Total war

Wars should be earnestly prosecuted by the entire citizenry. Not only does this bring about a swift conclusion to hostilities, it is also the only way faith can be kept with the men and women of the armed forces whose lives are in jeopardy. Accordingly war should never be regarded as a sideshow. If a war is worth fighting, it is worth bringing to a conclusion as quickly as possible by applying the full resources and efforts of the entire nation to its vigorous prosecution.

No room for half measures

There shall be no halting, or half measures, there shall be no compromise, or parley. These gangs of bandits have sought to darken the light of the world; have sought to stand between the common people of all the lands and their march forward into their inheritance. They shall themselves be cast into the pit of death and shame, and only when the earth has been cleansed and purged of their crimes and their villainy shall we turn from the task which they have forced upon us.

—Winston Churchill. Speech to the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941.

In Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States failed because the goals they were attempting to achieve were unobtainable either at all, or by the means they employed. This was a symptom of a lack of will; the presidents in question were merely going through the motions and hoping that victory would somehow materialize. The lack of will stemmed from a failure to hold a referendum at the outset whereby the entire nation could sanction or refuse the war, and if sanctioned, could commit to taking the steps necessary to achieve the war aims.

Instead, the politicians tried to minimize the impact of what they had embarked on. By borrowing and inflating they sought to hide from the electorate the harsh realities of the cost, and the failure of what they were doing, lest they be voted out of power. Such are the consequences of a nation being led into war by its politicians instead of the politicians being charged by the people to carry out their directives. As Ronald Reagan explained, “The lesson of Vietnam, I think, should be that never again will young Americans be asked to fight and possibly die for a cause unless that cause is so meaningful that we, as a nation, pledge our full resources to achieve victory as quickly as possible.” (Speech to the First Conservative Political Action Conference, January 25, 1974.)

There should be no business as usual

Presidents and prime ministers should not waltz at balls, or traipse about the globe collecting Nobel Peace Prizes or attend environmental summits, while members of the armed forces are fighting and dying. Rather, they should spend their time visiting troops, meeting with generals, and concerning themselves with logistics and strategy. They should wear black armbands, and national celebrations should be muted until the armed forces are able to come home.

Never surrender

Should the invader come to Britain, there will be no placid lying down of the people in submission before him as we have seen, alas, in other countries. We shall defend every village, every town, and every city. The vast mass of London itself, fought street by street, could easily devour an entire hostile army—and we would rather see London laid in ruins and ashes than that it should be tamely and abjectly enslaved.

—Winston Churchill. July 14, 1940, BBC Broadcast, London.

When a people is faced with overwhelming force, they must nevertheless fight like the Greeks fought the invading Persians, the Romans fought the invading Carthaginians, the Germans fought the invading Romans, the Saxons fought the invading Danes, the Finns fought the invading Soviets, and the Greeks fought the invading Nazis. There is a sound, practical reason for this rule: history shows that fighting is the best way of defending freedom and of recovering it when it has been lost. This holds true even when defeat is inevitable, as it was in the case of the Greeks, Finns and Yugoslavs during World War II. The fighting spirit of these people convinced Stalin not to occupy those countries after the war. He knew they would not placidly accept occupation. He knew the risk of taking them on, even with overwhelming force, was that the Red Army would be bled dry and his tyranny would be placed in jeopardy.

The classic example of exactly what not to do was provided by the French in 1940, as described by Winston Churchill:

Even though metropolitan France was temporarily overrun, there was no reason why the French Navy, substantial parts of the French Army, the French Air Force and the French Empire overseas should not have continued the struggle at our side. Shielded by overwhelming sea power, possessed of invaluable strategic bases and of ample funds, France might have remained one of the great combatants in the struggle. By so doing, France would have preserved the continuity of her life, and the French Empire might have advanced with the British Empire to the rescue of the independence and integrity of the French Motherland. In our own case, if we had been put in the terrible position of France, a contingency now happily impossible . . . it would have been the duty of all war leaders to fight on here to the end, it would also have been their duty, as I indicated in my speech of 4th June, to provide as far as possible for the Naval security of Canada and our Dominions and to make sure they had the means to carry on the struggle from beyond the oceans. Most of the other countries that have been overrun by Germany for the time being have persevered valiantly and faithfully. The Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Dutch, the Belgians are still in the field, sword in hand, recognized by Great Britain and the United States as the sole representative authorities and lawful governments of their respective states. That France alone should lie prostrate at this moment is the crime, not of a great and noble nation, but of what are called “the men of Vichy.” (Speech to the House of Commons, August 20, 1940.)

Some might think that a people who are unable to defend their country should lay down their arms to avoid futile slaughter, but history tells us otherwise. Cicero recounts how the brave Athenians dealt with such a proposal:

The Athenians, knowing they would never be able to resist the Persians, decided to abandon their city, and carrying their wives and their children to Troezene, resolved to defend the liberties of Greece by sea. When one Cyrsilus tried to persuade them not to leave their city, but to instead receive Xerxes into it, they stoned him. This was because although he had given them advice which he thought to be most advantageous, because it was dishonourable, it could not in reality be advantageous. (On Duties, 44 BC.)

The Athenians, in concert with their allies, went on to destroy the Persian invasion at Salamis and thus reclaim their homeland and their freedom. How tragic it was that the French Navy did not spend the war years hunting German submarines and spiriting young men out of France to train in Canada and North Africa to be ready to storm the beaches of Normandy alongside their American and British.

Failing well

All campaigns and battles should be undertaken with a fallback position. Dispositions must be arranged so that if a battle, campaign, or even the entire army is lost (as happened at Cannae), the fight can go on. Contingency plans should address what to do in the event of neutrals or allies unexpectedly becoming enemies, a surprise invasion being launched, nuclear holocaust or any other imaginable cataclysm occurring. For example, the fate that befell the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 was not reasonably foreseeable—given the experience of World War I—but it was imaginable. This proves that military plans should have not only the probable in mind, but also the possible, because the consequences of not doing so are so grave.

Failing well involves training soldiers to break up into guerrilla forces, laying down arms caches, and holding forces in reserve. It also involves establishing redundant command centers and establishing event-triggered standing orders (which eliminate the need for communication). It also means ensuring that data and command functions are kept compartmentalized and protected behind multiple security protocols. Limits to data that can be downloaded and orders that can be executed should ensure that if security is breached, the damage is contained. Critical infrastructure should be isolated and the destruction of part should not disable the whole. There should always be a strategic reserve.

Not only must planning and material be ready for disasters of every scale, but also the minds of the citizenry and armed forces should be conditioned to accept cataclysmic setbacks with equanimity. The best way to condition a people to survive unexpected disastrous setbacks is through honesty. Nothing can be gained, and everything can be lost, by hiding the truth. The government must always be frank about how bad the situation is and what might be coming. If this approach is adhered to, every piece of bad news, every shock and every reverse will increase resistance, bravery and determination.

The government should never talk up a war situation. When the people learn that they have been deceived, they will lose faith in their government and become demoralized. Nothing induces a feeling of helplessness quite like not knowing the full extent of the problem you face. If the people feel they cannot trust their government to tell the truth, they cannot form the stoic mindset needed to persevere through setbacks. The best course is to tell the truth at all times.

When the French leaders realized that the Battle of France was being lost, they should have fought an improvised rear-guard action all the way to the Mediterranean. That would have purchased the allies several months in which to evacuate men from the unoccupied ports. During this time they could have required every able-bodied Frenchman to evacuate. They could then have set up the French seat of government in Quebec and based their navy and armed forces in Africa. The evacuated conscripts could have been sent to the prairies of Canada to train. The French armed forces would have had all the arms and food they needed from the United States through Lend-Lease. That all this was possible is proven by the fact that tiny Norway managed to put up a much sterner and longer defense against the German Blitzkrieg than France, and managed to evacuate its government and portions of its armed forces to London, where it formed a government-in-exile; and from there operated its navy and army in concert with the British. It also trained an air force in Canada, which fought with great distinction for the rest of the war.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove