"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Superiority? Complex! 

Lots of people have been mentioning this article in Forward by Martin van Creveld, professor of military history at the Hebrew University and "the only non-American author on the U.S. Army's required reading list for officers." Most of the commentary has focused on van Creveld's statement that Dick & Dubya's Excellent Invasion as "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them," which I'm sure you'll agree is a pretty bleak assessment.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about.

The statement in van Creveld's essay which leapt out at me was this one:
Whereas North Vietnam at least had a government with which it was possible to arrange a cease-fire, in Iraq the opponent consists of shadowy groups of terrorists with no central organization or command authority. And whereas in the early 1970s equipment was still relatively plentiful, today's armed forces are the products of a technology-driven revolution in military affairs. Whether that revolution has contributed to anything besides America's national debt is open to debate. What is beyond question, though, is that the new weapons are so few and so expensive that even the world's largest and richest power can afford only to field a relative handful of them.

Being the old SF geek I am, this immediately reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "Superiority," collected in this volume, among others, and well summarized here. In brief, a technologically superior power is at war with a lesser one, and stakes its military future on a dazzling array of high-tech weaponry, only to lose in the end when the enemy - smelling victory - makes wise tactical use of relatively primitive arms. The loss comes, in part, because "the new weapons are so few and so expensive that even the [galaxy's] largest and richest power can afford only to field a relative handful of them."

"Superiority" is a story about hubris and its cost, and I'm told that it is (or was, at least) required reading at MIT. (Take that, Martin van Creveld!) Does Clarke's story ring true? I think so, but I'm no military theorist so you don't want to take my word for it. Ask the Soviet troops that served in Afghanistan.

 

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