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Learning from Foreign Wars

Joseph Fouche has an interesting post that I missed on General Philip Sheridan of Civil War fame visiting the front lines of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Sheridan went off to see the latest in conventional operations. This is part of a longstanding tradition in American strategy of sending observers or volunteers into foreign conflicts to observe trends. As Clausewitz and Ferdinand Foch both wrote in their respective works on strategy, a lack of experience in conflict forces the defense policy maker and soldier to use history and battlefield trends elsewhere as a guide for formulating strategy.
      The issue with this, however, is that often we see what we want to see. Hezbollah in 2006, for example, was much less of a powerful adversary than American works claimed. As Edward Luttwak pointed out in a perceptive article,

“Hezbollah certainly did not run away and did hold their ground, but their mediocrity is revealed by the casualties they inflicted, which were very few. When an Israeli reconnaissance company attacked the mountain town of Bint Jbail losing eight men in one night, that number was perceived in Israel and broadcast around the world as a disastrous loss. Any Allied veteran of the second world war’s 1943-1945 Italian campaign must have been amazed by this reaction.”

      This is a disciplined, decentralized, and committed militia exploiting the effects of the terrain and Israel’s disjointed campaign plan, not necessarily the powerhouse we have sometimes depicted Hezbollah as. This is the understanding that Andrew Exum more or less comes to in his review of the war. Similarly, Russia’s incursion into Georgia was not a revival of the Soviet threat of the Fulda Gap. It was a clumsy, brutal, and short limited war akin to the Falklands war in which an inferior military seeking to create “facts on the ground” was crushed by a better prepared force that nonetheless made some painful mistakes.
      At the same time objectivity is impossible. Foreign campaigns will be modified for domestic consumption because the observers will necessarily perceive it through the lens of their own experience, institution, and goals. And the first impression is rarely the defining look. Hence the importance of re-visiting events like Sheridan’s trip to Prussia to examine parallels–not metaphors–to our own time.