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Wars Have Changed, and Why Winning a War in the Twenty-First Century is Difficult

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

America hasn’t won a single war decisively since World War 2. World War II was the last large-scale battle that had clear winners. And ever since then, large-scale wars haven’t yielded any undisputed victor. Why? What Changed? Why is it difficult to win a war in the twenty-first century?

The Dresden Firebombing

The firebombing of the City of Dresden by the allied forces in World War II killed nearly 25,000 civilians. Firebombing was a specialized bombing technique used extensively throughout WWII, which was designed to damage urban areas through the use of fire. Was the bombing of Dresden legitimate? Was it not a war crime? The City was reduced to atoms due to the firebombing. The fire that followed burned most of the residents, and the rest were killed by suffocation. Today this would have been considered a war crime, but by the standards of the time, this was something common in war. Both sides in the war would bomb cities to demoralize enemy populations. Even Germany extensively bombed London. The campaign to bomb London was called Blitz in accordance with the Blitzkrieg doctrine (Lightning war). The German bombing of London through the years of WWII claimed the lives of about 43,000 civilians. The Dresden bombing, which killed 25,000 people, might look smaller now, but we must also remember that these figures might be skewed. It’s always the winners who write history, and the Allied forces won the war. Apart from the discussion of the Dresden bombing, the highest civilian casualties were on the eastern front of the war. The Soviet Union lost about 19 million civilians in the war. These numbers dwarf the two.

The strategy of war in the twentieth century was to inflict as much damage as possible. Be it on the civilian infrastructure or military establishments. Basically, there was no strategy as such when it came to targeting. Civilians were killed to demoralize the population, and the army would move in only after air raids had brought the City to rubble. The images of Berlin after the soviets took over hold testimony to this fact.

War today is different. Civilian casualties are considered war crimes. Wars in the twenty-first century focus on destroying the military complex rather than destroying whatever comes the way. Also, the world is united in many ways. The formation of the United Nations allows countries to condemn and rally support against war crimes. The advent of the Internet has given populations greater social mobility. Even after decades, we don’t yet know the precise or reliable number of civilian deaths in the Dresden bombing. But any such event today would be broadcasted to the world to see with the help of the Internet and social media. It is difficult to hide figures today. Human Civilization as a whole has developed and has become more moral.

On the other hand, this has made it difficult for forces to win a war. As mentioned earlier, in World War II, foot soldiers would move in after air raids had destroyed part of the city. This was to make sure that less resistance would be met when launching a campaign. Today since only military establishments are targeted, it is impossible to know if all resistance is eliminated before troops move in. The resistance or even the army could be among the civilian population waiting for the invasion force to arrive. Like it was seen in the war in Ukraine. According to many reports from reputed western sources itself, Ukraine has been using hospitals and civilian infrastructure as military bases. This has endangered civilians but has provided a tactical advantage. If Russia bombs hospitals, it would attract international condemnation, if Russia doesn’t bomb hospitals, it would lose its own soldiers when the troops move in. Today’s war strategy favors the defender.

Wars have also taken a new form of proxy warfare. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were such examples. When the enemy doesn’t show up on the battlefield and instead hides among the civilians, it is difficult to win a battle. In the same way, the war in Ukraine is far from over. Even if Russia succeeds in taking over the entirety of Ukraine, a proxy civil war might follow for decades. Though a proxy civil war in Europe is less likely, it is possible.

Another reason why it is difficult to win a war is because of the high civilian morality in today’s times. With greater access to mainstream media, populations have become dependent on mainstream media for unbiased information. They consume biased information in the pretense that it is unbiased. During the early twentieth century, media meant radio or the newspaper. But now newspapers have become a thing of the past. As television acquired mainstream media, it was easier to communicate and appeal to citizens regarding any matter. The visual graphics had more impact on the viewer’s minds. This amplified the illusory truth effect. Though the illusory truth effect did exist before, televisions amplify the effect exponentially. The illusory truth effect states that a person who is subjected to repeated reporting of a particular piece of news will be more inclined to accept it as true than a newly presented piece of information/news. In other words, if propaganda is broadcasted repeatedly, with huge frequencies, then the viewer’s mind would perceive it to be accurate as the information becomes more and more familiar to the human brain and less foreign with repeated exposure. Wars are not won by superior technology in the twenty-first century. If the discussion was about a war in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, technology alone was enough to win a war, and decisively too. Because then bombing civilians wasn’t considered a war crime. And when more civilians die, morality would decrease steeply, and the country would eventually surrender. But in the twenty-first century, since wars are mainly focused on destroying military infrastructure, the state i.e., the media, might choose to disclose cherry-picked information. Here morality would remain stable for a longer period of time. As military establishments are usually located out of populated areas, the urban areas largely remain out of conflict (when compared to wars in the early twentieth century.) Even though Russia has killed many civilians in the war in Ukraine, it has tried to avoid civilian casualties. If the Allied forces could inflict damage that could kill 25,000 civilians within a few days in the early twentieth century, bigger casualties could be inflicted upon urban populations if countries decided to do the same today. But as the world is more united and outspoken than in any time in the past few centuries, war crimes remain the lowest in the twenty-first century. And again, this is not to say that the allied forces committed war crimes; war crime is a word that has had different meanings at different times and has never been static. Therefore, what allied forces chose to do in Dresden or what Germany did in London was acceptable according to the standards of the time.

But the core thing remains that it is easier to run propaganda in the twenty-first century than in the previous ones. And as morality can be maintained even at times of war, enrollment for the army doesn’t dry out suddenly on a single day. So as long as morality can be maintained, the country can keep fighting.

Though it is difficult to say whether the standards of our time would remain the same for decades to pass, wars in the twenty-first century are hard to win, if not impossible.

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