extremely useful, in multiple layers, at delaying a strong advance until a counterattack can be organized.  This refers to the concept of “defense in depth,” and has been used to great effect in instances such as the “Battle of Third Ypres” in “World War 1″ and the “Battle of Kursk” in the “Second World War.”

No, the point at which defensive lines become counter-productive is when they are expected to perform miracles and defeat whole armies and insurgents by themselves.  Rather than being seem as either trip lines or a means to delay, they become the hope of the nation and contribute to a bunker, or “Maginot,” mentality.  It should be clear that the author does not think defensive lines, even overly expensive ones such as the Maginot line, are useless.  Had the French constructed the line to the English Channel or at least to cover the Ardennes forest they probably would not have been defeated by the Germans, or at least would have held out longer than six weeks.  Yet besides such defenses the French needed to be bold and offensive minded and concentrated their forces for an attack on the Germans as the Maginot line allowed their army to do so.

Unfortunately, and ironic as it sounds, this is what defensive lines are supposed to accomplish.  They are supposed to substitute concrete and barbed wire for men so a nation can concentrate its army and fight boldly against the enemy, and not be expected to serve as a rampart to be attacked in force by a foe with any common sense.  Yet perhaps it is unsurprising that nations that put so many resources “into the ground,” as Field Marshal Alanbooke would put it, should not be expected to have the most offensive spirit when it comes to warfare.  Allowing an army to concentrate its forces more effectively, along with the other uses stated above (serving as a trip line, fragmenting an attack, or delaying the enemy) is what should realistically be expected of defensive lines 99 times out of 100.

In all of these means defensive lines have an important purpose, but when they are depended upon to stop a powerful and innovative enemy on their own, or stop terrorism or insurgency cold, the historical record regarding their success should be labeled as “not good enough.”



The implications of the End of the Assad Regime in Syria

Posted By on July 23, 2012

As high ranking officials begin to desert and others are being blown up, and now that the Red Cross has finally admitted that the current violence in Syria now constitutes a “civil war” some may wonder whether or not the rotten regime in Damascus is finally about to reap the whirlwind and be consigned to the “ashbin of history.”  While there are questions as to whether or not any succeeding government in Syria would be democratic, let alone benign, and keeping in mind that the Assad regime has weathered major crises before, there is little doubt that the current uprising constitutes the greatest challenge to its survival.  Despite the fact that the Syrian regime supposedly has a similar infamous reputation at being ruthless at quashing dissent as the late Baathist regime in Iraq, it seems as though it can no longer retain control through brute force for much longer.  Is this the beginning of the end of more than forty years of rule by the Assad dynasty in Syria?

Based upon empirical evidence betting on the Assad regime holding onto power indefinitely seems like a poor wager indeed.  Most of the indicators of a doomed tyranny are present.  Besides high level defections and the fact the Syrian opposition is gaining greater capabilities (as seen by the bombing attack that killed four high ranking Baathist officials recently) and increasing in numbers, the fighting has now reached Damascus itself.  Given that the regime’s insincere efforts to appease and negotiate, combined with the use of force to stop the Syrian opposition has come to naught, the only chance it has now would be to launch a vastly disproportionate massacre such as it did against the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 when it killed between 10,000-40,000 people in the city of Hama.  However, even if the Syrian regime decided to up the ante such bloodlust would probably force the U.S. and NATO to finally intervene, at least via Airpower, and the result would probably be a replay of the successful campaign to overthrow Colonel Gadhafi in Libya last year. 

Indeed such a move towards such excess violence against the Syrian people would probably move Russia and China to abandon their support for the Assad regime, cutting off whatever significant materially aid Syria is getting abroad, as well as isolating it on the world stage.  In fact it could be argued that Russian and Chinese support is the last hope Assad has left.  There are precedents here; it was the removal of Russian diplomatic support, not the air campaign against Serbia, that ultimately ended the Kosovo conflict, and America’s decision to abandon Batista that led to Castro’s takeover of Cuba.  At the risk of sounding presumptuous it is likely that the Assad dynasty would crumble in a matter of days if the neo-commies (Russia and China) withdrew their support. 

Of course there is the chance that even under these circumstances Syria’s leadership would fight to the death regardless.  If one looks at the composition of the Syrian elite they would not be blamed for thinking the end of the regime would result in sectarian violence.  Most of the political, military and economic elite in Syria is composed of the small Alawi (an offshoot of Islam) and Christian minorities as well as a segment of the better off Sunni population.  Meanwhile the vast majority of Syrians are relatively poor Sunnis that have little share in the economic success or notable positions within the military or political institutions.  Of course the fears of sectarian violence are fueled by the horrible excesses that occurred between the Christians and Muslims during the “Lebanese Civil War,” and even more recently the triangle of violence between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein during the “Iraq War.”  Much of the violence in these two conflicts was initiated by the elites (the Christians in Lebanon and the Sunnis in Iraq) who were afraid of losing their power base.  There is no evidence to suggest that the Syrian Alawi and Christians’ response to losing their preeminence would be any more enlightened or humane.

As for the potential of the Americans, NATO, or even Syria’s neighbors intervening in the conflict, with the possible exception noted above, the most likely any of them would do (or more likely are doing right now) would be to offer the rebels safe havens, intelligence, weaponry and supplies.  Despite countless pundits stressing that an attack on Syria would be a more difficult task than the late war against Gadhafi most estimates regarding Syrian military capabilities give the Assad regime more credit than it deserves.  In one of my earlier papers I pointed out that during the last sixty years the Syrians have not won a war, let alone a battle, of any significance.  This despite the fact they have often outnumbered and outgunned their enemies. 

However, the same pundits usually point out the massive umbrella of SAMs (surface to air missiles) and anti-aircraft assets deployed across the country, noting their dense concentrations and relatively modern capabilities.  While such defenses should not be taken lightly, they are certainly not as potent as they are made out to be.  Thirty years earlier the Israelis destroyed all of Syria’s SAMs in the Beka Valley (which was then the largest concentration of anti-aircraft defenses in the world) without loss and even recently the Israelis somehow shut down the whole air defense system in Syria when they bombed a suspected nuclear site in the northeast of the country.  Even more amusingly Israeli planes buzz Assad’s presidential palace without fear of consequence from time to time.  There is no reason to believe that the even more technologically superior American air force, and arguably NATO forces as well, would not be able to defeat Syria’s air defenses, albeit probably needing more time and effort to do so versus the campaign in Libya.

Of course there is the fact that the Syrians recently shot down a Turkish fighter jet, which cannot be discounted out of hand.  However, there have been suggestions it was relatively easy for the Syrians do so because of the fallout of military ties between the Israelis and the Turks.  Basically, the Israelis and Turks collaborated closely on the F-4 Phantom fighter jets in the Turkish air force with the Israelis continuously giving the Turks upgrades (including electronic countermeasures to defeat Syria’s air defenses).  However, it is apparent that the latest upgrades were never given to the Turks since they unilaterally broke military ties with the Israelis after the controversial Israeli decision to forcibly stop the international flotilla heading to Gaza a few years ago.  This has undoubtedly hurt Turkey more than Israel, and was a very stupid decision on the behalf of the Turkish government which was motivated by an erroneous belief in moral superiority regarding Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.  I say “erroneous” because Turkey’s historical treatment of the Armenians and the Kurds has not been any more humane than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.  Turkey is lucky that the Kurds do not have the lobbying power at the U.N, or among other governments, than the Palestinians do.

Anyway, were the U.S. or NATO to intervene in the Syrian conflict it would most likely resemble the Libya intervention of last year.  It would arguably be more difficult due to Syria’s superior military power vs. Libya’s, the lack of NATO bases close to the country   and the fact that the conflict is more concentrated among urban centers rather than open desert.  Once again being almost exclusively an air campaign it would probably prove more difficult in hitting tanks, trucks, artillery pieces and other conventional targets and also result in far more civilian casualties.  On the other hand it could arguably lessens the length of the Syrian conflict as Western intervention would probably lead to the end of Russian and Chinese diplomatic support to Assad, boost the morale of the Syrian opposition while undermining that of the regime’s, and severely degrade the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces.  While it is unlikely, and probably unwise for the West to intervene, it would surely not be as difficulty to do so as the skeptics claim.

Perhaps the most important question regarding the likely collapse of the Syrian regime is what would follow it?  The naive optimists usually say a more democratic successor, while the cynical realists would bet on a newly rejuvenated Muslim Brotherhood or some equivalent.  Yet either of these would be better than the third potential option; sectarian strife on a comparable scale to what happened in Iraq.  While it is tempting to look at the latest outcomes in Egypt and Libya, the circumstances in these two countries are far different than in Syria.

In Egypt there was little violence when Mubarak was overthrown and the transition between military governance and the new pseudo democracy has been relatively smooth, if not ideal.  Also, the Egyptian people generally respect their military despite the fact they have provided the last three presidents and were just as responsible for oppressing the Egyptians as they were.  Finally, despite some violence between Sunnis and Coptic Christians there is little chance of Egypt descending into sectarian strife as in Iraq and Lebanon (not least because the Christian minority has little power to oppose the Sunnis).  While the new Muslim Brotherhood President Morsai has not endeared himself to the West by stating he wants closer ties to Iran and is reviewing the peace treaty with Israel, there is no immediate reason to be overly concerned and it is possible the new government in Cairo will find some accommodation with the West (not least because of the significant amount of foreign aid Washington still gives to Egypt).

Libya’s path to freedom was admittedly more violent, but despite some concerns it has not been overly unstable since the overthrow of Gadhafi.  It is hoped that NATO’s role in finishing off the regime won the West some points with the Libyans, but it seems as a rule that whereas anything bad the West does in the region is usually remembered, anything positive it does is generally forgotten.  However, to be fair relatively moderate candidates did better in the recent Libyan election than the fanatics.  Either way, Libya’s geographic, political, and ethnic composition is too different from Syria’s to make it a valid comparison.  It is no doubt frustrating for Arabs and Muslims to be pigeon holed into countless stereotypes.  In fact many of the their countries are very different despite having a similar religious and cultural background.  It would be like saying that the French, German, and British people are all the same.

Which once again leaves us as to the likely fate of Syria as soon as the Assad regime implodes.  Unfortunately, based on Middle Eastern history in general and Syrian history in particular, the prospects are not entirely hopeful.  Since its independence in the late 40s’ until the early 70s’ Syria arguably went through more coups and governments than any other country in the region, if not the world.  In fact, one of the reasons the Baathist party was popular, at least initially, was it finally gave the country some stability.  However, that stability came at a cost and the Syrian regime, like its former secular counterpart in Baghdad was probably more bloody and repressive than the religious zealots in Riyadh and Tehran.  While most of the countries in the region have initiated some reforms regarding personal liberties and economic incentives, Bashar al-Assad introduced only a few the first year or so he came to power and then quickly went back on them.  No doubt the remnants of his father’s entourage, and the preferential treatment of the Alawi and Christians, quashed any serious chances of reform.

Unfortunately, this leaves Syria with very few options.  The ideal situation would be for the Sunni majority to offer amnesty to the Alawi and Christian minorities and give them a future role in the next administration.  This would probably require allowing these minorities to retain a significant amount of power, at least in the economic sphere, to discourage them from turning to violence if they felt slighted.  There are precedents here, as Boris Yeltsin allowed the old Communist elites (an obvious oxymoron) to retain much of their clout after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and while it undoubtedly led to the powerful mafias that control much of Russia today, it was obviously preferable to a protracted civil war.  Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood would be wise not to overly challenge the military elite in Egypt, who control much of the economy and still have a monopoly on the use of force, as long as they allow it to govern the country.  Seeing as though these officers care more about enriching themselves than promoting any ideology, it is possible they will ultimately reach an agreement.

However the chances of this occurring in Syria are slim.  More likely the Sunni majority, oppressed for decades under the Assad dynasty will want to dominate the next government and seek revenge on the Alawi and Christians minorities.  There are simply too many instances of this happening in the Middle East, from the exodus of the pied noires from Algeria in the 60s’, the bloodletting of the Lebanese Civil War, Hamas’s treatment of Fatah after they conquered the Gaza Strip, to the near genocidal tendencies of the Sunni-Shiite strife in Iraq after the American invasion.  The only exception the author can think of was the amnesty Hezbollah gave to the South Lebanese Army after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, and they certainly did not offer them a share in power.  Perhaps the only way to avoid such a situation would be for the U.S. and the West to offer material and trade incentives to the new power in Damascus in exchange for leniency regarding treatment of the minorities.  Whether or not this would work remains pure speculation.

As to what faction would come to power in lieu of a collapse of the Assad regime given how little moderates are respected in the region, and given how organized and popular it tends to be in many nations it would be no surprise if the Muslim Brotherhood eventually came to power, as it did in Egypt.  For some reason the masses in the Middle East, if not pretty much everywhere, hate educated moderates and tend to respect relatively extremist factions who have no qualms regarding oppressing other points of view and advocating violence.  While some would point out that the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt at least, has renounced violence, it may have had something to do with the fact the Assad dynasty butchered the Muslim Brotherhood, along with 10s of thousands of civilians in Hama in 1982.  Certainly, its Syrian equivalent is engaged in the brutal fight against the regime now that it has had a resurgence (it is typical of subversive groups to denounce violence when they are weak, as Fatah and Hamas have done at times when Israeli pressure has become overly coercive).

There is also the potential that other less savory elements, such as Al-Qaeda or foreign guerrillas or terrorists that have gone to Syria to join in the fight, could have an impact on the next government in Damascus.  However, this is unlikely as similar factions in the “Iraq War” and Libya ultimately failed to win any significant power in these respective nations.  In the case of Al-Qaeda its extremist views, and often atrocious excesses, alienated most of the population, and the other movements were either too small or fragmented to be politically effective.

No, the only real contenders are the slowly recuperating Muslim Brotherhood or some moderate faction that would be useful at courting Western aid and support in the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War.  While some hope that the moderates could ultimately win due to the fact that Syria, like Iraq, is more secular vs. more fanatical countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, this is no guarantee any successive regime would be more moderate, tolerant, or even friendly towards Israel and the West.  In fact, secular countries or movements have often been as hostile, indeed sometimes more so, than their religious counterparts.  Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Fatah were no less determined to destroying Israel and opposing the West than the Ayatollah, Al-Qaeda, or Hezbollah.  In fact one could argue the secular movements have killed more people, especially their own, than the religious nut jobs.

Anyway, the moderates, who are generally more peaceful and pro-west, are usually seen as puppets of the Israelis or the West.  This is why Fatah, once at the forefront of the Palestinian cause, has become hated by the masses in the region ever since it took control in the occupied territories and become less radical.  Likewise, the Pro-West regime in Beirut has less teeth in Lebanon than Hezbollah, and the Shah of Iran is still seen as a traitor despite the fact the theocracy in Iran has been more bloody and oppressive.  Put another way, there is a reason only two countries in the region have made peace with Israel; Egypt and Jordan.  In the case of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, the man who signed the peace treaty was gunned down by extremists, and the late King Hussein of Jordan survived countless assassination attempts, squabbles, and even a civil war by elements that questioned his resolve to fight Israel.  Being accommodating to the West in the Middle East is simply too dangerous of a game for factions in the region to attempt earnestly.

This leaves the Muslim Brotherhood, or some other extremist faction, as the likely successor to any Assad regime.  This by itself is not necessarily bad for Western interests.  So far the relationship between Egypt and the West has not faltered after the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in that nation (no doubt the billions of dollars in aide provided by Washington has played a significant part).  Even unstable elements such as Colonel Gadhafi, the Taliban, and the late Hafez al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s father) have all at one time or another proven able to do business with the West, as long as it has been in their interest.  The key words are “in their interest” as they have all ultimately ended up as implacable enemies of the Israelis and the West. 

This implies that after the wanton destruction of Syria in lieu of the civil war, it is likely that whoever is in charge, even the Muslim Brotherhood, will probably seek good relations, at least initially, with the West, if only to rebuild and get the country back on its feet.  While it is possible that the successors of the Assad regime could instead seek continued relations with its usual supporters, the Russians and Chinese, it is unlikely given that their unequivocal support of Assad has probably made them targets of hatred among the Syrian populace.  Either way, such a pro-west stance could arguably only last as long as it was convenient for the new power in Damascus.  Given the likely chance that a Muslim Brotherhood administration would arguably be no less democratic or tolerant to women, and given that such policies have inevitably led to disenchantment and economic backwardness in nearly every single government and country in the region since independence of European hegemony, the end result would probably be an angry and resentful population looking for someone to blame.  Without exception, not wanting to be blamed themselves, the Muslim Brotherhood would play the usual card of Arab despots and pin responsibility on the Americans and the Jews.

This practice, sad and predictable as it is, seems to be the circle of life regarding every new ideology, faction, or regime that is introduced into the Middle East.  At the risk of being labelled a cynic, I cannot see how the Muslim Brotherhood, which served as the forerunner of Al-Qaeda, could possibly break this cycle.

Anyway, considering the Assad regime is most likely going to fall, and since the West and Israel will have to work with whoever comes to power in Damascus, the only sensible thing would be to embrace the new leadership and make earnest attempts to try to come to some sort of an accommodation.  While it is by no means probable that any new regime would be pro-west or reciprocate such efforts, in the end no serious person would be able to say that the Israelis or West did not at least try to do their best to try to work with the new regime.  I say “no serious person” because there is always going to be some people who think everything in the Middle East is the fault of the West or the Israelis, and that the Russians, Chinese, or the many undemocratic and bloodthirsty elements in the region could never do no wrong. 

Besides the debate as to who will inherit the throne in Damascus, there is the larger question as to what will be the wider impact upon the region, if not the world.  While optimists and fear mongers often exaggerate the likely effects regarding their extreme preferences, it is admittedly easy to consider the best and worst case scenarios.  Regarding the best case scenario, as I noted in a previous paper a new power in Syria could at first seem intoxicating.  A Syrian-Israeli peace treaty, a Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty, the weakening of both Hezbollah and Hamas, and an increasingly isolated Iran (as Syria is her only significant ally in the region) are all potential benefits of a post Assad Syria. 

However, it goes without saying that such developments would probably only ensue in the event of a moderate, pro-west faction, coming to power in Damascus.  Considering the first two statements of the new Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt involved wanting closers ties with Iran and reviewing the peace treaty with Israel it is simply not plausible to think the Islamists would be the “pro-peace party.”

Now if we look at the potential worst case scenario regarding a post Assad regime we are suddenly faced with perhaps the most calamitous period in modern Middle Eastern history since the late 1960s.  The absolute worst outcome would be a war between Israel on one hand and Syria, Egypt, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas on the other.  As unlikely as this seems it should be noted that most recent wars in the region have originated from stupid catalysts from the Kuwait ambassador telling Saddam Hussein that Iraqi women are whores, to Israel bombing Lebanon into rubble over the kidnapping of two soldiers.  Being more realistic, negative effects would include an increase of support for Hezbollah and Hamas, closer ties with Iran, and perhaps Syria joining Iran’s attempts in constructing nuclear weapons.  Obviously, all this implies the Muslim Brotherhood or some other extremist faction winning power in Damascus.

While it is too simplistic to suggest a pro-west faction would result in near perfect relations with Israel and the West and an Islamic faction would result in all out war, there is little doubt that depending upon who takes power in Syria we could see a vastly more stable, or chaotic, Middle East.  Either way, no matter who succeeds Assad, relations are likely to be amiable at first considering they will probably need Western assistance to rebuild Syria. 

However, as cautious as the author is about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Syria, one should not conclude that he has the least amount of sympathy for the Assad regime, nor that he would prefer it to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Considering the current regime in Syria is likely to fall, it would be wise for the West and the Israelis to do everything to curry their favor and try to allay their fears of duplicity.  While the undemocratic regimes and movements in the region have done much to warrant Western suspicion, it is also the case that Israel and the West have done just as much to warrant Muslim and Arab suspicions.  While the author is not idealistic or naive enough to think that the current civil war in Syria will ultimately result in a more peaceful Middle East, perhaps it would not be a sin to hope it could.

The Implications of an Israeli Attack against Iran’s Nuclear Program

Posted By on March 21, 2012

The Israelis have always viewed a hostile state with nuclear weapons as an existential threat.  As such it is no surprise that the IAF (Israeli Air force) bombed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and a suspected nuclear site in Syria in 2007.  Given that Iran is nearing the completion of its own nuclear program and given Iran’s constant bellicose attitude toward the Jewish state there is a significant chance the Israelis may try to thwart Iran’s nuclear capabilities by force as well.

Whether or not Israel should bomb Iran, whether such an attack would seriously disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, and whether or not a successful strike would be worth the subsequent chance of conflict spreading across the region are all valid considerations when analyzing such a course of action.  However, rightly or wrongly, it is possible that the Israelis, believing that a nuclear armed Iran poses an existential threat to its people, may launch such a strike regardless of the potential costs.  Considering Iran’s continuous support of Syria and terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas and the often bellicose language of its leaders (such as the President of Iran’s remarks about wiping Israel off the map and denying the holocaust ever happened, while even as recently as early February Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Israel a “cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut”) it is perhaps not hard to see Israel’s point of view.

However, it should be noted that there are many people, including respected defense analysts and high ranking American officers, who claim that Israel simply does not have the means, or at least the opportunity, to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear program.  Regarding means they cite the long distances the IAF would have to travel, the considerable amount of anti-aircraft defenses the Iranians have, and the supposedly limited amount of firepower the IAF could bring to bear against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Regarding opportunity they are assuming that for a number of reasons the Israelis would only get one shot (that is only one wave of attacks) at hitting Iran and that a successful strike against its nuclear capabilities would actually require a bombing campaign that would take days, if not weeks, to do significant damage.

The considerable distance that perhaps 100 or more planes (the average number different sources estimate the IAF attack force would comprise of) would have to travel is certainly a problem, but not necessarily an insurmountable one.  When the Israelis bombed the Iraqi reactor in 1981 they devised enough measures to guarantee they would have enough fuel to get there and back, against the assumptions of many American and Western analysts that they could not.  While critics point out that Israel’s fleet of air tankers is probably not enough to refuel all the planes in flight, it is conceivable the Israelis could create a de-facto airstrip in one of the countries along the way to have their planes refuel there.  This is not mere fantasy as Israel’s electronic warfare potential is said to be quite extensive and some sources suggest it could disable Iran’s electric grid, communications, and most likely its air defenses (as the Israelis did to the Syrian air defenses in 2007 when they hit Syria’s suspected nuclear site).  This would most likely confuse the Iranians and delay their movements and retaliation to give the IAF enough time to create a small air strip and use it to refuel and get away before the Iranians even knew of its existence. 

Another potential scenario would be for a friendly country to provide an airstrip.  This should not be quickly discounted as according to wikileaks the Saudis and other Gulf countries actually encouraged the Americans to hit Iran’s nuclear sites.  Given that Iran (of all countries) collaborated with Israel when they targeted Saddam Hussein’s reactor in 1981 it is not inconceivable that some Arab countries would do the same against Iran now.  Additionally, a friendly country such as Azerbaijan could fulfill such a role as was implied in Joel Rosenberg’s novel the “Tehran Initiative.”

The state of Iran’s anti-aircraft defenses is even less of an issue than the distances involved.  Ever since the damage that was inflicted to the IAF by SAMs (surface to air missiles) during the “Yom Kippur War” in 1973 the Israelis have mastered the art of electronic warfare and the suppression of enemy air-defenses.  Besides the recent example of the strike on Syria in 2007 there is the comprehensive destruction of the Syrian SAMs in the Bekaa valley in 1982 during the “First Lebanon War.”  Here the IAF destroyed, in a matter of hours, the biggest concentration of the most modern soviet air-defenses ever deployed in the history of warfare.  Not only did they accomplish this feat without losing a single plane, but they also shot down nearly 100 Syrian planes (again without loss) that were dispatched to try to save the SAMs. 

While this was done against the most modern anti-aircraft system of its time, the Iranian equivalent is relatively obsolete.  Some observers would point out that the Syrians manning the SAMs in 1982 were notoriously incompetent, but even if their Iranian counterparts were extremely professional the combination of Iranian’s relatively backward military technology, combined with an IAF that is much more advanced than it was 30 years ago, and backed by electronic warfare that would probably blind, if not disable, Iran’s SAMs, there is little reason to believe Iran’s AA (anti-aircraft) capabilities would pose a significant threat to an Israeli strike.  Perhaps its greatest virtue is that even firing blindly it could force Israeli planes to execute defensive maneuvers that would waste precious fuel they would need to get back home.

A more potentially limiting factor regarding the success of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be the firepower at the disposal of the Israelis.  While some analysts believe Israel may not have enough planes or specialized munitions (especially regarding the more modern bunker busters) to effectively destroy Iran’s most critical targets, other experts believe it is possible, albeit not without considerable risk and with a debatable chance of success.  Of course much of the disagreement among these two schools of thoughts is what would constitute a success strike (in other words whether an attack would destroy, or only delay, Iran’s capacity to make nuclear weapons).

Either way, regardless of one’s political or ideological views and sympathies it is possible to estimate how such an attack would generally play out, and what the potential consequence would be.

Regarding timing, there is some evidence to suggest that the Israelis may strike before the summer of 2012.  According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is worried that Israel may launch an attack on Iran during April, May, or June.  Ignatius states that Panetta was alerted by Israeli estimates which suggest that after this point the Iranians may have been able to move enough of their nuclear operation underground, beyond the range of Israeli missiles and bombs.  A more controversial assumption is that the Israelis believe this would include enough enriched uranium to construct a nuclear weapon.  Once this stage has been reached the Israelis believe they would no longer have the ability to take out Iran’s nuclear program unilaterally (that is without the aid of American military power).  Given that the Israelis doubt the American’s resolve to bomb Iran if necessary, we are looking at a significant chance the IAF will strike Iran before July.

As for the assault itself the Israelis would probably use several squadrons of F-15s and F-16s, equipped with a variety of features such as extra fuel tanks, bunker buster bombs, anti-radiation missiles, electronic warfare pods, etc.  They would likely be backed by aerial tankers, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and even Israeli submarines that could launch cruise missiles.  The electronic warfare component is important as it is rumored the Israelis used electronic counter measures to disable the Syrian anti-aircraft defenses during the strike on the suspected nuclear facility in 2007.  Whether or not the Stuxnet worm that delayed progress at the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr was created by Israel or not, there is no doubt that Israel probably has the capability to shut down much of Iran’s air defenses, as well as other vital systems, in the event of an attack.

There is some debate as to whether the Israelis would attack Iran by going through either a northern route via Syria and Turkey, a central route via Jordan and Iraq, or a southern route via Saudi Arabia, or a combination of all three.  However, such a debate is mostly academic as a combination of Israeli methods (such as having its planes hug the ground during the journey to Iran to avoid radar detection), electronic counter-measures, the indisputable superiority of the IAF over its Arab counterparts, and the not so secret revelation that the Arabs have no wish for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, all suggest that the Israelis can choose any route they want.  However, if one had to guess the Israelis would probably either attack via the southern route given the less extensive Arab anti-aircraft defenses and airpower if they were to attack with a concentrated group of planes, or a combination of all three routes if they were to attack in smaller groups (a theory introduced in Joel Rosenberg’s “The Tehran Initiative.”)

What the Israelis would do once they reached Iranian airspace would depend upon the capabilities of the IAF and the goals such a strike would be trying to serve.  Ideally such goals would reflect the actual capabilities of the IAF, but as “Operation Accountability” and “Operation Grapes of Wrath” and the aerial campaign during the “Second Lebanon War” in 2006 show sometimes Israel’s leaders over estimate what the IAF can actually accomplish.  Even the raid against the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 was ultimately a limited success as the Coalition’s aerial campaign against Iraq during “Operation Desert Storm” was what ultimately destroyed Saddam Hussein’s capacity to complete the Iraqi nuclear program.  That said, the surprise aerial assault against the Egyptian air force in 1967, the rescue of Jewish hostages at Entebbe in 1976, and the comprehensive defeat of Syria’s SAM batteries and air force in 1982 surprised the majority of defense analysts and military experts of their day.

However, it is easier to begin with what the Israelis could not accomplish via strategic bombing.  For a combination of logistical, geographic and political reasons, the Israel’s could not launch a protracted aerial assault against Iran.  Any assault(s) would likely have a limited window of perhaps a few hours to one or two days at best.  While it can be assumed the Israeli rate of attrition regarding planes in such a strike would be relatively low (easily under 10%), such a rate would arguably increase in the event of additional strikes considering the Israelis would no longer have the element of surprise and the Iranians would be on full alert.  This was the case during the subsequent attacks on Egyptian and Arab airfields after the devastating first wave on Egypt’s airfields during the “6 Day War” when the Israelis lost many more planes in the following waves.  It should be noted that during such a short war the Israelis lost nearly 25% of its Air force.  The “Yom Kippur War” in 1973 provides further proof as the Israelis lost almost 50 planes in the first three days and an American airlift during the conflict arguably saved the IAF from being grounded due to a lack of spare parts and electronic counter-measures.

Even if the Israelis were willing to accept such horrific rates of attrition there are several reasons they would probably desist.  Firstly, the Israelis would probably want their air force to be in good shape in case the Iranians, the Syrians, Hezbollah or Hamas (or potentially all of them) decided to retaliate against Israel for attacking Iran.  Secondly, the countries in between Israel and Iran (despite the fact they would tacitly support a strike on Iran) would eventually be forced by public opinion to fight against an IAF that continuously violated their air space.  Thirdly, and arguably most importantly, the Americans (who would probably be angry at the Israelis for likely attacking Iran without their permission) would put enormous pressure on the Israelis to stop any additional attacks.  While the Israelis could probably launch additional strikes against the Iranian facilities with its fleet of UAV’s, its ballistic missiles and its fleet of submarines, they would probably not be able to launch many more attacks due to many of the reasons cited above.

The inability of the Israelis to launch a protracted bombing campaign against Iran rules out any attempt to produce regime change, or seriously degrade Iran’s conventional fighting capabilities (such goals being mostly fantasy anyway).  This reduces the Israeli operation to what can be accomplished during the first, and perhaps only, attack wave.  This would probably include Iran’s most important nuclear facilities and her direct means to retaliate against Israel (her ballistic missile capabilities; Iran’s air force being too obsolete and ill-trained to seriously threaten Israel anyway).  According to a study written for CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) in 2009 “the success of the Strike Mission will be measured by how much of the Enrichment program has it destroyed, or the number of years it has delayed Iranian acquisition of enough Uranium or Plutonium from the Arak reactor to build a nuclear bomb.” As such, and according to most experts, there are at least four critical targets the Israelis would have to hit to cause significant damage to Iran’s nuclear program.

According to the study the Israelis would have to at least hit the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fardow (which was unknown to the West when the study was published), the heavy water reactor at Arak, and the yellow cake conversion centre at Isfahan.  Even if we discounted the efforts the IAF would likely expend to hit other important targets such as the support facilities for the nuclear reactor at Bushehr (though one expert at least implied it could be a possible target for Israeli subs due to its relatively exposed location on the Gulf) and Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, the force required to hit the four aforementioned targets would still be considerable.  The study suggested that to cause significant enough damage to the Natanz, Arak and Isfahan sites alone (keeping in mind the Fardow site was unknown to the study group) the Israelis would need between 34-63 F-16s and F-15s equipped with conventional weapons for the above ground facilities and bunker busters for the ones buried deep underground. 

The difference in number of planes is explained by the fact that several of these planes could carry one or two massive bombs.  The Israelis would have to debate whether or not they should launch less planes to provide the Iranians with fewer targets, or if they should launch more to increase the chance that more bombs would hit their objectives.  The study assumed that the IAF planes would operate at a 90% systems reliability (assuming that 10% of the planes would experience malfunctions or have to turn back).

Hitting the enrichment facility buried in a mountain near Fardow would be even more difficult than the underground enrichment facility near Natanz, but is not necessarily beyond the capabilities of the IAF.  In one scenario, according to Austin Long (who did a war game regarding an Israeli strike against Iran for the RAND corporation) the Israelis could use an armada of 25 F-15s equipped with 3 bunker buster bombs each and launch them in succession at a single point and hope at least one bomb would penetrate the facility and destroy the centrifuges that are in a relatively small and concentrated area.  While it sounds simple on paper Long reminds us of the dangers due to the length of time the Israeli planes would have to linger over the target area, their limited supply of fuel and the threat of Iran’s air force and anti-aircraft capabilities.

Another possibility is that despite claims to the contrary the Americans may have, or soon could, provide the Israelis with a complement of GBU-57A/Bs (also known as the “Massive Ordnance Penetrator”) that could take out such a facility much easier than a score of older American supplied bunker busters.  Additionally, and while it cannot be completely discounted that the Israelis may have produced more modern bunker busters on their own, it is not likely given their limited resources and reliance on American hardware.  Finally, the Israelis could consider options like collapsing the tunnels leading to the facility or even sabotage.  The destruction of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps base near Tehran last November, which some analysts believed was Mossad’s handiwork, shows that this is not as farfetched as it would seem.

Now in addition to the already considerable strike force needed (in theory at least) to take out these four critical site and Iran’s ability to retaliate (her ballistic missile capabilities) the Israelis would likely commit other planes to neutralize Iran’s SAMs, and fight off its air force.  According to the sources listed above there would be 34-63 planes devoted to Arak, Isfahan and Natanz, 25 for Fardow and according to the CSIS study at least 10 for Iran’s missile capabilities in the general area of these sites.  Assuming these are the only targets the IAF would be attacking (which of course we cannot) the Israelis would be sending between 69 and 98 planes to attack Iran (minus Israel’s tanker fleet, potential UAVs, other fighters for air superiority and air defense suppression missions, etc.).  While no study or amount of analysis can realistically predict the actual amount of air assets the Israelis would commit to such an undertaking, there is no doubt they would have to be considerable.

So, what would a potential Israeli aerial assault against Iran look like?  There are too many variables and unknown elements to offer any certainties.  However, if we accept the sources, historical precedents and logical reasoning stated above it is possible to make a few educated guesses.

The Israeli assault would likely consist of a force of more than 100 fighter aircraft and would probably be backed by air tankers, UAVs, Israeli subs and ballistic missiles.  They would likely attack Iran via the southern route going through Saudi Arabia if they were attacking in a concentrated group or a combination of all three routes if they proceeded in smaller groups.  The IAF would fly as low to the ground as possible to go under the Arab states and Iran’s radar networks but would also employ electronic counter measures to either fool, or disable, their air-defense capabilities.  Reaching Iran they could also use electronic warfare (according to a recent U.S. intelligence estimate) to disable “Iran’s electric grid, Internet, cell phone network, and emergency frequencies for firemen and police officers.”   This would temporarily cripple Iran’s communications, defensive capabilities and the ability to limit damage to sites the Israelis would be targeting.

Entering Iran the Israeli force would split up and focus on destroying their respective targets (nuclear facilities, ballistic missile sites, SAMs, etc.) while other fighters would guard against Iranian fighters, and Israeli subs and ballistic missiles would strike other objectives.  Such an assault would last perhaps a few hours, particularly at Natanz and Fordow which would likely require extensive bombing and other measures to neutralize effectively.  Elements of friction that would affect the timeframe would be the strike force’s fuel consumption, the extent to which electronic measures compromised Iranian defenses, the possibility of Israeli pilots being shot down in Iranian territory, etc.

Either way, having expended their munitions and being low on fuel (keeping in mind the Israeli planes will have had to have found a way to re-fuel their planes at some point during their mission) the Israeli force would probably rise to high altitude and gun it back to Israel via the quickest route (Iraq and Jordan).  Based on several precedents and the IAF’s indisputable superiority compared to the Arab States’ air forces it is likely that the Jordanians would either fail to launch fighters, or do so belatedly to claim it at least tried to intercept the IAF, while the Iraqis (having no real air force of their own) would be unable to do anything anyway. 

While in the aftermath, and for reasons stated above, even if the IAF would probably not launch additional strikes against Iran (in the case its nuclear facilities were not sufficiently damaged) the Israelis could probably get a away with a few more limited strikes via its UAV’s, ballistic missiles or submarines to rectify this.

Anyway, a probable outcome would be that Israelis would significantly delay, at best for a few years, the completion of Iran’s nuclear program, and would probably lose between 5 to 10% of its strike force.  As the CSIS study on such an assault noted “we can conclude that a military strike by the Israeli Air force against Iranian Nuclear Facilities is possible, however, it would be complex and high risk in the operational level and would lack any assurances of a high mission success rate.” Of course, as already stated, what constitutes a success in such an operation is subjective depending upon one would hope such a strike would accomplish.  The same study estimated the IAF strike force would lose between 5 and 10% of its planes and as it assumed the attacking force would comprise between 100 and 150 planes it estimated the Israelis would lose between 5 and 15 planes.  Arguably worse from a strategic and political view than the loss of any planes would be if any Israeli pilot(s) survived and had to be rescued; leading to potentially complicated search and rescue missions that would turn an already complex situation into perhaps all out war between the two nations.  However the Israelis would arguably have greater concerns in the aftermath of any aerial assault against Iran.

And herein lies most of the objections regarding an attack on Iran by the IAF:  The consequences of such an operation.  While no one can guarantee what such consequences would be, there is potential it could result in significant bloodshed and widespread economic fallout.

The first consequence no matter what would be an increase in the price of oil.  This should not come as a surprise considering nearly every threat of action, or action itself, in the Middle East inevitably produces such an outcome.  How much an increase would depend upon the subsequent intensity and duration of any and all retaliation against Israeli and possibly American and European interests.  It goes without saying that additional economic fallout, be it mild or catastrophic, would also depend upon the same circumstances.

The next consideration would be the potential of such retaliation against Israel for mounting a strike against Iran.  Of course the Arab world, most of the U.N, and maybe even America would all issue verbal condemnations and censure Israel for its actions.  Sanctions would be unlikely as the U.S. would veto such a resolution at the U.N. and many countries would privately approve of the Israeli strike.  The Americans would probably grumble and delay aid and weapons to Israel for a short while, but ultimately the considerable Jewish Lobby in America would prevail and U.S.-Israeli relations would likely stabilize eventually.

However, the real threat to Israel would involve direct military retaliation via Iran and its allies, specifically Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.  In the worst case scenario Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria would launch a combination of rockets, missile and terrorist attacks against Israel while Syria would initiate a conventional war with the Jewish state.  In such a case the Israelis, having an indisputable technological and conventional advantage would beat back the Syrians and inflict considerably more damage to her enemies than she would suffer.  However, the cost, especially among civilians, would be high to both sides and it is difficult to see how such a war would end.

It is assumed that Israel, learning from the 2006 war against Hezbollah and the 2009 war against Hamas would realize that the only significant chance of halting the terrorist’s ad-hoc and inexpensive rockets would be to physically overrun the launch sites by invading enemy territory.  This they could do by mobilizing their reserves and invading Southern Lebanon up to the Litani River and the Gaza Strip.  As for the more advanced Iranian and Syrian missiles, it is ironic that their more sophisticated nature would allow the Israelis a much better chance to target and destroy them due to Israel’s unquestionable dominance in conventional warfare and the many anti-missile Defense systems the Americans have provided her with.  These systems can easily track and destroy big expensive missiles but not cheap and small rockets produced by terrorist proxies (hence the potential need to physically overrun their launch sites).  As for the threat of a Syrian conventional assault against Israel, the last four wars between the two nations provide ample proof that the Israelis would easily quash the Syrians.

A more realistic scenario would involve a combination of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran either launching token rocket and missile attacks against Israel, or not responding to the Israeli strike and playing the victim card.  While critics of the use of force against Iran, not to mention many military and intelligence cadres, like to emphasize the worst case scenario there are many credible reasons why any retaliation against Israel would either be extremely limited or non-existent.

History is illuminating in this regard considering that during the war against Hezbollah in 2006, the strike against the suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, and the war against Hamas in 2009 none of their supposed brothers in arms came to their aid during the Israeli attacks.

In the case of Hezbollah and Hamas it should be noted that while both organizations survived Israel’s considerable assaults against them in 2006 and 2009 respectively, both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip suffered horrendously in both conflicts.  It is likely that the Lebanese and the Palestinians have little inclination to suffer further hardships for the sake of solidarity with the Iranians.  Hezbollah and Hamas, both organizations that rely upon popular support from these groups in order to govern would probably hesitate before launching all out rocket attacks on Israel.  It is possible they would launch a very limited campaign of rocket attacks (in terms of numbers and duration) for the sake of appearing to back Iran but the chances they would launch a protracted and extensive campaign against Israel is unlikely.   An additional motivating factor is that the Israeli public, frustrated by the lack of progress during both previous conflicts against these organizations, would likely back more comprehensive methods (including ground assaults) against both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in the event of hostilities.  Considering the Israelis performed better in their war against Hamas in 2009 than Hezbollah in 2006 due to more emphasis on firepower and relaxing the rules of engagement there is no reason to believe Israel would react less violently to sustained rocket attack than the last few times.

In the case of Syria, and as already noted above, the military history of the “Arab-Israeli Wars” is almost a catalogue of constant Syrian defeats at the hands of the IDF.  Perhaps of greater consequence is that for the last year Syria’s President, Bashar-al Assad, has been fighting an insurrection against his rule that may or may not overthrow his Alawi dominated regime.  In other words the Syrians have more serious problems to deal with than an Israeli attack against Iran.

All of which leaves Iran.  The Iranians could either launch ballistic missiles and their air force against Israel, blockade the Strait of Hormuz, or attempt to launch terrorist attacks against Israel, Europe, or the United States.  In the case of the first three options the Iranian air force and missiles would probably do minimal, if any, damage to Israel.  Iran’s air force is mostly obsolete and has little capacity to hit Israeli cities.  Even if it could the IAF with its superior training, weaponry and equipment would probably do to Iran’s air force what it did to the Syrian Air force over the Bekaa Valley in 1982. 

Regarding the Strait of Hormuz the Iranian navy would only be able to occupy it for a few days, or maybe only a few hours, before the U.S. Carrier fleet docked in nearby Bahrain would confront and destroy it due to its indisputable advantages in technology and firepower.  A more problematic situation would occur if the Iranians mined the Strait in which case, dependent upon how extensive the minefield would be, it would take the Americans between a few days, to a few weeks, to clear.  Either way, considering the Iranians are dependent upon free passage of the Strait to export their oil (the lynch pin of their economic power) closing it would be an extremely irrational thing to.

Iran could also theoretically attack U.S. forces in the region with its ballistic missiles and/or American naval assets in the Gulf via swarming tactics with its countless smaller attack boats.  However, as stated above, America’s supremacy in conventional warfare would ensure that such an exchange would be exceedingly one sided. 

The threat of launching terrorist attacks, especially against Israel, is potentially a more credible threat yet not as severe as many pundits would like to believe.  Iran’s ability to launch terror attacks against the U.S. is very limited and any attack would result in significant military backlash against Tehran (maybe even provoking the Americans into launching even more devastating attacks against Iran’s already damaged nuclear program).  Apparently Hezbollah at least has the infrastructure in the U.S. to potentially launch terrorist attacks on American soil.  However this would probably be harmful to the organization due to all the funding it raises in the U.S. and would likely turn it into an international pariah just as the “September 11 attacks” did to Al-Qaeda.   Additionally, attacking Europe would be reckless since much of Europe has little sympathy for Israel and the United States and it would risk sacrificing the potential sympathy Iran could gain from being attacked by the IAF. 

However, Iran does have the ability via its proxies (Hezbollah and Hamas) to launch terrorist attacks against Israel.  While Hezbollah and Hamas would probably refrain from seriously launching rockets against Israel due to the damage they experienced in 2006 and 2009 respectively, they could arguably launch at least some suicide attacks against the Jewish state.  In such a case Israel is well prepared from decades of counter-terrorists operations and would probably not incur significant casualties.

Perhaps it is too obvious to state that the real negative consequences for Israel, the United States, and much of the rest of the world regarding an Israeli attack on Iran would be economic and diplomatic.  As noted earlier the price of oil would increase, though whether or not it would be economically devastating would depend on the duration and intensity of any potential conflict that would follow such an attack, and whether or not the Iranians blockaded or mined the Strait of Hormuz.

Israel would not lose much sympathy or support in the Middle East or among the international community.  As the Israeli state is vilified by every country in the region and is treated with disproportionate disdain at the supposedly neutral United Nations, it is hard to see Israel’s stock falling further in these quarters.  As for their best ally, as has already been mentioned the Americans may feel compelled to verbally chastise the Israelis and perhaps delay the delivery of some aid and weaponry but the strong jewish lobby in Washington, or the eventual election of a more pro-Israeli American president, would likely reduce the chance of a long term rift developing.  Of course the exception to this would be if the Iranians decided to launch severe conventional and terrorist strikes against American military assets or civilians in lieu of an attack by Israel in which case American policy makers may finally conclude supporting Israel is not worth all the negative consequences it entails.

Diplomatically, the Americans have the most to lose from an Israeli attack on Iran.  Any conflict or violence between Israel and any of her enemies almost invariably damages American prestige in the region.  This is not necessarily fair as America has not always condoned Israeli actions to supposedly protect itself.  In some situations such as the “Suez Crisis” in 1956 and Israel’s destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 America has been outright hostile.  Even in situations where America has had more sympathy for the Israelis, such as the “Yom Kippur War” in 1973 or Israel’s countless invasions and air campaigns against Lebanon, it is usually American pressure that forces Israel to stop fighting.  Yet fair or not, the lowering of American prestige in the region is always a byproduct of any Israeli action against its perceived enemies and an attack on Iran would be no exception.

Whatever anyone’s view on America’s role in the Middle East, it is possible that the more influence they lose in the area the more prestige countries like Iran and Syria and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, will gain.  If people actually believe that these entities would provide more stability, prosperity or democracy for the region in the place of relative American dominance they are mistaken.  Interestingly enough the people in the region seem to understand this more than the Western world does.  The fact that all of the movements in the “Arab Spring” have requested American aid, rather than help from Iran and its proxies, is undeniable proof that Iran’s fundamentalist style of governance has little real appeal among the Arab people.  Even in Iran and Syria the people are getting tired of their rulers as seen by Tehran’s ruthless crack down on the protests following the supposedly rigged election in 2009 and the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Therefore, while it is possible that an Israeli attack on Iran could harm American prestige in the short term it is not likely that the Iranians would be able to take advantage of it in the long term.  There are ample precedents for this as the political capital the Iranians accumulated from the Israeli wars against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009 have not improved its geopolitical position in the region vis-a-vis the Americans.  Even more incredibly, Israel’s previous strikes against nuclear targets in Iraq and Syria caused little backlash in the region.  In the case of Iraq it led to a few condemnations at the U.N, and in the case of Syria there was barely a murmur at all.  While none of this guarantees an Israeli strike against Iran would not result in a significant increase of violence or anti-Americanism in the region, it is likely that it would not be unmanageable.

Yet ultimately nothing is certain.  It is unknown if the Israel will actually strike Iran, and whether it even has the capability to serious damage its nuclear program.  It is also unknown if, or how, Iran and its proxies would retaliate against Israel or the United States.  Finally, there is no telling how such variables will affect Israel, Iran, the United States, the Middle East, and possibly the global economy, in the long term.

There is enough evidence to suggest that an Israeli attack against Iran could result in a substantial, though probably not long-term, success and that it would not result in serious conflict or economic fallout in the aftermath.  However, there is a chance, however minor, that the worst case scenario could play out and that the resulting war would be the most bloody conflict the Middle East has witnessed since the “Iran-Iraq War.” Whether or not the Israelis believe targeting Iran’s nuclear capabilities is worth potentially igniting such a war, is perhaps the most important question of all.



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Claire, Rodger. Raid on the Sun. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.

Harel, Amos and Avi Issacharoff.  34 Days:  Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon. New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Herzog, Chaim. The Arab-Israeli Wars. London: Greenhill Books, 2005.

Rosenberg, Joel.  The Tehran Initiative.  Carol Stream:  Tyndale House Publishers, 2011.

Article from “Foreign Affairs” magazine:  Not Time to Attack Iran by Colin Kahl, March/April 2012.

Article from “Foreign Affairs” magazine:  Time to Attack Iran by Matthew Kroenig, January/February 2012.

Article from “Truth Out News”:  What Israel’s War Against Iran Would Look Like by Richard Sale, December 2011.

Article from “The Atlantic Wire”:  The Playbook for an Israeli Airstrike on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities by John Hudson, February, 2012.

Article from “USA Today”:  Israeli attack on Iran would be complex by Jim Michaels, February 2012.

Article from “The New York Times”:  Iran Raid Seen as a Huge Task for Israeli Jets by Elizabeth Bumiller, February 2012.

Article from “Strategic Culture Foundation”:  Israeli Air Strike on Iran: Plans and Consequences by Andrei Akulov, February 2012.

Article from “Reuters”:  Israel could mount pinpoint raids on Iran: analysts by Dan Williams, November 2011.

Article from “The Jerusalem Post”:  What the IDF’s Iran wish list would look like by Yaakov Katz, March 2012.

Article from “BBC News Middle East”:  Image captures Iran military base explosion damage, November 2011.

Article from “Politico”:  Peter King warns: Hezbollah agents in U.S. by MJ Lee, March 2009.

Study for “Centre of Strategic and International Studies”:  Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Development Facilities by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman, March 2009. 

Wikipedia article on “Iran Nuclear Program”: [March, 2012]

Wikipedia article on “Nuclear facilities in Iran”: [March, 2012]

Wikipedia article on “Operation Orchard”: [March, 2012]