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Ground Pounders vs. Smart Bombs: Lessons from Macedonia


by Austin Bay

If they're lucky, Macedonian troops and security police ride to the battlefields in trucks. Men move on foot through forests and villages, trying to avoid ambush. In these circumstances, foot soldiers in the 21st century don't move any faster than soldiers in the 17th century.

At times, the weapons employed are genuinely 17th century. On June 4, NLA guerrillas attacked Macedonian positions with explosives loaded on a horse-drawn cart.

Completely missing in Macedonia's action is the glitz and blitz of American smart bombs and satellite sensors. This is a poor man's war, fought in a backward corner.

But Pentagon techno-enthusiasts would be wise to delay the snickers. American strategists who believe similar wars can be avoided by White House policy directive or diplomacy need a quick historical reminder that plans are at best good ideas and maybes. The future is, inevitably, the region of surprise.

At the strategic level, where political mastery and public perception can trump an opponent's military success or survive one's own military failure, Macedonia's conflict is a sophisticated and thoroughly contemporary war.

Commander Hoxha, a senior NLA commander, made that clear when he said, "We are fighting two wars, military war and media war."

Hoxha understands Sub-Commandante Marcos' Mexican rebellion, waged by fax as well as rifle. He's also watched the Palestinians' latest intifada via satellite TV.

Though managing public perception in war is not new, instant global communications, TV, and Internet connectivity -- the modern media and its degree of penetration -- now fundamentally shape strategic warfare.

Leaders who understand this phenomenon, leaders who can demonstrate the will to sustain and sacrifice, who can use "the communications connectivity" to shape the perceptions of their own people, their opponents and the global community, can achieve 21st century victory using horse-drawn carts.

Smart bombs, robots and digital whiz ... by no means dismiss their significance. Advanced military technology gives America a huge combat edge.

However, in future conflicts, the United States will repeatedly confront situations where technologically superior weapons aren't strategically decisive. Advanced weapons can, with great precision, "hold a target at risk." The technology cannot, however, "seize and hold" a "key position" (like a home, or monastery, or command bunker, or news anchor desk) -- only trained and capable ground forces "seize and hold."

It's a paradox only a few old troops and a handful of strategists fully appreciate. On the media-shaped strategic battlefield, trained ground-pounders are often the most politically decisive military force. In the battle for hearts and minds and in the demonstration of the will to win (to sustain and sacrifice in order to defeat the enemy's will), robots and smart munitions do not substitute for boots.

Consider how this plays out in Macedonia.

On May 27, the NLA attacked the village of Matejce (north of the capital of Skopje). Guerrillas occupied a mosque and a nearby monastery. Ask a grunt: Holing up inside a monastery's thick walls makes sense. In military jargon, it's a sound tactical decision.

It makes even better strategic sense. From a savvy strategic perspective, occupying the mosque and monastery means Macedonian forces attacking those key positions risk damaging the religious sites. So keep the camera ready. Pictures of a damaged mosque shape the perception that "Orthodox Macedonian Slavs hate Muslim Albanians." On this emotional and cultural edge, the war moves from the nowhere of Matejce into hearts and minds around the world.

The Macedonian government is wise to the gambit. Skopje wants to avoid a "Hue situation" (during the Vietnam War's 1968 Tet offensive), where Macedonian villages are "destroyed in order to save them." Burned churches and civilians slain by "friendly fire" -- though the guerrillas suffer defeat in the field -- these results seed an NLA political victory.

Tedious house-by-house "clearing operations" become the most politically appropriate military means of defeating the guerrillas while minimizing civilian casualties.

It is hubris to underestimate another human being's intelligence and adaptability when his life and home are at risk. In war, a crafty opponent will always find a way to minimize your capabilities and maximize his own. Technological hubris could well be the root of future American strategic failure. Any Pentagon "reform" that fails to recognize the strategically potent role of well-trained and numerically sufficient ground forces isn't reform -- it's ignorance and delusion.

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