One conclusion that can be obtained from reading about
the actual warfare in World Wars I and II, and then about
the much briefer military experiences in the Persian Gulf,
Afghan and Iraqi wars, is that the nature of these immense
physical and violent confrontations has changed with
astonishing velocity. The battles of 1914-18 now seem primitive
and thoughtless, and it is startling how little intelligence was
available to all sides as World War II began.
In the latter war, of course, the Allied side soon gained a
significant advantage by acquiring the Axis side’s secret
Enigma (German) and Purple (Japanese) codes. In spite of
the Gestapo’s and other Axis spy groups’ ruthless reputations,
their intelligence efforts, with a few and occasional exceptions,
were generally spotty or poor. As the German dictator
complained during the planning of “Operation Sea Lion”
(the invasion of England) to his top generals, “We are separated
from our enemy (Great Britain) by a ditch only 32 kilometers
wide, and yet we have very little information about what they’re
Likewise, on both sides, Axis fifth column efforts against the
Allies, and resistance efforts in the Axis-controlled European
continent, were much more limited than the spate of romantic
and often exaggerated accounts and novels which appeared after
the war, and continue to do so in the present day.
Life in Britain during the threatened German invasion, including
the blitz, was frightening and dangerous. Life in occupied Europe
was even more so. (The courage of many who lived through these
events, however, probably cannot be exaggerated or diminished.)
Until late 1944, the U.S., heavily embarked on its own Manhattan
Project, had virtually no idea of the state of the German atomic
bomb efforts (they had been abandoned in 1941). The German
army did not know, until it had begun, where the Allied armies
were landing in France on D-Day in 1944. The German
leadership greatly underestimated the Soviet Union’s industrial
capacity after initial Axis successes in 1941-42.
At the outset of the Korean War, the U.S. misjudged the
Communist Chinese willingness to cross into North Korea,
and the Chinese subsequently did not calculate that the
United Nations forces against them could recover and return
the battle lines to the 38th parallel.
The U.S. misjudged the tenacity of the Viet Cong guerrilla
army in Viet Nam, and failed to put up sufficient forces to
overcome its enemy.
The atomic bomb brought World War II to an end, thankfully
prematurely (although hindsight critics of President Truman’s
order continue to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the
Japanese military was prepared to fight on after 1945, even if
their mainland were invaded, and were willing to sacrifice
millions of their own people’s lives as well as the lives of Allied
Since that time, military technology has advanced
logarithmically and frighteningly with its capacity to harm
civilian as well military targets. Above ground, it seems there
are few secrets anymore, and the nature of intelligence
gathering, the ingenious novels of the “alcoholic” James Bond
notwithstanding, has been fundamentally altered with computers,
infrared detectors and cameras, and many other devices now
doing most of the spy work.
The current outcry about U.S. government surveillance, while
perhaps justified in NSA overreach and abuse of the rights of
American citizens, is basically a national misunderstanding of
the new conditions of global intelligence gathering, The
experience of September 11, 2001 should have made most
Americans aware that there are no longer any “rules” generally
accepted in warfare in our time.
Nazi assaults on European civilians, not to mention their
unspeakable role in the Holocaust, were a shock to the
“civilized” Western world (still recovering from the traumas
of chemical warfare and the mindless waste of troops on both
sides in World War I). Although the U.S. and its allies won the
recent “military” confrontations of the Persian Gulf, Afghan
and Iraqi wars, their aftermaths are quite problematic, The
“enemy” in these confrontations did not simply surrender and
dissolve, as they had almost always done in the past.
Proliferation of nuclear weapons, actual use of new chemical
and biological weapons, and the testing of high-altitude
electromagnetic pulse devices indicate that human loss of
life and disaster can be obtained in hostile conflict on a much
greater scale than ever before in history, perhaps even putting
at mortal risk the human race itself.
Juxtaposed with the incredible advances in peace time pursuits
and humane interests of technology, including the mapping and
use of human genome DNA, sophisticated robotics, transportation
innovation, megacomputer capabilities, and so much else, it is
rather clear that the nature of daily life is about to include, much
more than even the recent past, unsettling new conditions,
anxieties and risks, and (hopefully) beneficial possibilities.
There will probably be no place to hide.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.