Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Our Complex Problem 1 - Security and Defending

On an earlier post I wrote that during this election both parties will spout simple answers to complex problems, which is understandable as a vote-getting tactic. People like simple answers and they hate complex problems. So let’s reach into the Simple Answers Box and pull one out, shall we.

How do we stop the violence in Iraq? Answer: make the reconstruction / nation building effort more international. Get a UN Security Council resolution. Bring in more foreign troops from more varied countries. Sounds reasonable, right. Let’s look at some of the ramifications.

First, the UN was in Iraq but jihadis blasted the headquarters and killed, among others, the Special Envoy. Then the UN pulled out. The jihadis have learned a valuable lesson: the UN can be frightened away. Hit them hard enough and they will run. If the UN opens a new HQ, why wouldn’t the jihadis just blast them again? But we’ll have more security to prevent this kind of thing, right? Israel has some of the tightest security on the planet, yet suicide bombers still get through. Iraq’s long desert borders are very difficult to control completely (we can’t control our own borders). We can’t turn Iraq into a police state (actually we could, but that is politically unacceptable). Suicide bombers are very difficult to stop. Bringing in more foreign troops would give the jihadis more varied targets (we look at this later).

Ultimately this problem is larger and more complex than just Iraq or Israel or even our own homeland security. Military technology and the suicide bomber tactic give an advantage to attackers and put defenders at a disadvantage. The problem of attack and defend is an ancient one.

Walled cities, castles, citadels, used to be virtually impregnable. In order to defeat an enemy residing in such formidable location an army would lay siege to the fortresses for a long time, straving them into submission. Years if necessary. (Despite the movie Troy, in the Iliad the Greeks spent 10 years sieging the city and then they only won by trickery). The technology and tactics of warfare favored the defender until the invention of the trebuchet and the catapult and other medieval siege weapons. Basically these hurled heavy projectiles into the stone walls until they crumbled. The siege weapons could be moved. The fortification couldn’t move; they were large stationary targets. The attackers set up the weapon outside the range of the defenders arrows and hurled stone after stone at the fort. Advantage offense. Other evolutions in warfare furthered the offensive advantage. Think of Genghis Khan. His Mongolian horseman conquered thousands of miles of territory in a generation, something undreamed of in earlier times. Why? Something to do with horses, horsemanship, and horse based weaponry. Think of Napoleon’s army slashing across Europe in the first few years of the 19th century.

Flash forward to the First World War. Huge battles fought and tens of thousands of soldiers killed so one side could gain 1000 yards (Napoleon’s troops would march that between snacks). Or more often over nothing; both sides ending where they started. What happened? The invention of the machine gun, barbed wire and improved artillery technology combined with the tactic of fortified trench warfare gave the defenders an advantage. Sixty thousand men would die in a night as they stormed the trenches, caught in the wire, mowed down by machine guns and artillery. Wave after wave. A generation of European youth, drowned in mud and metal. They were using Napoleonic tactics to fight a 20th century war. It didn’t work.

By World War II other technologies, the airplane, the tank, personnel carriers, etc, gave the advantage back to the attackers. Unfortunately the French had spent a fortune developing a system to beat trench warfare, the infamous Maginot Line, a long series of stationary forts. The Germans drove around it and raced right through it. The French were fighting trench warfare in an era of the blitzkrieg. It didn’t work.

Today technology has again combined with tactics to give a powerful advantage to the attacker, this time the suicide bomber. How to stop this is one of the great questions of our time, as the question of how to win trench warfare would have been in 1915. It’s a serious and complex issue. The UN Security Council can’t answer it. Neither can the French or the Germans. I’m not saying that this cannot be solved. I’m saying that we aren’t even facing the real problem. We are asking the wrong question.

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