Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 05:18 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 05:18 | SYDNEY

War: The big dog doesn't always win

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

11 June 2010 09:19

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Ross Buckley is a Professor in the Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales.

Michael Wesley distinguishes wars of choice from wars of necessity and suggests if one is a betting person, one's money should always be on the nation fighting out of necessity. This is an important distinction (although I am sure we all hope Michael doesn't bring his gambling skills to bear in managing the endowment of the Lowy Institute).

An early and strong example is the American War of Independence.

On July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia a group of very brave men signed the Declaration of Independence. They did so knowing it was treason, knowing they would hang for it if they lost the war, knowing they had no experience in battle, no standing army, almost no gunpowder and almost no money. They did so knowing Britain had 32,000 troops on Staten Island in New York, a force larger than the population of America's largest city.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the others went to war out of necessity, for an idea that was core to their being, the United States of America. Britain chose to fight back, but victory in this war was for them never essential.

Britain was the superpower of the age, with heavy weaponry and a large, well-trained army. They were up against a local militia with little weaponry or training, men who walked from their homes and farms to fight. Yet the locals won. They won because the fight for them was essential in a way it simply was not for the British troops.

An American who knew a lot about war understood this. Dwight Eisenhower once said, 'What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight — it's the size of the fight in the dog.'

All Americans are raised on the Fourth of July story, and yet, extraordinarily, they don't understand it, and continue to replay it. America went to war in Vietnam underestimating the fight in the enemy. The US had all the advantages of modern weaponry, but the war was one of necessity for North Vietnam, and of choice for America.

America went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and won the military battles swiftly. But the wars drag on, with no victory in sight, again because for only one side in each war is the issue one of necessity.

Whether globalisation makes war less likely is a difficult question. However, one way we could reduce the number of wars is to help America understand its founding story. The fourth of July story is glorious, filled with heroism and the highest of ideals, and Americans see in it the proof of their own exceptionalism.

Yet America could have taken from this story that those fighting from necessity will always triumph over those fighting out of choice. If this lesson had been learned from the story of America's founding, we'd have fewer ongoing wars today, and a world that looks quite different.

Photo by Flickr user Anniebby, used under a Creative Commons license.