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The War Nerd November 26, 2004
The 2004 Quagmire Bowl!
Iraq vs. Chechnya By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 2 of 4

Actually you could say Russia destroyed three great powers in a row, if you count Sweden. Believe it or not, Sweden was a great power in the 1600s, one of the biggest players in the Thirty Years War. Then they decided to invade Russia, with the standard result: half their army was dead before they’d fought a real battle, and when the battle came, at Poltava down in Ukraine, the Swedes lost so badly their king had to run off to Turkey. And Sweden, to put it mildly, was never a player again. It’s been peace, socialism and exporting blondes ever since. A battalion of armadillos could take Sweden these days.

In 1812 the French had their turn at the "Invade Russia and Lose Everything!" arcade. Napoleon was riding high. French armies had been kicking ass all over Europe for 20 years. One-on-one, they beat everybody: the Prussians, the Austrians, the Brits.

Then Bonaparte had the brilliant idea of invading Russia.

All those victories in a row had made him a little crazy. Victory’s a dangerous thing. You can easily learn the wrong lesson from it. Napoleon had beaten everybody in Western Europe, and Russia to him was just a big wasteland full of ignorant serfs. If he could beat the best the civilized world could bring against him, how could he lose against these barbarians? He had the best and biggest army in the history of the world: 500,000 combat-tested men.

Never mind the tactical brilliance of Napoleon as a commander; just try imagining the sheer logistical skill it took to keep an army that size fed and supplied using early 19th-c. technology. The French managed to take Moscow. But once he was there, Napoleon had this Homer Simpson moment: "Doh! I’ve just occupied the coldest country in the world at the beginning of winter, and the Russians took every bit of food with them before they bugged out!"

That night, Russian guerrillas put the finishing touch on the housewarming by setting Moscow on fire. Napoleon looked out at the smoking ruins and told the army, "Guys, sorry, but it was a mistake… we’re marching home to Paris. Gee, it’s brisk out today! Wish we’d packed some gloves!"

What his troops should have done was kill him right there. But fragging hadn’t been invented yet, so they gulped down their last croissant, shouldered their packs and headed west. A grand total of 10,000 men made it back to France—two percent of the half million he marched out with. And that was the end of France as a superpower. From then on, France was on the defensive. They fought well in lots of 19th and even 20th century wars—don’t give me that crap about the French being cowards—but their days as an aggressive, confident country ended once and for all when they marched on Russia.

One hundred and thirty years later it was the Germans’ turn to try their luck on the steppes.

Hitler was in the same situation: he’d just conquered all of Western Europe, losing only 30,000 men in the process. That’s one of the most incredible stats in military history; you can see why it made the Wehrmacht cocky. I’m telling you, victory is one of the worst things that can happen to an army. It makes you stupid.

The Germans never even made it to Moscow. And they fell much harder than the French. Since 1945 Germany’s been nothing but lame hippies in metal-rim glasses skulking around trying not to offend anybody. Pathetic.

Then there’s the two wars that supposedly ruined the superpowers: Vietnam and Afghanistan. Nam’s an interesting case. Sure, it bummed the hippies’ high and wasn’t the nicest thing that ever happened to the Vietnamese, but by the test I’m using here you can’t say it was a really disastrous war for either side. Neither side lost the will to fight, and both went on to do well in other wars.

The Vietnamese recovered fast enough to chop up a Chinese punitive expedition a few years after we left Saigon. And as for the US—what did this "Vietnam Syndrome" actually cost us?

If you Russians had had the guts to attack West Germany in the mid-70s, when the US was still bummed over Nam and led by dorks like Ford and Carter—and you Soviets were at the height of your power—then maybe our loss in Nam would’ve turned out to be a strategic disaster. Because we would’ve wimped out. No question. We’d’ve moaned and groaned, but by the time we were ready to react, you’d’ve been sampling the beer in Antwerp.

You blew it, comrades; you could’ve had it all.

Thanks to your big wimpout, all Nam meant was that for 15 years, right through Reagan’s terms, we were real careful to only mess with small countries that couldn’t hurt us.

What’s so wrong with that? That’s the way the Brits did it all through the 19th century. Once France had destroyed itself in Russia, the Brits were on top, and they managed to stay that way right up to 1914 by avoiding big enemies. They specialized in vacuuming up third-world kingdoms whose armed forces consisted of a few dozen goatherders armed with sharpened sticks.

When they finally did face a modern European army, in 1914, it was the beginning of the end for them. Picking on the weak, if you do it smart, is the best strategy of all. It works in high school, and it works just as well in geopolitics.

We were lucky another way too in Vietnam: the Vietnamese don’t hold grudges. From what I hear, Americans are welcome in Hanoi as long as they spend money. Nobody comes up screaming at you for killing their uncle or whatever. East Asians are like that: cool, businesslike people who don’t waste time on the past. America was just one of a long line of empires who tried to mess with Vietnam; they didn’t take it personally.

Besides, they won—and it’s a lot easier to be a good winner than a good loser. Better still, the Vietnamese aren’t part of any big international ethnic group, so nobody really identified with them. Even the Chinese don’t like Vietnamese people much, and their littler neighbors—the Thais, Cambodians and Lao—hate their guts. So no longterm grudges resulted.

Then Russia and America did something a lot more dangerous: messing with a big, excitable, wacko transnational group: the Muslims. You went into Afghanistan, then Chechnya; we hit Iraq twice.

If Iraq runs out of suicide bombers before the US runs out of grunts...

If Iraq runs out of suicide bombers before the US runs out of grunts...

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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