They are a study in contrasts. The one goes by the title of President, but in
appearance and manner is the very model--if not the parody--of a modern field
marshal. It is all there: the Western-style battle dress, the beret, the
epaulets, the ceremonial sidearm, the bushy mustache above stiff upper lip that
would win approval in any regimental mess, even the entourage of similarly
outfitted staff officers and sycophants hovering respectfully nearby.
The other styles himself General, but makes little apparent effort to look the
part, his standard "uniform" consisting of slacks and an open-collar, civilian
shirt. His public persona is suggestive less of a warrior than of some political
hopeful running for election to the city council, his appearances on the front
page of our newspapers typically taking place against a backdrop of cheering
constituents. His most prominent feature is a seemingly affable
grin--incongruous and disconcerting in that his machinations seldom inspire
Appearances deceive. In this instance, appearances belie expectations. Which of
these two individuals--Saddam Hussein and Mohammed Farah Aidid--is likely to
possess the greater military acumen? Billed as a formidable opponent, Saddam
turned out to be a pushover. Contemptuously labeled a "warlord" or "thug,"
Aidid has caused the United States no end of consternation and embarrassment.
With all due respect to the ghost of General George S. Patton, sartorial
splendor would seem to be a poor predictor of generalship.
Yet the deeper deception--self-deception, really--derives from the conclusions
drawn from America's successive encounters with these two adversaries, who in
confronting the world's only superpower employed vastly different methods to
vastly different effect. With the one, America's encounter was a smashing
success; with the other, a minor but frustrating failure. Together, they have
distorted our understanding of what war is or is becoming. They have confused
Americans about the role of force in international politics. And as a result,
they have thrown American military policy into disarray.
SADDAM HUSSEIN did more than conform to preconceived American notions of how a
"real" enemy should look; his whole approach to warfare reinforced established
American views of the proper character and rhythms of war. Just as Saddam
affected Western-style battle dress, so did he mimic the standing conventions
of combat between modern industrialized states.
Consistent with the age-old faith in big battalions, Saddam weighed his forces
down with Soviet-style fleets of tanks, fighter bombers, and guided missiles.
He organized and trained his legions (albeit to indifferent standards of
proficiency) in accordance with precepts common to mechanized armies going back
to World War II. He even initiated hostilities in the manner expected of a
dastardly adversary: with an act of brazen aggression.
Yet, having thus boldly seized the initiative, Saddam obligingly allowed the
United States and its allies six unencumbered months in which to reclaim it. He
ordered his forces to sit idly in the desert while the American-led coalition
mustered its forces--equally laden with tanks and fighter bombers and guided
missiles--for a massive counteroffensive aimed at liberating Kuwait. The
coalition's success in bringing this episode to a rapid and decisive conclusion
dazzled the world. Dazzled in something like a literal sense: Americans
themselves found it difficult to gauge accurately the factors contributing to
the outcome of Desert Storm. That Saddam's own bungling had contributed
mightily to his defeat was noted only to be dismissed. A victory so complete,
so one-sided, and so sudden required an explanation more compelling than an
Military analysts discovered that explanation in a concept borrowed from a most
unlikely source: Soviet military theory. American performance in the Gulf war,
these experts determined, portended the arrival of an entirely new approach to
warfare, an approach made possible by what the Soviets termed a
military-technical revolution (MTR). Although this technology-driven revolution
had been under way for some time--as evidenced, for example, by advances in
long-range precision weapons, in surveillance and target-acquisition
capabilities, and in the military application of computers--it took the
showdown with Saddam Hussein to reveal its true scope.
What were the implications of this phenomenon? In short order, discerning an
answer to that question became a cottage industry, particularly in the rarefied
circles inhabited by Washington's national-security elites. Among the effusions
to which this effort gave birth, a report entitled The Military Technical
Revolution, issued by the highly respected Center for Strategic and
International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, may be taken as representative.
The product of extensive deliberations by over 75 outside experts," the CSIS
report heralds Desert Storm as a portent of things to come. In this one brief,
spectacular campaign it divines a template for all future combat. Realizing the
MTR's full potential will mean, quite simply, that the face of battle and the
nature of warfare will both be completely transformed." Nor will this event be
long in coming. By the first decade of the 21st century, according to CSIS,
warfare "will look very little like it does today."
IN DESCRIBING the essence of this new style of warfare, the CSIS report
generates a fair amount of balderdash: "The MTR is about integration, synergy,
and flexibility"; "the MTR is a holistic phenomenon"; the MTR "may boil down to
two fundamental effects: tempo and psychology"; "the heart of the MTR is
information"; and so on.
On two points, however, the report is emphatic. First, for the foreseeable
future, "only the United States has the capability to achieve the MTR." Second,
as Desert Storm's low-cost, lightning victory seemed to promise, this
revolution in military affairs expands the utility of force. The
military-technical revolution will provide American political leaders with an
instrument possessing broader application while easing the constraints--notably
the prospect of heavy casualties and widespread collateral damage--that
heretofore have limited the willingness of democratic societies to use
By exploiting the promise of this revolution, the report concludes, U.S.
leaders will be increasingly free to conduct such operations without assuming
massive risks. The MTR will render the military instrument more effective by
reducing the costs of military operations, both to the United States and to its
adversaries, and will thereby help mitigate the constraints on military
operations imposed by media coverage and public opinion. The language may not
be crisp, but the implications are clear: the MTR will free the United States
to employ force not simply as a last resort--responding to outrages perpetrated
by the likes of Saddam Hussein--but in pursuit of more positive goals.
In short, according to the experts convened by CSIS, the MTR endows the United
States--and the United States alone--with the ability to use military power to
shape the future political order.
To be fair, the CSIS experts describe the military-technical revolution as
still in the process of being realized. Yet, as the "lessons" of Desert Storm
worked their way into elite and then into mainstream opinion, such distinctions
were soon lost. Confidence in American military superiority became so
pronounced that the capabilities foreseen by MTR's prophets acquired the sheen
of accomplished fact.
Because such thinking discounted the peculiarly favorable circumstances of the
Gulf war--circumstances as much, or more, the product of Saddam's bungling as
of American genius--a belief took hold that the "troops" could accomplish
almost anything. In the wake of the Gulf war, this perception opened the door
to a rush of new American military undertakings. Viewed as a whole, it is the
widely divergent character of these tasks that is striking: delivering
humanitarian relief (Operation "Provide Comfort"); rebuilding shattered nations
(Somalia); deterring the spread of ethnic violence (Macedonia); unseating
oppressive regimes (Haiti); protecting minorities (Kurds and Shiites); and
parceling out retribution from afar (Iraq)--not to mention proposals too
numerous to count for military intervention in Bosnia.
Few of these initiatives were anchored in any prudent calculation of American
strategic interests. Rather, as many observers have noted, things were done
largely in response to some uproar in the media. But in any case, there was no
particular reason not to do them. What was there to lose?
ENTER Mohammed Farah Aidid. Whether the Somali leader ever had occasion to
contemplate the wisdom proffered by CSIS, the display of American military
might in the Gulf war can hardly have failed to impress him. Yet whatever
thought Aidid might have given to theories of a military-technical revolution,
he remained unintimidated. Contrary to the expectations of many American
policy-makers, Aidid did not take to heart the lesson administered to Saddam
Hussein and behave accordingly.
As a military commander, Aidid appears to have had one great insight: unlike
Saddam, he knew that to play your enemy's game is the height of folly. On the
other hand, to engage your opponent on terms that emphasize your own strengths
and expose his weaknesses is to gain a priceless advantage. Too few generals
have grasped this seemingly simple idea. Grant understood it; Lee refused to
acknowledge it, and led the Confederacy to exhaustion and collapse. In Vietnam,
Ho and Giap understood it; French military leaders of the 1950's and Americans
in the 1960's did not, and suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of a
nominally weaker power. To be sure, properly applying this insight to the
amalgam of circumstances bearing on a particular conflict is far easier to do
after the fact than before. But doing so is a mark of true generalship.
Saddam had challenged the United States on terms that could hardly have been
less conducive to his own success. It was war in the preferred American style:
a high-tech, high-firepower encounter conducted (for the most part) on a
battlefield remote from large civilian populations, in which combatants and
noncombatants were (for the most part) clearly differentiated, and where the
operational goal--liberating Kuwait--had the virtue of being limited and
The terms under which Aidid took on the United States were quite different. For
starters, his chosen terrain was urban--a complex and congested environment as
alien to American forces as it was intimately familiar to Aidid's supporters.
The technology that had given rise to speculation about a revolution in
military affairs proved ineffective, if not counterproductive, for close-in
urban warfare. By the time Americans resorted to the use of anti-tank guided
missiles to root out snipers, it had become apparent that the firepower which
had demolished the Iraqi Republican Guards was ill-suited to the streets of
Mogadishu. As American attack helicopters took to dispersing crowds of angry
Somalis by spraying them with the fire of 20-millimeter cannon, the large
numbers of dead and wounded--many of them women and children--suggested that
the Gulf war's promise of a style of fighting minimizing noncombatant
casualties was a long way from fulfillment.
But all that was nothing compared to the astuteness with which Aidid identified
the American "center of gravity"--the point at which Americans are most
vulnerable, against which a successful blow will likely have a decisive effect.
As is now readily apparent, that point is the new American sensitivity to
casualties, a sensitivity as pervasive as it is acute.
No doubt many factors contribute to this sensitivity, not least of them the
trauma of Vietnam and even the personal history of the incumbent
commander-in-chief But the main factor is the Gulf war itself, and the
expectations inspired by that conflict. As the CSIS report suggests, at the
very heart of the military-technical revolution lies the belief that American
military power can hence forth achieve success without significant loss of
American life. That expectation has become a bulls-eye painted on the chest of
every G.I. sent into harm's way.
It was Aidid's genius to seize upon this sensitivity, to orchestrate a campaign
in which technological superiority counted for little and in which it would be
only a matter of time before a minor reverse laid open the flaws of recent
American thinking about war. The bloody firefight of October 3 did just
Aidid's reward was not long in coming: the Clinton administration promptly
signaled its intention of surrendering the field to the Somali warlord as
rapidly as a semi-respectable withdrawal could be arranged. That American
military power could destroy Aidid and all his henchmen--could obliterate the
entire city of Mogadishu, for that matter--was beside the point. The United
States would not do so. Having inflicted approximately 100 casualties on the
American forces deployed to Somalia, Aidid had won a victory that by any
definition of the term was decisive.
WHAT are the implications of this defeat? Many analysts worry that the setback
in Somalia will seriously undermine American military credibility. Whether that
will be the case remains to be seen. Much depends on how the Clinton
administration manages the details of disengagement, and how it responds to
subsequent crises. (Haiti comes immediately to mind.)
In some respects, however, the fallout from Somalia may even be positive. Among
other things, the American encounter with Aidid might--indeed,
should--accelerate the pace of Gulf-war revisionism. Did Desert Storm give us a
glimpse of the future of warfare? Or was the conflict there a splendid
anachronism, a style of warfare approaching obsolescence, if now finally done
right? Is Somalia an unpleasant throwback to the colonial wars of the previous
century? Or does it hint at a type of conflict that will continue to
proliferate in the post-cold-war era?
In considering these questions, we cannot remind ourselves too frequently that
by its very nature, warfare is rooted in politics. Just so, the continuing
evolution of war will be driven by political as much as by technological
developments. The world today is entering into a period of profound political
transformation; any nation fancying that a corner on the market of leading-edge
technology will give it a military mastery that effectively transcends politics
is setting itself up for disappointment. Indeed, such a nation ventures forth
into an unruly world at its peril.
Somalia provides the United States with a sharp reminder of what that peril
entails. The fighting in Somalia has had little to do with the stakes over
which wars have been waged since time immemorial--preserving sovereignty,
controlling critical resources, extending spheres of influence, or seizing
strategically vital terrain. It has had everything to do with ethnic identity,
culture, history, and the rivalry of unsavory local elites vying for the
privilege of picking over the remains of their pathetic quasi-state. In this
regard, the Somali conflict shows a marked similarity to the brutal and murky
conflicts convulsing many other societies of late. Events in Mogadishu--like
recent events in Moscow, Sarajevo, Belfast, Monrovia, Port-au-Prince, and
perhaps even at New York's World Trade Center--suggest that it is no longer the
desert or the steppe or the pampas that forms the cockpit of struggle. Instead,
the use of violence to achieve political aims is increasingly an urban
Furthermore, as the fighting in Mogadishu and elsewhere suggests, when war
erupts in the streets, distinctions between combatants and noncombatants become
blurred, chivalrous "rules" of warfare go by the board, methods appropriate to
winning air superiority or targeting armored columns prove of limited utility,
and relatively crude hardware--mines, mortars, and small arms--is employed with
telling effect. Such conflicts are seldom susceptible of rapid resolution.
Where they are concerned, the finesse and expertise that are the hallmarks of
modern military professionalism count for less than persistence and pure
bloody-mindedness. He who refuses to quit wins--eventually.
Thus, the expedition inaptly named Restore Hope can hardly be said to point the
way toward a future in which "U.S. leaders will be increasingly free to conduct
such operations," as the CSIS report hopefully predicted. Nor are such
conflicts likely to loosen "the constraints on military operations imposed by
media coverage and public opinion." Far from it. Absent clearly stated
objectives and a persuasive rationale pointing to substantial American
interests at stake, the firstsign of trouble will provoke a public backlash, a
prospect that increases dramatically the political risk of such
So if General Aidid has deflated some of the wilder expectations derived from
Desert Storm, it may be just as well. The painful lesson he has taught the
United States will remain a useful one. The lost battle for Mogadishu has
shattered the dangerous illusion that the American military prowess displayed
in the desert foretold an era of war without the shedding of American or
civilian blood, an era in which American military might would guarantee
political order. Americans have learned again what they should never have
forgotten: that to resort to arms is a proposition fraught with uncertainty.
The lesson of Somalia is not that the United States must avoid conflicts of
that type at all costs. Rather, Somalia reminds us yet again that for even a
small war, clarity of purpose, resolution, and willingness to sacrifice are
prerequisites of victory. Any adversary worthy of the namewill bring as much to
the battlefield. No revolution in warfare can guarantee success on the
The errors and oversights that led to the debacle in Somalia are mostly
attributable to Washington. For those errors, young American soldiers paid the
price. This is as usual. We can only hope that in helping to restore some sense
of realism to American military policy, those sacrifices may yet be