The United States had a monopoly of nuclear weaponry for only a few years before other nations challenged it, but from 1949 until roughly the 1990s deterrence theory worked—nations knew that if they used the awesome bomb they were likely to be devastated in the riposte. Nuclear war was not worth its risks. Today, by contrast, weapons of mass destruction or precision and power are within the capacity of dozens of nations either to produce or purchase. Every kind of weapon is now available; deterrence theory is less and less relevant, and the equations of military power relevant to the period after World War Two no longer hold. This process began in Korea after 1950 and the Americans discovered that great space combined with guerrilla warfare was more than a match for them in Vietnam. But there has now been a qualitative leap in technology that makes inherited conventional wisdom utterly obsolete.
Technology is now moving far faster than the diplomatic and political resources or will to control its inevitable consequences—not to mention traditional strategic theories. Hizbollah has far better and more lethal rockets than it had a few years ago, and the U. S. Army has just released a report that light water reactors–which 25 nations, from Armenia to Slovenia as well as Spain, already have and are not covered at all by existing arms control treaties—can be used to obtain weapons-grade plutonium easily and cheaply.
Within a few years, many more countries than the present ten or so will have nuclear bombs and far more destructive and accurate rockets and missiles, not to mention the means to deliver them accurately. Weapons-poor fighters will have far more sophisticated tactics as well as far more lethal equipment, which makes the heavily equipped and armed nations lose the advantages (as in Vietnam and Iraq) of their overwhelming firepower. The battle between a few thousand Hizbullah fighters and a massive, ultra-modern Israeli army proves this. Among many things, the war in Lebanon is a window of the future, and either the Israelis cease their policy of bluster and intimidation, and finally accept the political prerequisites of peace with the Arab world, or they too will eventually be wrecked by cheaper nuclear weapons.
We live with 21st century technology and also with primitive political attitudes, nationalisms of assorted sorts, cults of heroism and irrationality, and the world will destroy itself unless it realistically confronts the new technological equations. Israel must now confront this reality, and if it does not develop the political skills—and serious compromises—this new equation warrants then it will be destroyed even as it devastates its enemies.
This is the message of the conflicts in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon—to use only the examples in today’s papers. Walls are no longer protection for the Israelis—one shoots over them. Their much-vaunted tanks have proven highly vulnerable to new weapons, and these will become more and more common. The U. S. war in Iraq is a military disaster against the guerrillas—a half trillion dollars spent there and in Afghanistan have left America on the verge of defeats in both places, its “shock and awe” strategy has utterly failed save to produce contracts for weapons makers and de facto economic bankruptcy.
Adroitly, the Bush Administration has managed to deeply alienate more of America’s nominal allies than any government in modern times. Its sublime confidence and reliance on the power of its awesome weaponry is a crucial cause of its failure, although we cannot minimize its preemptory hubris and extreme nationalist myopia.
But if the challenges of producing a realistic concept of the world that confronts the mounting dangers and limits of military technology seriously are not resolved soon there is nothing more than wars to look forward to.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book, The Age of War, was published in March 2006. He can be reached at: email@example.com.