Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 2  /  

The Strategic Bystander: On Mayhem in Century 21

The Strategic Bystander: On Mayhem in Century 21 The Strategic Bystander: On Mayhem in Century 21
To cite this article: Betz, David, “The Strategic Bystander: On Mayhem in Century 21,” Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2, spring 2016, pages 29-33.

© Markwatson | – Trojan Armoured Vehicle Photo

This essay is based upon my recent book Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power published by Hurst in the United Kingdom and by Oxford University Press in the United States.

The strategic studies literature has for a long time apprehended an acutely problematic dimension to increasing connectedness—the acceleration of transactional flows of people, things, and ideas generally popularly known as ‘globalisation’. It appears to disempower, to a greater or lesser degree, state actors while empowering non-state ones. This was the gist of Marine General Charles C. Krulak’s remarks at a conference of the Royal United Services Institute in 1996. Even earlier, of course, it was the core argument of Martin Van Creveld’s The Transformation of War, which opened with the line ‘A ghost is stalking the corridors of general staffs and defence departments all over the “developed” world—the fear of military impotence, even irrelevance.’[i]

But back to Krulak’s speech, which at around twenty years distance from us today provides a convenient benchmark. In it, he said in one oft-repeated colourful passage, that future wars will be not like the agreeably inept conventional one fought by Saddam Hussein in 1991 but rather ‘the stepchild of Chechnya and Somalia’, and in a lesser-quoted passage that our enemies ‘will not be doctrinaire or predictable, but… far more deadly.’[ii] This seems still very accurate. We are still drawn to settle ‘other people’s wars’, though without much sense of the policy that such interventions are supposed to serve, let alone prospect of victory in them, howsoever defined.

Recent debates over intervention in the Middle East generally, and in the ex-Iraqi and Syrian heartlands of Islamic State specifically, exemplify this interventionist rodomontade. Our opponents obviously do not insist on playing by any fixed rules except, contra Van Creveld, that war is comprised of a wonderful trinity that includes passion, in addition to reason and chance, which they harness very effectively to the achievement of political purpose (while we do not). And all of this now takes place under the unblinking eye of a camera somewhere, inevitably beaming its imagery globally, potentially everywhere ‘bringing the village to the world and the world to the village.’[iii]

Where are you Son of Desert Storm?

It is fair to say that within the defence establishment at the time, Krulak’s views were in the minority. The rest of the American military, with the armed forces of many of its major allies following eagerly, was haring after a different sort of war—the one they thought they saw in the extraordinarily lopsided outcome of the 1991 Gulf War. That event seemed to herald the arrival of a fast, cheap, and decisive form of war that was subsequently christened the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’. Quite obviously, that has failed to materialise.[iv] Nonetheless, there’s a good question here.

According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual World Military Balance defence expenditure for 2014 by all countries amounted to $1.6 trillion. The United States alone accounted for over a third of that spending and China, the next biggest spender, accounted for just under a tenth. Over half of the remaining top ten countries are American allies. This is a colossal amount of investment by any measure and it amounts in aggregate to a gigantic amount of latent combat power in all domains—land, sea, air, space and cyberspace—and it is able to touch essentially anywhere on the face of the planet.

Estimating the power of non-state actors is intrinsically more difficult, given their nature—but even the strongest and most capable of them, for instance Hezbollah, are noteworthy for possessing only a fraction of state-like capability and even then over a very narrow range. In other words, in terms of straight up military power—the capacity to destroy the largest possible force over the largest possible territory for the smallest possible attacker casualties in the least possible time—there really is no comparison between state and non-state actors.[v] This has been the case in the West for several centuries now, a fact which informed this salient warning by one of the most adept theorists of revolution, Friedrich Engels, who warned those contemplating revolt:

…never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. The forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline and habitual authority; unless you bring strong odds against them, you are defeated and ruined.[vi]

Despite the preponderance of power, however, the last three decades have witnessed multiple occasions in which non-state actors tactically flummoxed and exhausted and strategically confounded and foiled several major powers. The forces of organisation, discipline, and habitual authority—you should call it civilisation—keep losing to barbarian, neck-chopping, myth-invoking weaklings.

A list of such encounters would include: Russia’s travails in subduing irregulars in Chechnya, one of its small Caucasus provinces; Israel’s eighteen-year long war in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, the fruit of which was a still continuing confrontation with Hezbollah; Ukraine’s inability to quell Russian-backed separatists in its eastern regions; and, both major expeditionary campaigns of the War on Terror, in Afghanistan which hovers on the brink of defeat fourteen years after the initial invasion, and in Iraq out of the maelstrom of which was born Islamic State—an enemy that appears more virulent and puissant than Al Qaeda, the original enemy that is also still undefeated.

For point of illustration, though, two scenes surpass all others as benchmarks in the popular consciousness of ragtag militiamen humiliating the forces of a vastly superior power—the October 1993 ‘Blackhawk Down’ incident in Mogadishu, Somalia in which eighteen American soldiers were killed, seventy eight injured, and one pilot captured, and the September 11, 2012 attack on the American Embassy compound in Benghazi, Libya in which the ambassador was killed along with another diplomat and two CIA contractors. Both events have spawned popular films, Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down (2001) and Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, which tell similar stories of tactical prowess and heroism combined with strategic failure and rudderlessness.

It’s perplexing, no? Sometimes big powers lose small wars—this is known;[vii] but why of late do they seem to lose all of them and so demonstratively?

False Memory Syndrome

Part of it is just a historical false consciousness, a blindness to the real state of affairs, that is peculiarly endemic to Western military thinking which has for the last hundred years had the predominant tendency of believing in a dichotomy between ‘conventional’ as opposed to ‘unconventional’ war. The former is supposed to consist of two generally equally matched forces organised in a more or less alike manner manoeuvring in relation to each other prior to a decisive clash that results in a clear battlefield victory followed by an armistice and a mutually recognised new status quo. Such wars have relatively well defined beginnings and ends.

The latter consists, by contrast, of mismatched forces one of which seeks to avoid direct engagements through guerrilla tactics while the other conducts infuriating sweep after sweep in the hope of bringing its will o’ the wisp foe within sight of its big guns. Lawrence of Arabia described the essential dynamic of such wars with poetic accuracy with reference to the Arab Revolt against the Turks in the First World War:

Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdom lay in each man’s mind, and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so perhaps we offered nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target. He would own the ground he sat on, and what he could poke his rifle at.[viii]

There has never been a time when imperial forces were immune to tactical setbacks. Pick any wall in the Officers’ Mess of any old British regiment to find the evidence.

For instance, one of the first paintings you see in the rotunda of the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham is a grand one by Lady Butler entitled ‘Rescuing the Wounded Under Fire in Afghanistan’. Painted in 1903, it shows a trooper hauling a wounded comrade onto his horse as his fellows bolt from the field fleeing certain death at the hands of Afghan ambushers.[ix]

Very occasionally in the past, such events impinged upon the larger public consciousness. The slaughter of Quinctilius Varus’ legion at the hands of Arminius’ German tribes in the Teutoburger Wald in AD 9 profoundly shocked the Roman Empire, ending its efforts to directly govern territories beyond the Rhine River.[x] The 1883 defeat in Sudan of an 11,000 strong British detachment by forces of the Mahdi sent out a similar shockwave—compounded in 1885 when General Gordon (‘of Khartoum’) commander of the force, sent to evacuate non-combatants from Sudan, was also slaughtered.

The Death of Phlegmatism

Gordon’s body was thrown in the Blue Nile but his head, severed post mortem by a local chief, was stuffed in a leather bag whence it was brandished before his lieutenant Rudolf Carl von Slatin who is said to have remarked:

What of it? A brave soldier, who fell at his post. Happy is he to have fallen. His sufferings are over.[xi]

Scholars who are interested in the effect of the increasing connectedness of humanity, most recently and aggressively as a result of the dawning of the so-called ‘information age’, are fond of the phrase ‘the death of distance’.[xii] The point of the remark is more metaphorical than literal—it is not, obviously, meant to suggest actual physical shrinking of the globe, the distance from Khartoum, or Benghazi or Mogadishu, for that matter, to London or Washington D.C. today is unchanged since 1885. Rather the speed and volume of communications, not just of ideas but also people and things, has accelerated by an order of magnitude.

In strategic terms the difference caused is that between a veteran commander, a professional colonial administrator, a man actually with blood on his hands and mud on his boots, being presented with the head of his commanding officer and a suburban housewife, a government clerk—the average citizen—a strategic bystander—comfortably at home, in other words—being presented with the same. It is one thing to experience this at a distance, through the prism of a dispassionate newspaper report many weeks later, or as presented through the brush strokes of an artist, such as Lady Butler interpreting the scene romantically on canvas; it is quite another to see the cinema verite arterial spray from the severed neck of one’s own plenipotentiary and listen to the gurgled aspirations of their demise in near to real time on the Internet as millions have done with more recent affronts to imperial power.

In the case of the former, there is the possibility of imposing on events a narrative more conducive to strategic ends. In the case of General Gordon, his death is recorded, in a popular painting, visually gloriously—surrounded by the bodies of his enemies he is seen in the last seconds of life firing his last pistol round, like Boromir pierced by arrows surrounded by a parapet of dead Uruk-Hai in The Lord of the Rings. An elegiac quality may be attached to such a death. Compare, by contrast, the image of Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, one of two Medal of Honour winners from the 1993 battle of Mogadishu, a Delta Force commando who also fought to the last bullet, his naked body dragged through the streets by exuberant Somali militiamen—the whole scene beamed into the comfortable living rooms of Americans at home.

The upshot is that in our densely interconnected world of highly mediatised conflict it is extremely difficult for governments to maintain domestic support for expeditionary campaigns—indeed for anything seemingly qualifying as a ‘war of choice’. ‘Why are we there?’ becomes a practically inevitable and fiendishly difficult question for politicians to answer. Even worse is when the public comes to believe that the war, if even it is presented as such, is not worth it. In itself, this is not a new dilemma; it is, indeed, a strategic reality that has been building for a generation at least. Andrew Mack famously argued in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that when ‘big nations lose small wars’ it is because a fundamental asymmetry of will exists between the intervening foreign power and the local belligerent: for the latter, the stakes of the conflict are likely to be mortal and total; for the former they are discretional and limited.[xiii]

The connectedness of the world has simply massively accentuated the problem. There is a wonderful scene in the classic novel Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. When it was written in the early 1950s it seemed to have significance primarily to the local context:

‘I have heard’, said Okonkwo. ‘But I have also heard that Abame people were weak and foolish. Why did they not fight back? Had they no guns and machetes? We would be cowards to compare ourselves with the men of Abame. Their fathers had never dared to stand before our ancestors. We must fight these men and drive them from the land.’[xiv]

But nowadays the context is not local—in fact, the import of such words—strategies, to name them precisely—are global. It is supremely doubtful that Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both British-born Muslim converts of Nigerian descent, who in May 2013 hacked to death the off-duty British Army drummer Lee Rigby outside Woolwich Barracks in London, had ever read Achebe. Nonetheless, the words above would not seem odd coming from their mouths. Their actual testimony, captured on the mobile phone of a random passerby was this:

I apologise that women had to witness this today but in our lands women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your governments. They don’t care about you. You think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? Do you think politicians are going to die? No, it’s going to be the average guy, like you and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back. Leave our lands and you will live in peace.[xv]

On the whole, citizens presented with such scenes, on YouTube let alone outside the doors of their own homes on the streets of their capital city, are unprepared to respond with Slatin-esque phlegmatism. The question of the moment is whether they will respond by cringing surrender or fall in line with those demanding unhinged crusade. Either way the status quo is melting away—indeed, things fall apart.

Everybody’s got the Maxim Gun

In 1898 the Anglo-French poet and essayist composed an anti-imperialist satirical ditty called ‘The Modern Traveller’ in which he placed in the mouth of William Blood (the buccaneering capitalist co-protagonist of the tale, alongside Commander Henry Sin, the mercenary trigger man) the immortal words, ‘whatever happens we have got the maxim gun, and they have not’. The piece was clearly informed if not inspired by scenes such as the Battle of Omdurman from the same year in which a punitive expedition led by General Kitchener paid back the Mahdi for the killing of General Gordon. About 10,000 Mahdists were killed in the engagement by quick-firing British field artillery, accurate rifle-fire, and newly-invented machineguns—less than fifty British troops died:

It was not a battle but an execution. … The bodies were not in heaps—bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composedly with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces.[xvi]

At the end of the Cold War, in the West the principle ‘knowledge is power’ became firmly impressed on the consciousness of military leaders and their political masters alike. The belief took hold in the wake of another incredibly lopsided engagement with a troublesome oriental potentate, Saddam Hussein whose rout in the 1991 Gulf War—as congenial to the victors as Alexander’s rout of the Persians at Granicus—but it came to be understood narrowly, as primarily a matter of efficiently mechanically aligning weapons with targets.

Then, on this rather limited concept was anchored a much more ambitious strategic hope that the fundamentally chaotic nature of war could be largely if not completely compensated for by technology, practically a la Belloc. At first, the swift campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to confirm the theory. The curious thing about it, though, was how blind it was to the idea of the enemy as a living, thinking opponent rather than merely a target to be serviced by long-range weapons—an enemy, that is, who would not mutely comply with demands when presented with furious manoeuvres, no matter how swiftly they were performed, but who in time would develop effective countermeasures.

Recent wars show quite well that ‘the rest’ has got the measure of the ‘new’ Western way of war, on the one hand turning its preference for decisive battle into a millstone by relentlessly offering it few opportunities for straight up engagements, while on the other hand showing a great deal of resilience in the face of the occasional barbs thrown its way in the form of stand-off missiles and aerial bombing.

The irony is that both sides clearly recognise the new reality as a matter of practice, even if policy-makers do not. To loop back to the beginning of this essay, Krulak warned in another oft-cited essay that the enemies of the West had,

…seen the might of our technology. They’re not going to fight us straight up. We’re not going to see the son of Desert Storm anymore. You’re going to see the stepchild of Chechnya. You’re seeing it right now. It’s called Kosovo. Our enemies will attack us asymmetrically. They will take us where we’re weak, and they will negate our strengths, which is our technology, and so the best way to do that is to get you into close terrain—towns, cities, urban slums, forests, jungles.[xvii]

The trouble now is that everyone has got the maxim gun, metaphorically speaking; or at any rate a very convincingly solid rejoinder to its contemporary equivalent—air power. It is fitting given the Krulak quote above to use a Chechen one to illustrate, though many others abound. In this one a fighter armed with just an assault rifle, anti-tank grenades, and a martyr’s conviction, is heard declaring on the eve of a December 1994 battle in Grozny, during which a Russian mechanised brigade was effectively wiped out:

It’s better for us in the dark and in the city. Here, they’re our guests and we’re the hosts. They have come in, but they won’t leave. They’re not fighting for anything, but we’re fighting for our homeland—we’re not afraid to die. They have planes and tanks and all we’ve got is Allah and the RPG. But we know what we’re fighting for.

But the truly alarming thing is not really that non-state actors can stand up to some state forces on their own ground in ways that in the past they struggled to do as assuredly. Sure, the Mahdists lacked the maxim gun but they were redoubtable fighters in their own right in their own day even without it. Their key deficiency was that they had no way of bringing meaningful force to bear on their enemy where it would have counted most—on the streets of their own cities, amongst their citizens, in the rubble of their homes and public buildings. That is no longer the case.

Welcome to the Bataclan

It is self-evident that our lives are increasingly intertwined with those of distant others—economically, politically and culturally. Technology is knitting together societies. The effect of this is to erase the distinction between inside and outside, no longer can things occur to people completely ‘over there’ without bearing on ‘how people in all other places live, hope, or expect to live.’[xviii] It is the deeply ingrained strategic habit of mind that holds that Western populations are insulated from war, even small wars, by distance, by solid frontiers, and by a surfeit of conventional armaments that is most worryingly challenged today.

The attack by jihadists on Paris in November 2015 in which 130 people were killed, including 89 in the Bataclan theatre is but the most recent in a trend that stretches back at least as far as the attack by Chechen rebels on the hospital complex in the Russian provincial town Budyennovsk over twenty years ago. Now every place is potentially a Bataclan or Budyennovsk. How this particular genie can be put back in its bottle and what havoc will be wreaked in the effort is another good question. No answer to it is immediately apparent.

While writing these concluding lines I am watching the newsfeed from the attacks of allegedly Islamic State militants on the airport and a metro station in Brussels on 22 March 2016. Over thirty people have been killed and two hundred have been injured, many very severely. The point is not the number of dead and suffering in the abstract, because just as many died and were maimed on Europe’s motorways today, the same yesterday, and will be tomorrow. Society has long since normalised that level of carnage as an acceptable cost of mobility. What it will not and cannot do, I think, is to normalise even a fraction of the losses as an acceptable cost of diversity, which globalisation’s advocates have argued is essential to economic growth if not an intrinsically good thing in its own right. One doubts that Krulak envisioned ‘three block war’ on the streets of Europe, but when you think about it that is where we are. Sadly, the West’s decades long effort to bottle up passion in war, its well-meant denial of the purchase that hatred and enmity has on the collective psyche of a population that believes itself at war, has produced a surfeit of it—seething to be unleashed.


[i] Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 1.
[ii] General Charles C. Krulak, ‘The United States Marine Corps in the 21st Century’, RUSI Journal, Vol. 141, No. 4 (1996), p. 25.
[iii] Neville Bolt, ‘Unsettling Networks’, RUSI Journal, Vol. 154, No. 5 (October 2009), p. 35.
[iv] Frank Hoffman, 'Complex Irregular Warfare: The Next Revolution in Military Affairs', Orbis (Summer 2006), pp. 395–411.
[v] This definition of military power is adapted from Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), p
[vi] Friedrich Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany (1859), chap. 17.
[vii] Andrew Mack, ‘Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars’, in Klaus Knorr (ed.), Power, Strategy, and Security: A World Politics Reader, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.
[viii] T.E. Lawrence, ‘The Science of Guerrilla Warfare’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica 14th ed. (New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1929), reprinted in Thomas Mahnken and Joe Maiolo (eds.), Strategic Studies: A Reader (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008), pp. 244-51.
[ix] The painting and a brief history may be found on the website of the Defence Academy: (accessed 24 January 2016).
[x] Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century AD to the Third (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 36.
[xi] Michael Asher, Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 267.
[xii] Frances Cairncross, The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution is Changing Our Lives (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2001).
[xiii] Andrew Mack, ‘Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars’, in Klaus Knorr (ed.), Power, Strategy, and Security: A World Politics Reader (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 126–151.
[xiv] Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994 [1954]).
[xv] ‘Woolwich Attack: The Terrorist’s Rant’, Daily Telegraph (23 May 2013).
[xvi] John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (New York, NY: Arno Press, 1975), p. 86.s
[xvii] Charles C. Krulak, ‘The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War’, Marines Magazine (January 1999).
[xviii] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), p. 6.