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Opinion: The military context of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Looking back to the American Civil War, the world wars and other large conflicts, we can see how our weapons and tactics have evolved

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A local resident pushes his bike as smoke rises over the site of an explosion after a rocket attack in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

Kostiantyn Liberov, Associated Press

The war in Ukraine continues, with no decisive victory and no conclusion yet visible. The greatest lesson so far is the unpredictability of war, a durable truth frequently ignored.

Clearly, arrogant Russian President Vladimir Putin and associates miscalculated how easily Russia’s military would be able to overrun the country, overcome resistance and take control. As in armed conflict through history, determination and courage of the people of Ukraine has been the vital factor.

Today weapons technologies also greatly aid defensive military combat. Given the vast innovations of the 20th century, this dimension is best described and understood from a relatively long time horizon. Otherwise, interested serious readers have less chance of accurate understanding of an important but complicated evolution.

Pervasive contemporary electronic distractions also subvert. War remains an undertaking that demands focused attention, by definition.

Early in the 20th century, World War I from 1914 to 1918 demonstrated the defense had become dominant in combat. On the western front, fighting rather early devolved into bloody trench warfare of an unchanging character. The eastern front, where Germany and Austria-Hungary faced imperial Russia, involved relatively more movement, partly because of different geography.

The frustrating, static quality of combat directly reflected the development of the modern machine gun, and greatly enhanced accuracy of rifles and other firearms. Introduction of barbed wire also significantly hampered offensive movement.

Massed infantry and cavalry charges became mass slaughter. Military planning, limited by inflexible myopic generals, was woefully slow to address this radically new combat environment.

The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, especially the final year, provided insight regarding this future. On the eastern front, the armies of U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee fought from lengthy, heavily fortified trenches stretching from Richmond south to Petersburg, Virginia.

Casualties were very heavy and continuous on both sides. That earned Grant the ugly label “the butcher,” an insult spread by antiwar opponents and newspapers among a population sick of the seemingly endless combat.

The nasty slur was unfair. Grant from early in the war was imaginative and skillful at deploying flexible tactics, including innovative cavalry operations, and a comprehensive strategic view.

European strategists largely ignored this American experience. Their soldiers paid an enormous price a half-century later.

Innovation overcame the dominance of the defense over offense. The tank provided a decisive breakthrough, quite literally. Between the world wars, two American officers, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton Jr., became friends as well as published authors on the potential of the military tank and armored warfare in the future.

In World War II, various changes created a much more fluid battle environment. The tank and other motorized vehicles, long-range effectively armed aircraft, modern electronic communications and other innovations drastically altered the characteristics of fighting.

The Vietnam War witnessed developments again aiding defense. One notable innovation was the Tube-launched Optically tracked Wire-guided missile, or TOW, a relatively small lethal anti-tank weapon.

In the spring of 1972, North Vietnam launched a massive armored invasion of South Vietnam. TOW missiles, especially launched from helicopters, completely devastated large numbers of Soviet-supplied tanks along with other targets. This offensive was decisively defeated.

Other precision-guided munitions (PGMs) include the Stinger anti-aircraft missile. This weapon proved crucial in defeating the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, over a decade starting in 1979.

Nonetheless, the human dimension remains essential. Precision weapons provide the means to implement courage.

Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia.” Contact acyr@carthage.edu