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Chapter 7. Threats

I prefer to talk about threats rather than “defence.” For me, the word “defence” conjures up images of jet fighters and aircraft-carriers, camouflage uniforms and razor-wire. But this kind of military hardware only addresses a few of the external threats facing a state or quasi-state. Although “defence” is important, it’s also important to notice the other threats and not waste all your money on techno-porn weapons that look impressive at an annual parade, but only protect against one kind of danger. A state can defend itself if it can draw a boundary and control what crosses that boundary, and this mostly means control over the movement of people, goods and money.

It’s fairly obvious why a state has to control the movement of people across its borders: for example, in May 1940 when German ‘Army Group A’ motored and walked across the border into France, this conclusively demonstrated that the French state had less sovereignty in practice than anticipated. But it’s not just armies: any movement of people across a frontier is a threat to sovereignty.

On the last day of December in the year 406, in the depths of a bitter winter, a huge number of Germanic refugees were able to walk across the frozen Rhine and into Roman Gaul. Not just soldiers, but a whole society on the move: men, women and children. The late Roman Empire was, for most of its citizens, an oppressive totalitarian state, ruled by the property-owning, slave-owning establishment entirely for its own benefit. But for these Germanic refugees, pushed from place to place by the Huns behind them in the east, asylum in the empire looked like the best option. The Romans usually prepared a terminally frosty reception for such asylum seekers, but on that occasion they had their hands full elsewhere. The result was temporary ruin for Gaul — one witness said that “All Gaul was filled with the smoke of a single funeral pyre” — and eventual ruin for the whole western Roman Empire when a generation later the children of these refugees conquered Rome’s grain-growing provinces in north Africa. note 76

Patriots in the southern states of the USA have a similar vision in their minds when they contemplate the refugees fleeing from the chaos in Mexico. They arrive in a steady trickle rather than an overwhelming wave, but in the end this is just as big a threat to sovereignty. People who are concerned about immigration are not necessarily bigots. Limited immigration can be advantageous — refugees are often the self-selected most dynamic members of their society. But imagine if the population of the place where you are living more than doubled, so the incomers were the majority. Would you be concerned about that? Do you think it would change the character of your country? Would you be confident about your future, or that of your children? Now that we have established that there’s a level of immigration you consider threatening, all we are really left to argue about is where to draw the line. The bigots draw the line at an absurdly low number, hoping to blame their current troubles on outsiders. But we all draw the line somewhere, for very good reasons.

This is one of those threats where an army doesn’t really help: lethal force is not appropriate. Effective border police would be a better idea, or better still, some kind of political or economic action on the other side of the border so that people did not want to cross the border in the first place. (In fact, this was the approach that the Romans took for a long time: one of the reasons for the continual inflation and oppressive taxes in the late Roman Empire was the chronic need for large sums of gold, used for “foreign aid” and to pay the army. The “foreign aid” convinced the leaders of nearby tribes to be friendly and stay the right side of the frontier. The army was in fact mostly border police, often recruited from the same barbarians that they were holding back.)

The threat of population movement also works the other way around: it is dangerous for a state if too many people leave. Keeping a disaffected population imprisoned in a country is a poor long-term strategy, but it can work for a while. For example, in 1961 the government of East Germany decided to build a wall around the western-controlled sectors of Berlin, so as to forestall further mass defections through the city. (About 1 in 5 of the East German population had left during the previous decade.) The Berlin Wall stopped more people leaving, and for the next few decades they were forced to make the best of things where they were.

In the modern world, people can attempt to cross a frontier not just on foot, by land or by ship but also in aircraft, which can come from anywhere in the world. So states now effectively have borders with more neighbours than they did a century ago. Today you can get anywhere inside a day, so refugees can come from everywhere. And yet inside today’s states there continue to exist small regions, unacknowledged quasi-states, with strangely complex boundaries that can only be crossed on foot. This is most obviously true about faraway places like the mountainous tribal regions of Afghanistan, but you can probably think of places closer at hand. Places where the police go in force or not at all, places where different rules apply, places where the sovereignty of the surrounding state is more theoretical than real.

But controlling the movement of people is not enough. To properly defend a state it is also vital to control the movement of goods and money across its boundaries. I realise that this idea is contrary to the current capitalist euphoria for “globalisation.” According to the globalists, free movement of goods and money brings economic benefits to everyone, and it is perverse to impose restrictions. Nevertheless, governments do place restrictions on the movement of goods and money. Why do they do this? Don’t they realise that they are causing harm?

The key here is to understand that this is an issue of national security, not just economics, and that the interests of the globalists are not the same as the interests of states or their peoples. Although the globalists themselves enjoy almost unlimited freedom to travel, they are happy to see the masses pinned in place behind national borders. But when states restrict the movement of goods and money across those borders, this reduces the profit of the globalists, maybe even puts them out of business. Obviously the globalists will rail against restrictions on “free trade,” as though this was a human rights issue. However, free movement of goods and money bring substantial threats to state security.

Let’s look first at the movement of goods. Economist Adam Smith famously demonstrated in The Wealth of Nations that division of labour could make goods cheaper. People who try to do everything for themselves are less productive than people who specialise. A skilled craftsman can make something more quickly and cheaply than you, so when you want that thing you should buy it from them rather than trying to make it for yourself. There will be things that you are better at, so you can make money by specialising in those things. That way both you and they will have more things and more money than if you decided to do everything for yourselves. note 77

Not only that, but a group of people can specialise in the different aspects of making one particular thing. Smith’s example of a group of people making pins together is today celebrated on the back of the British 20 pound note. Each person specialises in one aspect of the manufacture, production of pins goes up and cost goes down. With increased volume of production, it becomes worthwhile to invest in special tools to make pins even faster and more cheaply.

The same argument can be applied almost everywhere: specialise in the things that you can make more cheaply than other people. Buy the other things you need with the money you make. Why dig coal when you can buy it more cheaply? Why grow corn when you can buy it more cheaply? Specialise in what you make best and buy the rest from the cheapest seller. Both you and they will be better off. This is the killer argument for free trade. Everyone wins.

Until it goes wrong. What seems like a plausible argument about a local pin-factory stops working when we scale it up to the size of a whole country. Take the example of Britain in the nineteenth century. Britain specialised in industrial production, importing raw materials, processing them and selling the finished products abroad, often to the very countries that had supplied the raw materials in the first place. Britons were keen globalists, apostles of free trade, if only because the whole “business model” of the British state required other countries to accept British goods without the import taxes that might give local production a chance to compete. The British Empire acted in large part as a sink to absorb the excess industrial production of the British Isles.

But free trade had unanticipated consequences. At the time of the Napoleonic wars, Britain grew almost all her own food, but as the nineteenth century grew older the fraction of imports gradually increased. After the American Civil War, railroads were built out into the prairies in the United States and new farms produced wheat far more cheaply than any farm in Britain. After the financial panic of 1873, some countries, for example Germany, imposed import taxes to protect local agriculture and industry. But Britain stuck to her free trade principles (and was gradually overtaken in industrial production by Germany). On the eve of the First World War, British agriculture had declined to such an extent that Britain imported about half of her food from abroad. From an economic point of view this was cheaper and better, but strategically it was extremely dangerous.

Amongst the various causes of the First World War were the conflicting strategic needs of Germany and Britain. Germany needed access to overseas markets so her industrial growth could continue, but the Germans did not want to ask permission from the Royal Navy to cross the oceans of the world. The Germans wanted their own navy, just as good as the Royal Navy, so they could deal with the British as equals. The British on the other hand could not allow the Germans to have such a powerful navy, because it would be an existential threat to Britain. The British had accidentally put themselves in a position where they could be starved out. This possibility never occurred to the British at the start of the First World War — in fact the British used their naval strength to blockade Germany and prevent any neutral ships sailing to her ports. The Germans were so inconvenienced by this siege that they eventually decided to allow their submarines to sink without warning any ships heading to Britain. As a result, Britain came within a few weeks of famine, and more resolute submarine warfare by Germany might have changed the outcome of the war.

The moral of this story? When a large fraction of something vital is imported by a state, it’s never just a matter of economics, it’s always a matter of national security too. An attack doesn’t need to come with guns and planes. It can come in the form of subsidised cheap grain, putting your farmers out of business, driving them to shanty towns and destroying your ability to grow your own food. It can come in the form of cheap gas, pumped half-way around the world through a pipeline, and switched off by an enemy in the depths of winter.

Movement of money across borders is a slightly more subtle security threat than movement of goods, but it’s a threat that has devastated many countries. It’s a threat that the United States government thinks it understands. It’s a threat that the Chinese government understands perfectly.

The threat comes in two flavours, which I’ll call “slow-ruin” and “quick-ruin.” Slow-ruin works a lot like the loans made to people in the “sub-prime” housing crisis. Banks make loans to people who can’t really afford to repay them. The people handling the money each take their cut, so they are enthusiastic about the deal. The money is spent, usually with little to show for it a few years later. The debt payments go on. And on.

States borrow in the same way. Does a state have the power to stop the flow of money? If things go wrong, can a state default on its debt? Can it effectively declare bankruptcy and start again? If it can’t then it loses almost all other aspects of its sovereignty. Outsiders, these days usually from the IMF, will come and take over the administration of the state, so that even if it still has a seat in the United Nations, it has less real sovereignty than unrecognised quasi-states such as the FARC or Hezbollah.

The other money threat, quick-ruin, looks like an investment rather than a loan, but the results are equally unpleasant. The way it works is that outsiders bring a lot of money into a state and invest it in a bank. The bank pays the investors interest in the usual way, and loans out the money in turn to local businesses. These businesses spend their money in productive ways, building factories and hotels, clearing land, planting crops and so on — things that will be profitable and pay back the loans in five or ten years. However, the outsiders don’t give them that long.

In two or three years, they pull their money out of the bank, and the bank now has a problem. It doesn’t have the money on hand — it’s all loaned out. The bank has a “liquidity crisis” — if it can’t raise money quickly it will be bankrupt. So it calls in loans where it can, refuses to make new loans. Local businesses can’t replace these loans, so they in turn have to sell what they can, maybe sell their whole business, even though it is profitable, because they now have a liquidity crisis too. In this “fire sale” everything is going cheap, which is what the outsiders wanted all along. The outsiders are waiting with their money, and when the crisis is at its peak they come back to buy up the factories, hotels and plantations at knock-down prices.

Something like this scenario unfolded all over east Asia in the late 1990s, and explains a lingering bitterness towards western bankers amongst those who understand what happened. The Chinese seem to have a keen appreciation of the importance of controlling the flow of goods and money across their borders, which is unsurprising given the way their country was taken apart during the nineteenth century by European states using exactly these threats. The United States has been very happy to employ these threats against other countries, but has not yet noticed its own vulnerability. It currently enjoys imports of goods produced by other states, paid for with money borrowed from other states, with no prospect of ever paying it back. Only in the area of military hardware is the United States still pre-eminent — the USA spends more on warfare than the whole rest of the world put together. But its lack of control over the flow of goods and money make it extraordinarily vulnerable.


Having established that there is more to defence than warfare, there’s still a lot that we can usefully say about warfare itself. If you want to understand current events or history, you need to understand warfare. If you are a hacker trying to resist a tyrant by force, you need to understand warfare. But the first thing to understand about warfare is that:

All war is shit; no one walks away with clean hands.

War is not nice or clever or elegant. It’s inevitably worse than awful, and no one should go there with a light heart. Sometimes, faced with oppression, exploitation and death, it’s the least bad alternative, maybe even the honourable choice. But it’s still shit.

With that disclaimer, let’s look at some practical issues. I imagine that if you have a personal interest in warfare, if you are a hacker facing a tyrant, then you will be the underdog, but that’s not as bad a position as you might think. The underdog in warfare has a considerable advantage. Old established military organisations are, in Quigley’s terms, social institutions: more concerned with maintaining themselves and advancing their own interests than in defending their society against real threats. Although all social organisations tend to become institutions eventually, an underdog organisation is at the start a social instrument: its members put a considerable effort into achieving its fundamental purpose.

In an article entitled How David Beat Goliath, writer Malcolm Gladwell explains what this difference looks like in practice: it’s a combination of extreme effort plus a willingness to break the perceived rules and play by the actual rules. For example, in the First World War, archaeologist and military historian Thomas Lawrence was instructed by the British army to organise a force of Bedouin irregulars and make trouble for the Turkish garrison at Medina. Rather than assault the city, Lawrence decided to play by different rules: his troops sped around the desert, again and again dynamiting the one railway line to Medina and causing disruption out of proportion to their small numbers. This tactic took extreme effort and a willingness to engage in a disreputable form of warfare. From the point of view of the British, Lawrence was a guerrilla or commando; from the point of view of the Bedouin, a freedom fighter; from the point of view of the Turks, a terrorist. note 78

Lawrence’s most spectacular victory came in 1917 when he emerged unexpectedly out of the desert with a few hundred Bedouin and captured the Turkish port of Aqaba with its 1200-man garrison. The Bedouin lost only two men in the assault. The Turks were surprised because they had expected an attack from the sea, and they thought their rear was secure, protected by impenetrable desert. Lawrence and his troops had just made a 600 mile trip through that desert, at the height of summer. As Gladwell says:

The Turks simply did not think that their opponent would be mad enough to come at them from the desert. This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability — and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life.

In the words of Sun Tzu, “all war is deception,” and like the deception of a stage-magician, the main part of the deception is that the audience doesn’t appreciate the extreme effort that was needed to prepare and execute an apparently simple but mystifying trick. It looks like a miracle.

In war, part of the effort is physical, but part is moral: a willingness to find the true rules and to exploit them, even though that breaks the perceived rules. Successful underdogs don’t play the respectable way. They look awkward and foolish. In the American War of Independence, the underdogs at first hid and shot from cover, they didn’t stand out in lines on the open field of battle like a respectable army. They broke the perceived rules. But the moral pressure to play by those rules is immense. As soon as he could, George Washington formed his guerrillas into a disciplined army that stood in line and fought the British in the proper way. They lost. When you fight the proper way and lose, criticism is minimal. On the other hand, when you break the perceived rules, even if you win you will be treated as an underhanded cheater, dangerous and untrustworthy. It takes a moral effort to turn your back on respectability and play to win. If you can do it, if you can keep doing it, you have a tremendous advantage.

The Turks considered Lawrence a cheater and a terrorist. The British were not terribly happy with Lawrence’s tactics, but they were happy to accept his victories as a guerrilla leader. In truth, there is a spectrum from conventional warfare via irregular forces, guerrillas, commandos and “special forces” to out-and-out terrorists. There is no definite point where one stops and the other starts. Rather than try to classify them on a scale of respectability, it’s instead more fruitful to classify the different kinds of attacks that these people carry out. note 79

The best classification of attacks I’ve found is in a book published anonymously on the web called Tremble the Devil: The story of terrorism as Jesus Christ, James Bond and Osama Bin Laden would tell it. The unknown author, who for want of a better name, I will call “Tremble,” claims to be a Harvard graduate and to have worked as a counter-terrorism expert for the US Department of Defence. We can’t tell whether that is true, but the book reads very well and seems plausible. note 80

Amongst the many insights in this book is a classification of different kinds of terrorist attack, but this classification actually applies more widely to all kinds of warfare. Tremble draws a distinction between symbolic attacks and material attacks. The purpose of a symbolic attack is to send a message, mostly to supporters on the side of the attackers or to undecided people on the side-lines. The message is that the other side is vulnerable, that the fight goes on, that victory is possible. The symbolic attack drums-up support for the cause, so it is always necessary to claim responsibility for it. Though it may seem despicable to its victims, the symbolic attack must seem morally justified to supporters on the side of the attackers, otherwise it’s counterproductive.

By contrast, the purpose of a material attack is to cause substantial damage to the enemy, to reduce the enemy’s ability to wage war and to convince the enemy that the fight is not worth it. This is usually the ostensible purpose of conventional military action, but it is sometimes the purpose of terrorist attacks too. Since a material attack doesn’t send a message to supporters, it’s not important to announce who it came from, and there’s no need for the attackers to claim responsibility.

Tremble uses the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut as an example of a material attack. Hezbollah had been commissioned by Iran to carry out this attack and they quickly built a replica of one of the bright yellow Mercedes trucks that passed by the barracks every day. Loaded with explosive equivalent to around 6 tons of TNT, and with a kamikaze-driver at the wheel, the truck turned off its usual early morning route and raced up to the barracks. The explosion killed 241 marines, mostly while they lay asleep. There was no need to claim responsibility. The origin of the attack was still unclear when, a few weeks later, President Reagan announced the withdrawal of US forces from Lebanon. The material losses were unacceptable.

Hezbollah was willing and able to execute this material attack because it was not at the time a tiny underdog organisation — it was a substantial quasi-state. In contrast, a small organisation has to concentrate on symbolic attacks, because it needs to gather support. The biggest danger for a small organisation is that it appears powerless, irrelevant and boring. Secret victories are a luxury which a small organisation can rarely afford.

Building on this basic classification, Tremble introduces the more sophisticated idea of a political attack. This takes place in three phases: first there is a symbolic attack, which acts as a provocation. Second, there is a reprisal, and the point of the symbolic attack is to provoke as dramatic and unfair a reprisal as possible. This is so appalling that the original symbolic attack seems insignificant in comparison. The third phase is retribution: the original symbolic attackers gain many more supporters as a result of the reprisal, and with this increased support they are able to achieve their political aims.

A good example of a political attack is the 1916 Easter Rising, in which a small group of Irish separatists seized some buildings in central Dublin and declared a republic. A highly symbolic act. However, it was not a coup in the usual sense. They did not capture Dublin Castle, the seat of government, nor did they capture the communications infrastructure vital to a successful rebellion. Instead they hunkered down in places like the Post Office and waited for the British army to come and get them. It was a short wait. note 81

The inhabitants of the surrounding slums were not enthusiastic about the rebellion. There was at the time close to a famine in Dublin, and several poor Dubliners were killed by the rebels as they went out searching for food. In contrast, the British army commandeered supplies from warehouses and distributed food to the poor. The rebellion failed, crushed within a week. If the British had shown restraint, that would have been the end of it.

Instead, the British insisted on revenge. As well as the 450 people killed in the week of the rebellion, the British afterwards executed all of its leaders. And so the separatists had their retribution: in the elections of December 1918, the Republican party won 73 of Ireland’s 103 seats and the war for Irish independence began in earnest.

You can also see these ideas unfold in conventional warfare, not just in terrorism and rebellion. For example, after France fell to the Germans in 1940, the Luftwaffe waged a campaign of aerial warfare against Britain, known as the “Battle of Britain.” This was a material attack, directed at the airfields and air defences of Britain. If the Germans had been able to establish “air superiority” over Britain, the British government would almost certainly have had to seek an armistice, like the French, even if the Germans did not invade across the English Channel.

Although the Germans came within few days of achieving their aim, they in fact decided to break off the attack on military airfields and switched instead to bombing civilians, mostly in London. Why? The British had launched a symbolic attack, which eventually unfolded into a political attack. In the last days of the Battle of Britain, a force of British bombers dropped bombs on civilians in Berlin — a symbolic attack of no material consequence. But the attack touched a nerve. It couldn’t go unanswered. Hitler instructed the Luftwaffe to break off attacks on RAF airfields and instead to concentrate on civilian targets. “The Blitz,” as it became known, had started. That September, there were thousands of civilian casualties and the East End of London was smashed into a ruin.

The reprisal was out of proportion to the symbolic provocation, and British resolve was strengthened by the German attacks. Not only that, but it became more acceptable in the neutral United States to give material support to plucky Britain, seen to be resisting German aggression against the odds. The Americans lent the British the weapons and food they needed to continue the war.

Of course, as Tremble points out in his book, the most effective form of political attack is one where the initial symbolic attack is just an insult, a demonstration or a protest. He says that, looked at this way, the protests of Martin Luther King and of Mohandas Gandhi were extraordinarily successful political attacks on the governments of their countries. They provoked disproportionate reprisals, leading to a surge of political support for the protesters.

There is one further kind of attack which Tremble does not mention, but which we need to look at for the sake of completeness. This is the false-flag attack. When the enemy cannot be provoked into a reprisal by insults or symbolic attacks, a reprisal can be faked-up. The reprisal attack is not what it seems: really it is make-believe, hence the term “false-flag.” This apparent enemy attack is then used to recruit popular support for the subsequent “retribution.”

It’s in the nature of false-flag attacks that they are not what they first appear. However, we have a few clear examples from history, and there are presumably more that we don’t know about yet. For instance, in 1931, the Japanese arranged what is now called the “Mukden Incident” as an excuse to invade Manchuria. The Japanese claimed that the Chinese had planted a bomb that exploded under the railway line near Mukden in Manchuria, the north-eastern province of China. At that time, China had little effective sovereignty, and Japan had owned the railway line through Manchuria since its war with Russia in 1905. Japanese troops were garrisoned in the railway zone, and following the railway bombing, the Japanese retaliated by attacking Chinese military installations at Mukden. Shortly after that they invaded and seized all the rest of Manchuria. note 82

In fact the bomb was planted by the Japanese. As is typical with false-flag attacks, the Japanese retribution was rather too well prepared. The Japanese, for example, were able to conveniently shell the Chinese barracks and airfield at Mukden with two substantial pieces of artillery, installed secretly in a nearby gun emplacement. This installation, built under the pretence of digging a well, was completed only days before the bomb exploded.

In a similar vein, the Nazi government of Germany staged several false-flag attacks on the eve of the invasion of Poland in 1939. At Gleiwitz, German troops dressed as Polish insurgents seized the town’s radio transmitter and made a short broadcast in Polish. To make it look more convincing they left a dead body behind, apparently one of the “Poles,” made to look as if he was shot dead during the attack.

Of course, we only know about false-flag attacks whose perpetrators eventually ended up on the losing side of a war. The successful ones may never come to light clearly. The most convincing kind of false-flag attack would be one which used informers or double-agents who genuinely did work for the other side. If they died during the false-flag attack, who afterwards would be able to say that it was a fake?

So — things start with these different kinds of attacks, but how do things end? Only very rarely do they end with the complete annihilation of the losers. There are examples of this, but they are unusual. In 146 B.C., the Roman Republic triumphed over Carthage for the third and final time. Roman soldiers burned the city and systematically demolished its walls, stone by stone. The devastation was exactly as if an atomic bomb had exploded very slowly, taking months to do its damage rather than seconds. Except that the inhabitants, rather than being transformed into radioactive toast, were carried off to Rome as slaves. In Rome they filled the ecological niches which are occupied in our modern world by household appliances and agricultural machinery.

But this is rare. Perhaps the best perspective to think about the end of wars is that of finite and infinite games. Most wars are finite games, which means that both sides must share a common definition of what it means to lose the game. At that point one side gives up, the victor picks up some prize, and life goes on. Think about France and Germany in 1940. The Germans followed the advice that Sun Tzu would have offered them: take a state intact, don’t destroy it. The Germans offered an armistice to the French which left most aspects of ordinary life unchanged. The French accepted the deal because they shared the same definition of losing.

What happens when the sides don’t share the same definition of losing? When the Germans fought the Russians in World War II, the Russian soldiers at first surrendered to the Germans. However, the Germans were unwilling to accept this surrender in the usual way: they killed millions of their prisoners. The victors didn’t accept that the losers were out of the game. Russian soldiers learned that the German definition of “losing” was nothing short of death, so there was little point in surrendering. Eventually the two sides did agree: the Russians applied the same definition of losing back to the Germans, which was in some sense fair but perhaps not what the Germans had intended.

This can work the other way around too. In the First and Second Punic wars, the Roman Republic suffered several utterly devastating defeats, but they never accepted that they had actually lost. Any other state in the Mediterranean world would have negotiated a peace, but the Romans refused to give up. In the words of Ennius, “The victor is not victorious if the vanquished does not consider himself so.” The Romans doggedly fought on, and eventually they got the upper hand. There came a point in each war where the Carthaginians were willing to concede that they had lost. (The Carthaginians never admitted defeat in the Third Punic war — it was a fight to the death.)

The British position at the end of 1940 looked pretty bleak too. The Germans couldn’t invade Britain, but Britain had no allies left and little hope. (Remember that Russia and Germany were still friends at that time, and although the USA was lending food and weapons to Britain, it was not itself at war.) The sensible thing to do would have been to sign an armistice with the Germans. Winston Churchill refused to contemplate the idea, and instead used one of the two classic British stratagems: “play for time.” In the British national game of cricket, it’s possible to turn a losing position into a draw if you “play for time.” Wellington did this at Waterloo against Napoleon, and Churchill did it in 1941 against Hitler. (The other traditional British stratagem is “death or glory” — in a pinch, go “all in” and risk everything to defeat the enemy. Nelson did this at Trafalgar; Fighter Command did this at the height of the Battle of Britain. The British, probably unintentionally, risked and lost their whole empire in order to defeat Hitler.)

Sometimes in war something rather odd happens, and the two sides turn what started as a finite game with winners and losers into an infinite game. We can find good examples of a this in the trenches of World War I — to the despair of their commanders, the soldiers tended to strike informal truces with the enemy. The famous example of soldiers playing football in no-man’s land on Christmas Day is just one of many cosy local arrangements. The soldiers knew that any attack would provoke a tit-for-tat reprisal, but kindness would also be reciprocated. Both sides refrained from shelling meal deliveries to the front, so that they could each eat their own food in peace. Towards the end of the war there were wide-spread mutinies, and the soldiers on both sides were starting to form the idea that they had more in common with the “enemy” on the other side of the barbed wire than they did with their own high command. note 83

Government propaganda, attempting to dehumanise the enemy, had failed due to long and close proximity of the two sides. By the end of the war, France had lost 1 in 5 men of military age. But it would have been even worse if everyone had tried their hardest to kill each other all the time, rather than sometimes saying “let’s live and let live.” (In the seventeenth century, amongst the countries involved in the Thirty Years War, 1 in 3 of the entire population died.)


So, as an underdog you can defeat a stronger enemy by substituting effort for ability. Use disreputable tactics, and do what is effective rather than what is respectable. When you are weak, use symbolic attacks to attract support. Turn these into political attacks when you can, by provoking unfair and disproportionate retaliation. You can win in the end, even if you have lost right now, provided you don’t admit defeat and you keep the game going.

As an incumbent, faced by an underdog, it’s most important to trivialise and forgive symbolic attacks. Don’t be provoked into disproportionate retaliation unless you can utterly crush the underdog. The underdog’s organisation is a social instrument, far more effective than your own institutions. Try to even things up by accelerating the underdog’s transformation into an institution. Be kind to the underdog’s political supporters, give them part of what they need: maybe they won’t support the underdog any more. Infiltrate the underdog organisation and recruit double agents. Try to sow distrust, and split the organisation into factions if you can. (Of course, the underdog can also work these tricks the other way around.)


What more can we say about warfare? Countless books have been written on the subject, from Sun Tzu’s Art of War onwards. (Still worth a read.) You can find out what you need. Perhaps the only remaining topic that’s not widely understood is the nature of weapons and their effects on society. note 84

Carroll Quigley, in his book Weapon Systems and Political Stability, drew a useful distinction between two basic kinds of weapons: “shock” weapons and “lethal” weapons. Examples of shock weapons are spears, clubs, swords, bayonets and so on. They can be used to kill, but they can also be used to coerce and control. Shock weapons can be applied gradually, along a scale from prodding to killing. They are the weapons of choice for police forces, controlling crowds with batons and riot-shields or even rifles with bayonets fixed but no bullets. note 85

In contrast, lethal weapons such as arrows, bullets and bombs are not gradual. You can threaten to use these weapons, but if your threat doesn’t win cooperation, your only remaining option is to shoot, with deadly results. (And if you miss, the result may be deadly for you. For example, a cross-bow takes quite a long time to reload. If you miss, you are now unarmed and facing someone who knows you’re prepared to kill them. Oops.)

Before the invention of gunpowder, societies often had to specialise in either shock weapons or lethal weapons. Early medieval Europe chose shock weapons: the mounted knight with lance and sword. The Mongols under Genghis Khan were also mounted on horses, but chose a lethal weapon: bow and arrow. In part this choice was affected by the concerns of those particular societies. Was it most important to be able to extort money from local people and settle disputes? Choose a shock weapon. Or was it more important to fight external enemies? Choose a lethal weapon. When circumstances change, we may see a switch from one to the other. This is what happened in seventeenth century Japan.

In the sixteenth century, Europeans introduced firearms to Japan. The Tokugawa Shoguns prevailed in the subsequent musket-equipped civil wars, unifying the whole of Japan for the first time. (Previously, the country had been a collection of separate quasi-states, loyal in theory to an Emperor who had no practical sovereignty.) Lethal weapons had been necessary to conquer the Tokugawa’s enemies, but in the seventeenth century that fight was won. The Shoguns now controlled a unified country, difficult to attack from the outside, and they instituted a police state. Europeans were expelled, except for a tightly supervised colony of Dutch traders, and guns were phased out by government decree. With guns forbidden, the samurai with their famous swords were once again dominant. Lethal weapons had been replaced with shock weapons, the weapons of choice for coercion and control. note 86

Shock weapons are always short range, so a numerical advantage in battle can be hard to exploit. In a disciplined formation, regardless of the size of the enemy force, there will be only a few places where one man has to face several others. The key is to maintain a smooth perimeter, and avoid panic and crushing. Due to scaling-laws, in a larger formation, it will be easier to avoid a break through in the perimeter, but harder to control dangerous crushes. Larger numbers will tell eventually if soldiers from both sides fall at a steady rate, but this could take a long time. Crushes can be more decisive in the short term — a column of French revolutionary soldiers could punch through a line of professional infantry by sheer momentum. On the other hand, a large stationary body of soldiers can be made completely ineffective if it can be turned into a crush — as presumably happened at the battle of Cannæ, when Hannibal’s smaller Carthaginian force of professional soldiers surrounded and over several hours hacked to death a much larger force of Roman amateurs.

Missile weapons, on the other hand, act at a distance, into an area rather than across a perimeter, but there is a really surprising difference between aimed and unaimed fire. This effect was understood intuitively by soldiers and sailors, and was finally explained properly by engineer Frederick Lanchester in 1916. With unaimed fire, shots are made randomly into an area known to contain the enemy. Perhaps this is because they are hidden in cover, or perhaps they are at long range and it is impossible to aim more accurately. Either way, with unaimed fire, the fighting strength of a body of attackers is proportional to their number, just as you might expect. note 87

However, when fire is aimed at enemy units which are themselves returning aimed fire, then the fighting strength of a body of attackers is proportional to the square of their number. The classic example of this is a naval battle where all ships are in range of the enemy, and both sides are able to choose their targets. Because of Lanchester’s N-Squared Law it is extremely advantageous to group your forces together, and to divide your enemy. (Though it’s even more advantageous to fire from cover, forcing your enemy to use unaimed fire while you use aimed fire — for example by using a submarine.)

The N-Squared Law explains Nelson’s choice of tactics at the battle of Trafalgar. Nelson’s plan was to divide the enemy into two roughly equal sized groups, but divide his own force unequally. Lanchester’s N-Squared Law means that a 3 to 2 advantage in numbers translates into a roughly 2 to 1 advantage in fighting strength. Nelson intended that his smaller force would fight a “play for time” battle-within-a-battle, while his larger force obliterated one half of the French and Spanish fleets. Having won that part of the battle, Nelson’s ships could then turn and join their battered comrades, but still have the advantage over the remaining French and Spanish fleets. (It’s interesting that Nelson came up with this plan out of experience, over a century before Lanchester explained why it worked.)

Let’s now finally turn to the effects of weapons on the people who use them. Different kinds of weapons change their users in different ways, and they also change their society as a whole. Most people don’t like to kill. During the twentieth century, with conscripted mass armies using lethal weapons, it eventually became clear that only a small fraction of soldiers aimed and fired their weapons at the enemy. Most simply didn’t fire. Those who did fire often aimed to miss. note 88

According to military historian John Keegan, the difference between a murderer and a soldier is that a murderer is prepared to kill, but a soldier is prepared to die. The soldiers who aimed-off had decided that they could not face being murderers, and in the heat of battle had instead decided to become conscientious objectors — at some risk to themselves, since they could not be sure that the enemy would be equally kindly in return. This mass failure to shoot drove their senior officers to distraction when they realised what was happening. What could they do about it? note 89

The generals called in the psychologists, and the psychologists already knew how to solve the problem. Their method was “behavioural conditioning,” the same technique that animal trainers use to get circus animals to perform tricks. So, after the Second World War, basic training for infantry changed, and it became closer to a simulation of battlefield conditions. Rather than set-piece shooting at paper targets, nowadays soldiers train by moving through a landscape containing “pop-up” targets shaped like an attacking enemy. The soldiers are trained to quickly aim for the target’s centre-of-mass and pull the trigger. “Well done!” say the trainers. The soldiers’ adaptive unconscious, always on the lookout for patterns, makes the association between quickly shooting at the centre-of-mass and praise from the trainer. It’s a good thing. On the battlefield, presented with a similar situation, the adaptive unconscious has aimed and fired before the soldier’s conscious mind has noticed.

The behavioural psychologists knew their craft. In the eyes of the soldiers, the enemy changed from a person into a thing. More soldiers shot at their enemy in the Korean War, more still in the Vietnam War. But there was a price, and there has been a price ever since. The soldiers have to live with their killings afterwards. They feel that they have become something dirty. Amongst infantry there has been an epidemic of illegal drug use and suicides. During the Iraq “Surge” of 2007, more than 20,000 US soldiers in Iraq were being prescribed antidepressants and sleeping pills in an attempt to suppress their symptoms. (If you see a video of US troops from this time and they seem weirdly spaced-out, that’s probably because they are weirdly spaced-out.) note 90

You might think you have an ingenious solution to this problem — why not use the one group of people who really aren’t bothered by killing? Psychopaths. It’s already been thought of, and the problem is that it doesn’t work very well. Psychopaths are unreliable, only interested in what’s in it for them. In a tight spot, given a choice between fighting together and running away, they will usually run away and leave you to die. No fear and no conscience, but also no honour and no shame. And anyway, it would be deeply dangerous to place the defence of a society in the hands of its least trustworthy members. It could be the last mistake that society made.

Use of weapons changes individuals, but does it also change the nature of a whole society? Carroll Quigley suggests that specialised “professional” weapon systems like the medieval mounted knight and the modern Predator drone tend to promote authoritarian government. They are expensive to maintain and they are difficult to use, so only professionals can use them effectively. A small authoritarian group can therefore control these weapons and decide when to use them, without much concern about its own security, and without worrying about the opinions of the majority of their society.

On the other hand, “amateur” weapon systems can be used with little training, and are so cheap that they are affordable by the average person. When the most effective weapons in a particular age are amateur weapons, Quigley suggests that this tends to promote democracy, because it is impossible for a small authoritarian group to enforce the obedience of the majority. This happened during the nineteenth century, starting with the mass armies of revolutionary France, and ending with the mass armies of the First World War. This era was clearly a time of cheap, easy to use, mass produced weapons and also of rapidly growing democracy. The turning point came during the First World War, and in the twentieth century the pendulum swung back the other way, with increasing specialisation, expensive weapons and professionalism. What happened to democracy? note 91

During the Cold War, politicians in the West could point to the Soviet Union as a clear instance of an authoritarian government with a professional military. Looking in the opposite direction, whether or not the USA was democratic at home, it was at that time clearly in the business of suppressing democracy amongst its client states and installing authoritarian military dictators. So there seems to be some truth in Quigley’s suggestion. But now the Soviet Union is long gone, and the reason for most of the West’s weapons gone with it, so what will the future hold? Quigley made an eerie prediction, back in 1961, at the height of the Cold War:

We are told that we now live in a “two-power world,” although the power of the United States and of the Soviet Union is not in fact hemispherical. Each of these superpowers can, it is true, obtain obedience in most matters over about forty percent of the earth’s surface, but this leaves a buffer area between, amounting to about a fifth of the earth. This “buffer fringe” lying between the Soviet “heartland” and the peripheral, and ocean-linked, Western civilization is occupied by the shattered remnants of dying civilizations or the hopeful efforts of incipient new civilizations. The hope of the future does not rest, as commonly believed, in winning the peoples of the “buffer fringe” to one superpower or the other, but rather in the invention of new weapons and new tactics that will be so cheap to obtain and so easy to use that they will increase the effectiveness of guerrilla warfare so greatly that the employment of our present weapons of mass destruction will become futile and, on this basis, there can be a revival of democracy and of political decentralization in all three parts of our present world. This would, of course, require the development of decentralized economic techniques such as could arise if sunlight became the chief energy source for production and the advance of science made it possible to manufacture any desired substance by molecular rearrangement of such common materials as sea water, plant fibers, and ordinary earth. note 92

Some of this has now come to pass. We are still waiting for solar-powered nano-tech fabricators, but new weapons and tactics have arrived. The new tactics use the mobile phone, supported by a vast computing and telecoms infrastructure. Despite the hype, on-line “social networks” are no substitute for old-fashioned organisation, determination and trust, but the new technology brings within the reach of small underdog groups the information and communication capabilities once reserved for nation-states.

The latest “amateur” weapon is the human-detonated bomb, in the form of road-side mines or suicide-bombs. These are “precision guided” lethal weapons where the precision is provided by a human hand rather than by complex technology. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown, although the USA has enough lethal weapons of mass destruction to kill everyone in those countries many times over, these weapons are in practice useless.

Despite the chaos and suffering afflicting many parts of the world, there is perhaps more reason to be optimistic about the future than there was a century ago. Professional weapons cost more and more, in part because they are built and maintained by institutions, vested-interests with little real concern for the defence of their states. As the pendulum swings back to amateur weapons and tactics, we might hope that out of the chaos more real democracy and freedom will eventually emerge. But don’t expect the tyrants to sit tight while the levers of authoritarian control slip from their hands. Expect the tyrants to fight back. Expect the tactics and weapons of amateur warfare to be controlled, restricted and outlawed. Watch out. They won’t go quietly.


< Chapter 6. Patterns Contents Chapter 8. Promises >


Version: DRAFT Beta 3. Copyright © Stuart Wray, 29 December 2011.