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OPINION | BRADLEY GITZ: How war happens

by Bradley Gitz | September 13, 2021 at 4:25 a.m.

The central problem of international affairs is war between nation-states. The central cause of war between nation-states is weakness.

And the central cause of weakness is failure to remember what it causes (war).

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was a highly intelligent and honorable man who was, alas, also misguided as to the appropriate means of discouraging the kind of aggression committed by a particular kind of aggressor.

Chamberlain was so determined to avoid a war which he thought would end civilization as he knew it (due to the advent of long-range bombers and poison gas) that he handed over the "Sudetenland" on a platter to Hitler at Munich.

As Chamberlain's more clear-eyed critic, Winston Churchill, famously put it after the appeasement, "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war."

And so he and Britain and the world did.

Munich had a number of unfortunate consequences--spurring the secret negotiations that produced the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (which divided Eastern Europe between the Third Reich and Stalin), giving Hitler an additional year to rearm with the addition of the formidable Czech arms industry, discouraging opposition to his dictatorship among the German officer corps, etc.--but the most unfortunate was to convince Hitler that he had nothing to fear from the jellyfish in London and Paris and could safely set his sights on another target, Poland.

Therein is also found the real rub with giving the impression that you are weak: you must then strive to dispel it, presumably by looking for opportunities to convey strength and resoluteness.

Thus did the British and French belatedly threaten Hitler with war if he invaded Poland, and thus did he ignore those threats, only to later realize, once war had commenced, that the jellyfish somehow had acquired spines or maybe weren't jellyfish at all.

World War II happened not just because of Hitler (and Mussolini and Tojo and Stalin) but because those primarily responsible for stopping him gave the impression that they would rather not.

The most severe crisis of the Cold War that the outcome of World War II caused didn't end in war but was provoked by similar perceptions of weakness and the need to dispel them.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, not unreasonably, saw John F. Kennedy as the feckless playboy son of a rich American capitalist who had bought him the White House, an impression that Kennedy managed to then reinforce by calling off air and naval support during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, meekly allowing Khrushchev to bully him at their summit meeting in Vienna, and failing to respond to the illegal building of the Berlin Wall.

Khrushchev tried to surreptitiously place intermediate range nuclear missiles in Castro's Cuba in the fall of 1962 because he thought he could get away with it, that a weak JFK wouldn't respond in the way that he actually did.

And Kennedy felt compelled to respond in the way he did because he knew Khrushchev saw him as weak and desperately wanted to change that perception; the blockade of Cuba and the threats to invade unless the missiles were removed were his means of doing so, but they also took the prospects of nuclear war at the time to between "one in three to even" (Kennedy's estimation).

The United States and Soviet Union ended up in a crisis that could have led to nuclear war because the latter saw the former as weak, and sought, in a nearly tragic miscalculation, to exploit that weakness.

The lesson in all this is that weakness not only encourages aggression but can lead to miscalculations that can lead to confrontations that can escalate into war.

A dangerous "brinkmanship" flows from weakness because aggressors are encouraged to see how far they can push it and the other side feels it necessary to push back at some point at likely greater risk and cost than if it had done so earlier.

Would Hitler have invaded Poland when he did if he had taken British threats seriously? Perhaps, and perhaps not (then again, things wouldn't have likely reached that dangerous point if Hitler hadn't earlier taken the measure of the French when he occupied the Rhineland and found them wanting).

Would Khrushchev have placed nuclear missiles in Cuba if Richard Nixon had won the 1960 presidential election instead of Kennedy? Probably not (but then he might not have also ordered the building of the Berlin Wall that Kennedy failed to respond to over a year earlier, either).

All of these thoughts come to mind when thinking of Joe Biden's unnecessary, humiliating surrender in Afghanistan.

Biden and his minions think it's only about news cycles, diverting blame to the usual suspects (Donald Trump) and spinning a narrative (the disaster wasn't our fault, but it still turned out great anyway). And a certain overly credulous chunk of the Biden-invested electorate will almost certainly fall for it, especially as our media beats a hasty retreat back to their "protect Slow Joe at all costs" script.

But does anyone truly believe that it will fool Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or the mullahs in Iran, who have seen something that very much interests them?

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

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