- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

A currently popular movie about an ancient battle holds very deep meanings. At Thermopylae, we learn from Herodotus, the Greeks suffered a terrible defeat. But Persian King Xerxes could not even contemplate the destruction of Athens until he had first secured a decisive victory. Only after the Persian defeat of Leonidas and his heroic defending forces would the Athenians be forced to abandon Attica. Transporting themselves to the island of Salamis, the Greeks would then observe the Persians burning their houses and destroying their sacred temples on the Acropolis.

Why is this ancient Greek tragedy significant for us? Until the onset of our atomic age, states, city-states and empires were essentially secure from homeland destruction unless their armies had already been defeated. For would-be aggressors before 1945, a capacity to destroy always required a prior capacity to win. Without a victory, their intended aggressions were never more than intentions.

This is no longer the case. From the standpoint of ensuring any one state’s national survival, the goal of preventing a classical military defeat is logically secondary. The implications of this transforming development are considerable.

After suppressing revolts in Egypt and Babylonia, Xerxes was finally able to prepare for the conquest of Greece. In 480 B.C.E., the Greeks decided to make their final defense at Thermopylae. This particular site was chosen because it offered what military commanders would call “good ground,” here a narrow pass between cliffs and the sea — a place where a relatively small number of resolute troops could hold back even a very large army. For a time, Leonidas, the Spartan king, was able to defend the pass with only about 7,000 men (including some 300 Spartans). In the end, by August of 480 B.C.E., Thermopylae had become a great Persian victory.

For those states currently in the cross hairs of a determined jihad, and this includes the United States, Israel and much of Europe, there is no real need to worry about a contemporary Thermopylae. But there is considerable irony to such a “freedom from worry.” Strategically, it is anything but a blessing. After all, from our present vantage-point, preventing any form of classical military defeat will no longer assure our safety from aggression or terrorism. This means that we might now be perfectly capable of warding off any tangible defeat of our military forces and perhaps even of winning identifiable victories, but we still may have to face extraordinary harms.

What does this mean for our enemies? From their point of view, it is no longer necessary to actually win any war, or — in fact — to win even a particular military engagement. They needn’t figure out complex land or naval warfare strategies; they don’t have to triumph at “Thermopylae” in order to burn “Athens.” For our enemies there is really no longer any reason to work out what armies call “force multipliers” or to calculate any pertinent “correlation of forces.” Today these enemies can wreak havoc upon us without first firing a shot.

None of this is because we have necessarily done something wrong. It is simply the natural consequence of constantly evolving military and terrorist technologies. Nor can this frightful evolution ever be stopped or reversed. On the contrary, our substantial current vulnerabilities in the absence of prior military defeat represent a present fact of strategic life that must be endured and better understood. To ensure that these vulnerabilities remain well below the existential threshold, however, we will soon have to build an altogether new combat orthodoxy involving deterrence, pre-emption and war-fighting options, together with bold new ideas for protective international alignments. Surely we will also have to take a fresh look at arrangements for both active and passive defenses.

Nothing is more practical than good theory. This is especially the case in military planning, where adapting current strategy and tactics to antiquated assumptions can yield only disaster. Today we must recognize that our civilization can be made to suffer enormously without first going down to thunderous defeat, and we must then plan accordingly.

This would be a prosaic and unheroic recognition, but it is also nonetheless true. With such truth can come the corollary understanding that what is threatening for us is also threatening for our enemies. They, too, must now confront extraordinary homeland vulnerabilities in the absence of any prior military defeat. Properly understood and explained, this confrontation with the mutuality of weakness could compel these enemies to proceed with greater caution, but only if they were also primarily concerned with their own survival. In the absence of enemy rationality, we would have no practical alternative to expanding assorted plans for pre-emption.

Louis Rene Beres is the author of many books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war.

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