By John Michael Greer
The Archdruid Report
Last week’s discussion of American military vulnerabilities touched on one of the major issues that ought to be giving Pentagon officials sleepless nights—but only one of them The military downsides of America’s obsession with high-tech gizmos, in a world where complexity just gives the other guy more opportunities to mess with you, are no small matter, to be sure, but those downsides are taking shape in a wider context that has its own bad news to deliver to fans of US global dominance.
To make sense of that context, though, it’s going to be necessary to return briefly to a point I’ve made here more than once before, which is the pervasive misunderstanding of evolution you’ll find straight across the cultural landscape of today’s America. Since Darwin first proposed his eminently simple theory more than a century and a half ago—“How stupid not to have thought of it before,” Thomas Henry Huxley is reported to have said—the great majority of Americans, believers and critics alike, have insisted on redefining evolution as progress: what is “more evolved” is better, more advanced, more progressive than the competition.
Not so. Evolution is adaptation to changing circumstances, and that’s all it is. In some cases, evolution moves organisms in the direction of greater complexity, but in plenty of other cases it’s gone the other direction. Over the two billion years or so since the first self-replicating organisms first appeared on this planet, the no-holds-barred wrestling match between genetic variation and a frighteningly unstable environment has turned out some remarkably weird adaptations—pterodactyls, uintatheria, Khloe Kardashian—but they aren’t the organisms that endure over the long term. The dragonflies who visit my backyard regularly haven’t changed much since the Devonian, the box turtle we see at intervals out front had relatives munching slugs in the Cretaceous, while the adolescent bat who got lost and ended up in our bedroom one morning a few weeks back would not have been out of place in the forests of the Eocene. They and organisms like them are survivors because they found a good stable adaptation and stuck with it; while other organisms adapted in ways that turned out to be dead ends.
It’s precisely because evolution is adaptation to circumstances, no more and no less, that it’s possible—and indeed easy—to find precise analogues to Darwinian evolution in fields far removed from biology. War is one of these. Seen from a systems perspective, nations competing for survival, prosperity, and power show plenty of equivalencies to species doing the same thing for the same reasons, and war—now as always, the final arbiter of national survival—follows patterns of adaptation that a Darwinian analysis explains well.
The collapse of Bronze Age chariot warfare discussed a few posts back offers a useful example. The chariot armies of the late Bronze Age were superbly adapted for their military environment, but like so many highly specialized life forms in evolutionary history, their adaptations limited their ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. That limit proved to be fatal to many societies along the eastern Mediterranean littoral, and might well have done so even for Egypt if that ancient society had not been willing and able to return to an older and more resilient set of military adaptations.
Our chances are fairly high of witnessing an even more striking example of the same process in the not too distant future. As discussed a while back in this series of posts, the current American way of war was originally pioneered by the German and Japanese militaries in the years before the Second World War, as both nations explored the extraordinary new possibilities that petroleum had opened up in war. The destruction of the French army in the spring of 1940 by a German invasion force that had fewer men, cannons, and tanks than its Allied opponents put the world on notice that the old ways of war no longer mattered; the Japanese conquest of the entire western Pacific in a few weeks at the end of 1941 made that memo impossible to ignore, and the United States—to the lasting regret of Germany and Japan—proved to be a quick learner.
The new warfare depended on the mobility that planes, tanks, and trucks made possible, but it had another dimension that is not always recognized. The German conquest of France in 1940, for example, did not succeed because the Germans met and crushed the Allied armies in a head-on battle. Rather, the panzer divisions of the Wehrmacht dodged the big battle the Allies wanted to fight on the plains of Belgium, and cut across France south of the Allied forces, breaking their communication and supply lines, while the Luftwaffe carried out air strikes to disorganize Allied units and crippled their ability to respond to a rapidly changing situation. Compare it to the US invasions of Iraq in 1990 and 2003 and it’s hard to miss the precise parallels; in both these cases, as in 1940 France, what handed a quick victory to the invaders was a strategy that focused on shredding the enemy government’s and military commanders’ ability to respond to the invasion.
The aftermath, though, is telling. In 1940 as in 2003, the invader’s victory was followed promptly by a sustained insurgency against the occupying forces. (The only reason that didn’t happen in 1990 was that the elder Bush and his generals had the great common sense to declare victory and get out.) The same thing has happened far more often than not whenever gasoline warfare on the blitzkrieg model has taken place in the real world.
There are good reasons for that. Military theorists have postulated any number of conditions that define victory in war, but in practice these all come down to one requirement, which is that the losing side has to be convinced that giving up the fight is the best option it has left. That was the point of the old-fashioned pitched battle, in which one army offered battle at a chosen location, the other army accepted the invitation, both sides got into position, and then they hammered away at each other for a day or two until one side or the other had the stuffing pounded out of it. After a few battles of that kind, everyone from the king to the lowliest foot soldier knew exactly which side was going to keep on beating the other if the war went on, and so a peace treaty was normally negotiated in short order.
Gasoline warfare rarely has the same result. For those on the losing side—I’m relying here especially on accounts by French and British officers who were in the Battle of France in 1940—the war is a roller-coaster ride through chaos; many, sometimes most, ground units never have the chance to measure their strength against the enemy in combat, because the other side has gone right past them and is deep behind their lines; orders from their own commanders are confused, contradictory, or never arrive at all; and then suddenly the war is over, the government has surrendered, and the other side is parading through Paris or Baghdad. So there you are; your government’s will to resist may be broken, but yours isn’t, and pretty soon you’re looking around for ways to carry on the fight. That way lies the French Resistance—or, for that matter, the Iraqi one.
This is why resistance movements sprang up so promptly in every nation conquered by Nazi Germany, and why insurgencies have done the same so often in nations conquered by the United States. It’s the natural result of a way of war that’s very good at bullying governments into fast collapse but very poor at convincing the ordinary grunt in uniform, or for that matter the ordinary person on the street, that the other side’s triumph ought to be accepted without further fuss. (Attentive readers will note here that the logic of the blitzkrieg is weirdly similar to that embraced more recently by believers in the sudden collapse of industrial society; in both cases, the words “what happens next” play an insufficiently large role in planning, and the possibility that people affected by a sudden collapse might do something to respond to it rarely seems to get a look in.)
It’s here that the Darwinian analysis of war mentioned earlier is most relevant, because insurgency is not a fixed thing. It evolves over time, as different insurgent groups try new tactics, strategies and weapons, and draw on the experience of past insurgencies. The evolution of insurgency, as it happens, dates from before the birth of gasoline warfare; it emerged as opponents of European colonial regimes in the Third World began to adapt the methods of European revolutionary warfare to the distinctive conditions of their time. The new model of insurgency saw its first trial runs in South Africa and the Philippines right around 1900; both insurgencies were eventually defeated, but not without serious cost to the two imperial powers in question, and the lessons learned in those wars spread widely—it’s not accidental, for example, that the word “commando” entered military parlance in the very early 20th century from Afrikaans, where it was used for Boer insurgent groups fighting the British.
The evolutionary struggle between gasoline warfare and insurgency has been much discussed in recent years in military journals, although the label that’s been given to state of the art insurgency—“Fourth Generation warfare,” or 4GW for short—confuses far more than it reveals. The notion that military history can be divided into a set of neatly defined generations, each one of which supersedes the one before it, simply restates the contemporary myth of progress in another guise, and is just as arbitrary as narratives of progress normally are; though the technologies differ, 4GW was practiced by Elamite hill tribes against Babylonian armies more than three thousand years ago, and will doubtless still be being practiced by peoples on the periphery of empires as long as human societies are complex enough to support urban imperial centers.