Who will win a post-heroic war? Neither side is prepared to fight

Neither the West not its enemies are prepared to fight. Some 30 years ago, I coined the phrase “post-heroic warfare” to acknowledge a new phenomenon: the very sharp reduction in the tolerance of war casualties. My starting point was President Clinton’s 1993 decision to abandon Somalia after 18 American soldiers were killed in a failed raid. But in truth, post-heroic attitudes had already emerged — and not just in affluent democracies. In 1989, the Soviet Union, whose generals could once lose 15,000 men before breakfast without batting an eyelid, abandoned Afghanistan after 14,453 of its soldiers were killed over almost a decade.

Nor was the post-heroic phenomenon strictly related to the merits, or lack thereof, of any particular act of war. Margaret Thatcher stayed up all night writing personal letters to the families of every one of Britain’s 255 dead in the Falklands. But it did not mollify her critics, who argued that Britain should never have used force, even if it meant that Argentina would be allowed to conquer the islands.

Four decades later, it is even more obvious that we are living in a post-heroic age, to the great benefit of the West — at least for now. In 2022, Ukraine found itself fighting an enemy that could have mobilised its regular army formations, each with its quota of 18-year-old conscripts, and also recalled two million reservists. But Putin did neither, fearing the fury of Russia’s mothers, who even under the restrictions of Soviet rule had successfully pressed for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But for Kyiv, the new post-heroic rules are only partly advantageous, and might even result in its final defeat: for while they have prevented an all-out Russian invasion, they also severely inhibit Nato’s capacity to help Ukraine.

On paper, Nato has some sizeable armies, but when French President Emmanuel Macron called for arms and troops to be sent to Ukraine in February, his plea fell on deaf ears. Indeed, the Italian defence and foreign ministers went out of their way to publicly declare that they wouldn’t send even one soldier to Ukraine, under any circumstances. In a similar vein, in spite of the severe economic damage that Houthi pirates in the Red Sea have inflicted upon European economies, only the US Navy and the Royal Navy have responded in earnest — while Italy’s navy was only allowed to send one ship, despite suffering the greatest damage from traffic being diverted from the Mediterranean. The same is true of Nato’s air forces: only the US and UK have bombed Houthi weapon stores in Yemen, while no European air force has taken any action, not even the French with their base in Djibouti next door.

The great question, of course, is why? Why is it that, with larger populations than ever before, our tolerance for casualties is increasingly low?Back in 1994, I offered a simple theory: the wars of history were fought by “spare” male children. Even as late as the mid-20th century, the average European family had several children. In agricultural households, one male could inherit the family’s land, another might advantageously marry a land-owning wife, and one more might go into the Church — or off to war. If he failed to return, the survivors might miss him most intensely, but the family would not be extinguished. Today, however, with the average fertility of women across Europe less than two and still falling — the EU average was 1.46 in 2022 — there are no spare children.

The extreme case here is China, with its fertility rate of 1.1. President Xi is, by all accounts, a bellicose man who enjoys threatening war against Taiwan. And yet, curiously, in 2020 he took eight months to reveal that one PLA officer and three soldiers had died during the fighting on India’s Ladakh frontier. During that period of official silence, the families of the four were re-housed and provided with welfare payments or better jobs; the officer’s wife who taught piano in a village school was elevated to the Xi’an Conservatory of Music, with a new house to go with it. Each of the four also became the subject of dedicated media campaigns, which portrayed the youngest as cinematically good-looking and the officer as so conscientious that, up in cold Tibet, he would wake up before his soldiers to prepare hot-water bottles for them. Later, the names of the four were added to many highway bridges to remind all of their sacrifice.

Why the grand acts of remembrance? The answer is demographic. Thanks to China’s one-child policy, imposed in 1980 with the abundant use of forced abortions, the four deaths extinguished eight family lines.

The good news, then, is that because of China’s low birth rates, the post-heroic syndrome makes it unlikely that Beijing will act on its pugnacious threats. Given the regime’s most elaborate response to four combat deaths, how could it cope with the 4,000 that might be lost in one day in a war for Taiwan? Incidentally, Iran is also suffering a crisis in fertility; it was only 1.7 when last measured, way below the replacement rate, with many of the births among restive minority populations rather than Persians. But Tehran has found an effective remedy: it arms, trains and funds expendable Arab militias while being extremely careful with its Persian manpower

As for Israel, it is the only country in the world where even secular, university-educated, professionally employed, married women have two or more children on average, with more than three children on average for the religious. This high fertility rate is the fundamental reason why Israel is not post-heroic, and will not be forced to abandon its current military plans because of combat casualties. This is especially important because the war started so badly, and because urban combat becomes so deadly once tunnels are added to the usual perils of high-rise snipers and alley mortar crews.
“This high fertility rate is the fundamental reason why Israel is not post-heroic.”

In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 atrocities, most Israelis were very eager to fight, including all those reservists with families who flew back from their homes in Silicon Valley or New York to rejoin their old units. Now, however, that initial enthusiasm has waned: only the new recruits who have just finished their combat training are eager for action, while many are fed up with a war that in Gaza now only makes incremental advances. As for the Israelis who face Hezbollah in the north, almost daily attacks seem set to continue without end, leading to calls for more decisive action. But the total number of Israeli war casualties, tragic as each death is for family and friends, does not weigh on the nation as it would if it had fertility rates at Chinese or even Iranian levels.

For the rest of the West, meanwhile, these new post-heroic limits raise a question that nobody is willing to confront in earnest: why keep armies that will never be asked to fight?

The fact that so many European units have served in Afghanistan and Iraq does not prove anything at all, because in most cases their governments ensured that they would not be employed in raids or assaults, limited to cautious patrols close to their heavily fortified bases. (At least one Nato government sent intelligence agents to pay off the local Taliban to allow patrols to proceed unmolested.) As for the European troops serving in the United Nations peace-keeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) — established to ensure that Hezbollah stays well away from Israel’s border — they are considered war-experienced veterans when they return to their respective armies. But this overlooks the fact that UNIFIL has not even tried to keep Hezbollah from the border, for the simple reason that no UNIFIL battalion is willing to confront even the smallest Hezbollah infiltration.

The result is that, all across Europe, entire military institutions are colluding from top to bottom to sustain the illusion that they are capable of combat, which is now only true in rare cases, such as with Britain’s shrunken but still combative armed forces. But to some extent, the same can be said of their adversaries in Russia and China. In our current post-heroic age, everyone’s calculations of the true balance of power need to be revised.

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