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Western superiority in warfare

From the beginning of the 1700s onwards, Western armies have proved almost unbeatable in open-field battles against the forces of other civilizations, including those objectively evolved such as Islam and the Far East. Of course, Europeans and North Americans have also slipped up: just think of Little Bighorn against the Native Americans, Isandwana against the Zulus or Adua against the Ethiopians. But the very fact that these battles have become famous shows that they were historical incidents, in which it was more the Westerners who lost through overconfidence than our adversaries who won through skill ( they never lacked courage, however).

The reasons for the military superiority of the West over the rest of the world (a superiority that in part still persists today) are many and range from culture to science, passing through philosophy. Militarily, the ones that stand out the most are the West's greater technological progress and its greater scientific approach to the Art of War. On why these goals have been achieved by Europeans and their descendants transplanted in various continents, rather than other civilizations, you can write entire volumes, but this is not what we should focus on.

The point is that since the battle of Vienna in 1683 (and at sea even earlier) there have been very few field battles that Europeans and North Americans have lost against the rest of the world. The Ottoman Turks themselves, long considered invincible, from that date on became little more than valiant cannon fodder against the Austrian or Russian armies, so much so that their empire managed to survive until the First World War mainly thanks to the inability of the Europeans themselves to agree on the division of its remains.

The guerrilla expedient

The main consequence of the Western war superiority has been to leave its enemies basically only two winning strategies: to westernize themselves (an operation in which before 1945 only Japan had a good success) or to fight with guerrillas.

Through guerrilla warfare, an army broken into bands, badly armed and outnumbered is and has been able to strategically and more rarely tactically defeat a Western army with state-of-the-art weapons, but often with commanders too traditionalist or with their hands tied politically.
The political factor is certainly fundamental in weakening the West; this is demonstrated by the fact that most of our defeats have occurred after 1945, that is since the geopolitical world situation has created within the West itself powerful ideological fifth columns aimed at preventing the countries of the West from fully developing their superiority.

A rare exception is Israel: Western state that, for existential reasons, in war as in peace cannot afford half measures, has continued to collect spectacular victories in impossible situations. In spite of this, today Israel is also involved in an uncertain "demographic war" that will be resolved (like it or not like it) with the annihilation or expulsion from that tiny plot of land of one of the two peoples who contend for it. Unfortunately this is the reality and it is useless to hide behind beautiful hopes.

The "half measure" war

But leaving aside the important exceptions, it is a fact that today's West faces its enemies with "half measure" wars, in which the will to annihilate the enemy is lacking. This absurd situation has produced a sort of mutual tactical-strategic guerrilla warfare between the West and its non-Western enemies.

In short: one or more Western countries carry out a military intervention in some remote place in the Third World. The local enemy, not in the least able to withstand confrontation in the open field, falls back on tactical guerrilla warfare, if only to gain time. At that point, the West progressively lacks the political will to commit itself long enough or with methods brutal enough to guarantee the annihilation of the enemy. By doing so, they transform their intervention into a more or less time-consuming incursion, i.e. a "strategic guerrilla warfare". Until the moral forces are exhausted and the camp is abandoned. To then return to a nearby place, or even the same one, and leave again. Even the mission in Afghanistan, which lasted twenty years, in the end resulted in the flight of the Westerners, for whom today defeat is morally preferable to the methods with which Julius Caesar conquered and started the Romanization of Gaul.

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This situation is undoubtedly to the disadvantage of the West, which in fact each time obtains a series of brilliant tactical victories, but in the end suffers strategic defeats, as the control of the territory returns to the enemy that although weakened has not been destroyed.

The result? Since 1945, the West has lost position after position, even though it has won battle after battle and, since this path does not seem to want to change trend, there is the risk, if the retreat continues, of throwing away the Western geopolitical triumph that took place with the victory in the Cold War.

Mogadishu and Vietnam

To conclude, we recall two examples of mutual tactical-strategic guerrilla warfare.
The first was a minor confrontation, namely the Battle of Mogadishu of October 3-4, 1993, which took place in the context of the UN intervention in Somalia. In that battle, the Americans defeated the militias of the warlord Aidid in the field, killing about 1000 militiamen. But American public opinion did not tolerate the loss of 19 of their own soldiers and the UN forces had to pack their bags. Aidid could boast of having defeated the Americans, and in the end he had a point.

The second example is much more impressive: the Vietnam War. In that conflict the USA and some allies intervened massively, but politically very tight, to avoid the collapse of the unreliable South Vietnamese ally. For 10 years the western forces kept the communists under pressure, inflicting heavy tactical defeats and disastrous losses (more than one million dead among the communists against 58,226 Americans). But after 10 years the US public opinion got tired of the endless Vietnamese half-intervention (and how to blame them...) forcing their government to disengage. As a result, the West suffered a serious, though not disastrous, strategic defeat and a devastating political defeat.

But above all, that war resulted in an image to which the West has become more and more accustomed: seeing its own soldiers and diplomats run away with their legs up even though they had beaten their non-Western enemies in battle.

Fabio Bozzo
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Graduated in History with modern and contemporary majors at the University of Genoa. Essayist, he is author of Ucraina in fiamme. Le radici di una crisi annunciata (2016), Dal Regno Unito alla Brexit (2017), Scosse d'assestamento. "Piccoli" conflitti dopo la Grande Guerra (2020) and Da Pontida a Roma. Storia della Lega (2020, with preface by Matteo Salvini)