Pre-emptive and Preventive War

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the justification of pre-emptive, or in that case preventive war, has been seriously questioned.  With the benefit of hindsight opponents of the war have cited the failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction or significant ties to Al-Qaeda (the ostensible reasons given for the Invasion of Iraq) to criticize the Bush Doctrine, which promoted pre-emptive action against potential threats to the United States.  However, while it can be argued that the United States was mistaken about Iraq’s potential of being a threat, this does not mean that the concept of pre-emption is inherently flawed.  Historically, nations have used pre-emptive strikes in order to gain military advantages in unavoidable wars, as well as to eliminate hostile threats before they become too dangerous.  In other word, pre-emptive and preventive wars are effective in forestalling imminent threats as well as potential ones.

There is a key difference between the two types of war.  A pre-emptive attack (or pre-emptive war) is waged in an attempt to repel or defeat an imminent offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (usually unavoidable) war, whereas the rationale for preventive war is the claimed prevention of a possible future attack.  Put simply, the difference is that a pre-emptive war is waged to eliminate an immediate threat while a preventive war is initiated to prevent such a threat from developing.  The political significance is that the former can usually be justified as self-defence while the latter can be seen as an act of aggression since the targeted state has yet to become a serious threat to the nation concerned.

Pre-emptive strikes give the attacker many advantages.  By invading a threatening nation the attacker can fight the war on the enemy’s soil while safeguarding its own.  This stratagem has been frequently adopted by Israel, a small country that is vulnerable to being quickly overrun.  While Israel fought and won two relatively short and bloodless wars when it pre-empted its enemies in 1956 and 1967, it suffered heavy casualties in two longer conflicts when it failed to pre-empt the Arabs in 1948 and 1973.

Additionally, pre-emption can allow a state surrounded by hostile nations to strike first and keep opposing powers off balance and unable to execute their initial plans.  For example, Frederick the Great pre-empted his enemies at the outset of the 7 Years’ War by invading Saxony and managed to catch the Saxons and Austrians off balance.  Another example was when the Germans pre-empted the allies in 1916 by attacking the French at Verdun.  The allies had planned to attack Germany simultaneously on all fronts, in order to limit its advantage in interior lines, which allowed it to move reserves quicker to threatened sectors than the allies.  By attacking the French army, the most effective allied army at that point in the war, the Germans seized the initiative and took much force out of the allies’ combined offensives later that year.

However, perhaps the greatest advantage of a pre-emptive strike is the potential of inflicting a knockout blow on the enemy from which it is unable to recover.  Arguably the best example of this was the Israeli air strike that crippled the Egyptian Air Force, the centre of gravity for the Arab war effort, at the outset of the Six Day War.  The Schlieffen plan initiated by the Germans at the outset of the First World War was another attempt to inflict a knock out blow, and while it ultimately failed to knock France out of the war it at least allowed the Germans to fight on French territory for the rest of the war (no major battles were fought on German soil on the western front during the entire conflict).  All of these advantages demonstrate that it is often safer to pre-empt the enemy rather than waiting for him to attack.

Preventive wars are waged in order to rout hostile nations before they become significant threats.  These wars are planned when policy makers determine that a hostile state is becoming a significant threat to their nation and conclude that diplomacy is futile and war is inevitable.  Machiavelli summarized such an attitude when he wrote in The Prince that “there is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.”

The attacker enjoys all the same advantages in preventive warfare as in pre-emptive warfare.  The key difference is timing.  Preventive wars are launched to destroy stillborn threats, not imminent ones.  Needless to say, the additional advantage of a preventive war is the relative inferiority of the enemy.  Since the point of initiating a preventive war is to prevent an enemy nation from even becoming a serious threat it is assumed the enemy will be unable to effectively resist attack.  A few examples of preventive wars include the Third Punic War, where Rome was afraid of a resurgent Carthage after its defeat during the Second Punic War, the German attack on the Soviet Union, where Hitler wanted to defeat the Russian army before it recovered from Stalin’s purges, and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 when President George Bush Junior decided he could not risk Iraq providing terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.

Pre-emptive and preventive wars are interpreted differently according to international law.  As stated above, pre-emptive wars can be justified by self-defence, while preventive wars are often seen as acts of aggression.  Pre-emptive wars are usually seen as just because international law recognizes that states have the right to defend themselves against imminent threats.  However, it is much harder to justify invading a country that poses no immediate threat to the concerned nation.  This is why international law does not distinguish preventive wars from acts of aggression.

If international law condoned preventive wars, nations would be less constrained to attack other countries, even if the targeted nation in question was not a potential threat.  Obviously some nations would take advantage of this in order to settle old scores, annex territory, procure vital resources like oil or water reserves, etc.  As Frederick the Great cynically noted about his seizure of Silesia from the Austrians during the 18th Century, “I begin by taking. I shall find scholars later to demonstrate my perfect right.”

This interpretation of international law explains why many nations, besides those who had cynical interests in keeping Saddam Hussein in power like France and Russia, opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The United States could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Iraq posed an imminent threat, or that its motives in deposing Saddam Hussein were just.  It should be stated that this war was not a pre-emptive war, but a preventive war, as the United States was attacking Iraq before it could become a direct threat.  However, the threat of terrorism does much to complicate the theory and definitions of preventive and pre-emptive wars.

One argument President Bush made for the invasion was that it would deny terrorists from procuring weapons of mass destruction from Iraq.  While it has been established after the invasion that Iraq did not possessed such weapons, this does not rid the international community of a serious problem:  What to do with rogue states that have the potential to build weapons of mass destruction and have significant ties to terrorist organizations.  With hindsight, Iraq posed no such threat, but a nation such as Iran, which is close to developing the technology to build nuclear weapons and has indisputable connections to terrorist organizations, does.

Pre-emptive and preventive wars are more effective at defending nations than waiting to be attacked.  Pre-emptive wars allow the concerned nation to wage war on the enemy’s soil, keep its enemies off balance, and offer it the chance to inflict a knockout blow.  Preventive wars offer the additional advantage of easily overcoming the targeted nation because it has yet to become a serious threat.  There are many moral and philosophical questions regarding the validity of pre-emption, but it cannot be said that it is an ineffective means for countries to defend themselves against hostile nations.  The unfortunate case of Iraq has significantly reduced pre-emption as a serious option for democratic nations to defend themselves.  While it goes without saying that pre-emption should never be the first option, it should at least be considered.

Even though war should only be waged when necessary and inevitable, history has shown that democracies often wait until the last minute to defend themselves.  For a perfect example, it is widely accepted that had the French and British stood up to Hitler during the mid 1930s that Germany would not have been able to stop them.  Instead, the French and British appeased Hitler as he tore up the Versailles Treaty, reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, and annexed Austria in 1938.  Even during the crisis over the Sudetenland in 1938, they told Czechoslovakia, which was an ally of France, to give in to Hitler’s demands.  If France and Britain had invaded Germany before 1939 it is more than likely that World War 2 would have been prevented and millions of lives would not have been lost in the most bloody war in history.  Winston Churchill, the venerable British statesman whose name is synonymous with effective wartime leadership, was once asked by President Roosevelt during the war what the conflict should be named.  Churchill’s response was instantaneous, “The unnecessary war.”

Bregman, Ahron.  Israel’s Wars:  A History since 1947.  London:  Routledge, 2002.
Churchill, Winston.  The Second World War.  London:  Mariner Books, 1948.
Goldsworthy, Adrian.  The Fall of Carthage:  The Punic Wars 265-146 BC.  London: Cassell, 2004.
Marston, Daniel.  The Seven Years’ War.  Osprey:  Oxford, 2001.
Jafarzadeh, Alireza.  The Iran Threat:  President Ahmadinejad and the coming Nuclear Crisis.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Oren, Michael.  Six Days of War.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 2003.
Prior, Robin and Trevor Wilson.  The First World War.  London:  Cassell, 1999.
Warner, Philip.  World War Two:  The untold story.  London:  Cassell, 2002.
Wikipedia article on The Bush Doctrine [Online]: [2011, January]
Wikipedia article on Pre-emptive War [Online]: [2011, March]
Wikipedia article on Preventive War [Online] [2011, February]

The Myth of Successful Defensive Lines

Throughout history nations have made considerable efforts to find solutions to defend themselves against external threats. Perhaps the best example would be the creation of vast and expensive defensive lines to protect their countries from invasion or infiltration. Yet despite the considerable time and resources that have been expended into such endeavors nearly all without exception have inevitably failed to accomplish their ultimate goals. Defensive lines throughout history have typically failed to safeguard countries from external aggression.

If we look at defensive lines in military history they typically fall into two categories; those designed to stop conventional attacks by an invading army, and those designed to stop insurgents, bandits, or terrorists, from infiltrating sovereign territory. In the case of the former they have almost always failed to protect their respective countries while in the latter their success is often limited to the short term. Obviously the first thing to consider is how defensive lines are supposed to work.

Firstly, it should be noted that defensive lines are an inherently passive means to protect a country. They are designed as a physical means to prevent an enemy from invading or violating a very specific geographic location. The supposed logic behind their construction is that either the enemy would try outflanking the defensive line, thus allowing the defender to concentrate his forces against the attacking force, or the aggressor will be forced to attack the defensive line and play right into the defender’s hand. While this seems self evident and simple in theory, few things in military theory translate smoothly into practice.

In the case of constructing defensive lines in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency the primary focus is decreasing terrorism from external forces in the former and limiting aid to insurgents already inside friendly territory in the latter.

While no expert would challenge the assertion that a defensive line can protect vital territory and offer the defender some degree of strategic options it is usually the case that elaborate defensive lines inevitably lead to a defensive attitude. And herein lies the quintessential flaw of defensive lines; they promote passiveness, intentionally or not, and concede initiative to the enemy. Perhaps the best example of this would be the “Maginot mentality” that afflicted the French army during the “Second World War.” The French, who had suffered six million casualties during “World War One,” constructed the Maginot line to deter another German invasion. However, despite being one of the great engineering marvels of the 20th century, the German air force flew over it and the German army outflanked it by going through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forests. While it took more than six years to build the Maginot line, it only took the Germans six weeks to conquer France.

Perhaps, and as absurd as it sounds, the majority of times defensive lines have failed is when they are simply outflanked and the defenders (having a mostly passive disposition) are unable to react effectively. Some of the time the defenders had built a defensive line to a certain length and then relied on supposedly impassable terrain, neutral borders, or sheer distance to do the rest. There are too many examples to cite but obvious ones include the aforementioned Maginot line, the Metaxas line in Greece, the French border fortifications before the “First World War,” and the Saddam Line.

Regarding the Metaxas line the Greeks built it to protect against a Bulgarian invasion, but when the Germans invaded Greece in 1941 they outflanked it by going through Yugoslavia. The Franco-German border fortifications prior to 1914 were likewise rendered redundant by the “Schlieffen plan” that by passed them by going through neutral Belgium at the start of the “First World War.” As the for the Saddam line the Iraqi forces simply thought that coalition forces would get lost in the desert as they had before them. Unfortunately for the Iraqis the advent of GPS made the task of outflanking the Saddam line child’s play.

Even defensive lines that cannot be outflanked, and are manned by competent soldiers can be defeated. In these situations it is usually a case of the attacker concentrating enough numbers and firepower and breaching part of the line. While this often results in disproportionate casualties for the attacker, a successful breach usually renders the whole line useless as the rest of it is then open to being bypassed or flanked. This highlights perhaps the biggest liability of defensive lines; they are inherently passive and are only effective at the points at which they are attacked. While perhaps the best that can be hoped from defensive lines is that they provide a trip wire to slow enemy forces to allow the defender to concentrate their reserves for a counter attack, all too often they are expected to halt the enemy almost exclusively by themselves.

Perhaps the best example occurred during “World War 1”, arguably the conflict most associated with the power of the defense, when the Germans relied upon the “Siegfried line” to protect their occupation of north eastern France. While it certainly withstood many assaults it was breached twice relatively easily by well executed British attacks in 1917 and 1918. During the former the British were unable to exploit the breach due to a lack of sufficient reserves, but in the latter the successful breach unhinged the whole line and the Germans were pushed back and forced to accept a humiliating armistice. This was against perhaps the most powerful defensive line in history up to that point and backed by well trained and seasoned troops.

Another poignant example would be the multiple defensive lines the Germans held in Italy, especially the Gustav and Gothic lines, and the Atlantic Wall that was supposed to repel an allied invasion of France, during “World War 2.” Keeping in mind the natural defenses the Italian peninsula offers, and the skill and tenacity of the German soldiers, these should have been ideal defensive lines. Indeed, the allies only breached these defenses after long and costly battles, especially around Monte Casino. However, numbers, firepower and stubbornness can, and often does, eventually succeed and the German defensive lines in Italy were all ultimately overrun. While one could argue that the allies only succeeded due to their material advantages, it should be born in mind that 99 times out of 100 it is the weaker adversary (at least in terms of numbers and resources) in any real, or potential, conflict that builds defensive lines, and it should not come as a surprise that their enemies are willing to use their superiority in order to defeat them. Yet to be fair to the Germans it could be argued that they constructed such defensive lines in Italy to delay the allied advance up the Italian boot, not to stop them indefinitely.

As for breaching the Atlantic wall the allies benefited from overwhelming firepower, meticulous planning and a brilliant deception plan that led the Germans to believe the invasion was supposed to take place in the Pas-De Calais region. Additionally, besides the fact the Germans simply did not have the time, or resources, to adequately fortify the whole Atlantic coast of occupied Europe, the German high command doomed any chance of repelling the allied landings when they failed to concentrate their panzer divisions near the beaches of the most likely landing sites.

An almost amusing example of how easily supposedly strong fortifications can be breached would be the Egyptian conquest of the Bar-Lev line guarding the east bank of the Suez Canal in 1973. The Israelis had constructed a massive sand beam nearly 100 feet tall almost running the entire length of their side of the canal. It was said to be so strong that some armchair generals believed it could only be breached by nuclear weapons. In the event the Egyptians defeated the formidable sand beam in a matter of hours by simply watering it down with high pressure hoses!

However, it can be assumed there are examples of defensive lines succeeding outright in conventional warfare. Yet, admittedly the author is only familiar with one example and that is the Lines of Torres Vedras guarding the British presence in Portugal during the “Napoleonic wars.” However the lines of Torres Vedras succeeded due to very specific conditions; conditions which other defensive lines seldom meet.

Firstly, the defensive lines could not be flanked because they were built from coast to coast and the British navy controlled the sea lanes. Secondly, the French army in Spain did not possess the necessary firepower to breach its powerful fortifications. Thirdly, the British had conducted a scorched earth policy while retreating through Spain and the French army was suffering from significant shortages. Lastly, the front on which the lines were constructed was relatively narrow which allowed the British and Portuguese forces to man the defenses in strength. Needless to say such conditions have seldom been met in the history of warfare and this probably helps explains why so few defensive lines have been as successful as those of Torres Vedras.

A seldom mentioned consideration regarding the inherent liabilities of defensive lines is that they tend to be inordinately expensive to build. While they usually look impressive one wonders how many planes, tanks, artillery pieces, or other critical weapons of war could have been built in their place. Indeed, while touring the Maginot line near the beginning of “World War 2” Field Marshal Alanbrooke was fascinated by such a marvel of engineering but was ultimately unimpressed saying it “gave me but little feeling of security, and I consider that the French would have done better to invest the money in the shape of mobile defenses such as more and better aircraft and more heavy armored divisions than to sink all this money into the ground.”

However, if defensive lines mostly fail in conventional warfare, they can be quite successful, at least in tactical terms, in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. Indeed, given that insurgents and terrorists are by nature usually weaker in numbers and firepower than their opponents they find it nearly impossible to breach, let alone neutralize, defensive lines. While admittedly defensive lines have been used less extensively against irregular opponents, not least because it is much easier for them to infiltrate across long borders, or via the coast vs. divisions of soldiers, when they have been used they generally have a better track record then those designed to stop conventional attacks. The usual, though not exclusive, prerequisites for this success are obvious; relatively short borders, open terrain, and well armed and motivated forces patrolling the area in question. Needless to say, these are conditions that are seldom met as successful insurgent movements tend to thrive in countries with porous borders, difficult topography and corrupt government and military personnel.

While it can be exhausting looking for examples of defensive lines that have succeeded in conventional warfare, there are plenty of examples regarding the success of defensive lines in asymmetrical warfare, at least in a tactical sense. The Morice Line during the “Algerian War,” Hadrian’s Wall, Chiang Kai-shek’s use of Block House warfare against the Communists during the “Chinese Civil War,” and the barriers erected by the Israelis to surround the Gaza Strip and West Bank were all unequivocally successful in severely reducing the capabilities of insurgents, terrorists, freedom fighters, or whatever terms people label such irregular movements depending upon their political biases or sympathies.

The Morice line was built on the Algerian-Tunisian border by the French during the “Algerian War” to stop the vast flow of weapons, men, and supplies reaching the F.L.N. (an insurgent movement dedicated to liberating Algeria from French rule) fighting inside Algeria. While the French usually have a bad reputation, mostly deserved, regarding their policies aimed at quashing the F.L.N. insurgency, the construction of the Morice Line, and an equivalent line along the Moroccan-Algerian border, proved to be an unqualified tactical success. Indeed, these defensive lines all but cut off the F.L.N. from the outside world and quashed any chance of them defeating the French militarily inside Algeria.

Hadrian’s wall was also successful as it stopped barbarians from invading Rome’s colony in Britain. As the border between the colony and barbarian territory was not very long, and as the Romans had naval supremacy, it was not unduly hard to plug this hole in Rome’s territorial expansion. While it is not clear regarding the ultimate purpose(s) of the wall, it is clear that no major hostile forces infiltrated Rome’s British colony as long as it was adequately garrisoned.

Chiang Kai-shek’s use of block house warfare in the “Chinese Civil War” is admittedly a bit different regarding defensive lines as the defenses were not located on any border and were not meant to be permanent but the same principles regarding its use applies. Instead of trying to keep insurgents out of specified territory, the plan was for Chinese nationalist forces to enter communist areas, build block houses and defenses, secure the area, then move further into the interior and repeat this process again and again. The Chinese nationalists did this on all sides of the communist region to surround the whole area, then used the multiple layers of blockhouses and defenses to squeeze the communists and limit their mobility. This was significant because whereas conventional forces fighting irregulars rely upon numbers and firepower to win engagements, irregulars use their usually superior knowledge of the terrain and maneuverability to engage in surprise attacks against soldiers to compensate for their material disadvantages. Isolated from other insurgent forces, cut off from their support base, and at a distinct advantage when fighting the well placed, numerically superior and better equipped nationalist forces, the Chi-Coms (Chinese communists) were eventually forced to break out of the encirclement and conduct a desperate retreat of more than 6000 miles to north eastern China.

Likewise the barriers built to stop terrorist infiltration from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to Israel have proven to be a significant tactical coup. Given the open terrain, the relatively short borders, and the considerable amount of men and resources the Israeli Defence Forces have invested in the project, it is no surprise that terrorist attacks launched from Gaza and the West Bank have fallen to virtually nothing. Whatever the moral or humanitarian effects these walls have had regarding the Palestinian populations of these territories (and they are not inconsiderable) there is no doubt the barriers have accomplished their stated aim.

However, while the author has stated that defensive lines in asymmetrical warfare can have exceeding good tactical returns, he also noted that they are not as successful in the long term, or in strategic terms. Once this implication has been considered, it is no surprise that just as in conventional warfare defensive lines are ultimately unsuccessful in irregular conflicts as well.

Looking at the last four examples, one sees that the insurgent/terrorist movements in all these cases were not decisively defeated at all. The F.L.N. held on in Algeria until the ultranationalist Pied Noires and overly militant French army shot themselves in the foot, and alienated so many Frenchmen regarding their brutal behavior, that even the proud Charles De-Gaulle decided to give up Algeria. Hadrian’s wall did nothing to stop the growing decadence in the Roman Empire that ultimately led to the Romans abandoning their British colony. Even the 6000 mile retreat of the Communists in China was not enough as the “Sino-Japanese conflict” severely degraded the Nationalists and ultimately strengthened the Communists so much they won the military contest after the “Second World War.” As for Israeli success regarding her walls surrounding the West Bank and Gaza, it may have more or less stopped border intrusions, but did little to stop her enemy’s from acquiring rockets and missile that have led to two significant wars, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, let alone crush the said organizations bent on her destruction.

Inevitably, this is a consequence of the inherent differences regarding victory in conventional war vs. victory in asymmetrical warfare. While victory in the former is usually the result of military means (taking a capital city, destroying an army, cutting off a force’s lines of communication, etc.) victory against terrorists or insurgents is usually the result of more economic, political, or diplomatic considerations. These usually involve winning the relevant populations’ hearts and minds, addressing grievances, and improving their political and economic standing. Or alternatively, a disproportionately bloody solution can work if the population believes the assailant will do anything necessary to quash dissent. Britain’s successes in the “Malayan Emergency” and in Northern Ireland are examples of the former approach, while the German genocidal tendencies in Namibia and Syria’s massacre of 10s of thousands of its own citizens in Hama in 1982 are examples of the latter approach. Needless to say the former solution is suitable for democracies, while the latter solution is used almost exclusively by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Either way it is apparent that while defensive lines can serve a purpose regarding such means, they are obviously not decisive in themselves.

None of this is to suggest that defensive lines or fortifications do not have an important part in warfare, conventional or asymmetrical. In the case of acting as a so called “trip wire” they can fragment an enemy’s advance of at least determine their likely axis of advance. Additionally, they are extremely useful, in multiple layers, at delaying a strong advance until a counterattack can be organized. This refers to the concept of “defense in depth,” and has been used to great effect in instances such as the “Battle of Third Ypres” in “World War 1” and the “Battle of Kursk” in the “Second World War.”

No, the point at which defensive lines become counter-productive is when they are expected to perform miracles and defeat whole armies and insurgents by themselves. Rather than being seem as either trip lines or a means to delay, they become the hope of the nation and contribute to a bunker, or “Maginot,” mentality. It should be clear that the author does not think defensive lines, even overly expensive ones such as the Maginot line, are useless. Had the French constructed the line to the English Channel or at least to cover the Ardennes forest they probably would not have been defeated by the Germans, or at least would have held out longer than six weeks. Yet besides such defenses the French needed to be bold and offensive minded and concentrated their forces for an attack on the Germans as the Maginot line allowed their army to do so.

Unfortunately, and ironic as it sounds, this is what defensive lines are supposed to accomplish. They are supposed to substitute concrete and barbed wire for men so a nation can concentrate its army and fight boldly against the enemy, and not be expected to serve as a rampart to be attacked in force by a foe with any common sense. Yet perhaps it is unsurprising that nations that put so many resources “into the ground,” as Field Marshal Alanbooke would put it, should not be expected to have the most offensive spirit when it comes to warfare. Allowing an army to concentrate its forces more effectively, along with the other uses stated above (serving as a trip line, fragmenting an attack, or delaying the enemy) is what should realistically be expected of defensive lines 99 times out of 100.

In all of these means defensive lines have an important purpose, but when they are depended upon to stop a powerful and innovative enemy on their own, or stop terrorism or insurgency cold, the historical record regarding their success should be labeled as “not good enough.”