[March 7, 2015] Winston Churchill once said that an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last. Churchill, of course, is the man who helped save England during World War II and a man we should review as someone who knew a lot about war and human psychology. The man had nerve. Great leaders like Churchill are those that understand that any challenging human endeavor, like war, is one that requires harsh lessons to be relearned over and again because we humans easily forget painful lessons. That is why I write about lessons from war; lessons that should never be brushed off as out-of-date or irrelevant for any reason. For my Part I on new leadership lessons from war, please read General Satterfield’s leadership blog.
From Winston Churchill himself, I take the first lesson. Perceptions are important. That’s correct, a lesson that must be relearned after every bloody war; whether that war is total war or a limited conflict, whether its causes are long or immediate, or external players are to be figured into the inevitable calculations. During the led up to World War I, German leaders thought they could start a war with France using their expertly-staffed Schlieffen Plan and knock France out in a matter of weeks. This may seem to us fantastical stupidity but with American isolationism, the French military collapse in 1871, and the amazing surge in the German dreadnought construction that promised to nullify British naval supremacy, it might have been not such a bad assumption.
That leads us to the second lesson of war. The concepts of victory and defeat are not outdated. Victory is not an obsolete concept then, as now. Despite the talk of having no need for victory in limited wars, this is simply not so. American political leaders often said that the war in Iraq required rejection of the concept of victory but the war was won by May 2003, nearly lost by the end of 2006, and then clearly won by January 2009 following the “surge.” The original coalition objective of creating a stable constitutional state had been achieved and, despite its terrible problems, Iraq remains a democratic government that does not make war on its neighbors.
The third lesson. Tough talk without a powerful military and the will to use it, invites aggression. Russian President Putin realized that tough talk by U.S. President Obama was empty rhetoric that would not be backed up with an American military that was being reduced in size; emasculating it’s senior officer corps and diminishing its esprit de corps. Failed communist states in Latin America also realized that America was distracted by its internal disorder of racism, sexism, and homophobia; and thus would not interfere in their effort to prop up their economies by exporting drugs, trafficking in humans, and infiltrating violent gangs across the continent.
War is an unpredictable judge of the exercise of political power. The lesson is that peace only happens after everyone involved have learned, after misery and anguish, what they could do and could not do. Politicians have a nasty habit of feeding the crocodile and hoping the next war will not eat them. Or, as Thucydides noted, war is a harsh schoolmaster.