College of LAS « Illinois


Mightier Than the Sword

Armies don't always win because of the latest technology.

Throughout history, according to current political dogma, armies have prevailed on their enemies because they had the latest in high-tech weapons—from cannons to armored tanks to Patriot missiles. But after examining case studies from three millennia of warfare worldwide, LAS military historian John Lynn concluded recently that in fact the idea is mightier than the sword.

" Armies fight the way they think," and that thinking derives from a culture's values, assumptions, and expectations about fighting, says Lynn, who chairs the U of I Military Education Council and was Oppenheimer Professor of Warfighting Strategy at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, VA. For example, the German and French armies had the same technology in the early days of World War II. The French, anticipating defensive fights that would contain the enemy, built solid, heavy tanks with big guns. The Germans, who believed in blitzkrieg, built lighter, faster tanks and rode them to victory.

It's also crucial to understand the enemy rather than demonize them. That's because when two societies that have very different ideas of warfare fight, they tend to dehumanize each other. Then "there's a strong tendency for things to get out of hand," says Lynn.

Official Washington would do well to heed the message in its war on terrorists, Lynn says. "If we can only conceive of terrorists as evildoers and therefore moral renegades, we may justify and encourage ourselves to do the wrong things," including killing of innocent civilians. That will feed terrorists' claims that we are uncaring and making war on Islam, he adds. "Cultural stereotypes just don't work."

October 2003