Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars

Here's an interesting piece I stumbled across, entitled 'Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars'. The topic should be pretty obvious.

Small nations have a better record in wars against big nations than you'd think. A 2007 study, done by Patricia Sullivan for UC-Davis, caluclated all conflicts since World War 2 in which one of the United Nations 'Big 5'- the US, UK, France, China or Russia- fought someone else. This worked out to 127 conflicts, 34 of which involved the United States. A conflict was defined as anything involving at least 500 battle-ready troops. A win was recorded when the nation could leave and see the situation hold for at least one year. A loss was recorded when the cost of maintaining a conflict became too high to successfully impose its will, and the big nation walked away. Ties appear to have not been tolerated.

The Big 5, given those criteria, had a win rate of only 61%; with the Americans sporting a 24-10 record. (You may note that I use the term 'nation' for the designated underdogs. Sullivan found it really doesn't matter much whether the underdog is an actual nation, such as Iraq, or a nonstate actor, such as al Qaeda.)

The reason, it is argued, is that the underdogs go in knowing full well that if they play by generally-accepted rules, they are going to not only lose, but get their butts kicked. The obvious solution is to NOT play by the rules. Because, you know, they'd like to live and stuff. The bigger nation, playing by the rules, starts noticing that it's not experiencing the quick, easy victory that will pay for itself that they promised the folks back home (and oh, does that promise get thrown around). They start realizing they have to stop playing by the rules too if they want to win. The war quickly degenerates into a miserable farce.

The piece uses a soccer match between Barcelona FC and a random college team to make its point. Straight-up, Barcelona would win. The college team, knowing this, would extend the playing field into the bleachers, change the ball being used at will, bring in fans (some not wearing uniforms) onto the field, and if they were still losing by the end of the game, simply declare the game to not be over. Barcelona would start to have to pull like-minded stunts, such as calling in their youth team or going after fans who may or may not be playing because, hey, they might be. The game would only end when one team got sick of it all and left the field.

The wars tend to be lost when the cost of the war starts to exceed a value that was expected at the start of the conflict. So if you promise a quick, easy victory, it damn well better be a quick, easy victory or the war's going to get really old really fast.

Iraq was not scored- presumably; the window I had containing her piece crashed before I could see for sure- but Sullivan only gave it a win probability in the 20's.

Sullivan's full piece, mentioned earlier, is viewable in full here. The full list of conflicts is available, but, maddeningly, Sullivan failed to state which conflicts she scored as wins and which she scored as losses. I'll at least give you the US schedule, with start/end dates, opponent and location:

1948-49, vs. communist guerilla movement in Greece
1950, vs. North Korea in South Korea
1950-53, vs. North Korea/China in North Korea
1954-55, vs. China in Taiwan
1958, vs. Syria/leftist insurgents in Lebanon
1958, vs. China in Taiwan
1961, vs. new Trajillista regime in Dominican Republic
1961-62, vs. new Trajillista regime in Dominican Republic
1962-73, vs. North Vietnam/Vietcong in Vietnam
1962, Pathet Lao/North Vietnam/China in Thailand
1964-73, vs. North Vietnam/Vietcong/Pathet Lao in Laos
1965-66, vs. leftist Constitutionalists in Dominican Republic
1970-73, vs. Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
1970, vs. Palestinian fedayeen/Syria in Turkey
1983-84, vs. Amal-Draze regime in Lebanon
1983, vs. new Jewel/PRG regime in Grenada
1986, vs. Qaddafi regime in Libya
1988, vs. Nicaraguan Sandanistas in Honduras
1989, vs. Panamanian government in Panama
1989-90, vs. Noriega regime in Panama
1990-91, vs. Iraqi Hussein regime in Saudi Arabia
1991, vs. Iraqi government in Kuwait
1991-03, vs. Iraqi government in Iraq
1992-03, vs. Iraqi government in Iraq
1992-93, vs. warring clans in Somalia
1993, vs. Somali National Alliance in Somalia
1994-95, vs. Cedras regime in Haiti
1994, vs. Iraqi Hussein regime in Kuwait
1995, vs. Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia
1996, vs. China in Taiwan
1996-03, vs. Iraqi Hussein regime in Kuwait
1998, vs. Iraq in Iraq
1999, vs. Yugoslavia in Yugosalvia
2001-02, vs. Taliban regime in Afghanistan


Pinyan said...

This is an interesting piece, but a few comments:
1) Sorgenfrei takes his metaphor a bit too seriously for my liking.
2) Sullivan's "list of wars" is poor: it contains two simultaneous wars against Iraq in Iraq for the USA; it counts both sides of a China-Russia war; it counts multiple fronts as different wars, etc.
3) Sullivan's failure to rate the present Iraq war is probably because the journal article is actually from 2004, even though the news story is from 2007. Weird.

Aaron Allermann said...

I did notice that once I actually got to see the dataset. I'm wondering if maybe she was counting different 'operations', like if she would count Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn as three separate conflicts, but she didn't mention anything like that. She didn't make any attempt to explain which conflict is which. Aside from me not showing exact dates, what I gave is what she gave, and the fact that that's all she gave really kind of ticked me off.