image for Our Twenty-First Century Eighteenth-Century War

Every war must end, but no war need end quickly—neither world war makes it to the top ten in longevity. The nearest parallel to the Ukraine war––the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), fought between a smaller but more advanced nation, and the world-spanning Spanish Empire, the superpower of the age––persisted for eighty years because the Spanish kept losing, but there was so much ruination in that declining power.

In our own days, expeditionary wars fought against enemies far away who could hardly fire back, lasted for many years as the different war-ending theories promoted by fashionable generals were tried seriatim to no avail, till the day when evacuation was preferred even if utterly ignominious.

The eighteenth-century wars fought by rival European monarchs who could all converse in French with each other, were enviously admired in the bloody twentieth century, because they allowed much commerce and even tourism to persist—utterly unimaginable even in Napoleon’s wars, let alone the two world wars—and because they ended not in the utter exhaustion of the collapsing empires of 1918, nor in the infernal destructions of 1945, but instead by diplomatic arrangements politely negotiated in-between card games and balls. The 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ war and French America, inadvertently opening the way for the American republic, was not drafted by the victorious British Prime Minister Lord Bute, but by his very good friend the French foreign minister Étienne-François de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, who solved the three-way puzzle left by the French defeat by paying off Spain with Louisiana, Britain with money-losing Canada, and regaining the profitable sugar islands for France, which still has them.

And instead of the winners charging the losers with incurable bellicosity as Versailles did with Germany, or stringing them up individually as war criminals, as in the ending of twentieth-century wars, eighteenth-century winners were more likely to console the losers just short of “better-luck next time”—and in a century in which there was war every single year without exception from 1700 to 1800, if one war ended another necessarily started or at least persisted, allowing a “next time” soon enough.

By contrast, the ensuing nineteenth-century wars held no lessons at all for the twentieth century, which was equally bereft of a Napoleonic superman at the start and ample tropical lands easily conquered later on, while the Crimea expedition in the middle was mostly a counter-example of how not to wage war, and the Franco-Prussian war was just as sterile: all it proved was that there really was only one Helmuth von Moltke who could win wars by parsimonious force, unlike his homonymous nephew who lost a five-year war in its first five weeks; and that there really was only one Otto von Bismarck, who crowned his incomplete 1871 unification of German lands by refusing to complete it by unifying all Germans as the Italians were unified, lest the world combine to make a bigger Germany smaller.

Clearly only the eighteenth-century precedents apply to the Ukraine War. Neither Putin nor Zelensky speaks French but neither needs it to converse in their Russian mother-tongue, and if they do not actually talk (Putin demurely said that he could not possibly be expected to negotiate with Kiev’s drug addicts and Neo Nazis), their officials certainly can, and do so often.

When it comes to the persistence of commerce in war—the habit that Napoleon wanted to break with his Blocus Continental against British exports—every day Russian gas flows to the homes and factories of Ukraine on its way into Western Europe, with Ukraine transferring money to Russia every day, even as it attacks its faithful customer. And, Ukrainian wheat is now shipped past Russian navy vessels to reach the hungry Middle East, after a negotiation unthinkable in twentieth-century wars, or in Napoleon’s either.

In Russia, sanctions have certainly diminished easy access to imported luxuries in local franchised shops, but they still arrive via Turkey at a slight premium…or discount depending on the previous Moscow markup. All over Russia the sanctions have been felt in all sorts of ways because the country was actually more internationalized than anyone realized, including Putin no doubt (arriving in Tomsk at 0600 one winter morning at a temperature of minus infinity, the one place to eat was McDonalds).

But unlike China, which must choose between fighting and eating protein—some 90% of its chicken, pork, and beef is raised on imported cereals plus some 150 million metric tons of soya per annum from U.S. and Canadian Pacific ports, or the Atlantic ports of Brazil and Argentina that would be an ocean too far for China-bound vessel––Russia produces all its own staple foods and can therefore fight and eat indefinitely, and neither does it import any energy as China must.

In other words, just as Russian propaganda has claimed from day one, the sanctions cannot stop the war materially, even if they played a large role in the flight of tens of thousands of elite Russians, once again diminishing the human capital of the largest European nation, as the Bolsheviks and Civil War did a century ago, and the opening of borders did again a generation ago.

It is a problem that the sanctions, which end the war by stopping Russia, might cause defections from the Western camp if the winter happens to be unusually cold, a subject on which Angela Merkel––so enthusiastically applauded for closing nuclear power stations and preferring Russian piped gas over American and Qatari liquified gas––has remained strangely silent.

As for tourism, after a cascade of announced restrictions on Russian tourists, on August 24 the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex announced that a total of 998,085 Russian citizens had legally entered the European Union through land border crossing-points from the beginning of the war to August 22, with more arriving by air via Istanbul, Budapest, and central Asian airports. Other Russians have continued to holiday in the Maldives and Seychelles via Dubai, on the sound eighteenth-century principle that a war should not prevent gentlemen from taking the waters, or diving into them in this case.

The confiscation of yachts from several Russians accused of proximity to Putin generated quite a bit of schadenfreude income to the yacht-less everywhere in the early summer, but did not deprive a great many other Russians from the use of their bedsitters, apartments, houses, palaces and chateaux all over Europe—and there many of them are to be found as of this August writing.

In other words: this war will not end because of Russian suffering: it is not the hunger siege of Leningrad, but more like Moscow’s mosquitos that are surprisingly energetic biters.

So how can the war end? Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ (Herakleitos of Ephesus, Fragment 53): “War is the father of all things”—hence, necessarily, even of peace, by itself exhausting the material resources and manpower necessary to keep fighting, and thereby inducing the acceptance of lesser outcomes—even capitulation—as the costs of better outcomes keeps rising.

The other kind of war termination––the kind that is peddled to innocent students in “conflict-resolution” classes, the kind that gains international applause and Nobel Peace prizes, war-ending not obtained by exhaustive war but by the benevolent intervention of third parties––can never yield peace, only a frozen war as in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the perpetual imminence of renewed war dissuades construction and the return of workers from Germany.

As for peace achieved by the exhaustion of resources—the most durable form of peace because deprivation is better remembered than other people’s deaths—of the two belligerents only Ukraine can run out of material resources.

But now it cannot, because the United States has seemingly added Ukraine’s sustainment to its other entitlement programs along with whatever contribution the British and northern European countries care to make, and the relative pittance given by the largest countries France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.

Still less can material deprivation force Russia to withdraw and desist because its population and economy are so little engaged in the war—from the start Putin insisted that it was not a national war warranting the mobilization of all national resources, but merely a “special” (=limited) military operation; accordingly, taxes are not expected to increase but for inflation-effects.

In the days of Herakleitos himself, war was the father of peace principally by killing off young warriors, forcing a relaxation of conflict till the next lot would grow to military age. It was that process that weakened Sparta’s strength as it ran out of life-time-trained Spartiates, with the Theban upstarts of master-tactician Epaminondas delivering the death blow at Leuctra in 371 BCE by killing 400 Spartiates out of 700 in all.

In the Second World War the Germans were clearly running out of men by the end when 16-year- olds served on anti-aircraft gun crews, and the Volkssturm conscripted up to age 60. Some 5.3 million died in uniform, including 900,000 men born outside Germany’s 1937 borders, both Austrians and Volksdeutsche conscripted by the SS, which never acquired the right to conscript in Germany itself. The ever-worsening manpower shortage even forced the SS to betray its most basic principle by recruiting non-Aryan troops, not only Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army of 130,000 at its peak, but also SS Turkic, Indian (ex POWs), and Arab units recruited by the Palestinian Mufti Amin al-Husseini.

As for the Red Army, it lost millions in defeat and pell-mell retreat in 1941 and then again in 1942, losing still more men on the offensive at the end. But in 1943 Russian generals no longer impatiently marched men over minefields instead of clearing them, nor sent them to attack without artillery support and tanks. By 1944 it was the Russian artillery that conquered battlefields by fire, and that is how Russia did not run out of men, even if its demography remained skewed for decades.

The allies were never in such straits because the British evacuated from Dunkirk more than two-thirds of their soldiers in 1940, then had many South Africans and Indians for their North African misadventures, and by late 1942 at El Alamein they had vastly superior artillery in lieu of infantry, with more of the same in Italy from 1943, when fresh Americans, the French Army’s Moroccan Tirailleurs and Goumiers, and the free Polish II Corps did most of the hard fighting.

So it was not until 1944 that the exhaustion of the British army’s appetite for fighting emerged in insistent demands for the massive aerial bombardments of any significant resistance, or at least energetic air support at every turn. Having started much later, most American servicemen were not even tired when the war ended, with total losses individually tragic but demographically unimportant, as was even more true of all later American fighting till now.

In Ukraine, so far there is no question of war-ending manpower losses. In spite of a declining population, the number of male Ukrainians that annually reach military age is at least 235,000 or 20,000 per month, while Ukrainian casualties, both killed or invalided out of action, have not exceeded 5,000 per month.

As for Russia, colorful stories that relate the use of mercenary units, the lucrative contracts offered to combat volunteers, and most recently, prison recruitment drives, are not true indicators of a manpower shortage: every month more than 100,000 Russian males reach military age, while the monthly average of killed and invalided wounded are under 7,000.

So the stories reveal something else: Putin’s refusal to declare war, mobilize the armed forces, and require conscripts to serve in combat, evidently in fear of the reaction of Russian civil society. Yes of course Russian civil society has been silent on the war, or near enough. But its silence is not the silence of the grave signifying nothing. It is a very eloquent silence: fight your war but leave our sons alone. Because Putin has heeded the tacit injunction, his war can continue well past this winter and the next…

Putin started the war on February 24 with an ultra-modern, high-speed, paralyzing coup de main based on the soundest principles of “hybrid warfare,” which works beautifully in war games, as do its close U.S. siblings beloved by beribboned generals who never fought patriotic Europeans in arms. Having expected therefore to take Kiev in one day, and all Ukraine in three or four (that was, of course, the forecast of the CIA and DIA that partake of the same brew), Putin discovered he was wrong by week one if not before.

Because Putin did not stop then, he cannot stop now, so that we might be headed for another Seven Years’ War. If so, we should fight it in true eighteenth-century fashion: with the most vigorous material support of Ukraine’s war, and no sanctions at all on Russia, because they permit Russian retaliation that weakens our allies’ resolve. And yes, it would be nice to find another Étienne-François de Stainville, duc de Choiseul to find an elegant way out of the war, perhaps by staging face-saving plebiscites, because to hope for Putin’s fall is not a strategy.

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