“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”
Those are purported to be the last words of General John Sedgwick, spoken as he observed distant Confederate troops during the 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania in Virginia. (Historians debate as to whether these were his very final words or amongst his final words, but there is no debate as to whether he then received a mortal bullet wound to his face.)
Going back a bit further, British Prime Minister Lord North commented in 1774, with regard to the rebellious American colonies, “Four or five frigates will do the business without any military force.”
Later, in August of 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II (the last German emperor and king of Prussia) stated to German troops, “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” He wasn’t alone. The phrase “The war will be over by Christmas” was a common one in Britain in 1914, often repeated by journalists and politicians.
Recently, US Lieutenant General Ben Hodges ordered over 60 US tanks to fire their guns in Poland. He later announced,
We're serious – this is not just a training exercise. It’s to demonstrate a strategic message that you cannot violate the sovereignty of members of NATO… Moscow will get the message – I'm confident of it.
The general has reason to be confident. It can be said with relative certainty that, if the US sends scores of tanks halfway around the world to a country that borders Russia, then begins firing the guns, the Russians will indeed interpret that as a warning that their sovereignty is no longer respected by the US.
Of course, they already have ample reason for concern, as, in recent years, the US tradition of détente has been dropped in favour of continual blackguarding of both Russia in general and its leader in particular. Every prominent television news programme in the US has kept up a steady stream of invective against Russia, often reporting stories that oppose what most of the world recognises as the truth.
As to the generals, history is full of stories of military leaders who have demonstrated overconfidence and even eagerness to attack other sovereign nations. Do they seek to fight a great war in order to leave behind a legacy of their own personal greatness, or are they simply delusional—imagining their opponents to be imminently defeatable and their own army to be undefeatable?
It matters little either way. The attitude has existed for thousands of years and countless military and political leaders have made the exact same mistake in every era.
Interestingly, one consistent trait that we can observe is the blind confidence that accompanies the bluster and bravado. Leaders have a tendency to picture the glory of the destruction that they desire and rarely, if ever, anticipate a devastating pushback from their opposite number.
This of course results in a very dangerous course of events – charging ahead without taking proper measure of what the opponent might do.
Virtually every war in recent history has taken far longer to undertake than was originally expected. With few exceptions, wars that were intended to take a few months at best have dragged on for years. In many, there was no truly positive outcome—a cessation of aggression rather than a clear “victory” for one side or the other.
But, in the bargain, countries (even empires) have had their populations decimated and their economies destroyed as a result of the dramatic drain in wealth that’s a by-product of warfare.
All the more vexing then, that grown-up schoolyard bullies that make careless threats against other countries often succeed in setting off the spark that leads to war.
At one time, these self-possessed blusterers often needed to carry the public willingness to fight under their own steam. Today, however, they have the extensive support of the media. Every major television news programme can be counted on to offer supportive commentary by retired generals, who often are employed by the military-industrial complex. Further, the news anchors themselves add to the rhetoric like trained chimpanzees, hooting in support.
It all makes for exciting theatre, but, ultimately, it’s always the people of the nation that pay the price.
The next time a general effectively claims that Iran or Russia couldn’t hit an elephant, his bluster may, as has occurred so many times in history, prove to be the flash point for the next major war.
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