Giant Steps

Posted by Barry Strauss under on April 24, 2009

“Pitiful, helpless giant,” anyone? Richard Nixon’s salty description of American impotence comes to mind at this week’s news.

The Wall Street Journal reported that hackers broke into the Pentagon’s most expensive and confidential program – the Joint Strike Fighter – and made off with a treasure trove of data. So much for the security system of the F-35 Lightning, the aircraft set to be America’s most advanced and versatile fighter plane. Fingers pointed to Chinese cyberspies, but the Chinese government refuted the charge. A cynic might recall the journalists’ adage, “never believe a rumor until it is officially denied.”

What is it about empires that makes them vulnerable to smart and nimble attack? Cyberspies, nineteen terrorists armed with box cutters and airplane tickets, seventy-four gladiators wielding kitchen knives and skewers, a small but shrewd Greek navy lying in wait for its massive foe, a wooden horse outside the gates: from the Joint Strike Fighter to the 9-11 attacks to the Spartacus War to the Persian Armada of 480 B.C. to the legendary Trojan War, it is all of one piece. Top-heavy and institutionalized, empires – or, if you prefer, great powers – convince themselves that size is the only thing that matters. Their smaller rivals try harder.

Sometimes, the empire strikes back with success. Rome, for example, managed to defeat Spartacus and his ragtag band without making fundamental changes to its military doctrine. Rome made little use of the convoluted tactics of today’s counterinsurgency warfare. Instead, Rome reverted to form: it raised a big army, built massive, fortifications, and cut off potential allies by waging war from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. These giant steps required huge amounts of money and manpower, but the Roman people were willing to pay the price because, in the ancient world, conquest offered the best path to prosperity.

We live in a different era. Nowadays, when commerce pays much better than conquest, giant steps won’t work. Our ethos is more humanitarian, our instincts more peaceful. The American public won’t support war unless it is cost-effective and efficient. In order to compete with clever, hungry military competitors, the United States will have to fight smart. “It takes a thief” is a better motto for the U.S., as it responds to cyber-attack, than “Fee, fie, fo, fum.” Americans need to think like insurgents, not like an empire.

In that sense, at least, we are not Rome.

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