Today’s risks and the history of war: recognising the unknowable

The point of no return is mostly only evident in hindsight, and nations occasionally find themselves unexpectedly teetering on the edge of conflict. But more generally wars are preceded by armaments build-ups, the formation of hostile alliances, bellicose rhetoric, and the issuance of unmeetable demands. The current signs are ominous, and Australia is possibly stumbling blindly towards war.

The study of war and military history seems to occur in a closed-off parallel dimension; never troubling the consciousness of politicians. However, scholars of conflict must be concerned by the virulent anti-China rhetoric, the anti-China alliance building, provocative military exercising on China’s periphery, and the US arms build-up. The Americans seem prepared to push China to the very precipice of war.

This is lunacy. We know of the scale of the death, destruction and dislocation major wars cause. Great power wars are also unpredictable and transformational; they are an inflexion point in the trajectories of geopolitics, geo-economics, and hegemonic arrangements. The winners are hidden from sight at the inception, and the losers risk everything. If Australian leaders assume they could come out unscathed on the winning side of an East Asian war they are taking a huge gamble on behalf of Australian citizens.

Predicting a war’s outcome is a preposterous conceit. The defeat of the Carthaginians seemed imminent to the Roman generals prior to Cannae, and they feared for the Republic following Hannibal’s stunning victory . Fourteen year later, in 202 BC, the Second Punic War ended with Carthage being humbled at Zama and Rome the Mediterranean hegemon. The World Wars saw longstanding entities disappear, state borders redrawn, new nations and institutions emerge, and power relations transformed; all the products of a capricious interplay of military technology, military strategy and tactics, geography, political purpose, and alliance politics. Surprise and chance played significant roles.

Avoiding technological determinism is a potent lesson from the study of warfare. Technological innovations are iterative and the historical record shows that new offensive weapons stimulate better defensive approaches and vice versa; a process that has been accelerating since the introduction of gunpowder. Technology is instrumental now in war; but technology alone will not decide the victors.

Despite digitisation, data driven operations, integrated space and terrestrial systems, artificial intelligence, and autonomous platforms and weapons systems, war remains a random domain. How a high-tech military conflict between China and the US will unfold is a matter of guesswork. Today, constant research, development, integration, and upgrade of military capability means that the mature technologies each side brings to the battle will depend on the conflict’s timing.

In East Asia, China has a considerable geographic advantage over the US in a non-nuclear conflict. Wars can be determined, not by what a nation has, but by what it can bring to the battle. The US would have to operate across the distances of the Pacific Ocean, while China has its entire arsenal, and logistical and sustainment infrastructure, to hand. China also has the advantage of being able to manoeuvre its military forces, and especially employ deceptive strategies. China’s ability to absorb an initial assault and then respond could be a major advantage.

Apart from the forces available, military success will depend on the timing of operations. The speed of communications, the lethality, accuracy and velocity of modern weapons, and the efficacy of counter-measures and defensive systems places a high premium on time. Who acts first, and the extent to which the adversary’s ability to launch a counter offensive can be degraded, could be decisive. But first the political leadership must endorse military action, and the inertia in a democracy could prove to be greater than in other political systems.

Difference in political and economic systems would be emphasised in a prolonged war of attrition. Wars can be won or lost far away from the battlefield. A collapse in domestic support, political opposition to the conflict, or simply the inability to optimise mobilisation of all national power could weaken a war effort. History doesn’t indicate that autocratic or totalitarian regimes have been less effective in mobilising their nations for war. Whether or not China’s unique political-economic system and its highly centralised surveillance state will perform better, and be able to maintain a cohesive national war effort longer than the US system, is another unknown. The capacity and willingness of populations to accept casualties, and endure wartime social and economic measures, will play a role. War has a way of placing unanticipated strains on pre-existing political and social fissures in a nation.

At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians were confident in the superiority of their political system compared to that of the Spartans. They believed in the righteousness of their cause, the superiority of their culture and the strength of their forces. At the war’s conclusion the Athenian empire was no more and the proud Athenians  were reduced to a supplicant status. The US Administration’s combative rhetoric towards China evinces the pre-war hubris of Athens’ Pericles.

There are worrying indications Australia is prepared to go to war at the behest of the US. Real policies are revealed by government expenditure priorities, and Australia’s defence acquisitions (here and here and here) show a clear indication of subordinating Australia’s strategic policy to that of the US. Despite public protestations, Australia appears to have abandoned any pretensions to strategic autonomy.

Any sane reading of the history of war between great powers must lead to the conclusion that the avoidance of war should be the priority of foreign policy. This is especially the case for minor allies who tended to be ground up when major powers clash.

Also published on 19 August 2020 in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations, with that publisher’s title, The current signs are ominous and Australia is possibly stumbling blindly towards war.

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Image: The German city of Dresden, 1945, view from the city hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city. Photograph by Richard Peter, Saxon State Library collection.

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