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How to Read Wars

Darken your speech

The young decade of the 2020s has already seen major wars in the Horn of Africa, Armenia, Ukraine, Palestine, Yemen, and Myanmar, as well as sputtering irregular wars across Africa’s Sahel. What can you learn by looking at these recent wars? The wrong lessons, usually, if you follow the dominant news sources. That coverage almost always advances the “our team” versus “the other team” perspective. There are lessons to be learned from observing modern warfare, but you have to look for patterns, not sentiment, not who claims the moral high ground, not even who has the most advanced military.

Some patterns are plain as day. Sometimes the wars are all too simple, and the disaster is there for all to see. In October 2023, Hamas fighters broke out of Gaza and wreaked havoc for a day before the Israeli Defense Forces took revenge from the air for months, running up the count of dead civilians as if that were the real point—which it was. Only one aspect of the horrific Gaza war has been interesting from a military standpoint: the total failure of IDF and Israeli intelligence to be prepared for the Hamas attack. That’s a level of incompetence with few precedents in military history. You could cite the Red Army’s failure to spot the signs of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, or the United States Navy not noticing that Japanese carriers were steaming toward Pearl Harbor, but there were mitigating factors: Stalin’s touching faith that Germany would abide by its treaty; the Americans’ distaste for espionage in Roosevelt’s time; and the limitations of 1940s technology—no radar and no drone overflights.

The IDF had none of those excuses. They knew Hamas was armed and had vowed a terrible revenge for the blockade of Gaza and the settler violence that the Israeli government was orchestrating in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel had 24/7 surveillance over every street corner in Gaza by way of gizmos that they export to the entire world with the cachet that it’s good enough for Israeli border forces. So for the IDF to fail so utterly in Gaza, a tiny enclave one-fourth the size of London and as transparent as a goldfish bowl, is one of the great intelligence debacles in history. Haleigh Bartos and John Chin of the Modern War Institute hypothesize that Israeli intelligence had an outdated idea of Hamas’s capabilities and dismissed warnings that conflicted with their preconceived assessments. The IDF made up for its own failures by inflicting a disproportionate revenge on Gaza. This happens frequently: an army fails in its basic mission and then takes it out on civilians in the enemy territory. With an endless supply of free U.S. air-to-ground munitions, the IDF attempted to erase its shame by erasing the neighborhoods of Gaza one by one. The hecatomb was so savage that even the Biden administration’s lower ranks began to protest. As the proverb saith so wisely, “Even buzzards sometimes gag.”

Providence, Drones, and Tanks

Much of modern surveillance comes from the skies—Israel and the United States have constantly been deploying drones over the Gaza strip. Over the last thirty years, Israel produced 60 percent of international exports of military drones, according to a 2017 report from the Center for a New American Security. Unmanned aerial vehicles are one constant in recent wars. An important intelligence-gathering tool for decades, drones have now evolved from recon to armed offensives, just as piloted aircraft did in the first years of World War I. Drone warfare has been a big part of the conflict in which Azerbaijan has, over the last three years, taken control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenia. The Armenians resisted the Azeri forces from hilltop outposts with artillery and snipers; the much wealthier Azeris, pockets bulging with oil money, simply bought out the drone inventory from their Turkish and Israeli patrons and blasted the Armenians off those summits.

Despite the novel use of drones, the war didn’t get much attention from media or foreign politicians. That’s not an accident. Azerbaijan is rich and handed out big bribes (what else can you call them?) to every national security think tank in the D.C. area. The Turkish lobby—arguably as effective as the infamous Israel lobby—hugged Azerbaijan tight, and the U.S. defense industry happily went along. The Armenians had nothing to counter with: no money, no oil, no NATO clout.

Some think old injustices are always avenged, as if karma were a factor in power politics. The Armenian example could show them they’re wrong if they bothered to look at it. But there was barely a peep from the Western media when Azerbaijan bullied the Armenians out of the hills of Nagorno-Karabakh. Squeezed between Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Armenians will likely never get any meaningful reparations. In fact, because Russia is the one power that allowed them a little chunk of what was once theirs, they’re twice doomed, given the rabid Russophobia that’s come into vogue.

This conflict confirmed two grim rules of war that bear repeating. Money matters, and what worked in the past may not work this time. There’s an old saying that “Providence is always on the side of the big battalions against the small.” It seems obvious, but throughout history people have been reluctant to accept that it’s numbers that matter, not God’s will—or its stand-in, the debased post-Christian superstition that some call karma. The Azerbaijani had the big battalions, and they won.

There’s an old saying that “Providence is always on the side of the big battalions against the small.” It seems obvious, but throughout history people have been reluctant to accept that it’s numbers that matter, not God’s will.

The war in Ukraine shows a grimmer refinement of this lesson. As in Nagorno-Karabakh, the bigger, richer, more populous, and better-armed side is winning by grinding the smaller side down. Still, Ukraine’s sponsors seem to believe that Divine Providence shall see the country to victory despite Russia’s myriad advantages. The NATO establishment encouraged that delusion. “I expect them to liberate Crimea by August,” said Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the U.S. Army Europe on December 12, 2022. The following June, former high-ranking NATO officer Hamish De Bretton-Gordon wrote on Twitter: “British-made tanks are about to sweep Putin’s conscripts aside.” United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Ukraine had “a very good chance” of launching a “successful” counteroffensive in the spring of 2023.

It became a “Let’s you and him fight” proxy war. The bitterest irony of this propaganda is that the NATO elite never had any intention of sending their own troops to fight in Ukraine, the poorest and most depopulated country in Europe. For a decade before the all-out Russian attack in 2022, Russia and Ukraine fought for control of the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. Russia used local militias; Ukraine sent its own militias, including the far-right Azov Battalion, to suppress the locals. The extreme Ukrainian right never considered the Russian-speaking industrial workers of the Donets Basin as real Ukrainians, and many Donbas residents did feel closer to Russia than to the independent Ukrainian state. By late 2021, the Russian leadership had lost faith in NATO and its Ukrainian proxy, so Putin started considering the military option. The Russian army had supposedly been reformed in 2009 under Anatoly Serdyukov: less top-heavy, faster, and more efficient, with fewer high officers and more noncommissioned officers. The military brass swore up and down that they were a changed force and they would show their new speed and power against Ukraine. They lied.

This is another great lesson of war: your officer corps will lie to you. Military reforms are much easier to simulate than carry out, as Russia discovered on February 22, 2022. Russian drones and missiles struck Ukraine in volleys, trying to overwhelm air defenses, and the fabled Russian “sea of tanks” clogged the roads of Eastern Ukraine while Russian airborne troops tried to grab airfields around Kyiv. They failed almost everywhere. Blitzkriegs by an armor-heavy force will not work when the victim-state expects the attack and has a steady supply of twenty-first-century weapons. The Spetsnaz troops who tried to take the Kyiv airfields were slaughtered. When Russian armor did break out of the traffic jams, it seemed to have no infantry support. Tanks without infantry rolling down country lanes were easy kills for drones, anti-tank weapons, and artillery, as videos soon showed all over the internet.

Ukraine and its Western backers were ecstatic. They proceeded to learn the wrong lessons from the Russian Army’s humiliation, as armies usually do after a victory. Of course, no one asked the reasonable questions, like, “If the Russian Army can’t take Kyiv, how is it any threat to take Berlin?” Evidence of Russia’s weakness did nothing to tamp down the bloodlust. It was springtime for NATO. After the USSR, its raison d’être, dissolved itself in 1991, NATO had survived for nearly thirty years on sheer inertia. To the extent NATO seemed to learn anything from the failure of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, it boiled down to two contradictory theses. One, the Russians are weak—ha! Two, therefore we must rearm immediately! The talk in Northern Europe was euphoric, bellicose, as if finally released from eighty years of Cold War pacifism. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, couldn’t hide his glee, saying, “This is a historic moment which we must seize.” The German Greens, who campaigned in the 1980s on a “Swords to Plowshares” platform, have become so enthusiastic about war in Ukraine that they’re now called “warmongers” by German rightists. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party politician serving as Germany’s minister for foreign affairs, told her constituents that supporting Ukraine was more important than their worries: “If I give the promise to the people in Ukraine ‘we stand with you as long as you need us,’ then I want to deliver—no matter what my German voters think, I want to deliver to the people of Ukraine.”

It was a strange spectacle for Cold War oldsters like me, hearing ferocious and often quite bigoted war talk pouring out of Copenhagen, Stockholm, and London. When I was young, we Americans thought those places were full of peacenik hippies. It was the Anglophones who were the warmongers; the Germans and Scandinavians were firmly in the “Krieg? Nein danke” camp. But with the invasion of Ukraine, a strange triumphalism arose. Armed with some nasty quasi-racial hate speech for Russians, the neo-warmongers wanted, it seemed, to fight Russia to the very last Ukrainian.

This led to war reporting that was bone stupid and biased. Of course, the skeptics were also often wide of the mark: my own outlet, Radio War Nerd, was one of the earliest to be massively, publicly wrong; we predicted that Russia would not invade Ukraine only days before it did. Very embarrassing, but in our defense, we’d concluded that the Russians had the sense to be cautious. (In their successful intervention in Syria, they had made all the right moves, proceeding carefully and effectively to shore up the Syrian Army and serve as its de facto air wing against the Islamic State with long-range air-to-ground weapons that IS could not counter.) The invasion of Ukraine made no sense from any sane military perspective. But that embarrassment saved us from making any more predictions. We swore off soothsaying when every other would-be military oracle was jumping into the game. And no one has since done well at that game. Wartime media have never been notable for their courage or accuracy, but at least pundits in past wars didn’t have the internet to blast their fond fancies over the world at the speed of light.

Failure to Launch

Pundits leapt from the plausible premise that Ukraine was the good guy in this fight to the belief that Ukraine will therefore win, a childish and ahistorical delusion. But that’s what highly paid pundits have been doing for years. In February of last year, Sebastian Junger wrote for Time magazine “Why the People of Ukraine Will Triumph”; his explanation was that their cause is just. The grand Ukrainian offensive was scheduled for the summer of 2023. Though its triumph was telegraphed far in advance like a windmill punch, the offensive failed. Pundits were seriously puzzling over whether, after crushing the Russian lines in southern Ukraine, Ukrainian armies should move on to reconquer the Crimean Peninsula. They got ahead of themselves. Attempting to drive south across the Dnieper, Ukrainian forces almost immediately stalled in Russian minefields, where they were destroyed by artillery. This should hardly have been a surprise, since the dug-in Russian positions had almost a year to prepare for the highly touted Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Ukraine’s sponsors seem to believe that Divine Providence shall see the country to victory despite Russia’s myriad advantages.

After lauding the Ukrainian army to the skies, some Western pundits began accusing Ukraine of being too slow to learn the clever lessons their Western advisers had tried to teach them. Others started casting around desperately for good news. Trying to find a more reassuring angle on the stalled Ukrainian offensive, former United States ambassador to Russia and tireless promoter of every boneheaded U.S. imperial project Michael McFaul posted to X, “How come no one writes about the Russian 2023 counteroffensive that completely failed? After sending tens of thousands of Russian boys to slaughter in Ukraine this year, what gains did Putin achieve? When answering, be specific.” McFaul, in a key example of how not to understand what’s happening in a war, tilts so far on his anti-Russian bias that he can’t seem to notice that both sides’ offensives have failed. Ukraine’s fancy new tanks—the Leopard 2, M1 Abrams, and Challenger 2—made no difference. They all have treads, which can be blown apart by a sufficiently large anti-tank mine; every line of approach toward the Russian positions was thick with such mines. Nothing up top in those tanks—reactive armor, advanced sensors, laser firing systems—made any difference when the tank lost its power to move. What was supposed to be an IRL advertisement for Western munitions was, in fact, a debacle, though the blame was quickly shifted to the Ukrainian trainees.

What McFaul should have learned is that advancing is dangerous, and defending a dug-in position is a better bet. Millions have died throughout history because their generals failed to notice that the advantage shifted to defensive war. In the first years of the U.S. Civil War, “maneuver” was sacred West Point doctrine, with formations firing at each other on open ground—until they learned that rifled muskets had enough range to make that a bad idea. The same lesson had to be learned again in WWI, when millions of lives were wasted before command accepted that barbed wire, machine guns, and massed artillery made infantry charges a losing proposition. In 1940, new techniques involving massed armor and air power gave the advantage back to offensive war, which held true in the Middle Eastern wars in 1967 and 1973. The side that struck first, especially from the air, usually won. This began to change as non-state armies adapted to enemy control of the air by burrowing underground. In 1982, Hezbollah frustrated the IDF in southern Lebanon by fighting with extreme fire discipline from dug-in positions and tunnels. The IDF responded by punishing the Lebanese civilian population, which Hezbollah had to court for political reasons. Hamas clearly learned from Hezbollah the power of fighting against an air force-dominated power from underground.

Russian doctrine (which dominated both Ukrainian and Russian thinking) depended on infantry to move up with armor and destroy anti-tank weapons with small arms fire. Blitzkriegs require a lot of willing foot soldiers, something in short supply for both armies. Contemporary officers commonly complain that you can’t get good cannon fodder anymore, which is to say, you can’t get enough twenty-year-olds. In the Balkan wars, the kids had very little enthusiasm for the old feuds, leaving the middle-aged and sometimes the just-plain-elderly to fight. The Syrian civil war showed the same tendency; the Syrian Army had a very hard time recruiting soldiers in their early twenties, which led to their tank columns without infantry support being blasted by anti-tank weapons when charging into enemy neighborhoods[*]. Ukraine and Russia have two of the most elderly populations in the world (the population of the so-called First World is aging fast, and the Slavic countries are aging even faster); the remaining youth in either country want little part of the fighting. So, for the first time to my knowledge, age-related illnesses like hypertension and diabetes were a serious problem for army medical services, especially in Ukraine, which has a smaller and older population to draw from.

As the Ukraine war slowed to a bloody stalemate in 2023, some NATO parties continued to indulge their giddy celebration. Denmark, which once had a political party that proposed a defense budget consisting of no money and a recorded telephone message that said “We surrender” in Russian, is now reopening its arms factories. But, as the war requires more and more investment for less and less return, many investors have begun losing interest. One of the saddest spectacles of the past year has been Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a megastar in Western media two years ago, touring the West with far less fanfare and with fewer commitments to resupply the Ukrainian armies. New wars, like the one playing out in Gaza, beckon. Some sectors of the U.S. defense industry, which is vast and lucrative, want to “pivot” to the Pacific and build a new fleet to oppose the Chinese navy. This is obviously of much more interest to the U.S. defense lobby than to European armies more focused on the threat from Russia or Iran.

The Deadliest Wars

But Gaza and Ukraine are not the deadliest of our current wars. The deadliest one gets far less attention. That may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually typical. Name the deadliest war of the nineteenth century. If you said the U.S. Civil War, you get a point for being in the right ballpark; there were at least half a million deaths in that war, with higher-end estimates around 750,000. If you guessed it was the wars of extermination against the Plains Indians that followed, you get a point for having the decency to remember those dead, but their populations weren’t big enough to rack up the highest numbers. No, the deadliest war of the nineteenth century was the Taiping Rebellion in China, with a death toll of at least twenty million. You can talk all day about why a war that killed twenty million people isn’t better known, at least to people in Western nations, but it comes down to whether your historians and journalists care about those dead. They didn’t; they still don’t; they won’t, as long as the Anglo consensus endures.

This is an important lesson for leftists planning an insurrection: if you’re contemplating an insurgency in an impoverished rural area, Maoism has a pretty good track record.

The hard truth here is that not all deaths matter equally. Some don’t matter at all; some mass deaths are in fact welcomed, though those who welcome them have usually learned to be discreet since they cheered for famines across the British Empire, from Ireland to India. (Israel is setting new standards for genocidal rhetoric at the moment. In October, Knesset member Tali Gottlieb said, “Without hunger and thirst among the Gazan population we will not be able to recruit collaborators, we will not be able to recruit intelligence, we will not be able to bribe people with food, drink, and medicine, in order to obtain intelligence.”) Famine is the most effective and ancient form of warfare, killing far more than combat does. When armies with Western support can’t defeat insurgent movements on the battlefield, they resort to blockades and the famines and epidemics that always follow. This is what happened in the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967–1970, when Biafran troops stopped federal Nigerian forces, who retaliated with a naval blockade that killed up to two million Biafrans. The United States and UK were, of course, solidly behind the Nigerian regime.

Famine was the weapon again in the Saudi versus Houthi war of the past decade. The Houthi forces defeated their domestic rivals, which irked the Saudi royals. Like the Russian Army in Ukraine, the Saudi military told their bosses that with their new weapons they could destroy the Houthis, who had nothing more than AKs, mortars, a few captured armored vehicles, and homemade surface-to-surface rockets. It did not go well. What the Houthis had, and the Saudis did not, was dedicated infantry. Most Saudi infantry joins for the paycheck. The Houthi militia fight for their community’s survival and because it’s the life they know.

What the Saudis and their U.S./UK backers did have was money, mercenaries, and an air force. They used all of these to blockade northwestern Yemen very effectively. Yemeni children died in huge numbers. No one in the Western press much cared how many. The Saudi regime’s killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was much more important to mainstream media than the deaths of at least 377,000 Yemenis, most of them from disease and starvation. Who will remember the dead kids of Yemen in a few years? There are massacres that do get remembered, like the Holocaust itself, but that usually happens when a powerful state has reason to invoke those dead.

So the fact that the Tigray War, the biggest war of the last decade, doesn’t get as much attention as much smaller wars isn’t really such an anomaly. UK-based Horn of Africa analyst Abdurahman Sayed has estimated that between seven hundred thousand and eight hundred thousand people died in the first two years of this decade, as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fought against the armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea. A small highland province in the north of Ethiopia, sitting on the southern border of Eritrea, Tigray has played an outsized role in Ethiopian power struggles.

The TPLF evolved from a Tigrayan student movement in Addis Ababa in the 1970s. While other student-based guerilla groups fought in the streets against the Derg, the Ethiopian generals’ socialist junta at the time, the TPLF studied Mao as well as Lenin, leaving the city to return to the mountains of Tigray to fight a rural guerrilla war. This move paid off. The purely Leninist groups were wiped out by the Derg’s cops in the streets of Addis, while the TPLF grew stronger in the villages of Tigray. This is an important lesson for leftists planning an insurrection: if you’re contemplating an insurgency in an impoverished rural area, Maoism has a pretty good track record.

The TPLF grew in the isolated villages of Tigray until it was the big player in a coalition of insurgents that got rid of the Derg in 1991. After that victory, Tigray dominated Ethiopia for two decades. Since Tigrayans are only 6 percent of the population, this engendered a lot of resentment. The Amhara (at least 22 percent of the population), who had been the dominant ethnic group, were outraged. The Oromo, the biggest group in the country (36 percent), were tired of being shut out by the highlanders, whether Tigrayan or Amhara. Tigray had adopted Christianity early and resisted successive waves of Muslim invaders. Tigray shares its Habesha culture—Highland, Orthodox Christian, Semitic language—with the Amhara, just to the south. Habesha peoples have always seen themselves as the “true” Ethiopians, to the detriment of the Oromo, Afar, and roughly sixty other ethnic groups in the lowlands.

But by 2018 the Tigrayan elite was vulnerable. Meles Zenawi, their brilliant leader since his student days in Addis, was dead, and the Tigrayans lost their edge without him. Abiy Ahmed, a young technocrat from a mixed-Christian-Muslim background with Oromo ancestry (though some claimed he was part Amhara), seemed to offer a new face that would look good to the Oromo youth and to the West. He became prime minister of Ethiopia in 2018.

Famine is the most effective and ancient form of warfare, killing far more than combat does.

Abiy worked fast, flying to Eritrea to cut a deal with Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean dictator, a grim survivor who’d betrayed and outlived many a sharper rival than Abiy. Isaias “allowed” himself to be talked into a deal with Abiy to end the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war, and the world cheered, giving Abiy a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Those well-meaning Scandinavians were a little premature; in a series of secret meetings, Isaias and Abiy appeared to have agreed to a joint Ethiopia-Eritrea pincer attack on Tigray. That’s another good lesson in war watching: when a miraculous good-news story comes out of nowhere, watch and wait—because it’ll turn out to be a mirage. Countries don’t make peace until they’ve run out of the energy and birthrate to make wars.

The pincer attack on Tigray kicked off in November 2020. While the Tigrayans planned to ambush the Ethiopian convoys in Tigray’s landscape of hills and gullies, they hadn’t planned for drone warfare. The United Arab Emirates supplied Chinese Wing Loong drones to both Ethiopia and Eritrea. The drones wiped out TPLF outposts, just as the Turkish and Israeli-made drones had done in Nagorno-Karabakh, disrupting defensive lines and allowing Ethiopian and Eritrean armor to easily roll into Tigray.

The Ethiopian government also shut down all internet and phone communication in Tigray. This disrupted TPLF communications; it also made recording atrocities impossible. For months there was no news out of Tigray except what the Ethiopian government chose to tell. (The Eritrean government had been out of communication with the rest of the world even before the war.) In the vacuum of reliable information, a polemicists’ war exploded on X, Facebook, and WhatsApp, most often in English. Ethiopian nationalists vilified Tigrayans; Tigrayans posted desperate pleas for help; and outside of the expatriate audiences, no one in the cities of the West paid much attention. Few Western news agencies seemed to try very hard to get direct footage from Tigray, and that made the blackout effective.

Still, one could be certain that terrible things were happening in Tigray. Prone to famine, with food supplies cut off from Ethiopia to the south and Eritrea to the north, this landlocked, dry, high-altitude region was left to its own resources, which are scanty at the best of times. Human rights groups with sources in Tigray warned about massacres committed by the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF). Rape was common among both Eritrean and Ethiopian troops. There were apparently a great many executions of suspicious-looking “men of military age” in villages entered by the EDF or Ethiopian National Defense Forces. With nowhere else to go, Tigrayans fled west to Sudan. It looked like Tigray was doomed to wallow in misery for decades.

And then, on June 29, 2021, came one of the most shocking headlines of the decade: “Tigray’s Former Rulers Back in Mekelle.” Out of nowhere, the TPLF marched into Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, leading thousands of POWs from the Ethiopian Army. Victory was the last thing anyone expected to emerge from the news blackout, but there it was, a stunning triumph against the bigger, better-armed power in a world where those are few and far between. And, in passing, another vindication of Maoist doctrine in rural guerrilla war, even given the adversary’s superior technology. Drones had earlier devastated the TPLF’s prepared hilltop positions in the first part of the war but seemed to have little impact against smaller, quicker ambushes.

In the long run, however, Providence usually is on the side of the bigger battalions. The TPLF, now fighting as the Tigray Defense Force (TDF), won many battles, and even moved south to threaten Addis Ababa in alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army. The big money and foreign backers didn’t want to see the Ethiopian state dismembered. The UAE sent more drones, decimating the TDF columns moving south on the A2 highway. The Oromo didn’t have much combat power, and their alliance was a long-term threat to the central government, not an immediate military problem.

The TDF counteroffensive fizzled out, pulling back to Tigray proper. The big war between Tigray and the combined forces of Eritrea and Ethiopia officially ended with a ceasefire November 2022, but another feature of contemporary wars is that they don’t have clear starting and ending points. Both Eritrean and Ethiopian forces continue to harass the Tigrayan population. The Ethiopian government, having failed to defeat Tigray, decided to starve it out, and the international community (such as it is) largely went along with that program. In 2023, for example, the United States Agency for International Development cut food aid to Tigray for several months.

There Will Be Blood

So what do we learn if we look at recent wars with skepticism instead of sentiment, if we watch strategy and technology evolve and look for patterns that suggest conventional wisdom is outdated?

Even the old jokes can’t be trusted. “What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?” goes one. “A dialect doesn’t have an air force.” But now the dialects can order a scrappy air force in the form of drones from Amazon; with a little more money, they can buy a formidable air wing from suppliers in Turkey or China. This is bad news for the big powers who have depended on their air forces to win wars that were too much for their ground troops to handle, but it’s good news for cash-strapped movements that have more enthusiasm than money.

Countries don’t make peace until they’ve run out of the energy and birthrate to make wars.

Meanwhile, on the ground, enthusiasm continues to wane among the youth of the First World. Now the middle-aged and elderly can look forward to spending their retirement years scratching at a bad case of trench foot. They’re likely to be in a trench because of this new phase of warfare, where defense dominates. For the moment it seems that the blitzkrieg is not as powerful as its proponents had hoped, despite the hype about new armored vehicles, revealed by the Ukraine war as the new Ned Kelly: highly armored up top but easily shot in the legs. Of course, this could change suddenly—soothsaying is fickle—and those stuck in the trenches during a sudden shift toward offensive dominance will be out of luck.

But the grimmest lesson of all might be that no matter what changes occur in military technology and strategy, such tools will be wielded by cruel, corrupt, and shortsighted elites happy to wipe out enemy civilians rather than engage in pitched battles. The reason people like to study Waterloo and Gettysburg is that they’re anomalies. Most wars have been wars of extermination, either through massacre or, more often, famine. (Some use both, as the IDF is currently doing in Gaza.) Unfortunately, this is the pattern you see most often. The buzzards might gag, but they will always feast.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this essay referred to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as the state army in the fight, when it was the Syrian Army. We regret the error.