17
Apr

You can’t beat a lone terrorist — or al Qaeda for that matter — with shock and awe.

By John Arquilla

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The terror bombing of the Boston Marathon is yet one more item in a bloody skein of evidence that has emerged over the past decade proving that war is now, more than ever, the province of “the few.” The destructive and disruptive power of small groups and even individuals — in the physical world as well as in cyberspace — just keeps growing. While we tend to think of this phenomenon as quite recent, perhaps just dating from 9/11, the trend actually began at the dawn of the machine age, well over a century ago. What we have seen ever since has been dichotomous conflict: big wars in which large numbers of soldiers, sailors, and airmen learned to fight in small bands and squadrons, and little wars in which each side has hunted the other as if they were roving Neolithic tribesmen. And while our gaze is drawn, again and again, to bands of terrorist and insurgent fighters, it is just as important to contemplate the power of the few in larger conflicts — such as the kind that might erupt one day, sooner or later, on the Korean Peninsula.  

A paradox of war in the modern era — a time distinguished by the mass production of advanced weapons and the ability to mobilize millions of soldiers — is that the burden of fighting in pivotal campaigns has often been borne by so few. On both sides. Winston Churchill’s tribute to the gallant handful of Royal Air Force pilots who won the Battle of Britain in 1940 — just a couple thousand, many of them Polish refugees — obscures the point that Luftwaffe attackers were similarly small in number. Another dire menace that Churchill and the Allies faced during World War II emanated from U-boats. For all the terrible threat they posed, there were never more than a couple thousand German submariners at sea at any one time. Same with the American undersea warfare campaign against Japan, which wreaked absolute havoc in the Pacific. And in the key carrier confrontation at Midway in June 1942, just a few hundred American naval aviators turned the tide of the whole war in about half an hour of furious dive bombing. As for the Japanese, the loss of a few hundred of their naval aviators in this battle had a crippling effect from which they never recovered. Again and again, in a war of many millions, the few determined the outcome. Read more…

John Arquilla is professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on April 15, 2013

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