20 Lessons from the Ukraine War (So Far)

Like no other conflict in the lifetime of this octogenarian, Russia’s “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine is causing me to learn late lessons about warfare and its strategy. Yes, I’ve lived through the Second Intercapitalist War, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, and Iraq. However, I don’t ever remember getting so much information causing me to rethink the little I know about military theory, strategy, tactics, disparate narratives, and outrageous propaganda as in the case of Ukraine.

Such intense focus is at last teaching me obvious truisms about war (and btw the futility of throwing billions at problems that in every case just mentioned could have been resolved diplomatically and at virtually no cost).

It all reminds me of the discourse of the great Ivan Illich of Deschooling Society fame. There, Illich taught that beyond a certain point, education makes us stupid. Its specialization has the highly educated learning more and more about less and less till they end up knowing almost everything about practically nothing – and by extension, almost nothing about practically everything.

Illich drew similar conclusions about medicine – beyond a certain point of development, it makes us sicker. In his Medical Nemesis, he wrote eloquently of iatrogenic diseases picked up from physicians and the ever more sophisticated treatments they administer in hospitals.

Likewise, developments in transportation have rendered us increasingly immobile (think traffic jams and high gas prices) and moved us further away from the most important people in our lives.

And, of course, computer technology has routinely impeded genuine human communication.  

Relative to war in general and the Ukraine conflict in particular, Illich might urge us to understand that beyond a certain point, weapons of war (and bloated Pentagon budgets) make us far less safe than would even a policy of general disarmament. As illustrated in Ukraine and its threat of nuclear war, the weapons in question ultimately threaten the very existence of our species. General disarmament (or even unilateral disarmament) would be far safer, regardless of short-term disadvantages.

However, without even going that far, allow me to share some learnings sparked by the conflict at hand. Here are 20 lessons I’ve learned to this point:  

Conclusions

  1. War involves complex strategies beyond “Shock and Awe,” simply massing troops to advance on and overwhelm one’s enemies, dropping bombs on them, mounting artillery barrages, and kicking in doors.
  2. Instead, standard military strategies include sophisticated elements such as “shaping the battlefield,” using feints and deceptions to fix enemy troops in place and taking time to fashion “cauldrons” to encircle opposing forces.
  3. Warfare necessarily demands secrecy about intentions, strategies, tactics, and schedules. “Knowledge” is the enemy’s plans is often little more than guesswork or at best the product of inference and deduction.
  4. Ignoring such concealment, propaganda to discredit Russia’s actions in Ukraine works like this: (1) Act as though you know exactly what Putin’s (secret) strategies and timetables are, (2) inflate that fictitious “knowledge” to levels impossible to achieve, and (3) declare the enemy’s efforts having failed when those unrealistic goals are not met.  
  5. In the case of Ukraine, intentional mischaracterization of or simple failure to understand Kremlin stratagems have led commentators to mistake e.g., Russia’s early “attack” on Kyiv as a blunderous failure.
  6. However, it has arguably proven to be a brilliant effort to preliminarily shape the battlefield, fixing thousands of Ukrainian troops in place in the country’s western reaches thus rendering them incapable of reinforcing defenders of the real Russian focus in eastern Donbass conurbations.
  7. On its own timeline and advancing slowly to preserve as many of its own troops as possible, the Russians are very deliberately and systematically defeating the Ukrainians on every front.
  8. As for NATO’s counter moves. . .. Modern computerized weaponry is difficult to operate and maintain. It requires a long time to learn how to use and repair. When their highly trained operators and repairmen are wounded or killed, multi-million-dollar weapons become nothing but battlefield debris.
  9. Heavy weapons systems in transport are also very vulnerable. They must be moved along roads, rail lines, and/or shipping lanes. They need to be stored before delivery. At every point of the supply chain, the systems in question can be attacked and destroyed.
  10. Thus, logistics is important. Even in modern warfare, it is easier to defend close to home rather than far away.  
  11. Compared to Russia, NATO suppliers are disarmingly far away from Russia’s incursions into Ukraine – especially in the country’s eastern regions.
  12. (By extension, neither is it a simple matter for the United States e.g., to militarily engage China over Taiwan, which is just off China’s shores, but more than 7000 miles from the U.S.
  13. Simply put, China is beyond the military control of the United States.)
  14. Ukraine is not Afghanistan.  So, to expect that Russia will find “another Afghanistan” there is simplistic and (frankly) naive.
  15. For one thing, Russia’s enemy in Ukraine is much more sophisticated than tribal peoples armed with AK47s, hiding in caves, and crammed in the cargo beds of Toyota pickups.
  16. Ironically, this simple fact renders Russia’s better armed Ukrainian enemy far more vulnerable than tribal peoples in Afghanistan.
  17. This is because (apart from those liabilities of massive, computerized weaponry) Ukrainians live in industrialized urban settings. Like us, they are completely dependent on oil, electricity, and computer technology – all of which are disabled with relative ease.
  18. Unlike Afghanistan’s, Ukraine’s economy (and Russia’s too) is intimately connected with the rest of Europe’s and with the entire globe.
  19. Hence, prolonged conflict in Ukraine unacceptably threatens the entire globalized system.
  20. As a result, expecting the whole developed world to endure a Ukrainian war lasting years or decades all the while disrupting the lives of their own citizens is (again) patently naive.

Conclusion

In the light of Ivan Illich’s earlier noted truisms, here are half a dozen final and salutary bonus conclusions summarizing the thoughts just shared:

  1. Illich’s suggestion was correct: beyond a certain point military sophistication becomes counterproductive in terms of world security, battlefield efficiency, and profligate expense.
  2. The war in Ukraine is a case in point.
  3. It also uncovers the related impotence of the United States itself and the foolhardiness of its over-expenditure on advanced weapons systems.
  4. Additionally, the war reveals a similar impotence of the U.S. in a potential conflict with Russia or China and especially with Russia and China combined.
  5. Russia’s overwhelming battlefield successes in Ukraine demonstrate that it has a highly trained and professional army led by generals schooled in the sophistications of modern warfare and informed by historical military precedent.
  6. They are not fools.