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Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blew (up)

A while ago, I read a book (can't recall the title) where someone discussed the fall of the Roman Empire. The character's thesis was that one of the major causes of Rome's fall was the decay of the Roman highways. When the Legions stopped protecting them and Rome stopped maintaining them, people stopped feeling safe about travelling. This led to the decline in trade and a major blow to the Roman economy, as well as a breakdown of communication between Rome and the rest of the Empire. I'm no scholar of Roman history, so I don't know how valid the theory is, but it makes a bit of sense to me.

I was reminded of that recently, with the bombings in London. It occurs to me that terrorists are giving that theory a test today.

If terrorists wanted to simply kill as many people as possible, they'd hit fixed targets like malls, schools, hospitals, clubs, and the like. (And they do, but not as frequently as other targets.) But they've focused on public transportation -- buses, subways, trains, and the like. These are tougher targets -- they're literally "moving" targets, and often have fewer potential victims than non-moving places. Could they be attempting so subtle as to threaten the economic well-being as well as innocent lives?

On the other hand, on the other side of the world, we have China. They are also facing the West, and realizing that a traditional force-on-force military confrontation will not win them what they want. But instead of looking backwards, they appear to be looking forwards to a new model of warfare. Max Boot, writing for the Los Angeles Times, has done the unthinkable: he's actually read Chinese officials' ideas on how to defeat the West, and applied it to real-world events. Boot speculates that we are already at war with China, have been for some time, and are losing -- without even fully realizing it. Boot makes a hell of a case, and the points he raises definitely deserve serious attention.

The American military force is the most powerful in history. In fact, it could be argued that it's not only stronger than any other military in history, but all other militaries in history combined. But it's not designed to fight the kinds of wars we seem to be facing now.

But that's nothing new. I don't recall any war in US history where the military was fully prepared to fight and win from Day One (the first Gulf War excepted). But their track record for quickly figuring out just what needs to be done and doing it is pretty good.

But it ain't going to be easy.


Comments (7)

Very interesting thought.</... (Below threshold)

Very interesting thought.

I've said this before. The... (Below threshold)
John:

I've said this before. The cold war is on. North Korea is more or less on China's leash. But instead of reigning them it, it allows NK to build nukes, threaten the US, and support people like Saddam.

Isn't that the kind of thing the CIA used to do? Get country A to screw with country B to paralyze distract or destabilize it while the US remained above it all?

As in any competition, civi... (Below threshold)
JEW:

As in any competition, civil or war like, if you get comfortable and sit on your laurels, you make an easy target.

Hmmm.1. The Roman ... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

1. The Roman Empire fell because nobody in Rome gave a damn any more. It wasn't the roads decaying, most of the Roman roads are still used today. The problem was the devolving of centralised authority to regional govenors, who then became independent warlords unwilling to return that power. These independent warlords however weren't strong enough to withstand the endless cycles of barbarian onslaughts.

A decent, but not great, metaphor would be America devolving into 50 mostly separate feudal states. America as a whole can support the largest and most powerful military in the world. South Dakota would have a lot of problems trying to do the same.

Frankly it had little if anything to do with roads or even intra-Empire trade. The decay of Roman road security was really a symptom of the problem.

2. Yes we are currently at war with China.
No it's not a traditional war.
Yes it's a new kind of low intensity warfare based largely on economics.
No it doesn't mean very much.

It's a nice theory, but it's impractical for one basic reason. It doesn't really work very well.

A. Trade impact:
The problem with this is that China needs America far more than America needs China. Sure if China, or America, were to shut down trade it would impact the stock market. But the stock market doesn't have a hole in it where money somehow disappears. Some people will lose money, and other people will make money. Same thing happened during the Great Depression.

End result, Wal-Mart goes to Vietnam to manufcature plastic crap instead of China. Which they're starting to do anyways since operating costs in China have been steadily increasing to the point where operations in Vietnam are now very attractive.

B. Financial impact:
*shrug* your guess is as good as mine on this one. I believe China, and Saudi Arabia, both hold about $2 trillion dollars each in American federal debt. If China wanted to screw with American federal finances for a little while they could unload all $2 trillion all at the same time. This would flood the market and make it impossible for the federal government to borrow money by selling federal debt.

End result? China gets royally F**KED and loses a boatload, a Chinese boatload btw, of money while everyone else goes nuts buying up federal debt at bargain prices. If the Chinese did this I'd be right there at the stockbroker's office screaming at him to buy those damn notes. The inability for the federal government to sell debt notes would last about 2 days, if that, while a lot of baby-boomers and foreigners go crazy making money.

C. China floods the American drug market with adulterated drugs.
Not much of a result here. Due to past interference with drugs, like the poisoned Tylenol case, the American public and news organizations are very capable of notifying people of any problems in the drug supply. Worst case scenario is that a lot of elderly people, who make up the largest segment of prescription drug users, end up dead and the rest of America is really really pissed off.

End result: No more Social Security or Medicare problem. Sorry, couldn't resist. Otherwise, just a sligh glitch.

...

Ultimately the problem with such low-key warfare techniques is that they don't win you any wars. The best you can hope for is that they'll weaken the enemy, i.e. America, but that's not a given because America is extremely, if not insanely, resiliant. One peculiar aspect of a Democratic Capitalist country is that the nation is in a continual state of change. In order for anything to really be effective it has to inflict a massive amount of change in a very short time.

This is how 9/11 was effective. The actual attack was largely immaterial. Sorry folks but 3k dead a couple skyscrapers destroyed isn't really all that much. 3k dead Americans is equivalent to about 1 month of automobile accidents and NYC had a tremendous excess of unused commerical property available. In reality the only real effects of 9/11 has been largely psychological, symbolic and because it buggered up internet access for a lot of people.

For China to accomplish the same thing using this sort of low-key warfare they'd have to do something drastic like shutting down the internet for a week. But that's a tough thing to accomplish since hackers have been trying for decades now.

In any event low-key warfare is a loser's game. You don't do it because you're strong, you do it because you're weak. For all the stats and numbers, the Chinese military is still extremely weak. The Chinese military still has problems with leadership and initiative. They don't have a lot of practical combat experience, especially compared to American forces. A lot of equipment looks really good on paper, but has serious problems when actually used.

Oh the Chinese are doing their best to catch up. But they're not there yet, and the low-key stuff is mostly nonsense. Good for an article, and a post, but I'm not losing sleep over it.

Unless they sell off all that federal debt, in which case I am THERE man!

Hmmm."End result: ... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

"End result: No more Social Security or Medicare problem. Sorry, couldn't resist. Otherwise, just a sligh glitch."

And just in case nobody has a sense of humor I take about 23-25 prescription pills per day, so it would be likely I'd get included in the body count.

Christ the things you have to post the head off the twits.

I disagree with your theory... (Below threshold)

I disagree with your theory.

Buses, trains, etc. have more people packed into a small area. Thus a bomber with a small explosive is likely to kill more people on a bus or train car than in a mall, where there might be more people in the building, but not all of them within a close radius of the bomber himself.

Also, note that when terrorists have had the ability to do lots of damage (i.e., on 9-11), they did indeed strike at our buildings (albeit with airplanes as the weapons).

I read the thing a little d... (Below threshold)
brad:

I read the thing a little differently. I think the attack is against the fabric of America and is meant to destroy our will to fight. It could work if the moral character of our nation is vulnerable.

In the scenario posed the massive and irresistible military lies rusting and unused as the victors step over it to conquer the weak. The Romans fell in just this way; the various causes of the weakness and loss of will to resist being irrelevant as the degradation of civil spirit was probably a result of internal, not external forces and therefore unintentional; the sacking of the Roman Empire being the result of a vacuum of culture.

Our enemies all view themselves as our moral superiors and seek to use this superiority as a wedge jammed into any crack they think they can see in our armor. It’s up to us, as Americans, to define our culture and then fight for it against any foe, foreign or domestic; or foreign inspired domestic.




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