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The Ukraine Powder Keg's Hot Matches

Austin Bay on

In his post-9/11 history "An Autumn of War" (2004), historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote, "If war is the powder keg of history, then battle is the match."

Hanson was reflecting on 9/11's terror attacks. However, his insight applies to all wars, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Pertinent background: By "battle," Hanson means the direct and violent clash of war as experienced immediately and physically by human beings. The distance may be face to face and hand to hand, or rifle/sniper range, or tube artillery dueling at 40 kilometers, a bombing/drone strike on an apartment house at 90 miles, an intercontinental ballistic missile or space-based laser attack at intercontinental scale. The direct clash and material destructive consequence is the immediate life-and-death human matter -- the tactical life-or-death outcome.

How the attacked and attackers react, respond and shape the violent consequences of the immediate and violent experience -- this complex action is what Hanson means by history's match at war's tactical level.

"Tactical" is bland and antiseptic. Military jargon routinely commits that sin because the battlefield is so hideous.

Nevertheless, the term has value. Military analysts typically recognize three levels of violent conflict: the tactical (the hideous), the operational and the strategic. The categories are general and distinctions often arguable. Firing an infantry weapon at an enemy is a basic tactical action (hence my comment on sniper range). Assassinating Austrian royalty with a revolver is a tactical action, but in 1914 the revolver bullet had tragic strategic effect. (Cascading political stupidity led to a global war with millions of casualties.)

 

Operations (cumulative tactical actions to achieve a goal) are supposed to forward strategic goals. At the strategic level, politics, economic productivity, military procurement and moral strength (collective will to win) are supposed to support military operations and inspire the spirits of soldiers fighting the tactical battle (the humans firing Hanson's match of history).

Ulysses S. Grant's Vicksburg campaign (1862-63) comprised several military operations around Vicksburg, Mississippi (many with bloody tactical level failures, which northern newspapers damned).

Despite damning media, Grant's operational goal, seizing Vicksburg, produced a victory that gave the Union a huge strategic military, economic and political advantage: control of the Mississippi River.

The first column in this series argued Russia's strategic war on Ukraine began in 2004 with a covert attempt to subvert Ukraine's national elections. I pray the slow war that began after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and Russia's subsequent February 2022 all-out conventional attack on Ukraine are not the 21st century's Spanish Civil War-equivalent prelude to World War II. Germany and the Soviet Union (Russian empire in communist garb) used the Spanish conflict as a testing ground for new weapons and tactics.

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