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?

Great Generals that Lost their Wars: Hannibal, Napoleon, Lee and Rommel

Posted By on September 3, 2015

imagePart 1: Hannibal Barca

Hannibal Barca, Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert E Lee and Erwin Rommel are often considered the greatest generals of their respective wars. At the tactical level they were usually the best and they all achieved incredible battlefield victories despite fighting against considerable odds. However, despite being military geniuses all of them lost their wars in the end. Factors such as inadequate resources and manpower, deficiencies in naval power and logistics, underestimating their opponents and the failure to adequately attacked their enemies’ centres of gravity, as well as their propensity to gamble ultimately doomed these generals to defeat.

In many ways these men were different, one being from ancient Carthage, another from France, yet another from America and the last from Germany. They also lived in different times; Hannibal in the late 3rd Century B.C, Napoleon during the early 19th Century A.D, Lee the latter half, and Rommel during the 20th Century. Their societies were equally unique; Hannibal from a mercantile and maritime empire, Napoleon from a French Monarchy and then Republic, Lee from a society based on slavery and exploitation, and Rommel from a society that went from being cultured and intelligent to the epitome of hatred and cruelty. All of them were motivated by different things: Hannibal to avenge his country’s, and his father’s, humiliation by Rome in a previous war, Napoleon by an unabashedly desire to dominate Europe, Lee by the genuine desire to protect his state from harm, and Rommel by the desire to be great and famous.

Hannibal Barca was a Carthaginian who became a soldier at the age of 9 and remained undefeated in Italy after 16 years of war, his army surviving despite being usually outnumbered and cut off from reinforcements and supplies from the outside. Napoleon Bonaparte was a career soldier who came to prominence after the “French Revolution” and exploited the political atmosphere in France to become Emperor and came close to dominating Europe over the course of a generation. Robert E Lee was a southern gentlemen who hated slavery yet fought for the South anyway during the “American Civil War” and kept at bay the much larger and stronger forces of the North for several years. Erwin Rommel was an opportunistic and almost reckless German general in “World War 2” who defeated the British time and time again in North Africa despite having few resources and being all but ignored from his leaders at home.

However, besides these differences they had several key commonalities. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, they were all military geniuses. They all had a good grasp of warfare; the theory, how it worked in practice, and how to lead and motivate men under the most arduous of circumstances. They were not armchair generals but men who had risen up from the ranks and had experienced danger, hardship and squalid conditions first hand. This led to another commonality; they all led by example. They commanded from the front, shared their men’s suffering and difficulties and were willing, in fact striving, to do anything they asked their subordinates to do. Livy’s description of Hannibal emphasizes this clearly:

“The power to command and readiness to obey are rare associates; but in Hannibal they were perfectly united…..Under his leadership the men invariable showed to the best advantage both dash and confidence. Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability once it was upon him. Indefatigable both physically and mentally, he could endure with equal ease excessive heat or excessive cold, he ate and drank not to flatter his appetites but only so much as would sustain his bodily strength. His time for waking, like his time for sleeping, was never determined by daylight or darkness: when his work was done, then, and then only, he rested, without need, moreover of silence or a soft bed to woo sleep to his eyes. Often he was seen lying in his cloak on the bare ground amongst the common soldiers on sentry or picket duty. His accroutement, like the horses he rode, was always conspicuous, but not his clothes, which were like those of any other office of his rank and standing. Mounted or unmounted he was unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field.”

Another similarity is that they were brilliant at the tactical level of warfare, as in they were experts at knowing how to win battles. For them winning battles was the most important thing in war. As Clausewitz noted in his masterpiece “the wish to annihilate the enemy’s forces, is the first-born son of war.” Whatever faults can be ascribed to these men, they were probably the best military tacticians of their day. Yet winning battles, especially those that did not produce decisive strategic or political results, is only one part of warfare and as will be shown the disproportionate focus shown by these men towards winning battles ultimately proved counter-productive in certain instances.

All of them were also masters at maneuver in warfare and seeking quick victories. Part of this was due to their aggressive nature and part due to their respective strategic positions during their wars. Maneuver in warfare and seeking quick, decisive results is risky and uncertain whereas attrition and prolonged warfare is more safe and predictable. However, even if these men had not been naturally bold and aggressive their strategic predicaments during their conflicts dictated they could not afford to be cautious. Generally these men fought for countries and led armies that had less men, weapons, resources and money than their enemies. Keeping in mind Sun Tzu’s maxim that “no nation has ever benefited from protracted war” it would have been suicidal for these generals to fight long and attritional wars against enemies who could outlast them in men and resources.

Thus as noted earlier they emphasized on winning battles and the quickest and usually most decisive means of winning decisive victories involved maneuver. If you look at the greatest battlefield victories of Hannibal, Napoleon, Lee and Rommel they never consisted of lines of infantry meeting each other head on and wearing each other down until one ultimately prevailed. Rather they involved bold maneuvers that either overwhelmed an enemy’s flank, such as “Austerlitz,” threatened their lines of communication, such as “Gazala,” or encircled or trapped them completely such as “Cannae.” Such moves often compensated for inferior numbers due to the fact that success in war is often more of a result of psychological than physical factors considering soldiers who are outflanked and encircled are more likely to panic and flee (even if they enjoy numerical superiority) then if they face them straight ahead in a slugging match. Ultimately the hope was that decisive victories based on maneuver would quickly defeat the enemy before they had a chance to allow their superior resources and manpower to overwhelm the other side. While these generals and their countries sometimes accomplished this in the end they all failed.

This meant that these generals were gamblers. As Napoleon once said “if the art of war consisted merely in not taking risks glory would be at the mercy of very mediocre talent.” However, once again it should be stated that considering their unfavourable strategic situations they often had little choice but to gamble. Time, money, manpower, and resources were ultimately against them so being cautious was usually not an option. A lot of the time their gambles produced some of the greatest military victories in history. However, these men were not infallible and whereas sometimes they had to gamble because they had no choice at other times they gambled prematurely, or foolishly, when they had the advantage and it cost them dearly; Rommel’s “dash to the wire” in 1941 and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia being poignant examples.

Then there were some commonalities amongst these men that can unequivocally be labelled as faults rather than virtues. Perhaps the most obvious was that eventually they tended to underestimate their enemies. This is not hard to understand considering these men were perfectionists and were extremely intelligent, competent and ruthless. Given that they often faced amateurs and fools who had no business being generals and armies that were poorly trained and inexperienced it is no surprise that they sometimes succumbed to hubris and complacency. Yet Clausewitz cautioned to “never engage the same enemy for too long or he will adapt to your tactics,” and it is often the case in war that the initial victors fail to change and adapt whereas the initial losers learn from their mistakes and inevitably triumph.

Another flaw was that these generals either misunderstood, or underestimated, naval power. These men were all land generals who excelled at destroying their adversaries on land and gave little thought to naval affairs. Once again some of this was due to circumstances (none of them enjoyed naval superiority during their conflicts) but it seems that none of them took serious interest in naval warfare. As will be seen these generals won battle after battle on land but their deficiencies in naval power ultimately produced negative strategic results against them.

Underestimating certain logistical considerations was also to be another fatal flaw for these men. However, it should be noted that none of these men were ignorant about logistics in general. Hannibal could not have crossed the Pyrenees, the Alps and survived 16 years in Italy without hardly any resupply from Carthage had he being ignorant regarding logistics. Napoleon also initially excelled at logistics, mostly by being ruthless and letting his army live off the enemy via pillaging and stealing every resource that came within their reach. Lee deserves credit for moving and supplying his forces effectively so often despite the backwards state of the South’s infrastructure. Even Rommel, the supposed quartermaster’s nightmare, pulled off several coups such as hastily organizing a refuelling operation at night while he was almost surrounded by British forces in May 1942.

However, whereas all of them excelled at logistics in the short term they failed in the long term. This would eventually prove to be disastrous for them.

Finally, an additional flaw was that despite their military genius these men, with some notable exceptions, failed to realize and exploit their enemies’ true centres of gravity regarding their war efforts. An enemy’s “centre of gravity” is the thing, be it their capital city where policy is made, their industrial or economic heartland where their resources or financial wealth is created, or their armed forces that protects their territory, that more or less keeps them in the war. For example, capturing an enemy’s capital might crush their will to resist and they may surrender. Or securing the enemy’s industrial heartland (such as Germany’s Ruhr valley) could cripple their capacity to produce enough weapons and resources to continue the war. Finally, destroying, or at least neutralizing, the enemy army can allow the invader to overrun enough territory or even the whole country and force them to surrender. As was noted earlier these generals were extremely focused on winning battles and while that admittedly often led to decisive results it also resulted in them occasionally ignoring potential opportunities that could have won their conflicts for good, or offered better results in the long run, and even led them to gambles that seem reckless and foolish with hindsight.

Yet to be fair these common flaws; underestimating the enemy, neglecting naval power, misunderstanding certain logistical considerations, and failing to identify and neutralizing their enemy’s true centres of gravity often had as much to do with their relative strategic situations as their own personal dispositions. It is true that these men were aggressive, tended to gamble, focused on land battles that promised quick, tactical victories and often dismissed their enemies and deemed that things such as logistics, naval, economic and industrial factors were of secondary importance. However, as already stated these men usually had the disadvantage in these latter categories and while this is not to suggest that they could have done more to even out, or alleviate, these disadvantages, it does make sense that these generals focused on their strengths (maneuver, speed, tactics and cunning) to win decisive victories instead of investing more in areas they had little chance of prevailing in. Yet regarding underestimating the enemy these generals deserve more censure. Sun Tzu wrote that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” It is true that while these generals often knew both their own capabilities and those of the enemy, as time went on they tended to form a less accurate picture of their opponents and this led to major mistakes on their part.

It is necessary to analyze the wars, campaigns and battles that these generals fought as well as the various strategies, tactics and methods of commands they used to understand not only why they were great generals, but also why they ultimately lost. The geopolitical circumstances of each conflict, as well as how their enemies conducted themselves and then adapted after their initial defeats are also relevant in this regard.

Let us start with Hannibal Barca and his war against Rome.

Hannibal Barca was the main Carthaginian commander during the “Second Punic War.” His strategy during this war between Rome and Carthage was to invade Italy overland via Spain and France to fight the Romans on their own soil. He did this both because he wanted to fight the war in Italy instead of letting it be waged against his own territories in Spain and North Africa and because he believed Rome could only be beaten in Italy. Rome’s biggest advantages versus Carthage was its vastly superior manpower, and better navy, and Hannibal felt his only chance to win the war was to invade Italy, destroy Roman armies, force Rome’s allies to defect to Carthage and thus rob Rome of her superiority in manpower. It was hoped that this would force, or convince, the Romans to sue for peace.

Hannibal was arguably the greatest general in antiquity, perhaps better than Alexander and Caesar. He was the best tactician of the war, a model leader and a shrewd trickster. He always led by example; sharing his men’s toils, getting in the thick of the fight and ate and dressed the same as even the lowest soldier. Hannibal was a master at maneuver in warfare, always utilized terrain to his advantage, and was adept at ambushes and surprise attacks. He effectively coordinated the considerably different contingents under his command to allow their various strengths to be used against the Romans who were generally predictable and beaten by him time and again. He was so effective as a commander that he maintained himself in Italy for 15 years even though he received almost no reinforcements from Carthage, was inadequately bolstered by some Gallic tribesmen and defecting Italians, and was almost always outnumbered (often incredibly so) by the Romans.

Like our other generals Hannibal had, initially, a better trained and more professional army that benefited from superior leadership, doctrine and tactics. Eschewing attrition and lengthy sieges (usually at least) he sought out decisive battles against the Romans to smash their armies to hopefully alter the unfavourable strategic situation between Rome and Carthage. In battle he focused on maneuver, deception, terrain and the various capabilities of his multinational forces versus the Roman legions who were generally homogeneous and over-reliant on brute force methods at the expense of maneuver.

Yet before he even got to Italy to inflict the many reverses he did on Rome he had to travel a long and hazardous trek across rivers, mountain-chains, and areas filled with hostile tribes. During these marches Hannibal lost roughly 50% of his army from desertions, battle, the elements and attrition. When he finally arrived in Italy he had perhaps 26,000 sick, tired and hungry men and cavalry to fight Rome. It should be noted that Polybius estimated that Rome and her allies could mobilize up to 700,000 infantry and 70,000 for any potential conflict at this time and as such Hannibal’s small army represented a mere 3% of this gigantic figure! No wonder his strategy involved recruiting Gallic tribes and to pressure Rome’s Italian allies to defect; this was the only chance he had in such a lopsided war.

For the first few years of the war we see Hannibal trying, and generally succeeding, in provoking the Romans into battle to both destroy their armies as well as motivate the Gallic tribes in Italy, and Rome’s Italian allies, to desert to him. After crossing the Alps his forces were very weak and he needed quick support from the Gallic tribes before the Romans would overwhelm him. The first battle between Hannibal and Rome occurred at the Ticinus river which was predominantly a skirmish between Hannibal’s cavalry and Roman light infantry and calvary. The battle is easy to describe as Hannibal used his cavalry to outflank and outmaneuver the more cumbersome Roman force and won the battle with few losses. This is turn motivated most of the Gallic tribes in the area to join his side and gave him enough strength to win the subsequent battle at the Trebia River.

Hannibal’s greatest victories in Italy would include Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae.

At the river Trebia in late 218 B.C. Hannibal’s weak infantry in the centre absorbed the main Roman assault while his superior calvary, and elephants, on the flanks routed their Roman equivalents and then turned to attack the Roman infantry from both flanks. Then Hannibal threw in an elite force that had been hiding near the battlefield to attack the Romans from behind. The latter became surrounded and while some of them broke through Hannibal’s centre the lion share were slaughtered.

Lake Trasimene in 217 B.C. was Hannibal’s next great victory. Here he had marched through a narrow passageway near the lake that was was flanked by hills to the north. As his Roman opponents pursued him he doubled back during the night and placed most of his forces in the hills. The next morning he lured the Romans into the narrow defile by posting units at the far end of the pass to get the Romans to advance. As the Romans advanced into the defile they could not see much of the hills above because there was a great mist blanketing the area. Once they were in the trap Hannibal threw his army down the hills and slaughtered the Roman army that was surrounded on all sides and was still vulnerable in marching formation. The Romans lost perhaps 20,000-30,000 men, Hannibal lost 1500-2500 casualties.

Yet Cannae in 216 B.C. would be Hannibal’s masterpiece, a battle where although he was outnumbered by perhaps 50% he still managed to encircle and completely destroy the opposing army. Hannibal had his outnumbered and inferior Spanish and Gallic infantry in the centre slowly withdraw in the face of Rome’s vastly superior infantry. Meanwhile Hannibal posted the majority of his cavalry, who were superior to the Roman calvary on the left flank to quickly defeat the Roman cavalry there and then move on behind the Roman infantry and attack the Roman allied calvary on the other flank. Meanwhile the Roman infantry in the centre inevitable burst through the weak Carthaginian centre.

However, by then the Roman infantry was very disorganized. Even worse for them was that Hannibal had wisely posted his Libyan infantry behind his main infantry lines and on their left and right flanks. These were his best soldiers, they were still fresh as they had not yet joined the battle and were now in a position to advance on both flanks of the advancing Roman infantry. They quickly hit the Roman formations and halted their advance, which also allowed Hannibal’s Gallic and Spanish infantry to reorganize after their initial rout and go back over to the attack.

Finally, most of Hannibal’s calvary returned from routing the Roman and Latin calvary and sealed the victory by attacking the Roman infantry from behind and completing their encirclement. This was followed by hours of butchery as the vast majority of the Roman army of perhaps 75,000 was killed or captured in a single day of combat. Cannae would go down in history as the perfect battle and countless generals would attempt to imitate it.

We see in these battles Hannibal’s strengths as a general. At Cannae he was personally involved in the most desperate fighting in the centre of the line where his inferior infantry were hard pressed. He used brilliant maneuvers at Trebia and Cannae to encircle numerically superior enemy forces. He used the river at Trebia to weaken the Romans, as well as the flat plains near Trebia and at Cannae maximize the use of his calvary. He used elite forces to ambush the Roman rear at Trebia and launched perhaps the most successful surprise attack in history at Lake Trasimene. He used his different contingents to the best of their abilities: His Numidian cavalry to provoke, harass and maneuver, his close order Gallic and Spanish cavalry for both shock effect and decision, his Libyan infantry as elite troops and frankly his Gallic infantry as cannon fodder.

After Cannae Hannibal expected the Romans to sue for peace considering he had bested all the forces they had sent against him for the past 3 years, had moved across the Italian peninsula with impunity, and Rome no longer had significant forces left in Italy to oppose him. Yet Rome refused to surrender and would not even negotiate. Rather she raised more troops and generally refused to fight Hannibal directly in Italy for the remainder of the war.

Instead Rome used her superiority in manpower and naval power, and generally better leadership (besides of course Hannibal) to take the fight to Carthage and her allies in Sicily, Sardinia, Illyria, Spain and finally to North Africa and Carthage itself. Using these advantages Rome conquered Sicily and Spain, retained Sardinia, neutralized Carthage’s Macedonian ally in Illyria, and brought the Carthaginians to the verge of defeat in their homeland. She also used delaying tactics to eventually neutralize, if not defeat, Hannibal in Italy and improved the capabilities of her army so that Scipio would eventually defeat the former in battle and win the war.

Thus in 202 B.C. the Roman commander in North Africa, Scipio, brought the Carthaginians to terms. While Hannibal had never been defeated in Italy he was forced to evacuate Italy with his army during an uneasy armistice between Rome and Carthage. However, this armistice broke down and Hannibal’s army marched to confront Scipio’s and met him at Zama to attempt to save Carthage from unconditional surrender.

Zama is an interesting battle. Whereas in most battles Hannibal was generally outnumbered, at Zama he had numerical superiority. Additionally, while he generally had better and more numerous cavalry, here he did not. This was a combination of him having to leave behind, or kill, considerable horses in Italy, the Roman ability to recruit disenchanted Numidian forces in North Africa, as well as the failure of Carthage’s remaining loyal Numidian allies to get to Zama in time for the battle. Perhaps worse for Hannibal was that his troops composed of differing formations that had not fought and trained together. They compromised of mercenaries from Liguria and elsewhere, levies raised among the Carthaginians in North Africa, and his veterans from Italy. These forces differed considerably in quality and were, with the exception of Hannibal’s veterans, no match for Scipio’s legions.

Meanwhile, Scipio’s forces may have been outnumbered in infantry but at least his infantry were better trained and had fought together for years. Additionally, Scipio had trained them in sophisticated maneuvers, mimicking Hannibal’s success in Italy. Perhaps most decisive was that Scipio held a significant numerical advantage in cavalry which would prove decisive at Zama.

Hannibal’s plan at Zama was to first use his elephants (of which there were 30-80 based on differing sources) to sow panic and confusion among the Roman legions, then use his inferior cavalry to lure Rome’s calvary from the field (as Hannibal’s cavalry had no chance of beating their equivalents) and finally to use his numerically superior infantry to beat Scipio’s legions. Hannibal placed his infantry in 3 different lines one after the other with his mercenaries in the first line, the Carthaginian levies in the second, and his veterans in the last. He did this to hopefully wear down Scipio’s legions with his first two lines and then deliver the coup de grace with his veterans. He also used this deployment so that if Scipio attempted to use any of his legions to envelope his army Hannibal could use his forces behind the main line to counteract, if not destroy, any Roman enveloping force.

The battle began with the elephants charging and Scipio unequivocally won this first engagement by opening lanes in his ranks to allow the elephants to run harmlessly through his lines, by using a variety of light infantry to harass and kill several of them, and using trumpets and horns to disorient the elephants. These had a decisive influence as the elephants inflicted little harm on the Romans and some of them even panicked and retreated to Carthaginian lines and caused some chaos there.

The next part of the battle seemingly went well for the Romans as their calvary quickly charged and forced Hannibal’s calvary from the field, following them as they fled. However, this was actually a victory for Hannibal as he had purposely ordered them to lure the superior Roman and Numidian cavalry away from the battle so that he could hopefully win the infantry contest before they returned. Thus the battle quickly became an infantry slog between Scipio’s legions and Hannibal’s ad-hoc force. The battle see-sawed as the Roman infantry inevitably pushed back Hannibal’s first two lines after some vicious fighting. However, by deploying his forces one after the other Hannibal neutralized Scipio’s plans to envelop his lines and after being initially routed Hannibal ordered the mercenaries and the Carthaginian levies to deploy on the flanks of his veterans, who were Fresh as they had not yet joined the battle, and prepared for a final showdown with Scipio’s infantry that now formed a solid line confronting him.

This last infantry engagement was particular savage and hard fought and it is debatable which side would have prevailed had they been left alone to fight it out. However, the Roman cavalry had in the meantime finally chased down its Carthaginian equivalent, decisively beaten it, and then returned to the battlefield to take Hannibal’s infantry from the rear. The similarity with this end result as at Cannae was extremely ironic. This last maneuver doomed Hannibal’s armies and his force was ruthlessly cut down and he made good his escape, conceding to Scipio victory in the battle. The statistics of the battle were grim for Carthage as Hannibal’s forces lost 20,000 dead and 20,000 prisoners (mostly inflicted after the Roman cavalry trapped Hannibal’s infantry) whereas Scipio’s losses were more modest, estimated between 1500-6500.

The “Battle of Zama” ended the war decisively in Rome’s favour. Despite Hannibal’s unequalled genius during the conflict there were several factors which allowed the Roman’s to recover from their near crippling defeat after Cannae and gave them victory in the end.

Firstly, the Romans had vastly superior manpower. Even with Gallic allies, the defection of some of Rome’s southern Italian allies, as well as Syracuse and King Phillip V of Macedonia entering the war on Hannibal’s side Carthage never came close to matching Roman manpower. Since the Romans usually absorbed their former enemies who then became allies with rights and privileges and then received the protection of Rome the Romans were always able to recruit troops from a significantly large pool of loyal citizens who had a stake in the outcome of the war. Meanwhile Carthage, with a similar population to the Roman Republic as a whole, could only mobilize a much smaller force from reluctant subjects with little rights in Spain and North Africa while her own citizens usually cared more about commerce than fighting.

This advantage not only allowed the Romans to fight against Hannibal in Italy with usually superior numbers, but also take the fight to Spain, Greece, Sicily and finally North Africa, beating the Carthaginians and their allies in the theatres of war outside Italy. Ironically the Romans never had to beat Hannibal in Italy as their success in North Africa threatened Carthage enough that he had to evacuate from Italy to try to save his country.

Yet the Romans only managed to accomplish this due to her naval superiority, which was her next main advantage. The Romans had won the “First Punic War” against Carthage over Sicily by building a superior fleet than the Carthaginians and beating them at sea. After that conflict Rome had opportunistically annexed Corsica and Sardinia while Carthage had been preoccupied with putting down a rebellion by her former mercenary army. Rome thus controlled the main islands between Carthage and herself and maintained a superior fleet than the Carthaginians in between the wars as well.

Roman naval superiority enabled her to transport and supply her legions to fight and beat the Carthaginians and her allies in Spain, Sicily and North Africa. It also forced Hannibal to undertake his risky and costly invasion of Italy that had resulted in the defection, or destruction, of half of his initial army. Finally, it more or less effectively cut Hannibal off from being reliably, and regularly, supplied in Italy by Carthage during the war. Except for briefly in 215 B.C. Hannibal would never receive more supplies for his army in Italy again.

Hannibal was further denied victory in Italy by Roman efforts to refuse battles under conditions that would be advantageous to him, as well enacting scorched earth methods. This had initially been adopted after the disaster at Lake Trasimene when Quintus Fabius Maximus had been elected dictator of Rome. He had wisely noted that Hannibal and his army clearly outmatched the Roman legions so his strategy was to avoid battles and focus on skirmishes where his forces had the advantage, as well as harassing Hannibal’s foragers and destroying crops and supplies in his path to prevent the Carthaginians from being adequately supplied in an already hostile enemy land. However, this strategy had limitations. Firstly, while his capabilities were restricted due to his supply situation, Hannibal was never effectively starved out. Secondly, the strategy was initially abandoned in 216 B.C. due to Roman impatience and indignation which led to the disaster at Cannae later in the year. Finally, in the years after Cannae Hannibal may have been slowly hemmed into Southern Italy and reduced as a threat, but he was never defeated outright. However, given that Hannibal constantly strove to inflict major battlefield defeats and facilitate the defection of enough Roman allies to make her concede defeat, and given that this strategy in effect denied this outcome, and given that it allowed the Romans to prevail in other theatres of war and force Hannibal to return home, it is safe to say that it was the right strategy for the Romans to have adopted.

Another key in the Roman recovery was the learning curve of her armies. Whereas Rome had started the conflict with the usual practice of raising relatively inexperienced legions annually she started keeping much of her legions together for longer periods of time. Rome also kept its military leaders on for longer periods of command. This allowed both to gain more experience and confidence in fighting the Carthaginians and their allies. Eventually it allowed some Roman commanders, such as Marcellus, to even beat Hannibal in a few major skirmishes in Italy. Yet perhaps the best innovations were produced by Scipio who learned from Hannibal how to use surprise, speed and maneuver effectively to defeat enemy forces. Thus he took New Carthage in a quick assault in 209 B.C. and used maneuvers to decisively defeat the Carthaginians and end their influence in Spain after the battles of “Baecula” in 208 B.C. and “Ilipa” in 206 B.C. Then he destroyed several Carthaginian armies in North Africa, once by launching a surprise attack on one of their camps at night. Finally his veteran army defeated Hannibal at Zama, admittedly with the help of disaffected Numidian cavalry.

A final Roman advantage was that with the exception of Hannibal and his army the Romans were generally superior to other Carthaginian leaders, forces and allies. In Spain Hasdrubal Barca and his forces admittedly beat the Romans decisively in 211 B.C, however he had benefitted immensely from superior numbers after the latter were abandoned by their Spanish allies and was also fortunate enough to catch the Romans in isolated forces and crushing them piecemeal. Yet Hasdrubal Barca also lost most of the major engagements before 211 in Spain as well as all the subsequent ones. In 207 B.C. Hasdrubal took a force from Spain and crossed the Alps in an attempt to reinforce Hannibal. However, it was caught by a stronger Roman force at the Metaurus river and crushed.

Likewise Syracuse held out for a few years until it was brutally sacked in 212 B.C. and the Carthaginian contingent in Sicily was always bested by the Romans. Phillip V’s efforts in Illyria did little to harm Roman interests and Scipio easily beat the hastily conscripted and poorly trained Carthaginians in North Africa prior to Hannibal’s arrival. Seen from this perspective Hannibal’s risky strategy to take the fight to Italy seems reasonable considering Carthage and her allies constantly faltered elsewhere.

Bedsides these Roman advantages Hannibal made mistakes that contributed to his ultimate failure.

Firstly, he both misunderstood and underestimated the Romans. His major strategic premise of the war was that to beat Rome he had to convince enough of its allies to defect until she was either wiling to surrender or be unable to continue the war. As Richard Gabriel noted in his biography on the great general Hannibal misunderstood Roman culture as well as Rome’s relationship with her allies. He thought that Rome would behave as a rational Hellenistic like state and concede defeat after being bested in the field several times. Yet the Romans did not see war as limited and rational but as a fight to the death and refused to come to terms even after coming close to collapse after Cannae. He also believed that he could get what he thought were disenfranchised Roman allies to defect. Yet most of these allies were not reluctant bedfellows with Rome but genuine friends who enjoyed several rights, privileged and perks under Roman rule. While some did in fact defect after Cannae most of them stayed loyal, not least because they were suspicious of Carthaginian motives as well as being afraid of potential Roman reprisals.

Hannibal also clearly underestimated Roman capabilities and resolve. Certainly he was shocked by their refusal to come to terms after Cannae, and must have held their generalship in contempt much of the time considering how he kept besting them in the field constantly. He must have been surprised that instead of concentrating on facing him in Italy after Cannae that the Romans instead sought to defeat him indirectly by securing Sicily, seizing Spain and then invading North Africa. Perhaps a classic example of Hannibal underestimating the Romans was his march towards Rome in 211 B.C. in an attempt to relieve the siege of Capua. Instead of raising the siege and coming to Rome’s rescue the Roman’s called Hannibal’s bluff and continued besieging Capua while Hannibal dallied before the walls of Rome.

Hannibal also paid little attention to naval affairs. As listed above Roman naval superiority was decisive in cutting off Hannibal from supplies in Italy, projecting Roman military power abroad, and bringing the war to Carthage and ending the conflict. While it is true that Hannibal had little chance to improve the naval balance between Rome and Carthage it is obvious that he was predominantly a land general who clearly underestimated how Roman naval power could decisively affect the conflict. While it could be argued that with the primitive communications of his age it was hard to coordinate Carthaginian naval and land forces in a hostile war zone such as Italy it is obvious Hannibal should have cared more about naval power.

This ties into Hannibal’s failure to appreciate certain logistical considerations. While Hannibal’s conquest of the Alps is often glamorized the fact remains perhaps more than half of his army was lost crossing them and he never received significant supplies from Carthage or Spain in Italy except for once in 215 B.C. Hannibal was overly dependent on recruiting Gallic tribes and disaffected Italians in Italy and was constantly on the move due to usually operating in hostile territory where his supply situation was uncertain. On the strategic level he never achieved a truly reliable logistics situation in Italy due to these considerations as well as the fact that once he did secure allies in Italy he was forced to defend these as well as simultaneously trying to beat Roman armies in the field, as well as launching operations to secure other Roman cities or allies. However, this can be contrasted to his success in logistics at the operational level as he somehow managed to fight in Italy without being destroyed for 16 years against a vastly superior enemy and a mostly hostile population. Perhaps the argument can be made that Hannibal’s only chance was to invade Italy to win the war there and that he had to take risks regarding logistics due to his circumstances, but clearly Hannibal never found, or even seriously attempted to create, an effective way to master his supply situation.

One factor was whether or not the Carthaginian navy could have effectively, or regularly, supplied Hannibal in Italy, and even if it could have if it would have made a decisive difference given Rome’s superiority regarding manpower. Another consideration is that Hannibal failed to secure a sizeable port in Italy, and yet another that the Carthaginians did in fact reinforce their garrisons in Sicily and Spain relatively easily during the conflict. Yet Spain and Sicily were closer to Carthage and Roman naval power was often too far away to seriously interdict their supply lines much of the time. Meanwhile Southern Italy was farther away from Carthage, the Roman navy was closer and it is obvious the Romans would have made major efforts to interdict Carthaginian plans to resupply Hannibal in Italy had the decision been made to seriously supply him there. Ultimately there seems to have been a failure by the Carthaginians to at least try to adequately supply their forces in Italy and it would be folly to suggest that Hannibal bore no responsibility in this regard.

Finally, Hannibal seems to have either misidentified, or at least failed to attack, Rome’s true centre of gravity in the conflict. There was arguably only 2 ways to bring the Romans to their knees; seizing Rome or destroying the Roman political will to continue the war. The first most likely would have ended the war, whereas the second would be hard to effect as it was a more psychological consideration. Hannibal clearly focused on the latter by attempting to quash Roman political will by destroying Roman armies, causing the defection of her allies, as well as isolating her in the Mediterranean.

It should be noted that Hannibal did enjoy considerable strategic, operational and tactical success regarding these means. Hannibal destroyed nearly every army Rome sent to confront him with from 218-216 B.C. He inflicted other notable battlefield reverses on the Romans such as the two battles at Herdonea. In 208 B.C. he ambushed and killed two consuls. He captured, or won over, most of Southern Italy including the major cities of Capua and Tarentum. His successes convinced Syracuse to join Carthage’s side as well as Philip V of Macedonia to declare war on Rome.

In 16 years of war Rome lost perhaps 50% of her available manpower and at several crucial points her allies refused to provide her with more troops. Yet despite these considerable achievements Rome’s political will to continue the fight never wavered; the Romans saw the contest as a battle to the death and never considered ending it by negotiation.

The city of Rome was the Roman’s true centre of gravity for their war effort and Hannibal never made a serious effort to either capture it by either direct assault or siege. There has been considerable debate among historians and experts not only whether or not Hannibal should have tried to take Rome, but even if he had the means to do so as well. The common belief is that Hannibal had little prospect of success given that he did not have enough troops to assault the city, that he had little siege equipment, and that it would have been difficult to stay in one place for the necessary length of time for a successful siege due to logistical difficulties while operating in a hostile country. However, some historians argue that these factors are either exaggerated, or mistaken, and that Hannibal may have actually had a good chance of capturing Rome.

According to Richard Gabriel after the battle of “Trasimene” Hannibal had enough troops to assault the city, that contrary to popular belief he had, or could have easily constructed, siege equipment, and that he could probably have taken enough risks with logistics that he may have been able to take the Roman capital. At this point the Romans had few troops in the city, her other consular army in Italy was well to the north and occupied fighting the Gauls, and Rome’s city walls were not that impressive. Ironically though Richard Gabriel suggests that the chances of taking the city after “Cannae” were less favourable considering how much farther away Rome was from Cannae versus Lake Trasimene, that Hannibal’s army was weaker at this point, and that Rome could have had more troops available versus a year earlier. However, there is also the argument that the Romans could have potentially been so shocked and demoralized after Cannae that a bold march on Rome by Hannibal might have made them panic and sue for peace. Yet given the fact that the Romans were committed to a fight to the death and given that they were not unduly worried when Hannibal actually marched towards Rome in 211 B.C. it is hard to fathom the Romans throwing in the towel without a fight for the city.

Ultimately though there is no way to know whether or not Hannibal would have succeeded if he had made a serious effort to take Rome but it is certain that taking the city would have been his best chance of winning the war. Considering Hannibal was an avid gambler and since the odds in the conflict were usually against him it may very well have made sense for him to throw the dice and attempt it. Yet he did not and while he had considerable success in his strategy of wearing down the Romans via other means he never convinced the Romans to change their policy and discontinue the war.

So much for Hannibal.

(To be continued)

An Opinion Piece on Why America was Justified Dropping Nuclear Weapons on Japan

Posted By on August 10, 2015

HiroshimaThis last week was the 70th anniversary of America dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Naturally there was the typical criticism, and moral outrage, by countless people which usually drowns out those who offer a more informed and sober analysis as to why dropping nukes on Japan was necessary.  It is often said that “history is written by the victors” yet for some reason a sizeable segment of at least Western opinion, perhaps the majority, sees the Japanese as victims and the Americans as the aggressors.  Such a perception is exceedingly false.

Japan was the aggressor in the “Pacific War,” overrunning much of China, South East Asia and the Pacific while America had been initially an isolationist country which became reluctantly involved in the war after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour.  Japan brutally enslaved and slaughtered millions of people in Asia from China to Burma, the Philippines to Indochina, and from Korea to Hong Kong.  They were so cruel, exploitive and feared that the inhabitants of these countries were actually grateful when the British and Americans returned to their countries and the inhabitants generally aided them rather than collaborate with the Japanese.  Think about this; most asians preferred British imperialists and paternalistic Americans to their fellow asians, the Japanese!  To this day countries such as China, both Koreas, Vietnam and Taiwan hold considerable grudges against Japan both for her conduct during the war as well as her misguided and shameful efforts to negate responsibility for, let alone admit, Japanese war crimes.

While well meaning people can rightly be shocked by nuclear attacks that killed between 125,000 and 250,000 Japanese civilians it is rare that world opinion, especially Western and Japanese, expresses outrage by the infinitely worse crimes committed by the Japanese during the war.  I remember in high school being taught about Hiroshima and Nagasaki but hearing nothing about the at least 10 million Chinese killed by Japan during her occupation of China, not to mention the literally 100 million Chinese war refugees created by the conflict.  The almost 20 million Asians killed during the war, the “Rape of Nanking,” the “Bataan Death March,” the “Death Railway,” the indiscriminate slaughter of remote islander inhabitants during Japanese training exercises, and the atrocious death rates of POWs under Japanese care are also barely addressed and seldom remembered by the naive, biased people who hate America but almost eagerly let Japan off the hook.

Certainly next to no one knows about the sick medical experiments Japan conducted in Manchuria on human beings, that her army coerced thousands of Korean females into being comfort women who were repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers, her plans to use biological weapons against American civilians, or the fact that Japan was the only county to use chemical weapons in “World War 2” (not even Nazi Germany did that!).

This is the context in which Harry Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan:

The worst war in human history which had been going on for nearly 6 years was not yet over.  More than 50 million people had died, and countless more were wounded, became war refugees or were psychologically devastated due to their wartime experiences or seeing loved ones maimed or die.  Some military experts believed the war with Japan could have continued for another 2 years if nukes had not been used.  Thousands of allied soldiers were dying each week fighting Japan while countless other civilians across Asia were dying as well.  Indeed, the editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, Gideon Rose, concluded that for every month of 1945 while the war continued the Japanese were causing the deaths of somewhere in between 100,000 and 250,000 civilians.  Finally, people across the globe were war wearied and just wanted the conflict to be over.

America was faced with perhaps 3 options to defeat Japan.  The first involved starving the Japanese into submission over an indefinite period of months in which case countless more allied soldiers, asian civilians, and especially Japanese people would have died vs. the 125,000 to 250,000 which resulted from the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Considering how callously the Japanese leaders sent their soldiers to die and how little they seem to have cared about their own civilians during the fighting in Saipan and Okinawa it is very probable that they were willing to lose millions of Japanese in a vain effort to hold out.

The next option involved invading Japan, which would have required an operation so massive it would have made the “Normandy Invasion” in 1944 appear as child’s play.  The American estimates as to how many of their soldiers would die, or be wounded, was between a few hundred thousand and a few million, with considerably more casualties inflicted upon the Japanese.  Once again this would have been a larger number of casualties than those suffered due to the atomic attacks, and does not even include the countless asian civilians who would still be dying under the Japanese yoke.

It should also be noted that when the Americans landed in Japan after the war and saw the defences the Japanese had constructed to defend against invasion they were considerably more impressive than the former had imagined.  Additionally, American intelligence had been mistaken about how many planes the Japanese had left, especially Kamikaze fighters.  Keeping these two factors in mind it is possible that even higher casualties could have resulted from an invasion than a few million for the Americans and Japanese!

The third option was of course using nuclear weapons on Japanese cities in an attempt to shock the Japanese leadership into surrender.  After being implemented this caused considerable suffering for the peoples’ of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killed scores of innocent people and could definitely be labelled a war crime.  However, it had certain advantages.  It ruled out a costly naval blockade that would have killed perhaps hundreds of thousands of Japanese and prolonged the war considerably.  It also ruled out a costly invasion that would probably have resulted in millions of American and Japanese casualties.  Finally, it had the chance to immediately end the war.

And it did!  It instantly ended the most destructive and brutal war in history.  It ended it for America without a single American soldier setting foot on the Japanese mainland.  People love throwing “World War 2” statistics around such as the 6 million Jews killed in the holocaust, the more than 20 million Soviets killed during the war, or even the 90,000 Japanese killed during the firebombing of Tokyo.  Yet perhaps another statistic proves how effective the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was:  0 American or allied soldiers, sailors or airmen were killed or wounded in an attempt to invade Japan.

This should not be dismissed out of hand.  Harry Truman would have known that 400,000 Americans had already died in the war (including over 100,000 in the pacific) and that an invasion of Japan would have potentially exceeded this already significant number.  From modern standards it is even more incredibly as Americans could not stomach 60,000 dead in Vietnam, and barely tolerated 5000 dead in Iraq.  Meanwhile Canada with a significantly smaller population tolerated 45,000 deaths in “World War 2” but could not take much more than 150 in Afghanistan in the 21st Century.  America even pulled out of Somalia after suffering 18 deaths in a single day.  How can modern society blame Harry Truman for trying to save countless American lives when it is willing to tolerate so few military deaths itself?

There is of course the argument that the Americans could have nuked an uninhabited island to show the Japanese the effects of the bomb.  Maybe it would have worked, but most likely it would have not.  It is all but certain that the admittedly cruel, but shocking effect of destroying 2 cities with a single bomb each was the only way to motivate the intensely militaristic and die hard zealots that comprised the Japanese leadership to surrender.

Finally, there is another argument that Japan would have surrendered anyways within a few months.  Yet how does anyone know this would have happened without blockade, invasion or nukes, or even if they did surrender how long it would have taken?  Weeks, months, half a year?  And how many more allied soldiers, asian civilians and Japanese would have died during that period?  By far a lot more than the combined death toll of Hiroshima and Nagaski.

False paragons can argue a warcrime is a wartime and preach morality when they have never had to make decisions that affect the lives of millions or lived in a time where people sacrificed themselves so that future generations could have a better way of life.  Most people today cannot even sacrifice putting down their cell phones for more than 2 minutes at a time to engage in a real life conversation.  Yet in the real world, and especially warfare, not everybody wins, or can be saved, and thus decisions should be based on practical considerations regarding how to minimize how many people will be lost.  In the case of the nuclear attacks on Japan it resulted in the deaths of perhaps 125,000-250,000 vs. the considerably more deaths that would have resulted from any other option including blockading, or invading, Japan or simply waiting for them to surrender.

Additionally, people can criticize, or even hate America for dropping the nukes on Japan if they want to because it is a democracy that allows freedom of speech and rarely hides its crimes, mistakes or controversial acts throughout history.  Countless American authors, citizens and even school curriculums are allowed to debate and criticize the decision to drop the bombs without any interference of the U.S. Government.  Meanwhile Japan seldom admits its considerably worse atrocities committed during the war while its society in general, and her school system in particular, has attempted to portray the Japanese as the victims in the conflict.

This is historically, morally, and factually incorrect.  Japan started the war, did so to conquer and subjugate Asia, and killed countless more people than America or her allies in the Pacific.

Japan was unequivocally the aggressor in the Pacific during “World War 2” and not the victim.  However tragic and sad the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved more lives than they destroyed and were thus justified.

An In-Depth Review of “Arabs at War” by Andrew Wright

Posted By on April 13, 2015

imageArabs at War” is among the great books on conflict and history regarding the modern Middle East. In this work Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, sets out to answer a simple question; “why have Arab armies since 1948 generally performed so poorly in warfare compared to Western, Israeli, and even Iranian and African armies?” He studies the performance of Six Arab armies (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria) in countless conflicts over the last 5 decades and tries to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Using traditional theories as to why Arab armies are generally ineffective he breaks down Arab combat effectiveness according to certain criteria. These include generalship, tactical leadership, unit cohesion, cowardice, morale, information management, technical skills and weapons handling, logistics and maintenance of weapons, and training. Analyzing these military conflicts to see how these factors influence Arab combat effectiveness, or lack of it, is how Pollack tries to answer “why Arab armies fight so poorly?”

The result is a brilliant, informative, and enlightening work that effectively answers what it sets out to and also doubles as an authoritative, if brief, military history of the Middle East since 1948. Being a former CIA analyst Pollack is skilled at delving into the most important details as well as coming back to the bigger picture when needed. Yet whereas some would perhaps criticize this work as overly academic and dry his arguments and points are simple enough for anyone with basic knowledge of military matters and the Middle East. While admittedly it is not the easiest, or shortest, of reads, anyone with a mediocre level of patience can navigate through it. If the campaigns and battles can sometimes seem confusing Pollack compensates by listing the main points at the end of each conflict as well as relating them to the criteria he uses to assess Arab military effectiveness.

As for the case studies themselves they include a menagerie of well known and lesser well known conflicts, and combat ranging from conventional wars, to counter-insurgency, to low scale skirmishes and aerial combat. The “Arab-Israeli Wars” the “Iran-Iraq War” and the “Gulf War” are all here while more forgotten conflicts such as the “Chadian-Libyan Conflict,” Egypt’s intervention in Yemen in the 1960s and Jordan’s suppression of the PLO in 1970-71 are covered as well. Aerial combat has not been neglected either; the surprise attack that crippled the Egyptian Airforce in 1967, the slaughter of the Syrian Airforce over the Bekaa Valley in 1982, and the hopeless plight of the Iraqi Airforce during the “Gulf War” are all vividly detailed.

Pollack does a great job of showing how the Arab armies learned, or didn’t, from their mistakes and the methods they used that increased, or once again didn’t, their military efficiency. Obvious methods included switching the primary task of the armed forces from regime protection (often the preference for illegitimate authoritarian governments) to focus on fighting actual wars, to selecting officers and generals on the basis of merit and competency instead of political loyalty, and to encourage initiative, flexibility and innovation among the junior officers in their armies. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, these and other reforms usually resulted in only marginal improvements in Arab military effectiveness.

While it is never directly stated, and thus remains one of the main faults of the book, it is implied that certain cultural or organization factors in Arab society somehow prevents Arab military leaders, despite their best efforts, to create and maintain effective armed forces. Whether or not this is due to the lack of separation of Church and State (or at-least downplaying the former’s role in society) in the Arab world, the inherent mistrust among differing levels of society that precludes harmonious working in organizations, the result of poor education systems, the supposed Arab psyche to save face and avoid confrontations or competition, or all of these and more in combination we are not told. While the author suggests that he was originally going to write a book that included such insights and factors he claims that such a book was not allowed to be written due to how long it would have been (more than twice as long as the 600 page book that “Arabs at War” became).

Perhaps this is reasonable enough in itself; certainly a book of over 1200 pages is a real trial for even the most dedicated reader, and arguably unbearable for such a complicated work that would include such seemingly diametrically opposing fields as military matters and sociology. However, are we to believe that in a 600 page work the author could not have devoted a single chapter, or even 5 pages to the supposedly crucial cultural or organizational factors in Arab societies that arguably are responsible for the poor showing regarding the criteria he sets out to prove how Arab armies have performed so poorly in combat? More likely commenting critically on such hot topics as Arab culture and Islam would have been met with being labelled as politically incorrect at best, or having Pollack threatened with violence at worst. Given how even a cartoon in a Danish newspaper can inflame the masses in the Middle East and lead to bloodshed this consideration should not be discounted.

Anyway, putting this aside Pollack does a great job narrowing down which of the criteria he initially selected is primarily responsible for the poor showing of Arab arms since 1948. While not always universal in all Arab armies, and it varied at certain times, the following could reasonably be stated:

Regarding unit cohesion, logistics and cowardice the Arab armies rarely suffered from such issues. Generally their units held together despite considerable pressure, being flanked or even surrounded. There were countless examples from the Egyptians in the Falluja pocket to the Jordanians at Ammunition Hill of Arabs fighting and dying instead of retreating, or surrendering, despite hopeless odds. Additionally, Arab logistics were almost always outstanding. Egyptian forces fighting in the hostile Negev or Sinai deserts rarely suffered shortages while the Libyans adequately supplied their forces not only more than 2000 kilometres away from Tripoli to the interior of Chad, but as far away as Uganda! Finally most Arab forces could never be considered cowardly; few forces would have continued to advance to certain suicide as Iraqi tanks did on the Golan Heights in 1973 or few pilots would have kept coming as the Syrians did in 1982 when the Israelis slaughtered their jets so brutally that they lost nearly 100 planes to none against the Israeli Air Force.

Regarding morale, training and generalship Pollack suggests that the Arabs were generally mediocre in these categories; being quite capable sometimes and very poor at others. Morale is difficult to gauge but certainly the Arab armies fluctuated from intense optimism to fatalistic defeatism. In 1948 the Arabs were enthusiastic in their goal of eradicating the nascent Jewish state, and in 1973 the Egyptians and Syrians were well motivated after intense training and preparations for war. Yet there were just as many low points for the common Arab soldier such as the tired, and confused, Egyptian soldiers being constantly moved around the Sinai in 1967 before the “Six Day War” to no apparent purpose, or the thoroughly demoralized Shiite conscripts of Saddam’s army in 1991 that had being abused by the Sunnis in power, bloodied by the Iranians in the recent “Iran-Iraq War” and psychologically devastated by the Coalition air campaign.

Training was generally the same story, with the Jordanian army in particular being praised. Apparently the average Jordanian soldier, tank crew and pilot were often as good as their Israeli counterpart. Factors which influenced the quality of training generally included if the political leadership wanted the army to focus on regime protection or fighting real wars, whether the officer and generals were more selected due to competency than political loyalty, if the soldiers were allowed to train in large groups with live ammunition (Arab regimes were afraid these forces could overthrow them), how often and how thorough the soldiers were trained in a particular task, etc. When these conditions were met Arab training could produce above average results.

Certainly Jordanian units consistently inflicted more casualties proportionately on Israeli forces than other Arab forces in 1948 and 1967 as well as in other smaller skirmishes. Likewise the constant Egyptian training leading up to the “Yom Kippur War” lead to perhaps the greatest tactical reverses the Israeli army has ever received in battle. Finally, improved Iraqi training late in the “Iran-Iraq War” helped their army inflict quick and decisive victories in 1988 which broke the stalemate and ended the conflict.

Yet Arab training has been just as often, or more often, atrocious and poor. Regarding the overly politicized army the Egyptians sent to the Sinai and their comprehensive defeat in 1967 Egyptian General Zaki remarked “Israel spent years preparing for this war, whereas we prepared for parades.” The Syrian army on the Golan heights in the same war had been so decimated by years of coups, of its officer corp being purged repeatedly and of its lower formation being neglected and forgotten that few soldiers had any idea of what war was supposed to be like. Libyan forces were probably the worse off with Gaddafi refusing to allow live fire training exercises or establishing formations larger than brigades. How else could you explain his considerable army of tanks, planes and half-tracks being defeated by Chadian rebels with Toyota pick up trucks, a few anti-tank weapons and no air force in the late 1980s?

The Arabs have also had an uneven track record with generalship. Yet again much of this had to do whether or not they were chosen due to competency or political loyalty. Another factor was whether or not competent generals were given leeway to do their jobs versus being subject to unnecessary political constraints, and at least as was often the case in the Iraqi or Syrian armies, the fear of summarily execution. While they never produced any Alexanders, Napoleons or Rommels the Arabs surprisingly had a decent amount of competent, and sometimes brilliant, generals. Egypt’s generals arguably would have won the “Yom Kippur War” had they not being overruled by Sadat to overreach themselves and get clobbered by the Israelis in the open Sinai desert. The Iraqi generals, once freed from Saddam’s paranoia, also performed well in first stopping the Iranian offensives in the middle part of the “Iran-Iraq War” and then leading Iraq to victory at the end of the conflict. Even in such a lost cause as the “Six Day War” the Jordanian leadership was competent, correctly identifying the Israeli axes of attack as well as the enemy’s intentions.

As for bad Arab generalship the poorly planned and dismissive way the Egyptian generals fought Yemeni rebels, the Iraqis generals fought the Kurds, and Jordanian generals initially attacked the PLO in 1970 all make America’s conduct in Vietnam appear credible. Iraq’s initial strategic conduct of the “Iran-Iraq War” was also subpar, being excessively slow, not focusing on any critical objectives, and not effectively using the various numerical and material advantages the Iraqi army possessed. Not surprisingly the worst showing, given that the Egyptians had significant advantages in both the quantity and quality of equipment, and could concentrate against Israeli whereas the latter was forced to watch 3 fronts, was probably the Egyptian generals during the “Six Day War.”

Despite the fact they were poor at maneuver warfare they deployed their forces in areas with poor static defences and concentrated far too close to the Israeli border which meant that once the Israelis broke through the Egyptians would have to retreat and fight the kind of war they were ill-disposed at. They also decided to retreat too early and did so in such a poor fashion that it quickly turned into a rout. Perhaps most unforgivable is how many of their generals simply abandoned their troops and were the first to flea across the Sinai.

Finally, regarding maintenance of weapons, technical skills and weapons handling, information management, and tactical leadership Arab armies more often than not did poorly. Arab maintenance of sophisticated weapons such as tanks and warplanes were so bad that such units generally operated at 50-67% operational readiness levels, which were considerably lower than in Western, or Israeli, forces. While once again Jordan was an exception and her weapons generally well maintained, the other Arab countries not only neglected such maintenance but often relied on foreign contingents, such as Cubans and East Europeans to do what they considered dirty and demeaning tasks.

Technical skills and weapons handling were also generally subpar. American and Western military advisors noted that Arab soldiers, tank crews and pilots took much longer to familiarize, or master (if they ever did) their equipment versus Western or even third world soldiers in other armies. Additionally, much of the time Arab soldiers used their weaponry inefficiently. Marksmanship and accuracy seems to have been generally poor even when they had better tanks such as Jordan’s Pattons in 1967 or superior artillery as some as Iraq’s were in 1991. In aircraft most Arab pilots were notoriously poor at close air support and aerial combat. According to many sources during the “Arab-Israeli Wars” the Israelis shot down at least 20 warplanes for every 1 they lost in dog fights (which doesn’t even count the 100s of Arab planes that the Israelis destroyed on the ground). Artillery was also a constant problem for Arab forces; while it did well if they had considerable time to pre-register their targets, as in 1973, it was hopeless whenever it had to fight a fluid and unscripted battle.

Regarding information management the Arabs misuse of information has been sometimes laughable and other times tragic. Such misuse has included the lack of sharing, or even gathering, intelligence, exaggerating the strength of enemy forces, and down right lying.

Arab forces have generally proven reluctant to gather intelligence by patrolling on the ground while their airforces have proven unable, or unwilling, to gather much from aerial reconnaissance. Sharing information is also difficult as knowledge is often seen as power by higher officials and due to the often complicated communications networks set up by Arab leaders to keep their armed forces fragmented and easy to control. This can be contrasted by the American practice in network centric warfare where information is shared among rank and file and allowed to move quickly wherever needed in order to facilitate quicker decision making on the battlefield. Decisions that could be made quickly, and on the spot, by lower officers in Western or Israeli forces were usually made at the highest level in Arab Armies after they had first been passed all the way up and then later pushed all the way down in a process that often lasted hours. How could this ever be an effective way to wage war?

The exaggeration of enemy forces is hardly new in military history, but the Arab armies in the last few decades arguably perfected the art. Nearly every time units fled or were defeated in battle they said they had been grossly outnumbered, which is amusing considering most of the time Arab enemies such as the Israelis, Chadians, or even the Iranians, were usually the ones who were outnumbered.

Yet nothing is more comedic than when Arab leaders have lied to each other with disastrous results. Instead of admitting that the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed on the first day of the war in 1967 Nasser told the Jordanians and Syrians that the Israeli Air Force had been destroyed and this fooled them into joining the war and sharing Egypt’s defeat. The Egyptians lied again during the run up to the 1973 War telling the Syrians they would advance deep into the Sinai when they merely intended to occupy a small part of the East Bank of the Suez Canal. They even made fake plans and showed them to the Syrians in order to get the latter to attack Israel. The Syrians also lied during the 1967 war when they claimed that the city of Quneitra had fallen which caused their forces in the Golan Heights to flee and allowed the Israelis to secure the heights before the ceasefire.

Yet according to the author it was the poor showing of Arab armies at the tactical level more than any other factor which explains why they did so poorly in warfare. In general Arab NCO’s were poor regarding initiative, innovation, using maneuver in warfare, executing combined arms operations, and found it nearly impossible to adapt to unforeseen circumstances on the battlefield. As such the strategic leadership of Arab armies could not rely on their smaller tactical formations to gain them success in order to accomplish their goals during warfare.

Typical occurrences included a tendency to conduct costly frontal assaults (such as the Iraqi tanks on the Golan Heights or Syrian tanks in Jordan in 1970), to fight off attacks from fixed positions even when launching a counterattack was the best option (such as the Syrians on the Golan heights in 1967 and the Jordanians fighting around Jerusalem during the same war), and an inability to effectively coordinate tanks, infantry, artillery and airpower as a team (often tanks and infantry would fight separately while artillery and air support would be notoriously inaccurate).

However, this was not always the case. The Jordanian Arab Legion had brilliant tactical leadership during the 1948-49 war and stopped the Israelis from conquering the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Yet Pollack shows us that this was actually the result of the Arab Legion having seasoned British officers and that once these officers had been kicked out of Jordan in 1956 Jordanian forces slowly degenerated and suffered from the same tactical handicaps as other Arab armies.

These key flaws, especially lack of effectiveness in tactical leadership have proven so detrimental that it has caused the Arab armies to lose many battles and wars despite having considerable advantages in numbers and quality of equipment. In the Sinai in 1967 the Egyptians had 100,000 troops, 1000 tanks and 450 planes vs. Israel’s 70,000, 700 and 200 respectively. Regarding quality the Egyptians also generally had better tanks, APCs (armoured personnel carriers), artillery and even infantry weapons. Yet during the war Egypt lost perhaps 15,000 casualties and 500 tanks while the Israelis lost 1400 and 60.

Likewise during the same conflict the Syrians on the Golan Heights outnumbered the Israelis at least 2-1 in troops, and the same in tanks. Additionally they had formidable defences built into the excellent terrain of the heights as well (and the Israelis had no other option than to launch a frontal assault). Regarding quality the Syrian tanks were also more modern than the Israeli ones. Yet the Israelis took the the heights in a mere 2 days and inflicted a 10-1 casualty ratio on the Syrians.

Iraq also failed to make significant gains against Iran in 1980 despite the chaotic state of the latter country after the Iranian revolution and enjoying a 5-1 advantage in tanks, a 4-1 advantage in artillery, and 3-1 advantage in aircraft. The Iranians also had significant problems with personnel and equipment as many of their soldiers and pilots had been arrested and embargoes by Western powers denied Iran crucial supplies for their weaponry. Yet Iraqi forces were slow, indecisive and failed to secure any notable objectives in the first year of the war and were eventually thrown out of Iran by mostly ill-equipped Iranian forces of fanatical soldiers who enjoyed few modern weapons.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is in describing how certain Arab leaders recognized the flaws of their officers and soldiers and developed plans and means that led to some improvement in their tactical prowess, and thus more success in war.

The first step, as constantly noted above, was a gradual de-politicization of the armed forces, where generals began to be selected more by merit than by political loyalty. This worked better in Egypt and Iraq than in Syria. This allowed better generals to take command and formulate war plans that took into account the inherent flaws of the NCOs and soldiers in their armies. The main problems according to the generals was that the lower officers were unskilled in combined arms operations, had little initiative and flexibility, were atrocious at managing information (as in they constantly lied or exaggerated) and poor at maneuver or fluid battles where they had to adapt quickly to unseen difficulties.

It is fascinating how Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian generals found ways to compensate for these flaws. In essence they micromanaged set piece assaults that were suppose to be quick, decisive, and last no longer than a few days. The battle plans, the preparations and even the most tedious and small tactical movements to be executed by privates were planned down to the lowest details. The generals did their best to plan combined arms operations and maneuver into the NCOs’ and soldiers’ orders to compensate for their inefficiency in these matters. The obvious flaw in this was that as Moltke the Elder said “A battle plan never survives contact with the enemy.” In other words in a fluid and unpredictable endeavour such as warfare it is nearly impossible to plan for everything and unforeseen circumstances will always unravel the best preparations.

Yet the Arab generals understood this and they tried to compensate using a few stratagems. To them the keys were establishing complete surprise, attacking in overwhelming numbers and to launch and finish their operations in a short time. Obviously the former two considerations would keep the Arab’s enemies off balance and on the defensive while the latter one would hopefully deny the enemy the chance to regroup and regain the initiative.

They also realized that given how poorly their lower formations collected intelligence that they needed to make a sincere and collective effort at the higher end to do so in order to be able to have enough information on the enemy’s strength and disposition, and the battlefield to plan quick, local and decisive attacks.

The best examples of such attempts by Arab generals to win wars by compensating for the inefficient tactical leadership of their lower officers were demonstrated by the Egyptians, and to a lesser extent the Syrians, during the 1973 war and the Iraqis during the final stages of the “Iran-Iraq War.”

These campaigns featured the best means by which Arab forces found a relatively effective way to wage conventional warfare in modern times.

This included:

-the micromanagement of lower formations to guarantee they could accomplish basic tactical procedures with an acceptable degree of competency
-constant and thorough training of troops down to the lowest level regarding even the simplest of task in order to guarantee they could execute their tasks by familiarization and memorization
-quick, limited and decisive operations to allow their forces the best chance of success before the enemy had time to regroup and attack and because longer offensives were simply too unrealistic to plan given the limited means of Arab tactical leadership
-robust intelligence gathering to allow adequate planning
-establishing strategic surprise and attacking with overwhelming numbers so that the enemy was kept off balance and had little chance to upset the delicate micromanagement of the Arab war effort

The first instance, that of the Egyptians in the 1973, is perhaps the best known and the most celebrated, especially by the Arabs. Not only did the Egyptians quickly seize the East Bank of the Suez Canal, but they also thoroughly bloodied the Israeli army during the latter’s initial inept counterattacks as well as bringing the Israeli Air Force close to the red line by shooting down and damaging a disproportionate amount of their planes. As stated above the Egyptians probably could have held onto their initial gains and won the war if Sadat had not ordered the army to overreach themselves and get slaughtered in the open desert.

The Syrians also managed a better than average showing of Arab arms in 1973 when they nearly succeeded in re-conquering the Golan Heights. While they did not show the same tactical prowess or thoroughness of the Egyptians they did manage to achieve strategic surprise and overwhelming numerical supremacy at the point of attack. In fact the Israelis managed only stem a Syrian breakthrough into Northern Israel by incredible bravery, brilliant tactical leadership and luck.

Finally, the Iraqis managed to end the 8 year “Iran-Iraq War” by a series of well planned and executed set piece assaults. These offensives were designed to be local, just over the Iranian border, to last a matter of days, and to focus on destroying what remained of the heavy equipment of the Iranian army. Iraqi intelligence and staff work was impeccable and the Iraqi forces followed the detailed instructions from their generals to the letter and routed the Iranians forces time and again until the latter, being war wearied, low on weapons and internationally isolated, agreed to a ceasefire.

This was the best that Arab arms, with the aforementioned exception of Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948-49, ever accomplished. There were to be no brilliant Blitzkriegs like the “Battle of France in 1940,” no spectacular coups such as “Inchon” in 1950, or innovative ad-hoc efforts such as the British re-conquest of the Falklands in 1982. Arab military performance from 1948-91 (the period Pollack covers in his work) in general was below average with a few notable instances of slightly above mediocre results.

If I can be forgiven for going off topic and going beyond Pollack’s work for a while events in the 21st Century would suggest that Arab armies have continued to stagnate. Syria and Iraq, arguably the two Arab countries with the most experience of warfare, are currently on the brink of collapsing to a menagerie of Al-Qaeda diehards, ISIS zealots and other terrorist or guerrilla groups all with different motives and capabilities. Despite Syria’s experience with crushing internal dissent and insurgencies, most notably the massacre of tens of thousands of people in Hama in 1982, her army seems destined to lose the war in the end. Iraq’s situation is more shocking given all the money, aid, weapons and training (in billions of dollars)
given to it by the United States. Apparently most of this was for naught considering a very small force of ISIS fighters has repeatedly beaten Iraqi forces who have had massive advantages in numbers, weapons and firepowers. It cannot help but make any rational person wonder what all the American money, blood and effort in Iraq was for?

Given the poor showing of Arab armies it is not surprisingly that there has been a transition from confronting Israeli, American or even Arab regimes with conventional warfare to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. While such groups have rarely succeeded in winning militarily they have scored several political victories such as briefly establishing the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, forcing the Israelis to withdraw from Southern Lebanon in 2000 due to public fatigue, and have arguably brought the regimes in Iraq and Syria to the brink as of 2015.

Yet it is doubtful whether this switch to reliance on unconventional means will ever yield decisive results for the Arab states or insurgent or terrorist groups. Their best accomplishments are in fact far behind them as Arab rebels in Algeria, Aden, and Lebanon forced colonial or western nations with little political capital for their Middle Eastern adventures to pack up and leave but unfortunately for guerrilla fighters and terrorists across the region the Arab regimes and Israel have no where to go and will fight to the death rather than surrender to them. As Norvell B. DeAtkine noted in a smart piece about Arab insurgencies “while the success of Arab insurgents against Western armies or those assisted by Western powers has been minimal, the success rate against their own governments has been zero.” This follows the logic that insurgents and terrorists rarely win, especially against domestic regimes (such as the Arab ones) or prosperous democracies (like Israel), that their victories are usually the result of a foreign occupier losing political will, and that it is extremely rare that they physically overthrow their oppressive government by military means.

This last point is especially true if the government has considerable foreign backing. Indeed South Vietnam and the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan were never close to collapse as long as the superpowers supported them but quickly did once they stopped doing so. Given that the Russians are still propping up Assad and the Americans are still supporting the small minded politicians in Baghdad there is no reason that ISIS should triumph any time soon.

However, and while all of this has nothing to do with Pollack’s work (though he suggested near the end of his book that “someone else will have to write the long history of Arab unconventional forces in combat since 1948”) there is little doubt that Arab insurgents and terrorists have shown much more success in warfare than their conventional brethren; generally prolonging conflicts, eroding Western, Israeli and even Arab political will, and costing their enemies more money, blood and effort than the best Arab armies managed to.

Certainly even the traumatic experiences of “Israel’s War of Independence” and the “Yom Kippur War” have not been as divisive or caused as much soul searching for the Israelis as their long occupations of Lebanon and the Palestinians territories along with all the terrorism, counter-terrorism and questionable methods that have come with it. Meanwhile Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of all battles” in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 was quick, cost America less than 500 deaths, resounded in an outstanding victory and was not economically ruinous for the United States. Yet the proceeding “Iraq War” was much longer, much more costly in financial and human terms and so far the overall results would seem to be… less than satisfactory. Finally, it is obvious that Arab leaders have always been more afraid of their own people and subversive groups than being toppled by the Israelis or Americans considering whereas the only time any of them were overthrown by the latter was in 2003 whereas there have been too many revolutions, popular uprisings and coups in the Arab world to count on even 20 pairs of hands.

“Arabs at War” is a key book to understanding the modern Middle East. Besides the obvious way in which it shows why the Arab armies have consistently failed to beat American, Israeli or other armed forces it also raises important questions as to the legitimacy of Arab leaders and governments given the underlying problems that plague the Arab world which prevent it from attaining political, economic or societal success (though this is done mostly indirectly). While the Arab world enjoys mocking Americans and Westerners for failing to learn from history Pollack shows the reader convincingly that given how Arab armies have consistently and irredeemably made the same mistakes since 1948 that the Arab World doesn’t exactly merit an A+ in history itself.

Yet despite the brilliant way Pollack uses his case studies and criteria to analyze Arab military effectiveness, no matter how accurate and damning are his conclusions, and no matter how vital his work is there are some notable flaws.

The most blatant, as noted above, was the failure, or reluctance to either thoroughly, or even cursory articulate the underlying cultural or organization factors in Arab society which facilitates the poor showing of their armed forces. This has already been explained but it is a significant hurdle nonetheless.

Perhaps a more annoying flaw of the book is its repetitiveness. While military history buffs will find the back to back case studies fascinating the casual reader could be forgiven if they quickly got bored of the same formula in each chapter of describing war after war and battle after battle and then describing how things more often than not went wrong for the perennially hapless Arab soldiers.

More amusing is that it is obvious halfway through the second chapter (regarding Iraq) not only what the main constraints on Arab military effectiveness probably are but that these will also be (and they are) the same in each country for the subsequent chapters. Chapter 3, regarding Jordan, is a bit of an exception as the Jordanian forces were generally more competent than their peers, but in the end Pollack reminds us that Jordanian’s better performance was ultimately not decisively better vs. the Arab average.

Frankly some readers will get so tired of the Arabs being beaten again and again that they will begin cheering for them to beat the more qualified Israelis and Americans at least once. There is something inherently perverse of wanting to see illegitimate, backwards and non-democratically regimes triumphing in wars that more often than not they provoked, or started for reasons of grandeur and vanity, instead of self-defence or legitimate grievances. No one likes America or Israel more than myself but at certain points in reading the book even I wanted the Arabs to win an outstanding victory and humiliate their enemies. Surely this is not what Mr. Pollack had in mind when he wrote this book.

One personal pet peeve I have is Pollack’s portrayal of General Sa’d ad-Din Shazli, the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian armed forces during the 1973 war. Whereas most Western and Arab accounts of the war generally credit him as one of the key architects of the planning and execution of Egypt’s war effort that nearly defeated Israel Pollack diminishes him ruthlessly. Instead of being one of the few Egyptian generals who acquitted himself well in 1967 he apparently was among the first to run. Instead of being a good strategist and a methodical planner he was actually picked to be Chief of Staff due to his charisma. Instead of opposing Sadat’s I’ll-fated offensive into the Sinai in 1973 he supposedly endorsed it. While I would never suggest that after having read a few dozen books on Middle Eastern Military History that I am in a better position to make a judgement on a key commander during one of the conflicts versus an ex-CIA analyst such as Pollack it is confusing that that his is the only book, indeed the only source, I have read that has questioned General Shazli’s competency.

Yet all of these flaws are minor compared to the considerable strengths of the book. Ultimately his main arguments are unchallengeable, his criteria and minute details are exhaustingly thorough and his case studies are both simple and illuminating. This work, along with Michael Oren’s “Six Days of War,” are arguably among the top 5 most important books on modern Middle Eastern conflicts to be written in the last 15 years.

“Arabs at War” is vital towards understanding the armed forces of the Arab nations in the Middle East. It proves, almost singlehandedly, that for all the significant numbers and quality of their soldiers, equipment and weapons platforms, for all the money and effort spent on training and maintaining their armies, and even with the almost unparalleled experience these forces have had in warfare, that in the end the Arab conventional military threat towards America, the West, Israel, and often even among themselves, is ultimately small and negligible. As Mao would say, Arab armies are like a “paper tiger.”

One can only imagine how different things could have been if they had decided to invest in education, healthcare, social programs and stable, inclusive and democratic institutions instead of waging pointless and debilitating wars that inevitable ended in defeat. After “World War 2” several former colonial possessions in the Far East, later nicknamed the “Four Asian Tigers,” did this and in 2 generations generally caught up to the West in regards to democracy, economic prosperity and standard of living instead of relying on incessant warfare and unnecessary confrontation. It is obvious which method of statecraft is superior.


Why the Soviet Union could Not have Won “World War 2” Without the Western Allies

Posted By on January 28, 2015

imageThe Soviet Union unequivocally did the most of any power to defeat Nazi Germany during the “Second World War.” It fought the lion-share of the German army, and her European allies, for the majority of the conflict while the Western Allies usually faced significantly smaller numbers of Axis forces in Europe. Likewise the Soviet Union also destroyed perhaps 80% of the German armed forces and suffered a disproportionate amount of losses vs. the Western Allies, having much of its territory overrun and losing at least 20 million soldiers and civilians. Because of this there is a view that the Soviet Union could have beaten Nazi Germany without the Western Allies. This view is false. Without the considerable amount of lend lease equipment and supplies, the strategic bombing campaign, and the often critical intervention of western allied forces it is likely that the Soviet Union was doomed to lose a war on its own against Nazi Germany.

It is obvious that the Soviet Union did most of the fighting in Europe during “World War 2” and that it destroyed much more German forces than the British and Americans did. However in the case of production, strategic bombing, lend lease, and western allied campaigns in Europe one could argue that America and Britain tipped the scales in favor of the Allies to win. While it would be unfair to denigrate the important contribution to victory of the Red Army in “World War 2” it is likewise unfair to downplay the roles of Britain and America during the conflict.

The first, and perhaps most blatant, decisive western allied influence would be regarding production. America itself produced nearly 50% of all weapons and supplies during “World War 2,” including perhaps 66% of total allied weapons and supplies. While some of this equipment has been described, perhaps unfairly, as subpar, including the Sherman tank, there is no doubt that much of it including the P-51 Mustang and America’s jeeps and aircraft carriers, were first rate. It should be evident that suggesting that America producing 50% of all weapons and supplies during the war would not be decisive to victory would be completely absurd.

While some have argued that despite this the Russians did most of the fighting to win the war the fact remains that American production was also decisive in this regard as well considering lend lease arguably kept the Russians in the war at best, or gave the Soviet forces the capabilities to effectively defeat the German army, at worst. Whereas some skeptics of lend lease point to the relatively few weapons the western allied powers gave to Russia vs. the weapons produced by the Russians themselves (for example 12,000 tanks they gave them vs. 100,000 the Russians made) it is sometimes forgotten that the best supplies the Russians received from the Western Allies were not tanks, planes or artillery. However, such supplies of weapons themselves were not insignificant and included 20,000 armored vehicles including 12,000 tanks, perhaps 18,700 aircraft for the Soviet Air force, and it seems enough equipment to field perhaps 60 Divisions was given to the Soviets through the Persian corridor alone.

Yet perhaps the most important assets sent to Russia were non-military supplies which the militarized soviet economy could not produce in abundance, and were decisive in giving the Red Army the means to effectively defeat the German army. While combat operations tend to dominate historical narratives there is little doubt that the Red Army owed much of its logistical and communications capabilities to the Western Allies. Regarding logistics the Western Allies provided perhaps two thirds of all trucks and jeeps for the Russians, roughly 400,000. This is what gave the Red Army its incredible mobility which it used from 1943 onwards to breakthrough German lines and encircle and destroy numerous armies. Western aid was also decisive in rehabilitating soviet railways. Regarding locomotives and train cars the Western Allies provided the soviets with 2000 and 11000 respectively while Soviet industry made a mere 92 of the former and 1000 of the latter. They even provided 56% of Soviet rails during the conflict.

Regarding communications the Western Allies provided the Russians 35,000 radio stations, 380,000 field telephones and 956,000 miles of telephone cables which was instrumental in allowing the Red Army to control its massive forces.

Other important supplies given included 57% of all aviation fuel requirements for the Red Air Force, 53% of all explosives, and almost half of the Soviets aluminum, copper and rubber all of which were vital for Soviet industry). Finally some have argued that the 1.75 million tons of food provided was decisive in staving off famine in the Soviet Union during the winter of 1942-43.

Besides such statistics some of the Soviet leaders admitted the crucial importance of lend-lease. According to Khrushchev Stalin himself privately stated “if we had had to deal with Germany one-to-one we would not have been able to cope because we lost so much of our industry.” Marshal Zhukov, perhaps the most important allied General of the war and arguably the 2nd most influential man regarding the Soviet war effort likewise said that without the aid (lend-lease) the Soviet Union “could not have continued the war.”

Then there is the argument that the Soviet Union, despite its supposedly inferior position towards Nazi Germany, managed to consistently outproduce the latter in weapons throughout the war. Indeed, after the “Fall of France” in 1940 the Germans had more population, resources and industry in Europe than both the Soviet Union and Great Britain combined. This situation became worse in the summer and fall of 1941 as the German advance in Russia overrun perhaps 40% of the Soviet population, more than half of its coal and steel output, and the Ukrainian breadbasket which produced a disproportionate amount of food. As Richard Overy has noted Germany became at this point “an enemy with four times more industrial capacity at its disposal” vs. the Soviets. Yet despite this the Soviet economy, being smaller, less sophisticated, and enjoying fewer resources (save for oil), and industry than Nazi Germany, outproduced its enemy in weaponry throughout the war.

The reasons for this are not complicated, and while there is no denying the statistics a case can even be made here that the Russians were eventually doomed to lose without the intervention of Britain and America, or at best to get a stalemate. There is the fact that whereas at the outbreak of the Nazi invasion in June 1941 the Soviet economy immediately, and ruthlessly, devoted itself to total war and geared everything towards war production the Germans were considerably more lax in this regard. It took until the defeat at “Stalingrad” to finally convert the Germany economy to total war and for much of the conflict most German industry operated on single shift basis per day instead of two or three (which means they could have produced twice, or three times, as much weaponry had German industry been fully mobilized) The Russians were also more progressive in employing women in war industry (and thus benefited from increases at production) whereas the Nazis were more traditional, wanting women to stay at home and thus did not benefit from the considerable amount of female labour that could have been industrially decisive until later in the war.

Additionally, whereas the Russians were content to allow its industry to produce a few reliably models of tanks, artillery pieces, and planes, with relatively simple designs, the Germans had considerably more models and infinitely more complicated characteristics which of course meant more specialization. For example while the Soviets had perhaps 2 main tank types and 5 main aircraft ones the Germans at one point had 425 aircraft models,150 lorries models and 150 motorcycle ones. Obviously the German system with its complications and specializations was not a recipe for effective mass production. In the Soviet case it resulted in producing much more weapons and the German one a smaller number of weapons but of better quality. Of course the debate here is whether or not the Soviet numbers offset German quality. The general historical consensus seems to be yes but it ignores a few notable considerations.

Firstly, it ignores that whereas the Soviets vastly outproduced the Germans in 1941 and 1942, and also outproduced them in 1943, that by 1944 the Germans caught up to Soviet production. Secondly, considering that German weapons were generally superior to Soviet ones it can fairly be said that equal production would have given the Germans the advantage. Thirdly, the Germans, from 1943 onwards had to deploy more and more divisions and weapons against the Western Allies. While obviously most of their weapons and forces still faced the Red Army the Germans increasingly had to divert more important forces against the British and Americans. Finally, it is generally accepted that the western allied strategic bombing campaign in 1944 either destroyed, or diverted towards air defense, 50% of the German war economy.

Simply put had Britain and America not been in the war the Germans could have outproduced the Russians in weapons 2-1 by 1944 and considering that their weapons were generally better, considering they had a bigger pool of manpower (as they had most of Europe whereas the Russians had lost 40% of their manpower base in 1941), considering the Germans always had a superior kill and destruction ratio vs. the Germans, and considering the Germans could have concentrated all their forces against Russia as the Western Allies would not have been in the war, it is obvious that the Germans would have had a decisive advantage over the Russians.

Simple war production statistics and kill/destruction ratios during the war confirm this. Despite the fact that the Germans had control of significantly more people, industry and resources for most of the war than the Russians, the latter managed to consistently outproduce them until the former came close to catching up in 1944. Either way during the war the Germans managed to produce perhaps 50,000 full tracked armored fighting vehicles (tanks, self propelled guns, tank-destroyers, etc.) whereas the Russians produced roughly 100,000. While on the surface this seems decisive the German AFV’s, especially in the latter years, were generally of better quality (most vividly seen by the Panther and Tiger tanks). Perhaps even more important was the disproportionate destruction ratio German AFV’s inflicted on their Russian counterparts. In 1941 the Germans on the eastern front managed to destroy 7 AFV’s for every 1 they lost. In 1942 the ratio was 6-1, in 1943 and 1944 it was 4-1 and only in 1945 it came close at 1.2-1 (although this statistic is misleading as the losses in 1945 counted as lost the huge number of German AFV’s that were surrendered at the end of the war).

Ultimately the Russians lost 96,000 AFV’s during the war on the eastern front (while they produced 100,000 during wartime they had started with 23,000 at the beginning of the German invasion) while the Germans lost 32,000 fighting the Russians. This represents a 3-1 destruction ratio in favor of the Germans and therefore it is obvious that Russian production alone would not have been able to beat the Germans. In fact it would not even have been able to prevent the Russians from losing. Considering that the Russians would not have benefited from the strategic bombing campaign that drastically cut down German production (in other words the Germans would have eventually significantly outproduced the Russians themselves), considering that the Russians would not have had access to the 20,000 AFV’s the western allies gave them, and considering they would not have had the logistics and communications assets provided by the Americans and British to give the Red Army the mobility and capacity to wage armored warfare effectively there is little doubt that Russia, despite its impressive industrial feats during the conflict, was doomed to lose a one on one battle of economics and industry against Germany in the end.

Putting production and lend lease and aside, it is arguable that the western allied military forces often provided enough distraction for the Red army to survive at crucial times. While it is hardly surprising that the German navy was concentrated against the Western Allies and the German army against the Russians the German air force was often also devoted disproportionately agains the Western Allies, even during critical moments on the eastern front. Considering German air power was as important, perhaps even more so, then her armored forces, for their success in warfare this was not inconsequential.

In 1941 and 1942 most of the Luftwaffe was devoted against the Russians. However from late 1942 onwards the proportion of German Airpower was decisively shifted against the Western Allies. Much of this was due, at least in 1942-43, to the considerable demands of the Mediterranean theatre of war including attempting to neutralize the British base at Malta and supporting Rommel’s campaign in North Africa, but most of it was ultimately due to the combined western allied bomber offensive which moved from being a relatively manageable nuisance in 1942 to a decisive threat by mid 1944.

By the summer of 1942, at least regarding fighter aircraft, the majority of German Airpower was either deployed in the Mediterranean, guarding Western Europe against invasion, or protecting the German skies against allied bombers. This was when the Germans were launching their risky summer campaign in Russia to try to seize the Caucasus oilfields, and later Stalingrad, in a last ditch attempt to knock Russia out of the war before the Western Allies gained too much strength. While it cannot be stated with certainty that having the lion-share of the German Air force on the eastern front would have been decisive there is little doubt that given the close result at Stalingrad that it could have made a difference.

The same could be said in 1943 when perhaps 70% of German fighters were deployed against the Western Allies while the Germans and Russians arguably fought the most decisive battle of the war on the eastern front at Kursk. In 1944 the Western Allies, especially the Americans, were even more decisive as they effectively destroyed the German Air force as an effective fighting force by engaging and destroying it over the skies in Germany prior to the invasion of Normandy.

Just as important as distracting and destroying German Airpower were the effects of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany led by Britain and America. As stated above the western air forces eventually distracted most of the German Air Force, often at crucial times for the Soviets, and even destroyed the bulk of German Airpower. Also noted above were the effects of the bombing campaign which considerably lowered German production. For example in 1944 the campaign resulted in 31% less aircraft, 35% less tanks and 42% less lorries being produced by the Germans than they had planned for. Finally, the resources the Germans had to devout to combatting the strategic bombing campaign were incredible including two thirds of the German air force, 55,000 anti-aircraft guns (including 75% of the deadly 88mm guns that doubled as anti-tank weapons and could have reaped havoc on Russian tanks on the eastern front), and 2 million Germans who had to man defences, or repair damage, from the bomber attacks. The final result being as Richard Overy has stated “the combined effects of direct destruction and the diversion of resources denied German forces approximately half their battle-front weapons and equipment in 1944. It is difficult not to regard this margin as decisive.” Albert Speer, the man tasked to fix German war industry woes regarded the western allied bombing campaign against Germany as “the greatest lost battle on the German side.”

Besides German Airpower the Western Allies also either tied down powerful German land forces from going to the eastern front at key moments, and even forced the Germans to transfer significant forces from the east to the west, as well. While the numbers of German tanks and soldiers stationed in North Africa and Western Europe may have seemed poultry to the all out war on the eastern front in 1941and 1942 it could be argued that given the close results near Moscow in 1941 or the earlier stages at Stalingrad in 1942, that such forces fighting the Western Allies arguably could have been enough to turn the tide towards a German victory on the eastern front.

Certainly at key times western allied intervention did much to alleviate considerable pressure for the Russians on the eastern front. The American and British descent on North West Africa in November 1942 forced the Germans to not only deploy scare troops and tanks to Tunisia, but also to occupy Southern France, thus seriously spreading German forces even more thin just right before the Russians launched their powerful counter-attack at Stalingrad.

Likewise the allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 was extremely problematic for the Germans as they were attempting their last great offensive on the eastern front at Kursk to regain at least some initiative against the Russians. It was in fact the reason why Hitler halted the offensive, which marked the point in the war where the Russians seized and retained the initiative for the rest of the conflict. Hitler ordered significant formations from the eastern front to the Mediterranean, and while ultimately much of them were not sent, the Germans lost any chance, however small, of winning at Kursk, and thus it could be argued the Western Allies had a significant effect on the result of the battle.

Even the much criticized invasion of Italy had appreciable effects for the Russians. The Germans rightly feared the Italians were poised to switch sides to the allies and they deployed perhaps 20-25 divisions in Italy from mid-1943 to the end of the war. The invasion also forced the Germans to disarm countless Italian divisions which ultimately amounted to nearly 1 million soldiers in Italy, the Aegean, Greece and Yugoslavia. These soldiers had to be replaced, by German ones, and it is obvious that having to disarm and replace 1 million Axis soldiers, along with considerable amounts of tanks, planes, artillery and other equipment, could be nothing but beneficial to the Russians who fought the lion-share of the German army.

Finally, the ever increasing threat of a western allied invasion of Western Europe in 1944 forced the Germans to keep significant forces, perhaps 60 divisions and a disproportionate amount of armor, in the west. Hitler was so obsessed with defeating such an invasion that he drained reinforcements to the eastern front and the lack of such forces helped the Russians to inflict perhaps the biggest defeat the Germans suffered during the war in the summer of 1944. As Nigel Davies noted in a piece regarding misleading statistics for the war “in sheer combat power, the removal of ten percent of divisions (say 20 divisions) from the Eastern Front to face the Western Allies (happened 3 times – Tunisia/Mediterranean 1942, Sicily/Italy 1943, and France 1944) looks a lot more significant if it involves moving 50% of the available Panzers and 70 or 80% of the high quality, full strength, specially equipped, Paratroop or Mountain or Waffen SS divisions.”

The Soviet Union could not have beaten Nazi Germany during the “Second World War” without the Western Allies. Lend lease was decisive in giving the Red Army the mobility, the communications, and logistics to wage modern war, considerable resources to help her faltering economy, and even significant amounts of weapons which helped tip the balance in their favor fighting Germany on the eastern front. Despite the fact the Russians generally outproduced the Germans during the war they would have ultimately been outproduced by them had it not been for the western allied bomber offensive which destroyed, or distracted, perhaps 50% of the German war effort by the end of 1944. Considering German weapons were generally of better quality, and considering the Germans had a significantly higher kill and destruction ratio vs. Soviet Forces the Russians would have been eventually hard pressed to hold out. The Western Allies also helped the Russians by distracting German Airpower at critical times during the war, notable in late 1942 while the Germans were fighting the Stalingrad campaign, during 1943 as the Germans were fighting at Kursk, and especially in 1944 when they effectively destroyed the German Air Force as a fighting force. Even on land western allied interventions were often decisive. Critical forces that could have been decisive at Stalingrad were distracted by the occupation of Southern France and the Torch Landings, the invasion of Sicily made Hitler stop the offensive at Kursk, and having to mass forces in Western Europe prior to the invasion of Normandy left the Eastern Front dangerously exposed in mid-1944. While the Soviet Union rightfully deserves the credit as the power which did the most to defeat Nazi Germany during the “Second World War” it could not have won the conflict without the Western Allies.


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

Neillands, Robin. The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany. New York: Overlook, 2001.

Overy, Richard. Russia’s War. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won. New York: Norton, 1995.

Richards, Denis. RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War: The Hardest Victory. London: Penguin, 2001.

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

Article from “Operation Barbarossa”: The T-34 in WWII: The Legend Vs. the Performance by Nigel Askey, 2014.

Article from “Rethinking History”: Statistical confusion – whose troops actually did the fighting in World War Two by Nigel Davies, 2011.

Paper on “Industrial mobilisation for World War II: a German comparison” by Mike Harrison, 2000.

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report by Franklin D’Olier,1945.




A Brief History of the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu”

Posted By on September 30, 2014

dbpIn the spring of 1954 a climactic battle was fought between the French, with their empire forces, and the Vietminh around Dien Bien Phu in North West Vietnam.  This battle was the culminating point of France’s efforts since the end of “World War 2” to reclaim her status as a great power by holding onto what was left of her empire.  Desperate to win a significant victory against the Vietminh, an elusive communist revolutionary movement that sought to outlast French political will to win independence, the French army in Vietnam gambled on setting up a major confrontation between the two sides by luring the Vietminh into open battle.  However, while the Vietminh took the bait and fought the French around Dien Bien Phu it was the Vietminh who won the battle and the war.  The Vietminh won the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu” due to their advantages in topography and terrain, logistics, artillery and anti-aircraft capabilities and political will.

The origins of Dien Bien Phu go back to the mid to late 19th Century when France invaded, colonized and ultimately annexed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos into what would become French Indochina.  Without going into considerable detail it is fair to say that the French regime was, like most imperialistic ones, exploitative, autocratic and harsh.  However, with considerable military might and effective counter-insurgency methods France remained firmly in power until the 1940s.

At this point French fortunes in Indochina began to decline.  With the “Fall of France” in 1940 France became a puppet of Nazi Germany.  However, France still had enough military and overseas assets to control her empire and the Germans generally did not interfere with the French continuing to run her colonies.  One exception was French Indochina, which Japan, Germany’s ally, wanted for various reasons.

French Indochina held considerable strategic significance for the Japanese.  Firstly, while the Japanese had occupied or blockaded China’s (with whom Japan was engaged in a major war) ports to prevent her from getting external supplies the French and British had been supplying China from Indochina and the Burma Road.  Taking over Indochina would deny considerable outside assistance to China as well as giving Japan bases to operate against Southern China. 

Secondly, Japan was also considering war against the western powers and having French Indochina would give them a huge advantage in attacking Malaya and Singapore, Britain’s main line of defense against Japanese expansion in Asia.  Indeed it was Japanese warplanes and convoys from French Indochina that sealed the fate of the British forces during the ill-fated “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” in 1942.

As such, after the “Fall of France” the Japanese pressured the French administration in Indochina to allow them to occupy strategic points in the country and the French, given their weakness, had little choice but to acquiesce.  The Japanese then increased their presence significantly in 1941 which was one of the factors that led America to enforce an embargo on Japan which ultimately led to “Pearl Harbor” and American involvement in “World War 2.”

During most of the rest of the war the Japanese were content to let the French administer much of Indochina and retain their titular role as masters of the colony.  However, this changed abruptly in March 1945 when the Japanese feared the French regime in Indochina was debating switching allegiance to the Free French and Allies so the Japanese quickly, and violently, overthrew the French regime.  The Japanese massacred French troops and murdered, or humiliated, several officers and officials and this, like the “Fall of Singapore” in 1942 did much to quash the myth to the native peoples of european colonies in East Asia that the white man was supposedly superior to other races. 

While French fortunes had been lowered by the war those of the Vietnamese Communists, or the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, had increased significantly.  While they did not do much damage to the Japanese occupying forces they did expand their forces significantly and began to politically mobilize much of the population.  By the end of the war they had enough support among the people of Vietnam, and enough weapons (not least because the surrendering Japanese gave them much of their weaponry), to claim to be a legitimate party to govern the nation.

After the Japanese surrender at the end of “World War 2” Chinese Nationalist forces occupied the North of Vietnam and disarmed the Japanese soldiers while British forces did the same in South Vietnam.  Meanwhile France, keen to re-establish herself as a great power, was desperate to send forces to reoccupy Indochina.

Initially Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietminh, avoided fighting the French, even signing a 5 year cease fire (which obviously did not last) with them.  His first priority was, along with the French, of getting Chinese forces out of Vietnam.  China has a long history of involvement in Vietnam and when his subordinates criticized the cease fire Ho Chi Minh said “The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

Eventually the Chinese withdrew from Vietnam, not least because Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader of China, was focused on a showdown with the Communists in his own country.  However, before the Chinese left Chiang Kai-shek forced the French to renounce the concessions they held in China’s ports such as Shanghai.

This left the Vietminh and the French, both suspicious of each other, in control of various parts of country.  Any chance of compromise to share power was unlikely due to the irreconcilable goals of both parties; France wanting to maintain her remaining colonies at all costs, while the Vietminh wanted legitimate independence for Vietnam.

Either way the various details and catalysts that led to war are ultimately unimportant and in late 1946 fighting broke out in the port city of Haiphong and the French decisively defeated the Vietminh with superior firepower and technology and the latter were forced from the cities and fled to the country side.  As in plenty of other insurgencies in plenty of other wars (such as the “Chinese Civil War”) the occupiers would generally enjoy control of the urban centers while the insurgents would have the initiative, and much of the control, in the rural areas.  

This was especially the case in Vietnam, and during the “First Indochina War” the French would never effectively control the countryside due to a lack of numbers, faulty doctrine, and the forbidding terrain of the country.  Indeed the country is covered in dense jungles and considerable mountains.  While the French dominated the coastal cities, urban areas, and open terrain like the Red River Delta the Vietminh generally held sway in the rural areas and the interior of the country.

However, despite having little control of the interior of the country the French arguably had the upper hand in the conflict for the first few years as they shipped in more troops and equipment while the Vietminh were isolated from outside assistance and had to rely on what they could capture or stocks of old Japanese weapons.  Unfortunately for the French they squandered their advantages by trying to destroy the Vietminh by military means and coercing the population instead of attempting to enact effective counter-insurgency methods such a securing the population, winning their support, and separating them from the insurgents.  While the French did inflict considerable casualties on the Vietminh, and even came close to capturing Ho Chi Minh during a daring airborne operation, their heavy handed tactics were ultimately counterproductive. 

With the routine practice of murder, rape, torture, and pillaging, most of it done indiscriminately, the French alienated the majority of the Vietnamese and pushed them into the arms of the Vietminh.  This is not to say that the Vietminh were incapable of considerable war crimes and excesses themselves.  They routinely shot, or mutilated, French prisoners, ruthlessly murdered anyone who was seen as a threat or collaborated with the French, and also made enemies of Catholic Vietnamese and other minorities who decided to back the French instead.  However, there is little doubt that with the Vietminh’s effective political indoctrination and social assistance to the masses, combined with France’s refusal to grant independence to Vietnam, that the Vietminh were destined to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the population.

The turning point in the war for the Vietminh was probably the victory of the Chinese Communist forces over Chiang-Kai shek’s Nationalists in 1949 which ended the “Chinese Civil War.”  While Chiang-Kai shek, an ardent anti-communist, gave the Vietminh no support while he was in power, the Chi-Coms (Chinese Communists) gave overwhelming support to their fellow Reds in Vietnam once they secured the border.  This support included countless weapons and supplies, military training, and even safe havens for the Vietminh across the border in China.

The consequences of this would be drastic as Chinese, and Soviet, support would allow much of the Vietminh guerrilla force to transition into a considerable conventional army that had a much better chance of beating the French in open battle.  In fact General Vo Nguyen Giap’s regular divisions initially had much success in their conventional attacks launched against the French outposts near the Chinese border.  These were seized, many French soldiers were killed or captured and much military equipment was taken.

However, despite the Vietminh’s new capabilities and early successes the French generally still had the advantage in firepower, training and technology and when Giap launched an all-out offensive to clear the Red River Delta to throw the French out of Vietnam in 1951 his forces were decisively beaten back with heavy losses.  It was one thing to take out isolated fortresses with superior numbers in broken terrain, it was quite another to face the bulk of the French army in open terrain.  Just as he would later do in 1968 regarding the “Tet Offensive” and in 1972 regarding the “Easter Offensive” Giap had underestimated his opponents’ morale and material advantages and believed that victory was in sight.  However, Giap was also patient and learned from his mistakes and the Vietminh reverted back to guerrilla warfare more or less from 1951 to Dien Bien Phu.

Meanwhile the French, having defeated Giap’s offensive, were unsure on how to proceed.  French policy during the war was remarkably ill-coordinated, ad-hoc and confusing.  Not least was the fact that during the conflict the unstable Fourth Republic back in France went through an astounding 19 different governments.  The French command in Vietnam also went through 6 commandersduring the war.  Obviously the constant shake up of politicians and generals was a not a recipe destined to produce coherent, decisive and continuous policies that pointed the way to victory.  With the political turmoil back in France precluding clear guidelines for action the generals in Vietnam were often left on their own.

Not surprisingly the conventionally minded soldiers again sought conventional militarily solutions.  Emboldened by their victory against Giap in 1951 the French believed they would inevitably beat him in open battle.  The French thus sought to find a way to bring Giap’s regular divisions to battle and destroy them.  How this was supposed to win a protracted guerrilla war, or even affect a reasonable political solution to the conflict, was not clearly articulated.

Either way the problem with the French strategy was how to lure, or fix, Giap’s forces into battle and destroy them.  Having reverted back to guerrilla warfare, combined with the Vietminh’s advantages in mobility and local intelligence, meant that it was easy for them to avoid superior French forces if they wanted to.  As such the French resorted to taking strategic points in the hopes it would coerce the Vietminh to attack them and suffer prohibitive casualties.

Therefore in 1951 the French took Hòa Bình, and in 1952 they took Nà Sn.  While in the former instance both sides took comparable casualties and thus cannot be seen as a French victory in the latter the French were more successful.  At Nà Sn the French established a base and airstrip, covered by all around defense with strong points surrounding the valley and hills around it.  It was supposed to be supplied completely by air and positioned to provoke the Vietminh to attack it.  In the event Giap attacked the smaller French garrison there with 3 divisions.  His forces suffered heavy casualties (3000 versus 500 French), did not occupy the high-ground and never interdicted French supplies landing at the airstrip.  Giap was forced to withdraw and the French later left unimpeded.

Yet despite this French success the legacy of Nà Sn would prove to be more sinister.  The successful defense of the base and their ability to supply the garrison completely by air led the French to once again underestimate the Vietminh.  This meant that they did not note certain crucial lessons regarding the battle.  These included the importance of occupying the high-ground, the vulnerability of a garrison completely dependent upon one airstrip for supply, or the fact that the French supply planes were stretched to their limit during the battle.  As for Giap, having seen his forces slaughtered he wisely learned the key lessons of the battle.  This would have decisive consequences when the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu” started two years later.

The immediate origins of Dien Bien Phu was the successful French effort at Nà Sn and a directive by the French Premier to the newly appointed French Commander in Vietnam in 1953, Henri Navarre, telling him to create military conditions that would lead to an “honorable political solution.”  Additionally, since the independence of Laos the Vietminh had been violating its neutrality (as it would continue to do for more than 20 years) to use its territory for movements and supplies.  These factors would motivate Navarre to launch the operation at Dien Bien Phu.

Essentially the French plan was to parachute into the valley of Dien Bien Phu, set up a strong garrison to cut the Vietminh supply lines into Laos, and lure them into battle and slaughter them.  This would have to be done quickly as there was an upcoming diplomatic conference in Geneva which had as one of its main objectives ending the war in Vietnam; hence the French Premier’s directive to using military means to create an “honorable political solution.”  This they would do via the Nà Sn method of using hedgehog (all around) defense combined with artillery and airpower.  It was hoped that France’s supply planes in Vietnam and the airstrip at Dien Bien Phu would be enough to keep the garrison supplied.

While the French launched the operation at Dien Bien Phu in part to lure the Vietminh into a decisive battle before the Geneva Conference it could be argued that they could not have found a worse place to do so.  Certainly regarding terrain, logistics and topography the French at Dien Bien Phu were at a distinct disadvantage.

Regarding terrain they set up their garrison in a narrow open valley surrounded on most sides by mountains covered in jungles.  This meant that they Vietminh could easily see what they were doing while the French could not see what the Vietminh were doing.  This would especially be detrimental for artillery as the Vietminh artillery could be well concealed, and its spotters could easily observe and find targets, whereas the French artillery was in the open and its spotters were relatively blind in locating the enemy. 

Why the French allowed this was because they erroneously believed the Vietminh did not have the logistics to transport a significant quantity of artillery to the mountains around Dien Bien Phu, and even if they did that the French artillery could easily silence the Vietminh artillery.  The French commander of artillery at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Piroth even boasted that no Vietminh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery.”  Perhaps more absurd was the fact that the French had 100s of artillery pieces in reserve in Hanoi that could have been deployed to the valley but were never sent as it was felt they were unnecessary.  Whether or not all of this occurred due to French racism, simple underestimation of the enemy, or pure ignorance does not matter; in the end it would prove decisive in battle.

From a logistics point of view Dien Bien Phu was problematic as well.  The French had determined it unlikely to be able to relieve overland, the site was at the end of the range of their supply planes and the key to re-supplying the garrison was the airstrip in the main base area.  If this were shut down the only way of re-supplying the garrison would be parachuting air supplies over the valley which was unreliable at best.  Just like at Arnhem and Warsaw in 1944 such supplies often landed behind enemy lines.  One scholar even makes the case, perhaps tenuously, that the French parachuted enough supplies of 105mm artilleryrounds to keep the Vietminh artillery functioning during the battle. 

While the French did recognize some of these defects at Dien Bien Phu they also expected that the Vietminh would encounter similar problems.  As noted above they assumed, mistakenly, that the Vietminh would not be able to place, let alone supply, artillery in the mountains above Dien Bien Phu.  Likewise, the French felt the Vietminh did not have the capabilities to supply a significant force around Dien Bien Phu for a protracted siege or battle.  The French estimated that perhaps 20,000 Vietminh soldiers could be supplied for a relatively short period of time.

Unfortunately they had once again underestimated their adversaries.  Employing perhaps 100,000 coolies with pack mules and donkeys the Vietminh eventually deployed close to 60,000 soldiers, as well as supplying both them and their artillery for a protected siege and battle that lasted several months.  General Giap, the commander of the Vietminh forces, described the support network as “an endless, linked human chain.”

Finally, the French erred at Dien Bien Phu in setting up the base in a low valley close to the monsoon season.  Apparently the Dien Bien Phu Basin has the heaviest rainfall of anywhere in Northern Indochina with five feet of rain between March and August on average.  Remarkably several French, British and American officers and generals toured the site and found it reasonably secure and had little to criticize the French positions.  However, one French officer, General Blanc did voice some criticisms regarding the area during the Monsoon season.  He was ignored.

Despite these disadvantages the initial phase of operation “Castor” (the code name for the operation at Dien Bien Phu) went well for the French as they parachuted over Dien Bien Phu, swept the relatively weak Vietminh presence aside, and secured the area.  After clearing the valley the French established their main base, which also had the airstrip which was supposed to be the lifeline for the garrison.  Then the French proceeded to construct several different strong points which surrounded the main base.  Four were constructed nearby to the south, south east, east and west, while others were further away to the north, the south, north west and north east.  All had female names and it was rumored that they were named after mistresses of the commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Christian de CastriesHowever, the truth is likely more mundane as the names were probably just female names selected alphabetically as the names Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine and Dominique would suggest. 

These strong points were supposed to provide all around defense, and with the garrison’s artillery, be mutually supporting.  They were located on the hills which covered the likely entrances into the valley and their smaller posts provided interlocking fields of fire.  They were also supposed to be littered with barbed wire, mines, and other powerful defenses.

All of this sounded promising.  In theory it should have given the French a good chance of beating the Vietminh in open battle.  However, as with other assumptions the French made at Dien Bien Phu their system of fortifications would prove to be woefully inadequate. 

Firstly, while the strongpoints around the main base were close enough to offer each other assistance, the more outlying ones, especially Gabrielle in the far north and Isabella in the far south, were essentially on their own. 

Secondly, the garrison’s artillery, on which much of Dien Bien Phu’s fate was dependent upon, was remarkably inept.  In his work “Fire Power in Limited War” Robert Scales exposes the less than distinguished record of the French artillery during the battle.  The French only had 28 artillery guns (24 105mm and 4 155mm howitzers) in the whole camp, which represented a mere third of what a usual French contingent of that size would enjoy.  As stated above the French had 100s of reserve guns in Hanoi but the French artillery commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Piroth, felt they were not needed.  Of the 28 guns only 4 were used for counter-battery fire to hit the Vietminh artillery, which incidentally ended up outnumbering the French in artillery 3 or 4 to 1.  Scales suggests that “there is no evidence these guns destroyed, or silenced a single VM gun.”  Additionally, the placement of the guns was poor and they could not provide support among distant positions.  Moreover, apparently the fire coordination and control was poor and the French artillery often failed to intervene against enemy attacks and sometimes its fire landed on friendly troops.  However, to be fair it is often thought that the French artillery did inflict the lion-share of the casualties on the Vietminh and it is well documented that they did suffer disproportionate casualties vs. the French.

Thirdly, the strongpoints suffered from a serious lack of resources.  The French engineers at Dien Bien Phu estimated they needed 36,000 tons of supplies for a siege, much of it barbed wire, concrete, mines and other assets for defense.  Ultimately they received a mere 4000 tons, 75% of it barbed wire.  The lack of resources meant that defenses were not close to being ideal.  Worse would come in Aprilwhen the Monsoon season began and defenses began to crumble and trenches flooded.   A key reason for the lack of adequate supplies was the small amount of transport planes the French had available, about 80, and once the airstrip was shut down they were reduced to parachuting in supplies.

Amusingly, despite the serious lack of supplies and a shortage of aircraft the French made sure to airlift in two mobile field brothels and a considerable amount of dehydrated wine, which if anything at least shows the French were not uncaring towards their soldiers’ morale.  However, it does make one question their priorities; a similarly comedic episode occurred after the “Battle of Rossbach” in 1757 when a French prisoner told Frederick the Great “Sir, you are an army – we are a traveling whorehouse.”  The French army at Rossbach indeed had been a microcosm of excess and luxury while Frederick’s army had a more spartan existence. 

Either way the French had cleared the landing zone, set up their base, and constructed their strong points in a relatively quick fashion with few losses.  Between the French parachuting into Dien Bien Phu in November 1953 and the main battle which began in March 1954 there were some skirmishes between French and Vietminh forces.  The French did not fare well in these exchanges due to their lack of local intelligence and the forbidding terrain around Dien Bien Phu.  Along with intermittent artillery fire these skirmishes cost the French perhaps 1000 dead or wounded, amounting to 10% of the garrison, before the main battle started.

While the French were setting up their base and strongholds the Vietminh were busy planning how to defeat the French garrison and deploying, and supplying, their forces in the mountains around Dien Bien Phu.  As stated above the French not only believed that the Vietminh did not have the ability, or logistics, to deploy more than 20,000 soldiers in the area, but would not be able to place significant artillery in the mountains around Dien Bien Phu as well.  However, also stated above, the Vietminh had 100,000 or more coolies backed by pack horses and mules and made super human efforts to deploy nearly 60,000 men backed by considerable artillery in the area and supply them for a long siege.

The Vietminh were to enjoy most of the advantages in the upcoming battle.  Whereas the French had deployed in a valley and all of its positions could be seen by the enemy the Vietminh had the cover of mountains and jungles.  Whereas the French were far away from effective support and suffered from poor logistics the Vietminh massed its strength at Dien Bien Phu and were well supplied.  Whereas the French artillery were few in number and poorly used their Vietminh equivalents had a prodigious amount and used them efficiently.  Finally, whereas the French, including the French Public, the French Government, the empire forces from other colonies, and the French army, all had different degrees of motivation and belief in their mission the Vietminh were solidly committed to their cause.

Regarding the conduct of the battle the Vietminh advantages in terrain, artillery, and anti-aircraft were obviously their greatest assets.  The terrain was good for the Vietminh as the mountains and jungles masked their positions, as well as absorbing much of the French firepower (including napalm). 

Much of the rationale for Dien Bien Phu was to lure the Vietminh into battle and destroy them with superior French firepower.  This plan was not completely without merit as was noted earlier when the French had been able to accomplish such feats before, notable in 1951 against Giap’s regulars in the Red River Delta when they assaulted the “De Lattre Line.”  The French also successfully defended the base at Nà Sn that could only be supplied via air and inflicted significant losses on the Vietminh.  Unfortunately Dien Bien Phu did not have the open terrain of the Red River Delta which gave the Vietminh little cover, and this time the Vietminh had the high ground and artillery superiority the French had enjoyed at Nà Sn.

As for artillery the Vietminh had a significant numerical advantage at Dien Bien Phu, perhaps 3 or 4 to 1 against the French.  While the latter amassed around 30 artillery pieces and perhaps another 30 heavy mortars the Vietminh managed to deploy over 200 artillery pieces and heavy motors.  The Vietminh also deployed 30 recoilless rifles and 12 Katyusha launchers, the same rapid fire rocket launchers that had terrified the Germans on the Eastern front more than a decade before Dien Bien Phu.

Besides sheer numbers the Vietminh held other advantages in artillery.  Whereas the French artillery could easily be seen in the bottom of the valley (which the Vietminh eventually called “the rice bowl”) the Vietminh artillery was hidden among the mountains and jungles.  Their artillery was also well dug in, camouflaged, and a series of dummy sites were made to confuse the French.  The Vietminh gunners were also well trained, having gone to China to learn from the Chinese Communists (a rare advantage for an underground army) and their spotters, who could see all the French positions in the valley, were adept at controlling the artillery’s fire.  Finally, whereas the French counter-battery fire was an unequivocal failure the Vietminh artillery managed eventually to take out all French guns during the battle. 

The considerable amount of Vietminh anti-aircraft guns would also prove to be decisive.  For the siege the Vietminh deployed 36 Anti-Aircraft guns around Dien Bien Phu that were supplied by the Soviets while the crews were trained by the Chinese.  Given the small layout of the battlefield (the valley itself was only 10 miles by 4 miles)this number of guns was enough to give the Vietminh a good density of anti-aircraft fire over the battlefield.  Anthony James Joes in “Resisting Rebellion” points out that the anti-aircraft over Dien Bien Phu was more thick than that over Germany in “World War 2.”

Besides the number and concentration of such guns in such a small area the Vietminh also benefited in how Giap deployed them.  Given that Dien Bien Phu is mostly surrounded by mountains, and that the clouds were low due to the monsoon season it was difficult for the French combat and transport planes to provide ground support and resupply the garrison.  As such Giap wisely chose to deploy most of his AA guns along the only 3 narrow corridors at which the French planes could approach.  It was even more pitiful during bad weather when the French could only use one narrow corridor to the north east.

This deployment of anti-aircraft made low level bombing and strafing unrealistic and thus the French combat planes could not effectively intervene in the battle on the ground.  The situation was even worse for the supply planes, of which 48 were shot down during the siege.  Once the Vietminh artillery made the French airstrip unusable the French aircraft were forced to resort to dropping supplies via parachute.  However, the intense anti-aircraft fire from the Vietminh which damaged and destroyed countless French planes forced the remaining ones to fly higher at 8000 feet instead of the usual 2000 and this made it much harder to drop supplies accurately to the French garrison.  As noted above, like at Arnhem and Warsaw in 1944, much of the supplies dropped from the air landed behind enemy lines instead. 

When one looks at the poor choice of Dien Bien Phu as a battlefield for the French, as well as the French lack of resources and their remarkable hubris, and finally how many advantages the Vietminh had regarding the battle it is actually surprising how long the contest lasted and how many casualties the French inflicted upon the Vietminh.

The main battle at Dien Bien Phu began on March 13 with a massive artillery bombardment by the Vietminh guns the French assumed could never be deployed in the mountains surrounding the valley.  The initial focus of the attack was on the stronghold named “Beatrice” to the north east of the main base area.  The Vietminh had some luck with their artillery as a shell hit the French command post and killed Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot along with his whole staff.  Remarkably a similar coup occurred a few minutes later and another notable officer, Colonel Jules Gaucher, commander of the whole northern sector, was killed by Vietminh artillery as well.

This had a negative effect regarding the French command of the battle at Beatrice and the Vietminh had considerable success using human wave assaults to overwhelm the outnumbered French defenders.  Besides their considerable artillery the Vietminh also used sappers with bangalore torpedoes to eliminated obstacles such as minefields and barbed wire.  The Vietminh captured Beatrice just after midnight and managed to kill perhaps 500 French legionaries, while the French later estimated they killed 600 Vietminh and wounded 1200 more.  Before French resistance collapsed a captain radioed to headquarters “it’s all over-the Viets are here.  Fire upon my position.  Out.”  A French counterattack to retake Beatrice was attempted the next morning but was easily defeated by Vietminh artillery.

The French were given no reprieve as the Vietminh then quickly moved against Gabrielle, the stronghold to the north of the main French base area.  However, in the initial assault the defenders, an elite Algerian battalion, managed to repulse the Vietminh attack.  The latter decided to regroup and later launched a concentrated artillery bombardment in the afternoon of March 14 which had some effect on the defenders and there was serious fighting throughout the rest of the day and during the next morning.  Like at Beatrice the Vietminh artillery scored another coup when a shell hit the battalion headquarters and wounded the battalion commander and most of the staff.

The Vietminh managed to take many of the posts in the Gabrielle strongpoint but did not inflict a decisive victory or drive the defenders out.  However, the latter where in bad shape and the French launched a counterattack to reinforce them.  The French sent their Vietnamese paratroopers, which although excellent troops were tired from jumping into the French base the day before.  While some of these soldiers reached Gabrielle most were stopped by Vietminh artillery and the force took severe losses.  Either way the French abandoned Gabrielle as the remainder of the base was found to be too badly damaged to offer a viable defense.  Thus the Algerians and the French Vietnamese forces pulled back and the Vietminh moved into what was left of Gabrielle.  The assault had cost the French forces 1000 casualties while the Vietminh suffered between 1000-2000.

In a matter of days the Vietminh had managed to secure two of the French garrison’s strongpoints at Dien Bien Phu.  While the Vietminh had taken more casualties than the French these were not prohibitive and the former had significantly more troops at their disposal than the latter.  Perhaps worse than the loss of the strongpoints and casualties for the French was the fact that with the loss of Beatrice and Gabrielle the Vietminh were now close to the main French base and could now shell enemy positions with considerable accuracy. 

Perhaps the most important consequence of this was that the Vietminh artillery now made it impossible for the French to land planes via the airstrip at the main base and now they were dependent upon parachuting supplies into the base to survive.  Of the supplies that were parachuted a significant amount ended up in Vietminh hands.  Either way, and in a remarkable parallel to the 6th Army at Stalingrad, of the 400 tons of supplies the French estimated they needed to keep the garrison fed and supplied daily only 120 tons was dropped on average, and of that 20 tons usually fell behind Vietminh lines. 

The ability of the Vietminh guns to help seize the two French strongpoints, its breaking up of the French counterattacks, and the closing down of the French airstrip both confirmed the effectiveness of the Vietminh artillery and the inadequacies of the French artillery.  Indeed the French artillery efforts at counter-battery fire completely failed and French guns did little to prevent the fall of both strongpoints.  Colonel Piroth, the French artillery commander, was so ashamed of the poor showing of his artillery that he retired to a bunker, pulled the pin out of a grenade and held it to his chest until it exploded.

The French also began to suffer from a problem of desertions.  While their elite parachute, legionnaire, and Moroccan forces were loyal and confident to the end much of the French empire forces, composed of Vietnamese, Algerians, Thais, etc, began to desert in considerable numbers.  It is estimated that there were 17 different nationalities among the garrison at Dien Bien Phu and apparently half of the total number were Vietnamese.  Just feeding the troops became a logistical nuisance as the French had to airlift in 6 different types of food.  According to the Vietnam War Notebook” Muslim troops would not eat pork, Vietnamese troops required fish sauce, the French soldiers demanded cheese and wine rations,” etc.

As for effects the first notable instance of desertions occurred on March 16 when several hundred North African and Vietnamese forces deserted.  Even worse was what happened at Anne Marie, a stronghold to the north west of the main French base.  Garrisoned mostly by Thai soldiers, Giap had continuously sent them leaflets telling them that Dien Bien Phu was not their fight and that they should go over to the Vietminh.  This coupled with the fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle, which had thoroughly demoralized the Thais, convinced the majority of them to desert.  Thus on March 17, under the cover of fog most of the garrison defected to the Vietminh.  This forced the few remaining Thais and French to withdraw and Anne Marie was occupied by the Vietminh.

The French garrison would suffer disproportionately both from desertions to the enemy, as well as internal desertions by other soldiers who simply sat the battle out near the Nam Yum river.  The number of overall desertions were not inconsequential as many studies have suggested that out of the 13-15000 man garrison at Dien Bien Phu perhaps only 6500 were effective combatants against the Vietminh.  Once again this suggests that despite all the disadvantages the French had at Dien Bien Phu it is to their credit they held out so long and inflicted such disproportionate casualties on the Vietminh.

After the Vietminh seizure of Beatrice and Gabrielle, and the desertion of the garrison at Anne Marie, there was a brief interlude regarding major fighting for the next two weeks.  The French at this point were desperate to neutralize the Vietminh’s advantage in artillery and devoted considerable resources, including dropping 10,000 gallons of Napalm in one day, in an attempt to do so.  However, the inefficiencies of the French counter-battery fire, as well as the deception efforts of the Vietminh and the jungle terrain doomed these efforts. 

More successful was a French counterattack on March 28 led by Major Marcel Bigeard, a distinguished paratrooper who had fought in “World War 2,” developed his reputation in Indochina and later served in Algeria.  He was ordered to take a Vietminh anti-aircraft position west of the French base that was dominating the airstrip.  After explaining to his superiors he could succeed but that he would only be able to do so at great cost he quickly organized the assault overnight.  The plan relied upon surprise and sophisticated artillery support. 

In fact Bigeard achieved complete surprise and the assault was a brilliant tactical success which killed 350 Vietminh soldiers and destroyed 17 anti-aircraft machine guns.  This significantly boosted the morale of the French garrison after its previous defeats.  Unfortunately this was to be the only tangible effect the French would gain since they had to abandon the position as they did not have enough men to hold it.  The action also did little to prevent the Vietminh from continuing to stop the French from effectively resupplying the garrison.  Yet the worst consequence of the assault was the loss of 20 dead and 97 wounded French soldiers, many of them the best junior officers among the garrison.  The French may have inflicted more casualties on the Vietminh than they had received, but unlike the latter they were hard pressed to replace them.

The next major Vietminh attack occurred on March 30 and was mostly directed towards the strongholds of Dominique and Eliane.  However, instead of the usual human wave tactics that had resulted in heavy casualties taking Beatrice and Gabrielle Giap decided to build approach tunnels to get as close as possible to the new strongholds which were close to the heart of the French base.  Not surprisingly the French did not remain passive but used mortars extensively to try to thwart the Vietminh who were digging the tunnels. While the latter took a considerable pounding they continued to work unabated.  The Vietminh plan was to use a heavy bombardment at night with the tunnels to provide as much cover as possible.

While the plan seemed sound the French command had recently reviewed the defenses in the area and had ordered in reinforcements, to be commander by Major Marcel Bigeard, the same venerable soldier who had successfully led the counterattack on March 28.  Marcel and his men arrived in time to join the beginning of the battle. 

After a powerful artillery bombardment the Vietminh jumped out of their approach trenches and assaulted several positions at the Dominique, Eliane and Huguette strongholds.  Despite the recent French reinforcements the Vietminh captured the first two outposts at Dominique and only the 3rd remained between the Vietminh and the French headquarters.  While much of the Algerian defenders here ran the situation was saved by two groups, one a group of Senegal gunners who, according to the Vietnam War Notebook, “dropped their guns to zero elevation, cut the fuzes to zero delay, so that the shells would explode as soon as they cleared the muzzles, and opened up when the charging Vietminh were almost on top of them and shredded the better part of two regiments.”  The other was a group of French who used their anti-aircraft machine guns to push back Vietminh who came near the airfield.  It was the NCOs, and Major Bigeard, who had saved the situation that their overconfident superiors had put them in.

Indeed Bigeard with French paratroops, and other trustworthy units, counterattacked again and again throughout the battles at Dominique and Eliane and prevented a rout.  In another notable instance it appeared the French would collapse at Eliane but a group of French tanks arrived just in time.  Ultimately Bigeard, his initial reinforcements, and the stubbornness of the French forces held onto both strongpoints despite ending up dangerously low on reserves.

On April 5 the Vietminh attacks began to wind down.  The French intercepted signals from the enemy asking for more reinforcements and supplies.  While Giap was disappointed his attack had not succeeded he knew that with the French supply situation becoming worse that time was on his side and that he could be patient and build up more strength.  Additionally, despite failing to take the Dominique and Eliane strongholds they had inflicted significant casualties on the French which would be difficult to replace and they had also done considerable damage to the French defenses.

Between these attacks and the final Vietminh assaults in May the tempo of operations decreased around Dien Bien Phu.  While the French had been battered and were running low on supplies the Vietminh had troubles of their own.  Despite their considerable efforts at supplying their forces around Dien Bien Phu the Vietminh were having supply woes, especially regarding artillery ammunition.  Additionally, they had taken considerable casualties and Giap began bringing in reinforcements from Laos.  Perhaps most troubling was that there was a morale crisis among some Vietminh forces.  After having sustained significant casualties many units began to refuse to advance.  In a parallel to the Soviet army in “World War 2,” the Vietminh soldiers were told to advance or they would be shot by their officers or NCOs.  Another reason for the poor morale was that the Vietminh medical system was rudimentary and the wounded had little hope of being cared for.

This led to fewer battles during April while Giap consolidated his forces and launched smaller attacks using more careful measures to limit casualties among his force.  Much of this again involved digging more approach trenches and this period was marked by the Vietminh closing in on the French centre and strangling the garrison.  Eventually the Vietminh would dig trenches to within 800 yards of the main French command post.  The monsoon season was also well underway and the rain turned the area around Dien Bien Phu into a sea of mud and French defenses crumbled, trenches were filled with water, and air support, which was already ineffective, was more restricted.  The French hoped that the mud would at least slow down the Vietminh’s resupply efforts and maybe even allow the reopening of the airstrip but none of this occurred. 

However, there were a few notable engagements during this period, not least some significant French counterattacks.  On April 10 Bigeard tried to recapture the Eliane post 1 after a short, massive, artillery bombardment and the use of small unit infiltration tactics.  This position changed hands several times but the French ultimately secured it.  A Vietminh assault to try to take it back was repulsed on April 12.  Apparently this French success had an adverse effect on Vietminh morale and only considerable efforts by the political commissars prevented a crisis.

A less successful operation was launched by the French to resupply Huguette 6 with assaults launched on April 11, 14 and 16.  While the French managed to get some supplies through they also suffered heavy casualties and it was decided to abandon Huguette 6.  The garrison attempted to breakout on April 18 but most of them failed to reach French lines.  This failure was followed by a successful Vietminh assault against Huguette 1 on April 22 which secured them 90% of the airstrip and strangled the already inadequately French resupply efforts to Dien Bien Phu even further.  A French counterattack to retake Huguette 1 later that day failed.

The end for the French garrison was in sight.  With the Geneva Conference about to begin Ho Chi Minh pressured Giap to finish the battle.  When the Vietminh began their final offensive on May 1st the French were down to 3 days of rations and a mere 20,000 rounds of artillery ammunition.  They were also strangled by the Vietminh on all sides with the latter’s trenches uncomfortable close to the French forward positions.  They were so close in fact that the initial attacks were launched without an artillery barrage and much of the fighting was done with grenades and bayonets.  By the end of the first day the Vietminh had conquered two strongholds.

The fighting during the last few days was brutal and attritional with the Vietminh alternating between massed infantry attacks and heavy mortar fire.  The last desperate assault on the garrison began on May 6.  The French managed to defeat the first wave with artillery, using an innovation called “time on target” where all rounds fired from different positions across the garrison would all land at the same place at the same time (perhaps suggesting that the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu was more effective than sometimes thought) which decimated an entire Vietminh regiment. 

However, the Vietminh had some innovations of their own.  The Katyusha rockets were finally unleashed against the French for the first time in the battle.  A more effective stratagem was the detonation of a mineshaft full of explosives under Eliane 2 (much like the British use of mines during the “Battle of Messines” in “World War 1”) which effectively destroyed the position and allowed the Vietminh to continue to advance.  This they did, slowly but surely, overrunning positions one at a time while the French ran out of space and ammunition.

On May 7 Giap initiated an all-out assault with 25,000 Vietminh regulars against the 6000 remaining soldiers of the French force.  At this point the French were doomed as their artillery had been knocked out, their ammunition was all but depleted and the Vietminh were within 100 yards of the main French command post.  During the last few days there was some hope that the Americans would intervene with B-29 Bombers, and according to some accounts even nuclear weapons, but President Eisenhower refused to act.  The garrison was abandoned to its fate.

Dien Bien Phu fell on May 8, 1954, the ninth anniversary of “Victory in Europe Day.”  As the French Prime Minister reported its fall to the French National Assembly all the deputies rose to show respect, all except for the Communist members.  Incredibly the Communists in France had spent the war fighting the French effort and even had their labor unions sabotage supplies sent to Vietnam.

As for the cold statistics regarding the battle the French lost their whole garrison, roughly 13,000 men at its height.  Perhaps 2-3000 were killed, 6-7000 wounded, and the rest (including much of the wounded) taken prisoner, including those who deserted.  Of the estimated 10,000 French forces taken prisoner only 3000 would be freed later while the rest either died during captivity or were kept prisoner as was the probable fate of the French Vietnamese contingent at Dien Bien Phu.  Among the lucky that returned home was Marcel Bigeard who was far from finished his long, distinguished and controversial military career.

Despite winning the battle, and the war, the Vietminh suffered disproportionate casualties versus the French.  While the Vietminh had most of the advantages during the battle the French forces, especially the paratroopers and legionnaires, were generally better trained, and the French had the benefit of fortifications and defenses, if of variable quality, while the Vietminh constantly had to expose its ranks to considerable firepower attacking over open ground, often employing human wave tactics.  Like the British Navy at Jutland in 1916 the Vietminh won strategically despite certain questionable methods while the French had considerable tactical success until they were overwhelmed.  The price was not insignificant, costing the Vietminh perhaps 8000 dead and 12-15000 wounded, coming close to 25,000 casualties and representing nearly 1/4 of Giap’s total regular forces.  The French losses at Dien Bien Phu by contrast represented a mere 4% of their manpower in Vietnam.

Dien Bien Phu was the catalyst which led to the end of French dominion in Indochina.  While the French lost 4% of its manpower in Vietnam against 1/4 of the Vietminh’s regular troops the French public, and politicians, had had enough and decided to pull out and cut their losses.  However, the Vietminh would not win an outright victory as the country would be divided in half with a communist north and an independent south backed by the Americans, who had supported and bankrolled the French during the war, and would now inherit the burden of fighting communism in South East Asia.  Elections were supposed to take place in a few years to try to unify the two countries.  These elections never occurred.

Instead the end result is well known as the Americans initially propped up the south regime against incursions from the communist north, and eventually entered the conflict themselves in a desperate bid to save the nation from falling to communism.  While the Americans meant well for Vietnam and won every battle of consequence during the conflict they ultimately lost the media battle at home, did not invest enough in securing, or winning over, the population of South Vietnam, and could not save the regime in Saigon from its own corruption and incompetence.  America ended its military involvement in Vietnam in 1973 and soon afterwards cut off most of its military and economic aid to South Vietnam.  Meanwhile the Soviets and Chinese propped up the North Vietnamese with Billions of dollars of aid and in 1975 the North Vietnamese Army decisively conquered South Vietnam ending a protracted conflict that had been going on and off for nearly 30 years.

Yet despite the Vietnamese Communists’ impressive victories versus the French, and later the Americans (albeit with considerable backing of the Soviet Union and Communist China), there is a big myth regarding the “Vietnam War” where the people of South Vietnam were supposedly overall sympathetic to the communist cause and only American intransigence prevented them from joining their brothers in the north much sooner. 

In reality while the South Vietnamese were not particularly fond of the Americans they had no wish to be communists either.  North Vietnam was always more rural, agrarian and pro-communist whereas South Vietnam was more urban, cosmopolitan and leaned more towards the West.  During the “First Indochina War” most of the battles, fighting, and support for the Vietminh had been in the north and this is one of the reasons that after the conflict the country was divided in two rather than simply being handed over to Ho Chi Minh.  Additionally, after the war nearly a million Vietnamese fled south while perhaps a tenth of this number fled north.  The final proof was that in 1975 with the fall of the South almost 2 million South Vietnamese eventually fled the country rather than live under communism, perhaps another 1-2.5 million were sent to “reeducation camps” and the NVA generals estimated that maybe a third of the population supported them.  The inconvenient truth regarding the “Vietnam War” was that whatever faults and excesses the Americans were guilty of they were legitimately fighting for the freedom of the South Vietnamese.

Besides the ensuing “Vietnam War” another result of Dien Bien Phu was the accelerated descent of european imperialism that had already been weakened by the reduction of French and British influence since “World War 2.”  Given the weakness of the British and French, the strength of the Soviets and Americans, and the aspirations of oppressed peoples in western colonies, european colonialism was doomed.  However, while Dien Bien Phu was an important, perhaps quintessential, event in this regard it still took the ill-fated “Suez Crisis” in 1956 and the “Algerian War” from 1954-62 to finally convince the policymakers in London and Paris that european imperialism was dead.

Then there was the influence that Dien Bien Phu had on military thought.  To some it seemed to vindicate Mao’s view of “people’s war” whereby political mobilization of the masses would lead to opposition to the government, and then later to guerrilla warfare which would wear down the opposing army while strengthening the people’s army and finally lead to all out conventional warfare where the oppressive government would be physically overthrown.  Yet despite the well-earned victory the Vietminh accomplished at Dien Bien Phu this was an exaggeration.

Since Mao’s writing on the subject only his own army in China managed to accomplish this feat, and only then due to extraordinary circumstances.  Indeed by the mid-1930s the Communists had all but been defeated by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces and had not the Japanese invaded China in 1937 they probably would have been wiped out.  During the war the Nationalists had been severely weakened while the Communists gained in strength due to the cruelty of the Japanese and the perceived impotence of the Nationalists.  After the war the Communists also benefited from significant aid from the Soviet Union whereas the Americans gradually cut off the Nationalists from military and economic aid.  Finally, the Communists benefited from the fact that the Nationalists were never a truly united, strong, or technologically advanced government.  These unique circumstances allowed Mao to triumph over Chiang Kai-shek and it began the myth that insurgent forces had a good chance of overthrowing governments by conventional military means.  Needless to say such circumstances did not duplicate themselves in other conflicts. 

No other insurgent movement in the 20th Century ever became strong enough to physically defeat and overrun the government it was fighting.  Efforts by insurgents in Greece after “World War 2,” in Algeria during the 50s and 60s, and against America in Vietnam in 1968 and 1972, all failed unequivocally.  The only ways insurgents succeeded was either out-waiting foreign powers as in Vietnam, Lebanon, or Afghanistan, or putting enough pressure on domestic governments to give them a share in power or the right to contest elections such as in Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, and even the brief establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s. 

Dien Bien Phu itself was no exception.  As stated above while the Vietminh won the battle fairly they had suffered prohibitive losses and had barely dented French manpower in Vietnam, let alone physically overthrown their presence in the country.  They won the conflict by quashing French political will to continue the war, not by liberating the nation via military means.  The fact that the Vietminh only secured Northern Vietnam instead of the whole country after 1954 confirms this.

In fact Dien Bien Phu would be a stand-alone case study where a rebel army (albeit one provided with significant conventional capabilities by donor states) defeated a modern, western conventional army.  The specific circumstances that combined many French weaknesses and Vietminh strengths that led to the result at Dien Bien Phu would never occur again (just as the same factors which led to Mao’s victory in the “Chinese Civil War” never did either).  Much like the dream of inflicting another “Cannae” was a hopeless dream for conventional soldiers the attempt to create another “Dien Bien Phu” would be an unfulfilled aspiration for many insurgents as well.

The French lost the battle of “Dien Bien Phu” because the Vietminh had the advantages in topography and terrain, logistics, artillery and anti-aircraft capabilities, and political will.   The French chose a battlefield that was too remote to be supplied effectively and had terrain that favored the Vietminh instead of their forces.  The terrain concealed the Vietminh hiding in the mountains around the valley, negated much of the effects of French firepower, and also allowed the Vietminh to clearly view the French positions in the open valley (not to mention the effects of the Monsoon season).  The Vietminh supply system became strained during the battle but continued to function whereas the French supply system broke down early in the battle and never recovered.  The French artillery was also outnumbered and inefficiently used whereas the Vietminh artillery was considerable in both numbers and effects, managing to adequately support Vietminh ground assaults and shutting down the French airstrip.  The Vietminh’s anti-aircraft guns were also decisive in limiting the effectiveness of the French combat and supply planes by shooting down, or damaging, many planes, or forcing them to fly too high or abandon their missions, which greatly decreased French firepower and the amount of supplies the French garrison received via parachute.  Finally, the Vietminh were united in their determination to win, despite a temporary crisis in morale at Dien Bien Phu, whereas the various levels of motivation among the differing components of the French effort in Vietnam ranged from excessive dedication to lethargic apathy.  It is hard to see how a nation like France whose population generally disapproved of the war, which went through 19 governments and 6 commanders in the field during the conflict, who fought with a disproportionate amount of empire forces whose loyalty and motivation were suspect, was likely to triumph over a ruthless, disciplined and popular mass movement such as the Vietminh.

Yet despite fighting an unpopular war, despite being forgotten by politicians at home, despite being placed in perhaps the most unfavorable circumstances to fight a battle by arrogant generals, and despite being abandoned by many of their colonial comrades, much of the French garrison, especially the paratroopers and legionnaires, maintained their composure until the end.  The last message from Dien Bien Phu before the surrender was “we’re blowing everything up.  Adieu.”  For France the goodbye was more than a lost battle, it was the farewell to her status as a great power.


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

Boot, Max.  Invisible Armies.  New York:  Liveright, 2013.

Joes, Anthony.  Resisting Rebellion.  Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

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

Moran, Daniel.  Wars of National Liberation.  London:  Cassell, 2002.

Polk, William.  Violent Politics.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2007.

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

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

Wiest, Andrew.  Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land.  Oxford:  Osprey, 2006.

Windrow, Martin.  The French Indochina War.  Oxford:  Osprey, 1998.

Article from “Parallel Narratives”:  Vietnam Notebook: First Indochina War, Dien Bien Phu (1953-1954) by R. Filippelli, 2014.

Study for the “Air Command and Staff College”:  A Description and Analysis of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh by Major Roger Purcell, April 1986.

Study for the “Joint Services Command and Staff College”:  The battles of Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh An analysis of the influence of airpower by Wing Commander J M Whitworth, July 2012.

Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Dien Bien Phu”: [September, 2014]

Wikipedia article on the “First Indochina War”: [September, 2014]

An In-Depth Review of “Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq”

Posted By on July 14, 2014

GroznySun Tzu, the great philosopher of war, was not a fan of urban warfare.  When listing off different ways to wage war he suggested that “the worst policy is to attack cities, attack cities only when there is no alternative.”  Indeed it seems like an almost unchallenged theory that urban warfare is inherently long, costly, indecisive and ruinous.  In “Concrete Hell” Louis DiMarco, a former Lt. Colonel in the American Army, challenges this theory and offers some surprising conclusions.

Instead of being an aberration urban warfare is constant throughout history.  Instead of being pointless and costly it is often decisive and no bloodier than other forms of warfare.  Instead of being a refuge for guerrilla fighters and terrorists soldiers are more likely than not to triumph.  Yet perhaps the biggest myth he quashes is that tanks, rather than being a liability in urban warfare, are actually a vital asset.

Starting with a general history of urban warfare since ancient times the author then focuses on 9 case studies since “World War 2.” Beginning, unsurprisingly, with Stalingrad he moves from conventional wars such as Korea, to what could be called “internal pacifications” such as the French in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland and finally to Chechnya and Iraq in what he describes as “hybrid war.”

In the conventional war case studies, Stalingrad, Aachen, Inchon and Seoul, and Hue respectively, the fighting was between standing armies while seizing, and retaining, the city was the paramount objective.  Considerations such as collateral damage and political blow back, while not completely absent (especially at Hue), were generally secondary to the military objective of taking the city.

Regarding “internal pacifications” the fighting was between government troops on one hand and terrorists or revolutionaries on the other.  These case studies include the French in Algeria and the British in Northern Ireland.  Here the military contest was not as vital and political considerations came to the fore.  As government forces were fighting not just to take cities but to pacify rebel groups and establish legitimacy to rule, the successful seizure of urban areas, if done so at the cost of significant civilian losses and violating the rule of law, often led to a pyrrhic victory.  Indeed the widespread use of torture used by French forces during the “Battle of Algiers” alienated enough of the French public, who had suffered similar abuses under the nazis, to eventually convince the French government that holding onto Algeria was politically impossible.  Likewise, while the British never lost Northern Ireland, the often heavy handed conduct of the British army against the Catholics, as well as the lack of political considerations to address their grievances until later in the conflict, meant that the war in Northern Ireland went on for more than 30 years until a relatively satisfactory peace settlement was reached.

As for so called “hybrid warfare” the author describes the Russians in Grozny in the “First Chechen War” and Ramadi during the “Iraq war.”  In these cases the soldiers were facing guerrilla opponents who were not as strong as regular forces, yet not as weak as terrorist or revolutionary forces (as in the case of Algeria and Northern Ireland). The opponents in these instances were guerrilla forces fighting against foreign intruders and had considerable benefits in local intelligence, motivation and unit cohesion.  In such situations the conventional forces are still likely to win but they are once again constrained by numerous political factors. 

In Grozny the Russians eventually won and captured the city, though not before they suffered horrific casualties, bombed the city to the ground, and lost most of the legitimacy of their cause.  In Ramadi the Americans adopted a different philosophy, the so called “population-centric” approach, and eventually won over the population, neutralized the enemy insurgents, and secured the city without suffering heavy casualties or inflicting significant collateral damage.

Finally there is the case study regarding “Operation Defensive Shield” in which the Israelis moved into the West Bank in 2002, but focuses primarily on Nablus and Jenin.  This operation was neither a conventional approach, a counter-insurgency effort, nor designed to permanently neutralize the enemy, but simply to degrade the capabilities of terrorist groups attacking Israel.  As it was a limited operation, both in time and scope, it never addressed the root causes of terrorism against Israel.  However, as its objective was limited only to reducing terrorist capabilities, and as it did so effectively, it can be classified as a success.

As for why these battles begin, as in why fighting occurs in cities despite Sun Tzu’s warnings, the author presents a few solid arguments along with some common sense.  For starters cities are centers of government, economics, culture and industry.  As such seizing them can disrupt governance, trade, industrial production, and other vital assets in order to wage war.  They are also where the masses reside and nothing is more ruinous for morale than being occupied.  Additionally some cities, especially capital ones, are what Clausewitz refers to as “the centre of gravity” for the enemy, the fall of which will neutralize his capacity, or at least his will, to fight.  Indeed the seizure of the enemy’s capital has often been decisive in war, as it was in the case of Rome regarding the fall of the Roman Empire, and for Paris in the “Napoleonic Wars,” the “Franco-Prussian War” and the “Battle of France.”  Moreover, the “Battle of Berlin” was the last major operation in Europe in “World War 2,” the seizure of Saigon ended the “Vietnam War” and the fall of Baghdad ended Saddam Hussein’s rule in 2003.

Additionally, urban warfare also occurs when there are important enemy forces stationed in cites, such as the F.L.N. in Algiers, or if enemy forces are too strong to bypass.  Then some cities are captured to facilitate further operations.  These are usually important communications centers such as a city that lies along major converging rail lines such as Moscow, which dominates all communications in European Russia, or a vital port, such as Cherbourg or Antwerp (which the Allies both wanted to ease their logistical constraints after landing in Normandy).  The author even cites the example of the British capturing Louisbourg in the “7 Years War” prior to their attack on Quebec showing that despite the typical stereotype this American author has a good grasp of Canadian, as well as American, history.

Finally there is the point that urban warfare offers significant defensive advantages for weaker conventional forces, insurgents and terrorists that none of them would enjoy fighting a strong conventional force in open terrain.  Usually the defender uses urban landscape, with its countless places to both conceal themselves and ambush enemy forces, as well as the presence of civilians, to compensate for inferior numbers, lack of equipment, or simply to being less competent than their enemies.  The presence of civilians has mostly been a boon with the rise of media, and when fighting democracies, as most collateral damage is usually blamed on the attacking force.  For some reason people in the Western world always seem to blame conventional armies, who generally try to avoid civilians casualties as much as they can, versus terrorist and insurgent groups who purposely put civilians in harms way. 

Even though it is a well-documented practice for terrorists and insurgents to put civilians at risk so that any deaths will result in subsequently higher recruitment and political capital for their cause the majority of people in liberal democracies somehow end up sympathizing for these irregular groups, few of whom ever support freedom, tolerance of all religions, or gender and racial equality.  While the author always remains detached and objective there is little doubt that such sentiments of frustration towards the home front would find considerable sympathy among soldiers who have engaged in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.

Either way the value of urban areas to the enemy is relative.  The author suggests that it is necessary to know the enemy’s military, geopolitical, economic and cultural considerations, as well as the roles, and importance, of his cities before attacking them.  For just as there are no lack of examples of the fall of major cities ending wars there are plenty of other examples to suggest that it is not inherently decisive either.  The Persians may have captured Athens but later lost the naval battle at “Battle of Salamis” and had to evacuate Greece.  The Japanese took Nanking in 1937, and Napoleon took Moscow in 1812, but their enemies still had plenty of space to retreat and considerable resources and people to fight them.  The Russians may have taken Grozny in 1995 and the Americans Baghdad in 2003 but their wars were far from over and did not end how they had wanted.  Yet it is still a general consideration that a modern society based on conventional fighting forces is still more vulnerable to the loss of its major cities than a backwards one based on irregular forces.

However, such factors aside there are some generally accepted principles regarding urban warfare.  First is that to decisively capture a city the enemy combatants inside need to be cut off from outside support.  In other words the city needs to be surrounded, or at least all the lines of communications going in and out, need to be secured.  This may sound so blatantly obvious but being a serious student of military history myself I am shocked by how many accounts of the “Battle of Stalingrad” don’t even acknowledge the fact that one of the key reasons Stalingrad never fell to the Germans was that they never managed to either secure the east bank of the Volga River, or at least effectively interdict the traffic across it.

An extension of this principle is that the fighting to surround a city, or to cut it off, is often more time consuming, and costly, than the fighting inside the city itself.  Certainly this makes sense; the “Battle of Berlin” was essentially a giant mopping up operation once it was encircled, the Communists at Hue began to retreat after they were cut off, and the Americans found it much easier to conquer Aachen compared to the vicious fighting to effect its encirclement.  Essentially it comes down to morale and logistics.  Warfare is generally a costly exercise, and once you run out of bullets, food, and equipment you can no longer effectively engage in it.  As for morale nothing is worse for the psychology of soldiers than knowing they are surrounded and cut off from supplies. 

Then there are basic principles for the actual fighting inside of cities.  While there are differences between fighting conventional forces (or at least decently equipped guerrilla forces) vs. poorly equipped rebel and terrorist groups the main lessons seem the same.  The most important is that given how inherently complex urban battlefields are it is necessary to adopt an all-arms approach.  This includes infantry, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, engineers, and often heavier weapons such as artillery and airpower.  The infantry especially have to be well equipped with mortars, snipers, flamethrowers, heavy machine guns, and other weapons to suppress various enemy targets in cities.

Tanks, as noted above, are not a wasted asset in urban warfare but usually essential.  The difference is that unlike its principle uses in maneuver warfare, a combination of shock action and mass, in urban warfare tanks are divided up into small groups to help infantry suppress enemy forces as well as taking out strong points.  Tanks were even vital in Stalingrad, for both sides, despite the popular myth that the rubble in the streets severely limited their mobility.  Where tanks fail in urban warfare is when they are not properly screened by protective infantry, or when they are too exposed in open areas that have not been secured.

The American forces attacking Aachen in 1944 developed very effective tactics to protect Tanks in urban warfare including:

1).  Limited the exposure of tanks on main streets.

2).  Moved tanks down side streets as much as possible.

3).  Having them constantly screened and protected by infantry.

4).  Used buildings as cover (having tanks shoot around corners).

5).  Suppressing enemy positions with fire whenever tanks had to move from one firing point to another.

This was in stark contrast to the initial Russian moves into Grozny in late 1994 when mechanized and armored forces advanced down the streets in long columns, without any reconnaissance, and much of their soldiers sleeping in their trucks.  The result was predictable as one Russian regiment was ambushed by Chechen forces using RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) machine guns and snipers who initially attacked the leading and trailing vehicles of the convoy first, knocking them out and trapping those in the centre.  The RPGs in particular were used to devastating effect, being shot from high up to hit tanks and armored vehicles at the top where they were thinly armored.  These Chechen forces ambushed the column on both sides from buildings and alleyways and effectively neutralized the convoy’s combat power.  The Russian tank crews discovered that their turrets could neither elevate high enough to hit the Chechens on the roofs, or depress low enough to hit those in the basements.  One can probably not find a better textbook example on how to ambush a convoy than this.

Returning to the proper use of tanks in city fighting the point about dividing tanks up into smaller groups is a vital consideration.  Whereas all out conventional fighting in maneuver warfare tends to reward speed and concentration urban warfare requires smaller groups attacking more systematically.  Given the countless buildings, alleyways and other urban terrain that offers multiple ways to kill soldiers it is generally advisable to proceed more cautiously and to conquer cities street by street.  Thus as stated above tanks should be divided into smaller groups to suppress enemy fire and to take out strong points.

However, the author does mention that there are times when it is possible to take a city relatively quickly.  Certainly his case study regarding Inchon and Seoul during the “Korean War” illustrates that a combination of surprise, a speedy advance, as well as a shortage of enemy troops and the lack of time for the defenders to prepare adequate defenses can result in a short urban campaign.  He also asserts that the only possible means to effect such successes are quick amphibious assaults, as at Inchon, airborne attacks, such as various German operation in “World War 2” (though it should be noted the Germans often suffered prohibitive casualties and sometimes failed to take their objectives) or daring armored thrusts, such as the British seizing Antwerp in 1944 or the American advance that captured Baghdad in 2003.

Of course the other alternative to fighting a street by street battle would be to subject a city to siege.  This requires sufficient forces to surround and cut off an entire city for a considerable length of time.  It also requires considerable patience, usually months, and a good logistical system to maintain the army during a drawn out siege (much of Sun Tzu’s opposition to sieges is regarding the strain it places on logistics).  The object is usually to force the enemy to surrender via starvation, or running out of important supplies.  Curiously the author devotes little content to sieges, maybe because they are no longer that prevalent, the “Siege of Sarajevo” in the 1990s being the most memorable in recent times. 

Yet perhaps another factor is that our author, having previously been a colonel in the American army, and one who has written doctrine manuals for troops, has realized that sieges are not a realistic option for the American army in the 21st Century.  Firstly, the American public and policy makers are generally hesitant to back operations that last months on end, preferring quick solutions which hopefully lead to decisive results, which of course precludes long drawn out sieges.  Secondly, sieges, given that they rely on starvation as a strategy, inevitable lead to humanitarian crises and this is also politically unacceptable to the American public.  Indeed the Israelis, who are arguably more accepting of harsher methods towards civilians than Americans, were ultimately forced to let in convoys of food and aid to Hamas occupied Gaza Strip to prevent such a crisis due to being pressured by international opinion.  Therefore unless America was locked in a fight for survival her army would likely not be allowed to subdue a significant urban center via siege.

Coming back to the various arms needed in urban warfare engineers are vital for demolition work, as well as disarming IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).  They are especially useful when fighting today’s generation of terrorists, as the Israelis in Jenin and Nablus, and the Americans in Iraq had to neutralize literally thousands of small IED’s in urban areas that were spread between doorways, windows, alleys, inside furniture and closets, near roads, etc. 

Artillery and airpower is used for very tough opponents, usually against conventional forces, or stubborn insurgents.  It is also used by relatively inexperienced, or incompetent forces, such as the Russians in Grozny in late 1994, who lack the skill and training to take urban areas without incurring prohibitive casualties.  However, it is obvious that the use of heavy firepower in cities usually results in significant civilian casualties.  The Germans killed nearly 40,000 Russian civilians in one day of heavy bombing at Stalingrad.  Likewise the Russian conquest of Grozny in the mid-90s probably killed 30,000 civilians and wounded 100,000 more.

Yet airpower and artillery are often restricted for military commanders, especially in democracies, by political masters at home.  This leads us to another key consideration, at least in modern times, regarding urban warfare.  The rise of television and media, beginning with the “Vietnam War,” has given the public a more realistic picture of war.  Additionally, in the past decade with the rise of cell phones, cheap cameras, and social media, information has been passed along almost instantaneously giving governments and militaries no significant time to put their spin on events.  This has lead to more micromanagement of military force by politicians, as well as to more cautious behavior by militaries themselves, to limit not only their own casualties, but civilian ones as well.  An infamous example of this was the “Battle of Mogadishu” where U.S. policy makers restricted the use of airpower, which forced American forces to rely on helicopters instead.  Unfortunately two were shot down and this led to a significant firefight in the city, a political fiasco for the American government, and ultimately the withdrawal of American forces from the U.N. backed mission in Somalia. 

These two concerns, limiting military as well as civilian casualties are often contradictory as it is generally true in warfare that keeping military casualties down requires firepower to be used more liberally and for the rules of engagement to be loosened.  Unsurprisingly these practices generally result in more civilian casualties in urban warfare.  Likewise restricting firepower and tightening the rules of engagement saves more civilians but exposes soldiers to more risks and results in more military casualties.  However this is not win all, or lose all, situation and more professional forces using specialized equipment and proper tactics can still triumph with relatively few casualties, soldiers or civilians, as will be shown by the case studies of Nablus and Ramadi.

Either way political considerations have come to the fore since Vietnam and they are not likely to recede so willingly or not militaries have to adapt.  Of course how many political factors will matter depends on the type of war.  As Clausewitz notes in “On War” in unlimited war, which is all out conventional warfare between states, military considerations generally dominate while political ones often retire to the background.  However, in limited war, especially one which is not waged for vital interests of the state, political factors dominate.

Thus in “World War 2” during the battles of Stalingrad and Aachen both sides cared less about collateral damage then winning the military contest.  By Vietnam this began to change as the fighting in Hue saw the Americans triumphant but the temporary occupation of Hue by the North Vietnamese, as well as the general shock of the “Tet Offensive,” demoralized the American public and slowly led to their discontinuation of the war.  Fighting terrorists and putting down insurgencies, especially in foreign lands, is even more political as taking territory and destroying armies are not as vital, or not as common, and the public finds it hard to gauge progress and gets upset when things such as collateral damage, war crimes, and instances of torture and prisoner abuse surfaces.

Yet besides political machinations for the home front there are also political factors regarding the urban battlefield.  While winning hearts and minds obviously is not a key consideration when invading a hostile country it is paramount when the objective is counter-insurgency.  Here soldiers and policy makers have to work in tandem to address the population’s grievances, create infrastructure and economic opportunities, as well as protect the people from reprisals from insurgents or terrorists.

Another vital asset for urban fighting, at least regarding counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, is a comprehensive intelligence system that understands and analyses the human component of the environment.  Essentially the army needs to know the people, where they live, their neighbors, who they associate with, their occupations, etc.  This allows the army to understand the neighborhoods they live in, control the population, and notice when something has changed. 

The French accomplished this in the “Battle of Algiers” by detailed census work which allowed them to know where the population lived and where they worked.  They also got their bearing by painting numbers and letters on buildings (the advent of GPS obviously makes this seem antiquated).  This made it simple to pick people up for questioning or launch operations quickly as they could easily pinpoint where they were.  The French also got additional Humint (human intelligence) from high stress interrogations and torture.  Despite the naive view that torture is ineffective to get information it worked for the French, and combined with an efficient intelligence system that quickly collected, corroborated and then passed information to ready strikes teams it allowed them to quash the FLN terrorist cells in Algiers and win the battle. 

However, this is where political factors resurface, as was noted above when the French army’s brutality in Algiers alienated the French public and turned them against the war.  Yet Humint in urban warfare is absolutely necessary and the French army were not wrong to make detailed censuses or even using high stress interrogations (providing they followed international law) but the extensive use of torture on tens of thousands of Algerians, and the summary executions of thousands more afterwards unequivocally was.  As a comparison, according to Max Boot, the author of “Invisible Armies,” the much maligned President George W. Bush was responsible for ordering “enhanced interrogation methods” against a mere 28 high value detainees and these interrogations were closely monitored to ensure none of them were seriously hurt.  While no doubt there were more controversial occurrences during Bush’s presidency such as the practice of rendition and scandals such as Abu Ghraib, American conduct towards civilians and combatants, terrorists or soldiers, has generally been more humane compared to most other nations facing similar threats.

Returning to the importance of intelligence the British in Northern Ireland and the Americans in Iraq benefited from “census patrols” where their armed patrols would mingle with the population, explain their intentions to put the civilians at ease, and then learn about their neighborhoods.  This combined with protecting civilians from reprisals, and helping to build government infrastructure and economic opportunities for the people, slowly built trust between the army and the people and encouraged the latter to give intelligence to the former which helped them fight the insurgents.  Even the Israelis, who generally do not even pretend to try winning over the Palestinians, are experts at Humint and use a system of informants (recruited by a combination of coercion and greed) and interrogation teams near the front lines to quickly interrogate, though usually not via brutal means, civilians in the war-zone to get information about their enemies.  The recent use of UAV’s in the past decade has also given modern armies real time intelligence regarding fighting inside cities.

However, if there is one major lesson to take away from DiMarco’s book it is that urban warfare is not necessary bound to be long or bloody.  Certainly the chapters regarding Nablus and Ramadi demonstrate what well trained and equipped forces are capable of in urban settings.  Israeli forces in Nablus in 2002 for example, lost a single military casualty and caused relatively few civilian casualties at 8 dead.  Likewise the American forces pacifying Ramadi from 2006-7 lost perhaps 80 dead and caused light civilian casualties in 9 months of operations.  According to the author the attacker often does not need a prodigious amount of infantry.  American forces secured the city of Ramadi, with a population over 400,000 with 5000 soldiers and two understrength Iraqi brigades.  Additionally, the Israelis secured the major towns in the West Bank (with a significantly higher population) with less than 30,000 soldiers. 

It is worthwhile describing what methods and tactics the Israelis used in Nablus and the Americans used in Ramadi.  In the case of Nablus the Israelis used a mechanized infantry force backed by bulldozers in one prong of their attack and their elite paratroopers in the other.  The former force used infantry, armor, engineers and snipers as a team.  Heavily armored D-9 Bulldozers, which were effectively imperious to IED’s and small arms fire, led the way by setting off IED’s, as well as shielding Israeli units behind them, and even knocking down walls so that the Israelis could quickly strike inside buildings.  It also gave the Israelis the option of simply using the bulldozers to knock down buildings on top of terrorists who refused to surrender.  Meanwhile the infantry and tanks had their usual roles in urban warfare, while the snipers were used to attack terrorist units that tried to flee or against others that tried to move against the Israeli attacking forces’ flanks.  This “equipment centric approach” as the author calls it protected the Israeli forces effectively, allowed relatively fast advances, and gave the terrorist forces few instances to inflict damage on Israeli units.

The other prong in Nablus was led by Israeli paratroopers.  The objective was to limit exposure on streets and to advance via buildings.  However they did not use doorways, windows or stairs (all obvious entry points) but used pick axes and explosives to advance through walls, floors and ceilings.  This kept them off the street and did not expose them to fire by going through obvious choke points.  The keys were speed and surprise and terrorist units had to continuously fall back until they had suffered significant losses, or ran out of space.  The paratroopers also used snipers in the same role as the other Israeli force did.

In Ramadi from the summer of 2006 to the spring of 2007 the Americans used the “population centric approach” to counterinsurgency as well as the methods of “clear, build and hold” to win the contest with Al-Qaeda in Iraq.   Switching from their usual policy of heavy handed attacks which although inflicted significant casualties on the insurgent groups also caused prohibitive civilian casualties, the Americans focused on securing the population by establishing combat posts in the middle of densely populated areas.  After beating off the expected counterattacks by AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) forces the Americans would build government infrastructure, gain the trust of the Iraqi people, and create opportunities for the Iraqi people to give them a stake in the struggle.  This was simply another version of the “Oil Spot” strategy that the French sometimes used to win over native peoples in their empire. 

The American military methods in Ramadi were essentially a combination of strategic attack and the tactical defense.  By moving into populated centers the Americans provoked AQI (who needed the support of the people for intelligence, recruitment and supplies) into attacking their combat outposts to chase the Americans out or otherwise lose their control over the people.  However, this played into the American’s plan as while insurgents are effective at hitting isolated patrols and convoys they are generally not equipped to attack strongly manned and properly prepared defensive positions.  The result was predictable as most AQI attacks against American combat outposts in Ramadi never made it past elite American snipers who neutralized the terrorist units much as the Israeli snipers had done in Nablus.  After the Americans had finished clearing, building and holding one outpost and securing the population around it they simply moved onto another area and did the same thing.  Eventually their outposts dominated the city, and as other coalition forces controlled all traffic coming in and out of the city, the insurgents became strangled and ultimately neutralized.

However, another key consideration which led to the American victory was that the combination of coalition progress in neutralizing AQI, as well as them protecting the Iraqi people and giving them a stake in the conflict, along with the increasingly atrocious conduct of AQI (who killed and mutilated anyone who stood in their way) convinced most of the Sunni insurgent groups in Ramadi to change their allegiance to the Americans and the government in Baghdad instead of backing AQI.  Once again this illustrates the importance of coordinating military and political efforts in counter-insurgency.

Additionally, it is significant that the Israelis and Americans won both of these contests without excessive use of firepower, especially artillery or airpower.  This was partly because their forces were well trained and sufficiently equipped enough to accomplish their objectives without brute force, and partly because as liberal democracies their populaces, as well as international opinion, would not tolerate excessive civilian casualties.  Indeed the American forces at Ramadi were specifically warned not to create another Falluja, which with its significant military and civilians casualties, and indecisive ending, was a political disaster for America.

Besides these various lessons the author asserts that in the future urban warfare will be more, not less, prevalent.  This is based on simple demographics, the reality of military power in the 21st century, and on the record of conflict during the last decade. 

Regarding demographics the author notes the population explosion of the last few decades, which is not slowing down.  This explosion has also resulted in a mass influx of people into cites from rural areas.  In 1800 a mere 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, in 2000 this was about half, and by 2030 the U.N. Projects it will be 60%.  Likewise there are now nearly 500 cities in the world with populations over 1 million people.  But perhaps the quintessential point is that much of this, if not most, population growth has occurred in less developed nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.  These nations, which generally have less prosperity, democracy, and opportunities than Western nations have not been able to accommodate urban populations as effectively as the latter have.  The result has been the rise of massive urban ghettos full of inequality, crime, disease and resentment.  All of this creates fertile recruiting grounds for revolutionary and violent ideologies and not surprisingly often leads to terrorist and guerrilla groups.

As for the realities of military power in the 21st century given the inherent dominance of western militaries, and strong ones in China and Russia, and given that these nations will likely not be fighting each other, means that most wars will be small wars waged between nation states and small terrorist or insurgent groups.  As urban areas gives these groups some measure of an even playing field, a chance for significant media coverage (as well as the chance to take advantage of collateral damage) and as the population of the developing world is becoming more concentrated in these areas, it is natural that cities will became the major battlefields of the 21st century.

Finally there is the record of warfare during the last decade.  The “Iraq War” was dominated by urban warfare, as was the recent conflict in Libya in 2011.  The fighting in Syria, and the recent violence in Iraq, has also revolved around cities.  Afghanistan and Chechnya have admittedly seen less fighting in this regard but it is obvious that whenever possible insurgent groups willtry to use any chance they can to make highly advertised attacks in urban areas to get publicity as the “Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis,” the “Boston Marathon Bombings,” and the recent bombings in Volgograd attest.  Ask the average Russian and American about countless battles and skirmishes in Chechnya and Iraq and they will not remember them.  Ask them about attacks launched on their own soil in major cities they will not only remember them but express shock and dismay (Lenin was only pointing out the obvious when he said “the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize”).

Louis DiMarco has produced a very excellent and concise book on urban warfare.  He gets the main ideas right, goes into considerable depth regarding strategy and policy, but does not get bogged down into the smaller details which belong to military manuals.  Having read several reviews of this book online which criticize the author for not providing more details regarding the finer infantry tactics on the ground I would suggest that like the greater theorists of war DiMarco focuses more on strategy and the bigger picture, which generally does not change from war to war, vs. armchair generals who focus too much on small matters on the ground which change quite frequently.

Indeed would the modern world really take Sun Tzu seriously if half of “The Art of War” consisted of detailed tactics regarding chariot battles and outdated warfare in 4th century B.C. in China?  Would Clausewitz’s “On War” have generated the same adulation if he went into detail about how to mount a cavalry charge, or how to best use line and column formations which were prevalent in the early 19th century?  The same goes for the great naval theorists; Alfred Mahan would look very foolish if he had concentrated on tactics for steam ships once submarines and aircraft carriers were developed, and Julian Corbett, despite being correct about the primacy of securing sea communications was dead wrong when he predicted that submarines would be of little use to navies.  All of these theorists devoted some of their works to tactics but they were wise to limit it and wisely chose to concentrate on strategy which has always been more lasting.

Besides getting the main ideas right DiMarco also deserves credit for readability.  A lot of military books, especially ones emphasizing a supposedly neglected form of warfare, are either overly detailed, are too preachy or somehow fail to stimulate enough interest as they are too busy promoting doctrine and ideas.  Having tried, and failed, twice to read Heinz Guderian’s “Achtung Panzer,” the epitome of an overly detailed and dogmatic book, I can tell you that DiMarco’s work is much simpler, and more enjoyable, to read.

Few of his chapters are over 20 pages (sadly a key consideration in an age where reading is not held in high esteem) and all are good as stand-alone case studies for those who do not want to read the entire work.  His chapters on Algeria, Northern Ireland, Jenin and Nablus, and Ramadi are especially good and offer solid strategy and tactics for dealing with insurgents and terrorists.  The chapter on Stalingrad is disappointingly limited but given the considerable amount of literature already devoted to it there is no big loss in this.  

As for criticisms, which for this book I have few, I would suggest that this is not a book for corporals and privates on the ground but for generals, politicians, and enthusiasts of military history.  While soldiers obviously could benefit a lot from this work it is not a detailed manual describing every little tactic of urban warfare.

Arguably though the book sometimes becomes overly descriptive of the actions of platoons, companies and battalions on the ground, especially in the Aachen and Hue chapters, which does little more for the general reader than to illustrate how complex urban warfare can be.  But considering the author is an ex colonel in the United States Army it is hardly surprising that he would go more into detail regarding these case studies versus others.

Perhaps a more valid criticism regarding this book would be what it does not cover.  The fact that DiMarco, who surely heard of Sun Tzu, never even mentions the great philosopher, let alone his objections to urban warfare, is odd.  While the author’s arguments does more than enough to convince readers that urban warfare is a legitimate means of warfare his omission of Sun Tzu is puzzling.  Likewise, many soldiers and scholars would probably wonder why the author chose Ramadi, instead of Falluja, to describe the “Iraq War.”  However, considering Ramadi was a case study for effective urban pacification while Falluja was obviously a fiasco for American policy in Iraq, it is not hard to see why the author focused on the former.

In the end DiMarco’s book does an excellent job of explaining the quintessential context of urban warfare, as well describing the basic strategy, tactics, and political considerations that are needed to succeed in it.  His lessons are solid, his objectivity is impeccable and he still manages to both enlighten and entertain.  Certainly there are few books analyzing a particular form of warfare that accomplish all of this.  I give Louis DiMarco’s “Concrete Hell” a solid 9 out of 10 for getting to the crux of the matter that is urban warfare and not wasting time on sentiment or complex details.  This book is a must read for any military officer, policy adviser, or politician who contemplates waging warfare in the 21st century.

A Brief History of the “Fall of Singapore”

Posted By on April 23, 2014

malaya1The “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” were among the most influential events of “World War 2.”  Despite being significantly outnumbered and confronted by considerable logistical constraints the Japanese forces under Lieutenant General Yamashita won a quick and decisive victory over their British counterparts.  Not only did the campaign result in the worst military disaster in British history, it also undermined the myth of white supremacy in the colonial world as Japan, an Asian power, had thoroughly defeated, and discredited, the European system of imperialism.  A combination of superior Japanese leadership, training, equipment and boldness allowed the Japanese to defeat a numerically superior enemy who showed no shortage of arrogance, passiveness and indecision. 

The “Malayan Campaign” had its roots in the aftermath of “World War 1” when Britain, alarmed by the growing power and expansion of its erstwhile ally Japan, decided in the early 1920s’ to construct a powerful naval base at Singapore to give its massive fleet a base to fight a potential war in the Pacific Ocean, as well as safeguarding the sea lines separating the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Once construction was completed Singapore was seen as one of the most powerful fortresses in the world; on the same level as Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium, the Czech defenses in the Sudetenland and the Maginot line in France.  However, Singapore would suffer the same inglorious fate to the Japanese as these other defensive works would suffer to the Germans.

While the fortress at Singapore was supposedly impenetrable there were a few unpleasant realities in late 1941 which limited its effectiveness.  Firstly, the initial British plan, made during the 1920s’ when Germany was weak and Japan was seen as more dangerous, was that the lion-share of the Royal Navy would quickly be deployed to Singapore during wartime.  However, in the event Singapore had few naval assets in late 1941 as the Royal Navy was stretched to its capacity in the North Sea, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean fighting the Nazis and Italians.  Perhaps worse was the fact that due to such commitments Singapore could not expect adequate reinforcements for several months.  There was also a design flaw in the construction of the fortress at Singapore where the emphasis was towards repelling a naval assault, while the possibility of attacking Singapore overland via Malaya was largely discounted; this would have dire consequences towards the end of the campaign.  Then there was the fact that none of the Royal Navy’s carriers, few of its capital ships, and a small number of the RAF’s squadrons (including none of the modern Hurricanes and Spitfires) were deployed in Malaya and Singapore and thus the Naval and Aerial advantages were ceded to the Japanese. 

There were other disadvantages as well.  Not surprising considering the British were busy fighting the Germans in Europe and North Africa was the fact that their troops in Malaya and Singapore were generally less seasoned and well trained.  This would be prove to be especially detrimental considering most of the Japanese troops committed to the campaign would be hardened veterans from Japan’s war of conquest in China, which included their Imperial Guards Division.  Additionally, the Jungle terrain in Malaya was hardly beneficial to defenders, especially those reliant on roads, as lightly armed forces could easily infiltrate behind them.  The Japanese would make considerable use of bicycles, at-least 6000 of them, in Malaya to this effect.  Japanese naval supremacy would also give them another bonus as they could simply land troops from the sea behind British forces at will. 

Japan also benefited from the use of more than 200 tanks during the campaign whereas the British command had concluded, erroneously, that tanks were unsuited to the terrain in the Malayan peninsula.  The French had made a similar calculation about the wooded Ardennes sector in France and during the “Battle of France” German tanks had flooded through the area and unhinged the whole allied defensive line.  Incredibly enough the British command in Malaya did not even pass around manuals detailing how enemy tanks could be knocked out without anti-tank weapons, which had been stored at headquarters for months, until the eve of the campaign.

Japan also had the advantage regarding leadership.  While much of the case against Lieutenant General Percival (the British commander in Malaya and Singapore) regarding the British conduct of the “Malayan Campaign” can be dismissed as scapegoating there is little doubt that he, and most of his colleagues and subordinates, were out lead and outfought by Lieutenant General Yamashita and his men.  Finally, there is no doubt that the British were not helped by their false sense of racial superiority towards the Japanese.

However, the Japanese did not enjoy all the advantages.  The British had a considerable numerical advantage in troops, if not in quality, as well as an advantage in artillery.  However, from Lieutenant General Percival’s perspective the resources at his disposal were far from adequate to execute his mission.  Percival’s predecessor in Malaya had written up a paper in 1940 estimating what resources and forces he would need to hold Malaya and by the time of the Japanese invasion the British were severely short in all categories.  Instead of the recommended 600 modern planes the British had less than 200 relatively obsolete ones (which did not satisfy the request that at minimum they needed 330 modern ones).  Instead of the 4 recommended divisions they had 3 understrength ones.  Instead of two tank regiments and anti-tank guns they had absolutely none.

To be fair though most of the reasons that the British forces were so handicapped during the campaign, and suffered from such poor resources can be explained by the fact they were busy fighting a life and death struggle against Germany in Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.  In fact, in his war memoirs Churchill bluntly listed what were considered the strategic priorities for Britain’s war effort in 1941.  Not surprisingly, the defense of Britain, against both German invasion and the U-Boat menace which was devastating British convoys, was the first priority.  After that, the fighting in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, to safeguard the vast oilfields and put pressure on the Axis from the southern front, was the second priority.  Once Russia was in the war after June 1941, giving as much support to her as possible, mostly in the way of weapons, equipment and supplies, to keep her in the conflict became the third.  Resistance to Japan, including the defense of the multiple British colonies in the Far East, not just Malaya and Singapore, was unequivocally the last priority at number four.

This is a consideration that is remarkably absent, or at least downplayed, in many histories regarding the “Malayan Campaign.”  While, with hindsight, it is obvious that Percival did not have nearly enough resources to succeed it is foolish to suggest that the defense of Britain, the retention of the oil fields of the Middle East, or the support of Russia (which would ultimately do the vast majority of the fighting against Germany) should all have taken a backseat to Malaya and Singapore, none of whose loss would, or ultimately did, cause the collapse of Britain’s war effort, or give the Japanese a decisive advantage.

In late 1941, Churchill and his generals in Britain, faced with a brutal war in Europe, gambled that economic sanctions, the show of force, and American diplomacy would be enough to deter the Japanese from going to war.  Given the significant geopolitical disadvantages in population, resources and industry Japan suffered compared to the allies it was thought by the western leaders that it would be suicidal, as it ultimately was, for Japan to attack them.  It was unreasonable for the British, especially without hindsight, to invest significant resources for the defense of the Far East for a war that “might happen” while an active and potentially fatal war was currently being fought against Germany. 

Of course there is another view, one that often borders on conspiracy theory, where the British and Americans supposedly deliberately provoked the Japanese to go to war by placing them in an impossible economic situation, and worse were willing to sacrifice 1000s of American and British servicemen from Pearl Harbor to Malaya to accomplish their aim.  Much like the 9/11 conspiracy critics have pointed out the fact that American and British intelligence community had advance warning of an impending attack. 

However, in the case of the Americans the warning was vague and U.S. intelligence officials were almost unanimous in believing that the Far East was the real target and that Pearl Harbor was not threatened.  Additionally, it does not make sense that the Americans would deliberately sacrifice their 8 battleships at Pearl Harbor, which at the time was seen as the main-stay of their forces in the Pacific, to then enter a war at which they would be at a huge initial disadvantage.  That would be like saying the Egyptians had deliberately provoked the Israelis in 1967 and had sacrificed their air force (which was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force on the ground) to have an excuse to go to war.  It is the same for the British, why would they want to provoke a war, knowing the weakness of their forces, and the likelihood that not only would they lose some of their best colonies, but also their Imperial credibility when the Japanese, a supposedly inferior race, would conquer them.

At best the argument could be made that the Americans had gambled that either Japan would back down or that they would go to war and that in the end the Americans would not only beat Japan, but would also be able to help Britain directly in her fight against Germany.  The same applies to the British.  While they did not count on war with Japan, they also gambled that either the Japanese would back down, or at-least a Japanese assault across the Pacific would bring the Americans into the war.  In his war memoirs Churchill said “I confess that in my mind the whole Japanese menace lay in a sinister twilight… If, on the other hand, Japanese aggression drew in America, I would be content to have it.”  It is one thing to suggest that the British and Americans were willing to take a significant risk provoking Japan, it is quite another to suggest that they knowingly sacrificed 10 capital ships (the 8 at Pearl Harbor and the 2 off Malaya), Singapore, Malaya, the Philippines and thousands of their soldiers’ lives to deliberately start a war.

As for the immediate causes of the “Malayan Campaign”, Japan’s aggression in China, her alliance with Germany, her seizure of French-Indochina and the Anglo-American decision to level an embargo on Japan, all propelled Japan, Britain and America to war in the Pacific in late 1941.  Japan’s brutal and in-humane war against China both alienated world opinion and showed Japan’s true colors as an expansionist nation trying to change the world order in an exceedingly violent way.  Japan’s alliance with Germany obviously placed her on the side of Germany and Italy and potentially set her against Britain and Russia (the former who was fighting with Germany, while the latter had already fought many skirmishes and battles against the Japanese).  Meanwhile the opportunistic takeover of Indochina by Japan furthered her status as a pariah nation and convinced Britain and other western powers Japan was bent on conflict with them.  Finally, the Anglo-American embargo against Japan especially placed significant pressure on the Japanese.

Not least of all was that the embargo included oil which until then America had been providing Japan with 80% of her supplies.  As oil was then, and still is, the driver of industry and war making, the Anglo-American embargo, along with the political demands London and Washington made with it forced upon Japan a simple binary choice:  Either abandon Indochina and the war against China or run out of oil.  Needless to say Japan took a third option and gambled on war.

Faced with the choice of accepting an ignominious loss of face, or going to war, the Japanese decided on war.  Despite Japan being relatively modern and possessing  considerable military power she was still weak in several aspects.  Above all, she was deficient in natural resources, hence why she had embarked upon a war of conquest against China.  She was also deficient in industrial output, especially against America who could out produce her by a factor of 10 to 1. Winston Churchill, in an attempt to forestall war had sent the Japanese a letter in April 1941 listing the relative disadvantages the Japanese would suffer during any potential war, including how the naval dominance of Britain and America would allow them to eventually overwhelm the Japanese in the pacific and how whereas the Americans and the British produced 90 million tons of steel a year the Japanese produced a meager 7 million tons.  

However, the Japanese were also fatalistic and believed in their martial skills and staying power.  Put simply, they believed their supposedly superior military skill and morale would allow them to inflict enough reverses upon their enemies and then they could either negotiate a settlement from a position of strength, or at least wear down American and western resolve in a long war of attrition and hope the latter would quit.  Unfortunately for the Japanese that while such similar sentiments would help the Vietminh triumph during the “Vietnam war,” the opposite occurred during the “Pacific War.”

Yet whatever miscalculations the Japanese made regarding natural resources, industrial potential and morale, they were quite efficient in estimating their military possibilities in late 1941.  Although they had always considered the Soviets as enemies, they had rightly dismissed them as a threat due to the deadly pressure the Germans were then putting on them in Europe, and the severe mauling Japanese forces had suffered against Soviet forces in the summer of 1939 did not encourage them to fight the Soviets again so soon.  The front in China had also more or less stabilized and Chiang Kai-Chek’s nationalist forces, and Mao’s even weaker communist forces could easily be kept in check.  This left the Americans, the Dutch forces in Indonesia, and the British possessions in South East Asia.

Regarding the British and the Dutch, the Japanese were confident they could overwhelm them as they both had few military resources in the area and fewer to send as reinforcements given the fighting in Europe.  They also possessed significant strategic and economic territories in the area which would be important for the Japanese war machine.  While the Dutch East Indies would be able to supply much needed oil, the occupation of Burma would cut off supplies to the Chinese via the Burma road, the occupation of Malaya would rob the allies of one third of the world’s supply of rubber and one half its supply of tin, and the occupation of Singapore would secure sea communications between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

America posed another problem.  While she was far away, and while the conquest of the American occupied Philippines would not give the Japanese any significant economic advantage, America’s navy, the second biggest in the world, and her industrial production which could out produce the Japanese 10-1, posed to Japan perhaps her only significant threat.  Of course the small U.S. military presence in the Philippines was negligible, and as of yet the American public was still dominated by isolationist sentiment and not keen on war.  However, the Americans had given much military and economic aid to Britain and the Soviet Union to fight the Germans as part of “Lend Lease.”  Additionally, the Americans had given considerable support to the Chinese and had also inflicted the potentially crippling embargo on Japan which many historians have argued gave the Japanese no choice but to go to war.

Yet it was possible that the Japanese could have attacked the British and Dutch in the Far East and left America alone and that America once again would not involve herself in a foreign war.  This was indeed one of Churchill’s gravest fears and between the time he heard about the Japanese landings in Malaya and Pearl Harbor he was worried it was being realized. 

However, the Japanese leaders, being keen militarists, looked at the problem from a military point of view and in Clausewitzian fashion looked at their enemies and determined their centre of gravity, the focal point of their military resistance.  Realizing the American fleet was the gravest threat to Japanese ambitions, and perhaps taking a note from Alfred Mahan’s works which emphasized the destruction of the enemy fleet, the Japanese decided to launch a brutal surprise attack against the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. 

The idea for the coming war was simple.  Cripple, or temporarily neutralize, the U.S. Pacific fleet, seize the necessary strategic, economic or defensive assets in the Far East and the Pacific in a few quick and daring campaigns, fortify these against attack, and then either negotiate a peace treaty from a position of strength, or wage a war of attrition against the west until they gave up.  Curiously, the Japanese do not seem to have planned for a long war, or seriously debate what course of action they should take if the Americans and their allies did not give up the struggle.  Perhaps this was a product of wishful thinking, perhaps it was due to their belief that America was not willing to wage total war, or perhaps it was because the Japanese believed they were being provoked and could not afford to back down and lose face.

Anyway, despite their optimism there were some in the Japanese camp who knew the odds were ultimately destined to be stacked against them.  Admiral Yamamoto, the foremost Japanese strategist and the planner of Pearl Harbor and Midway suggested that in the event of war “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory.  But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.”  With considerable bitterness his prediction would prove exceedingly accurate.

As for the planning of the “Malayan Campaign” itself the Japanese benefited greatly from intelligence captured by the Germans about British intentions regarding their defenses for Malaya and Singapore.  The story was quite remarkable as the British high command had sent a reply to Percival’s predecessor in Singapore, the same commander who had asked in vain for adequate forces, aboard a merchant vessel called the Autonedan, which was neither well-armed, nor part of a convoy.  By an incredible fluke it was found and crippled by a heavily armed German raider.  In the ensuing struggle all the British officers were killed and the Germans managed to board and find many confidential papers regarding Singapore and Malaya.  The Germans turned the intel over to the Japanese.  The British high command’s reply to Percival’s predecessor, which the Japanese now had access to, bluntly told him that his requirements to defend Malaya and Singapore by land, sea and air, could not be met and that Japan would be dealt with via mild appeasement. 

Japan also had the advantage of numerous Japanese placed in sensitive positions in Malaya and Singapore and, incredibly enough, several British spies.  Countless Japanese tourists prowled the countryside to take photographs of all jungle paths, crossroads and landing sites.  Japanese nationals also set up photograph shops where British soldiers could get there photographs taken cheaply, and countless massage parlors, and dance halls employed Japanese women, who said they were of different nationalities.

All of this gave the Japanese an excellent appreciation of British defenses, troop strengths, and topographical details of Malaya and Singapore.  Sun Tzu had written centuries ago about the importance of “knowing the enemy.”  While Japan had done a thoroughly good job of figuring out the British, the British had done a lousy job of estimating Japan. 

Typical assessments of the Japanese smacked of racist sentiment.  At one briefing of newspaper correspondents in Singapore a British intelligence officer suggested the Japanese were incapable of flying at night.  During the fateful voyage of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales a CBS reporter had overheard a British naval officer say, after hearing that a Japanese Battleship, 3 Cruisers, and several Destroyers were supposedly in the area, “They are Japanese, there is nothing to worry about.”  Even when more enlightened sources made more sensible estimations of Japanese capabilities they were usually dismissed.  When the British military attaché in Tokyo suggested to British troops that the Japanese forces were well trained, well led and had good morale he was immediate contradicted, incredibly, by the then commander of British troops in Malaya and Singapore, Lieutenant General Lionel Bond who stated “You can take it from me that we have nothing to fear from them.”  These views were stated not by inexperienced men drafted to be common foot soldiers, but by an intelligence officer, a naval officer, and the head of British forces in Malaya!  Such views and statements were in fact extremely common and it bred in the British forces in Malaya and Singapore an air of complacency and arrogance. 

On the night between December 7th and 8th, but before the attack on Pearl Harbor due to the time zone differences, the Japanese began bombarding positions in northern Malaya.  In the morning they began to land at Kota Bharu and other positions in nearby Thailand.  While the British had considered pre-empting the Japanese by moving into Thailand to cover such landing points they were afraid of the potential hostile American reaction by invading a neutral country.  Such occurrences were common during the campaign where the Japanese would be aggressive and imaginative whereas the British conduct would generally be passive and uninspiring.

During the same day, Japanese aircraft bombed British airfields in northern Malaya and damaged and destroyed significant numbers of the R.A.F’s already outnumbered and outclassed contingent in Malaya.  The Japanese used bombs that were designed to destroy planes and kill soldiers but would not damage the runways of the airfields.  Within four days of the initial attack on Malaya the Japanese had conquered all the airfields in northern Malaya and had effectively neutralized the R.A.F. contingent in Malaya and won air supremacy over Malaya, and the waters around it.

In fact, by December the 11th the R.A.F contingent in Malaya had been so battered that the British decided to husband their Airpower to protect Singapore as well as the convoys of troops and reinforcements that would eventually be arriving.  While the British did receive 50 Hurricanes in mid-January after which they tried to stage a comeback, they were soon overrun by the better trained and numerically superior Japanese pilots and fighters.

One of the first notable effects of Japanese air supremacy occurred on December 10th when Japanese bombers found and destroyed the British battleship Prince of Wales as well as the battle cruiser Repulse.  The British naval commander at Singapore, Rear Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, had hated keeping his ships at port while the Japanese were landing in Malaya and had decided to use his force of two capital ships and four destroyers to intercept and destroy the Japanese naval convoys in the region.  Phillips had requested air cover for his force but the R.A.F. commander could not guarantee support, partly due to the multiple commitments his planes had to fulfill, and partly due to the mauling his airfields and planes had taken.

Thus in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, Rear Admiral Philips boldly went forward, despite the risk, hoping cloudy weather and surprise would see his forces through.  However bold, it was also foolish.  Before his force could find and destroy Japanese ships the weather cleared up and the Japanese sent multiple waves of bombers that ultimately sank both the British capital ships in a series of actions lasting 90 minutes, effectively destroying British naval power in the Far East and giving the Japanese naval, as well as aerial, supremacy.  The sinking of both of Britain’s Far East fleet’s Capital ships also inflicted a considerable psychological blow on the British.  Even Winston Churchill, the model of British resolve, noted in his memoirs that “In all of the war I never received a more direct shock…  Over this vast expanse of water (the Indian and Pacific Oceans) Japan was supreme, and we everywhere weak and naked.” Coupled with the destruction, or at least temporary neutralization, of the 8 American battleships in lieu of the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor the British and Americans must have felt very weak and naked indeed.

The Japanese would use their naval power brilliantly during the campaign.  As the Japanese advanced in 3 prongs from their initial landing sites in northern Malaya and Thailand their main force advanced via railroad from Indochina to Thailand and then Malaya.  While these forces moved down the coasts and interior of Malaya, the Japanese navy allowed the army to bypass any areas of significant resistance by landing behind it.  On land, the Japanese also often bypassed British positions by going through the supposedly impenetrable jungle terrain. This coupled with Japanese airpower, tanks, and their superior experience and training, prevented the British from establishing and maintaining an effective defensive line across the Malaya peninsula throughout the campaign.

As for the chronology of the campaign, the battles generally consisted of British holding actions which sometimes inflicted significant casualties, but more often the Japanese either outflanked them through the jungle, or by sea, or broke through with superior airpower and/or tanks.  The first significant clash occurred during the Japanese landings at Kota Bharu where a British brigade managed to inflict considerable casualties on the Japanese.  Meanwhile two other Japanese landings in southern Thailand were made unopposed.  After a few days of fighting around Kota Bharu the Japanese threw back the British, established their beach heads, and seized the airfields in northern Malaya.  This would have serious consequences for the campaign ahead as Japanese air power would continuously harass the British and dominate the war zone. 

The Japanese advantages in airpower during the campaign included both the numbers, and quality, of their planes and the training of their pilots.  Their Nakajima Ki-43 and Zero fighters were more than a match for the obsolete fighters the British had in Malaya.  As for numbers, the Japanese had over 500 modern aircraft versus less than 200 obsolete ones for the British.  As stated above, the British did fly in 50 Hurricanes during the campaign, but they were significantly outnumbered by the Japanese and the force was quickly worn down and neutralized.  Additionally, while the Japanese did not benefit from carriers during this campaign, French bases seized in southern Indochina gave the Japanese the range to attack northern Malaya, and once the Japanese captured British airfields in northern Malaya they were free to attack across the whole peninsula and Singapore.  In reality the Japanese maintained the initiative in the air, as everywhere else in the campaign, from day one the British were constantly on the back foot, struggling hard to fight back.

Besides the opposed landing at Kota Bharu during the initial Japanese landing in Malaya, there were two other notable struggles at Kuantan and later Endau on the east coast.  However, this was not the focus of the campaign as the railroads, communications, and population of the east coast were not as developed as in the west.  Rather the main actions of the campaign occurred on the west coast and the territory just to its the interior where there were better communications, more population centers (like the capital Kuala Lampur) and a better route towards the ultimate objective of Singapore.  The most notable events on the western side included Jitra, Penang, Kampar, the Slim River, and at Segamat and Muar.

After the Japanese had successful secured their beachhead at Kota Bharu and conquered the nearby area and airfields some of their troops descended the eastern coast of the Malayan peninsula while the lion-share marched in land towards the west coast.  The first British attempt to stop the Japanese advance in the west occurred at Jitra. 

Here the defenses were inadequate, partially due to the fact that the original British plan had been to pre-empt the Japanese by occupying part of Thailand instead of falling back, and partially due to the fact that defensive works were generally not encouraged in Malaya.  The British also had faulty communications during the battle as many of their cables were lined along watery ground and failed to work.  The battle lasted from Dec 11th to the 13th, and eventually the British were swept aside by Japanese tanks supported by their artillery.  The British withdrew having suffered the loss of nearly 3 battalions and the chance of defending northern Malaya had effectively been lost.  A further blow was suffered when the Japanese overran Alor Star airfield and took it, along with fuel, bombs and significant supplies, intact.

A similar disaster occurred on the island of Penang off the coast of north west Malaya.  Once again defenses and precautions were inadequate and Japanese bombers took a dreadful toll on civilians from December 8th until the British abandoned it on December 17th.  Unfortunately, just like at Jitra, the British botched the scorched earth policy and the Japanese captured substantial quantities of oil supplies and launches.  The loss of the launches was particularly troublesome for the British as the Japanese would use them, and other amphibious assets brought across the Malayan peninsula, to land troops behind the British on the west coast whenever they encountered serious opposition.

The next significant engagement in western Malaya occurred near Kampar.  The British attempt to halt the Japanese at the Kampar position from late December to early January was initially successful and provides an example of how the “Malayan Campaign” was not as one-sided as is generally assumed.  The terrain at Kampar was hilly and did not allow the Japanese to use tanks or airpower, their main advantages on land, effectively.  In fact the terrain was more ideal for the British artillery (one area where the British had the advantage in the campaign) which took a brutal toll on the Japanese during the four day battle.  Frustrated by the lack of an early victory the Japanese tried to outflank the Kampar position by the east but were checked by British patrols.  The next few days saw the Japanese trying to breakthrough at several points by brute force but all efforts were stopped by the British and their considerable artillery, albeit at a significant cost.  Special mention should be made of the Gurkha and Sikh formations which bore much of the heavy fighting and repeatedly drove the Japanese back.

Yet however impressive were the gains by the British forces at Kampar they were ultimately made irrelevant, and not for the last time during the campaign, by Japanese landings behind British positions along the coast.  Thanks to the substantial river craft stolen from the British at Penang, thanks to the industrious Japanese methods of transporting amphibious assets across one side of the Malayan coast to the other, and thanks to Japanese aerial supremacy, the Japanese were able to outflank the British by the sea again and again.  While the British had not broken and had inflicted significant casualties upon the Japanese they were forced to withdraw by the threat of encirclement and fell back to the Slim River.

The Battle at Slim River from January 6-8th was a more one sided affair.  The British forces, who Churchill in an almost pleading tone suggests in his memoirs, had been fighting non stop for 3 weeks were quickly brushed aside by Japanese forces, supported by their tanks.  Indeed the terrain here was more ideal for armor, the Japanese attacked during moonlight and quickly broke through and effectively destroyed 2 British brigades, taking 3000 prisoners and considerable supplies.  Apparently there was a communications breakdown among the British where their rear forces were not alerted to the Japanese attack.  Besides the loss of substantial troops and supplies the fighting at Slim River also convinced the British of the futility of trying to save central Malaya.

In lieu of the defeat, General Wavell, who had been sent to Malaya by Churchill to review the situation, ordered Percival to withdraw his forces to Johore province at the bottom of the Malayan peninsula.  This meant giving up the capital of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, which the Japanese occupied on January 11th.  The next great engagement, and effectively the last ditch effort to save Malaya occurred at an ad-hoc defensive line including Segamat and Muar running from the mountains in central Malaya to the west coast.

The engagements around Muar and Segamat lasted from January 14th-22nd.  Most of the British troops, who were predominantly Australian, were deployed to cover the approaches to Segamat while a smaller force of four British battalions guarded the lower reaches of the Muar River.  The battle began well for the British due to two successful ambushes they unleashed on the Japanese; one as they crossed the Gemencheh River bridge, and the other as they approached near Gemas.  In the former they allowed nearly 800 Japanese to cross the bridge before detonating it and then from well concealed positions decimated the Japanese who had crossed.  In the latter they managed to hold off the Japanese attack and destroy several tanks.  Both actions cost the Japanese perhaps 1000 casualties, most of them dead, while only costing the Australians involved perhaps 80 in total.  Having successfully executed their ambushes they pulled back to the main defense line.  However, despite winning a brilliant tactical victory the Japanese were only temporarily inconvenienced and delayed by these actions.

However, the fighting in the west near Muar did not go nearly as well for the British.  Here the 4000 Indian and Australian troops were confronted by the whole Japanese Imperial Guards division.  The first Japanese attempt to cross the Muar River was stopped by British forces firing point blank at Japanese small craft.  Unfortunately, during the night Japanese used the cover of darkness to land on the south side of the river, inflict significant losses on the British and causing them to do a small withdrawal.  Further landings by the Imperial Guards behind the British left flank ultimately convinced Percival that the defensive line could not be held and that Malaya would have to be abandoned.  Once again Japan’s ability to outflank the British from the sea proved decisive.  Except for some sporadic fighting in Johore the “Malayan Campaign” was effectively over as the priority was now to get as many of the British forces across the causeway linking Malaya to Singapore.

After the remaining British forces had crossed, and then destroyed, the causeway connecting Singapore Island to Malaya, the “Battle of Singapore” began.  For the Japanese, the fighting in Malaya had been a great triumph whereas for the British it had been an unequivocal disaster.  The British had suffered more than 50,000 casualties, most of them taken prisoner, and while there was still perhaps 85,000 British troops in Singapore their morale was atrocious after the mauling British forces had received in Malaya.  The British policy, which in the event of realizing the futility of stopping the Japanese advance had turned into one of slow withdrawals, scorched earth, and wearing down the Japanese in Malaya, had clearly failed.

Additionally, the R.A.F. contingent in Malaya had been effectively destroyed, as well as British naval power due to the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in early December 1941.  In sum, the Japanese had the indisputable advantage in morale, airpower and sea power.  This should be kept in mind given the subsequent surrender of significantly numerical superior British forces to their Japanese counterparts.

However, there were other considerations to the subsequent disaster as well.  Perhaps most important of all was that the northern shore of Singapore Island was pathetically short of defenses to repel an attack from southern Malaya.  That the defenses guarding the north shore were inadequate were the result of several factors, none of which gives much credit to the British. 

Firstly, was the consideration that the focus of building defenses for Singapore was to repel a naval assault, instead of an attack across the narrow waters separating southern Malaya and Singapore.  Secondly, was the assumption that any potential attack from Malaya towards Singapore could be neutralized by the British holding onto Jahore province in southern Malaya.  Thirdly, was that the Japanese should theoretically, according to the British plan, have been worn down from the fighting in Malaya and that even if they reached Johore province they would have been severely weakened and that the British would have been adequately reinforced to hold Singapore.  Fourthly, was the absurd conviction, perhaps out of naively sparing civilian and military morale, among the British command in Malaya and Singapore that defenses were bad for morale.  According to the chief engineer for Malaya and Singapore, Generals Simsons, Percival had refused his efforts to construct defenses across the peninsula in general and the northern shore of Singapore Island in particular by quipping that “defenses of the sort you want to throw up are bad for the morale of troops and civilians.”

Finally, there was the ignorance of officials, including in London, of how poor such defenses were. Churchill himself, when informed of the pitiful state of the defenses, was shocked and characteristically sent a long and detailed memorandum to the commanders on the spot urging them to action and even giving them advice regarding how to layout defenses on the north shore.  While with hindsight there were many cases of Churchill interfering with operations to a detrimental effect, in the case of Singapore it would have been well if the commanders had heeded his advice.

Either way, the results of British wishful thinking, neglect, and ignorance meant that when the Japanese reached southern Malaya and looked across at Singapore they were not confronted by an impregnable fortress but a relatively defenseless coastline.  While Percival still had a healthy numerical superiority regarding soldiers their morale was shaky and their numbers were spread out thinly having to man the north coast of the shore.  While it is true that the British had the ability to redeploy the massive guns that had been pointing south and east to thwart any potential invasion by the sea they had an insufficient amount of high explosive shells necessary to attack infantry as they were mostly supplied with armor piercing ammunition to take down ships.

Perhaps Percival’s deployment of his forces was ultimately the worse factor in the situation.  He believed that the main Japanese attack would be made in the east where the terrain was open and had thus stationed the lion-share of his forces there.  This was also influenced by deception efforts by Yamashita to convince the British the Japanese would attack there.  However, Yamashita decided to launch the main effort in the west where the terrain may have been less favorable (it was considerably swampy), but where there were much fewer British troops.  General Wavell told Percival that he expected the Japanese to attack the west side but had ultimately relented to Percival’s judgement in an attempt not to interfere with the man on the spot.  While the principle to give initiative to the men closest to the fighting is generally beneficial in wartime, like all supposed rules of war it should depend more upon the circumstances and in this case Wavell was wrong not to insist upon his view.

However, none of this was necessarily doomed to failure if there had been sufficient reserves in place to reinforce either forces in the west or east to give them enough punch to throw the Japanese back into the sea.  Unfortunately, out of a force that theoretically numbered 85,000 Percival deployed a single brigade (at best 5000) to act as a reserve.  This was simply too weak a force to deploy against the Japanese, who had the advantage in morale and firepower, who were not confronted by adequate defenses, and who would launch more than 30,000 men across the strait in a short time while the British were hopelessly dispersed across the island.  In the event, due to confusion, the breaking down of communications, and hesitation this reserve was not used effectively once the Japanese began their assault on the west coast of Singapore Island on February 8, 1942.

Regarding the initial assault, the Japanese, as part of the deception plan, had previously concentrated their bombardment on the eastern shore, then suddenly switched the focus of it towards the western portion to aid the attack.  The first attempts at landing were repulsed, but the Japanese sought to find gaps in the British defenses, and given how spread out the British were it did not take long.  Once ashore the Japanese sought to encircle the British positions and then bypass them and undermine the whole defensive line.  Whatever chance the small reserve Percival had at his disposal to save the situation was wasted due to poor communications, as the Japanese bombardment had severed the line from the front to H.Q, and the fact that Percival, unsure whether or not the Japanese assault in the west was the main attack, hesitated to release the brigade.

Yet despite this success, the Japanese were still dependent upon securing another beachhead near the original causeway linking Malaya and Singapore which had been destroyed a week earlier.  They needed to take this area to expand their initial lodgment as well as to rebuild the causeway to move in enough troops and supplies to overcome resistance in Singapore. 

This assault occurred by the Kranji Peninsula.  Unlike the relatively easy victory on the west of the island this attack nearly resulted in disaster.  While the Japanese successfully landed in the area, the Australians decimated them with mortar and machine gun fire.  Even worse was that as the British had begun blowing up their oil stocks in Singapore there were considerable oil slicks in the water and the considerable fighting ignited much of these and burnt many of the Japanese alive.  The casualties were so bad that the commander of the Japanese Imperial Guards division asked Yamashita to abandon the operation.  However, Yamashita refused and told his men to “Do your duty!”  In the end, Yamashita’s stubbornness paid off as the British commander at the front, concerned of becoming encircled, and misinterpreting an order from Percival, withdrew and allowed the Japanese to secure this vital beachhead.

From here on, Singapore was doomed.  Given that the Japanese had the advantages in firepower and morale it was necessary for the British to defeat the Japanese on the waterline before they were established.  Just like later on in 1944 once the allies had a firm beach head in Normandy they had essential won.  In fact, Percival knowing his weaknesses, had planned for this, but ironically the positioning of his forces to cover as much of the waterline as possible had defeated this purpose as there were not enough troops in a ready reserve to throw back the Japanese assault once it had been discovered.  As Frederick the Great once said “He who defends everything defends nothing.”

In the next few days the British fought a losing battle, first in trying to contain the beach head, and then trying to establish an effective defensive line in front of Singapore city.  Yet what inevitably forced the British to surrender was the Japanese conquest of the water reserves.  It is no coincidence that Yamashita emphasized the capture of these as they were among the most likely means to force a British capitulation.  Coupled to this was the sad state of British forces by this time.  Ammunition was about to run out for anti-aircraft, artillery and tanks, the oil supply was low and the morale of British forces was atrocious as significant amounts of British forces succumbed to looting. 

However, on the other side the Japanese had vulnerabilities too.  The Japanese had used the remainder of their artillery shells in the operations crossing the strait, their supplies were very low and they were still significantly outnumbered by the remaining British forces.  Yamashita also did not look forward to a protracted street battle in Singapore, perhaps remembering the toll battles such as Shanghai in 1937 had taken on Japanese forces.

Not surprisingly, Yamashita tried cajoling and bullying Percival into surrendering immediately, urging him to end pointless resistance and spare further suffering for the civilian population in Singapore.  The latter point was not so much an attempt by the Japanese to protect civilians, as the well documented brutal atrocities they inflicted on the Chinese and other peoples they conquered provides adequate proof about their  conduct towards civilians, but an attempt to guilt the British conscious into surrender.  Initially, while Percival was urged by his subordinate commanders to capitulate he was pressured by both Wavell and Churchill to continue the struggle.

Churchill’s plea was especially uncompromising.  In a cable to Wavell Churchill wrote that “There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form. With the Russians fighting as they are and the Americans so stubborn at Luzon, the whole reputation of our country and our race is involved. It is expected that every unit will be brought into close contact with the enemy and fight it out.”

Faced with such pressure Percival delayed surrendering until another meeting with his subordinates on February 15th.  During the meeting he plainly told them that the only two options were to either launch a counterattack to secure water and food supplies or surrender.  When all of his subordinates told him a counterattack was impossible Percival sought out Yamashita, who immediately demanded unconditional surrender.

The capitulation at Singapore was the worst, and arguably the most humiliating, event in British military history.  Combined with the losses in Malaya, the British lost approximately 130,000 men, mostly captured, along with the loss of two economically and strategically important colonies.  It also severely degraded Britain’s military assets in the Far East and gave Japan a considerable naval base (albeit one that had been significantly demolished by the British before the surrender), as well as the control of the area connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans.  Total Japanese casualties in Malaya and Singapore were roughly 10,000.

The reduction of the British threat from Malaya and Singapore also allowed the Japanese to consolidate their conquest of the oil rich Dutch East Indies, which were vital for Japan’s survival, as well as giving the Japanese the ability to operate in the Indian Ocean.  This they did in early 1942, attacking Sir Lanka, and harassing British shipping in the area.  The above, in combination with the successful Japanese attack against British held Burma, effectively quashed Britain’s potential as a serious threat against the Japanese, at least for a few years.

However, what the Japanese successes in Malaya and Singapore did not do was to gain them a strong enough position to win the war.  Much like the countless German tactical successes in Russia and North Africa, the Japanese military victories in early 1942 never resulted in exploitable strategic successes.  While Britain had been thoroughly humiliated, she was not disheartened.  In fact, like the Americans after Pearl Harbor she was incensed, angry, and keen on revenge.  Japan’s whole strategy for the Pacific war was to win quick, overwhelming victories, against her enemies, and hope that they would be demoralized enough to end the war on Japan’s terms.

Yet the treacherous way Japan had gone to war, and the inhumane way she treated those she conquered, both civilians and western soldiers, enraged the British and Americans and convinced them to do whatever it took to defeat the Japanese.  This was  unfortunate for the Japanese as the allies, as noted above, had much more population, resources and industry, than the Japanese.  The allies, especially the Americans, would ultimately use these advantages to overwhelm Japan; sinking her navy, shooting down her Air Force, fire-bombing her cities, occupying islands across the Pacific to get into a position to invade the Japanese home islands, and finally dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For despite Japan’s incredible victories in 1942 this should have been expected.  In 1939 Japan had attacked Russia, the world’s biggest country and lost, but had always planned on fighting Russia again.  From 1937-45 Japan fought China, the world’s most populous country, and despite winning many victories never effectively beat the Chinese.  Then in late 1941, Japan had attacked Britain and America, the former who had the world’s greatest empire, the latter who had the world’s greatest industrial capabilities.  In the span of a few years Japan, a small island nation, with little resources and limited population and industry had attacked the world’s biggest country, the world’s most populous country, the world’s biggest empire, and the world’s greatest industrial power.  For a country that supposedly embraced militarism and studied Clausewitz and Sun Tzu extensively Japan displayed considerable ignorance regarding both warfare and common sense.

The end result being that instead of becoming the foremost power in Asia, Japan was, by late 1945, impoverished, starving, bombed out and occupied by American forces.  However, the American occupation was an enlightened one and the Japanese, now focused on commerce and economics instead of war, and ultimately became one of the top economic powerhouses in the world.  In the 1920’s the Japanese had the choice of whether or not to invest in imperialism or in commerce and free trade.  Unfortunately for both Japan and Asia she had invested in the former instead of the latter.

As for the British, perhaps the biggest loss regarding the disasters in Malaya and Singapore was not in military or economic terms, but in prestige.  The British, like other European imperialists, had justified their empires, along with all the brutal ends and means to maintain them, upon the supposed theory of the superiority of the white races versus the colored ones.

In the 10 weeks from Pearl Harbor to Singapore this myth had been irrevocably quashed.  The British Empire, supposedly the most powerful and influential power in the world, had been humbled by numerically inferior forces of Asian descent.  The path ushered in from Russia’s defeat during the “Russo-Japanese War” had reached its crescendo.  While Britain’s failure at Singapore convinced most that european colonialism based on racial superiority was false it would still take the French defeat by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, as well as their later defeat in Algeria in the early 1960s’ to finally bury the outdated and discredited ideas of racial dominance and imperialism, at least in their most direct and blatant forms.

Regarding the respective commanders in Malaya and Singapore, Yamashita and Percival, neither of them enjoyed a particularly good end.  Despite gaining perhaps the most impressive victory Japan won during “World War 2” Yamashita was sent to a distant post in Manchuria by jealous superiors where he would see no fighting for several years.  He was recalled in 1944 to direct the doomed Japanese defense of the Philippines and was later tried, and executed, for war crimes committed under his command in Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines.  Percival surrendered with his men and spent the next four years in captivity.  After the war he was generally disparaged by the British, perhaps unfairly given the inadequate resources he was given, as the man who lost Singapore and who presided over Britain’s worst military defeat in history.  While modern scholarship is more sympathetic to Percival, and while no one can question his courage (given the many decorations he received in World War 1), the case can be made that he was neither ruthless, nor decisive, enough to be a successful military commander.  Comparing Yamashita’s execution to Percival’s unenviable place in military history it is difficult to know which one had the worst fate.

Japanese boldness, Yamashita’s decisive leadership, and Japan’s superior air and naval power in the Far East allowed her to triumph over British led forces in Malaya and Singapore which, despite being numerically superior, were poorly led, poorly equipped, yet also remarkable complacent and arrogant.  The Japanese victory at Singapore was both the greatest military defeat suffered by the British Empire as well as perhaps the most significant catalyst towards the ending of european imperialism.  However, at the end of the war Japan had lost the war and her independence.  Meanwhile Britain had lost her credibility, her paramount position in the world, and would soon lose her empire.  While the “Malayan Campaign” and the “Fall of Singapore” provides a great case study of how one nation used boldness and innovation to defeat one that suffered from arrogance and complacency, it is also a case study about how the Japanese and British, the former due to their excessive militarism, the latter due to their paternalistic racism, both ultimately failed to accomplish their self-serving goals of dominating the Far East. 



Barber, Noel.  Sinister Twilight:  The Fall of Singapore.  London:  Cassell, 1968.

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

Churchill, Winston.  The Second World War:  The Grand Alliance.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950.

Churchill, Winston.  The Second World War:  The Hinge of Fate.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950.

Deighton, Len.  Blood, Tears and Folly:  An Objective Look at World War 2.  New York:  Castle Books, 1999.

Horner, David.  The Second World War:  The Pacific.  Oxford:  Osprey, 2002.

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

Nalty, Bernard.  The Pacific War.  London:  Salamander Books, 1999.

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

Wragg, David.  Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory:  20th Century Military Blunders.  Phoenix Mill:  Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Article from “Britain At War”:  Chronology of Malaya and Singapore by Ron Taylor. [1997]

Article from “Britain at War”:  Chronology of Singapore by Ron Taylor. [1997]

Wikipedia article on the “Malayan Campaign”: [March, 2014]

Wikipedia article on the “Battle of Singapore”: [March, 2014]

Documentary on the “Malayan Campaign” and the “Battle of Singapore:”  Nicholas Rowe, Alistair Irwin (21 September 2009).  Generals At War.  National Geographic Channel.

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


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