Did you know that when Hitler launched his invasion of Poland in 1939 he never had a chance at victory? Not even the slightest – the whole deck was stacked against him…and by bringing Russia and then the United States in against him, he just made it worse. But even before Russia and the United States joined in, Britain had enough economic and military power to ensure that victory was impossible, no matter how long the war went on. Britain, alone, might not ever have got to Berlin but Britain, alone, was sufficient to stymie Hitler…and eventually new combinations against Hitler were bound to happen. And when Hitler launched his war, he immediately ranged against himself Poland, France and Britain – which together had a far larger population and industrial capacity. It was suicidal.
So, why did he do it? Because he felt he had to. All along he had been telling his generals that a general war wouldn’t happen until about 1944 – which is about how long it would have taken Germany, working flat out, to build a military instrument which had even an outside chance of matching the nations he’d fight. The trouble was that his armament program had finally spurred everyone else to re-arm and while these programs were still just in the starting stages in 1939, they were rapidly increasing and would swiftly outpace whatever Germany could produce. In addition, the military build up of Germany had rendered Germany, in early 1939, functionally bankrupt. The bankers were already telling him he had to ease up on re-armament and curb his ambitions as Germany needed a period of financial retrenchment or economic catastrophe would ensue.
In the end, Hitler struck because he couldn’t keep up the financial end unless he could steal resources from others and because his build up had given him a slight qualitative edge – and, most importantly, he had come to view all his opponents with contempt. Striking in 1939 and hoping for a quick victory (or, that Britain and France would, in the end, refuse to fight) was the plan. It didn’t work out that way, of course – but he still started the war.
Now, fast forward to 2016 and what do we have in Russia? A general contempt for the Western leaders who have pathetically weak military forces at their immediate disposal…and Russia is also in great financial difficulty and can’t keep things going much longer. Just as in 1939, some nations in Europe are also starting to re-arm (most notably Poland and the Baltic States), but their plans for re-armament envision 2020 as the year they’ll be ready. There’s a four year gap when they are not ready.
This is the sort of situation with which wars are made. And it doesn’t have to be Russia – it can also be China, which has a similar level of contempt for opponents, a similarly over-strained economy and a gap between now and when re-armament among their opponents will be complete. Whether or not either nation will decide to strike while the iron is hot remains to be seen, but what this does illustrate is the need to keep a massive military force in being at all times.
For the most part, the nations of the West are spending 2% or less of their GDP on defense. The United States is a bit higher, but still we have a much smaller military force than we had 10 years ago – not only smaller, but less ready as money for maintenance and procurement has been reduced. We’ve been basking in the long peace (in spite of regular military actions, there has been no major war involving a Western power since Vietnam) and have let things slide – forgetting that when you need an army, you need it right away…not some years down the road. And, in fact, not having an army ready to hand just encourages aggressors to think that they can get away with a quick victory. And if they do strike, your unpreparedness will allow an enemy to score some spectacular victories which will then have a very high cost in blood and treasure to reduce…blood and treasure which would not have been spent if a bit of foresight had been used.
People don’t really like to think of defense – war is a horrible thing and people tend to banish it from their thoughts. But as worn out as the old saw is, it is none the less true: if you wish to have peace, prepare for war. We have not prepared for war, and so it is all the more likely that we’ll get one, and get one soon.