Fools that we were! We thought that all this wealth and prosperity were sent us by Providence, and could not stop coming. In our blindness we did not see that we were merely a big workshop, making up the things which came from all parts of the world; and that if other nations stopped sending us raw goods to work up, we could not produce them ourselves. True, we had in those days an advantage in our cheap coal and iron; and had we taken care not to waste the fuel, it might have lasted us longer.


And yet, if ever a nation had a plain warning, we had.

- The Battle of Dorking, George Chesney


It’s getting harder to find things to write about for these afterwords ...


(Of course, some people aren’t going to consider it a bad thing.)


I went through several different ideas, when I was thinking about it.  The last three years have been crazy, with the world feeling as if the elites are determined to play ‘dog in the manger’ until their universe finally crashes down around them and the rest of the population quite willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater ... a problem that, in places as diverse as Cambodia, China and France, led to utter disaster.  Sane people would have taken a breath, calmed down and concentrated on learning from their experiences.  We don’t seem to be led by sane people.  And, really, by the time this book is published a lot of what I want to say will be out of date.


So ... I’m going to focus on something else.


Imagine ... a pair of battleships steaming through the waves, heading towards the enemy landing sites.  Kings of the seas, their crews quietly confident of victory as they approach their targets.  And then the sun is blotted out by wave after wave of dive bombers falling towards the ships.  The guns rise and open fire, but the bombers keep coming.  The ships take hit after hit, until they are ablaze and sinking.  There are only a handful of survivors, all stunned by the sheer scale of the disaster.  Two battleships have been lost ... and so has an empire.


This happened in 1942.  The British Government made a series of catastrophic misjudgements as it became increasingly aware there was going to be war with Japan.  They sent two battleships, the Prince of Wales and Repulse,  in the hopes their mere presence would deter the Japanese.  This was folly, all the more so as the Royal Navy itself had used aircraft to cripple or sink German and Italian battleships.  If relatively primitive aircraft could do so much, what could the more modern Japanese aircraft do?  And even if one chose to assume the Japanese aircraft would not be much more effective than their British counterparts, the Japanese Navy would be deploying ten battleships to the British two.  The Royal Navy might outnumber the Japanese - leaving the issue of quality out for the moment - but the British couldn’t concentrate their fleet in eastern waters.  There was no way to avoid the simple fact that the British Government made a terrible mistake.


Prince of Wales and Repulse were hardly the first battleships lost by the Royal Navy.  HMS Hood had been sunk only a year ago.  But their sinking represented far more than just a major tactical defeat.  The British Empire rested its supremacy on the Royal Navy and the Royal Navy was dependent on battleships.  Losing two battleships under such circumstances, circumstances that were predictable even without the advantage of hindsight, discredited the underpinnings of the British Empire itself.  It wasn’t the first time the British had lost a battle - the British Imperialists were fond of saying they lost all battles save for the last - but it was the first insurmountable defeat.  And so the British Empire, for better or worse, was consigned to the dustbin of history.


This is not an uncommon pattern, throughout the history of empires.  The battlefield defeat of Imperial Germany, in 1917-8, spelt the end of the Second Reich.  The defeat of China, in the Opium and Arrow Wars, undermined Imperial China beyond repair.  The defeat of the Romans at Adrianople undermined the Roman Empire, ensuring the Goths would remain a powerful - and separate - force that would eventually sack Rome and destroy the Roman Empire.  It is perhaps unsurprising that so many people who really should have known better tried to deny it, to pretend - with horrific consequences , in Hitler’s case - that nothing had really changed.  The shock of the defeat was just too much to handle.


Why did these defeats happen?


It is often said that generals always try to fight the last war.  There is some truth in this.  Military planners need to know what can happen and they study previous wars in hopes of predicting future wars.  This is often misleading.  Much of the Royal Navy’s tactics, in the years between Napoleon and the First World War, became impractical as technology advanced.  The idea of landing a small army, in the days of motorised infantry, tanks and aircraft, is dangerous, to say the least.  The Royal Navy’s battle to land troops on the Falklands meant running risks that would have been alien to Nelson and Drake.


It is also true that militaries, particularly victorious militaries, are dangerously conservative.  The British Army of 1918 was the most advanced military in the world.  It had mastered the art of using tanks and aircraft, burying the Germans under a tidal wave of men and machines they simply couldn’t match.  (The myth the German soldiers were stabbed in the back was never anything more than a myth.)  And yet, many of those lessons were simply forgotten as the First World War receded into the past.  The British and French chose to ignore the warning signs, chose to pretend that war hadn’t changed.  The Germans, who couldn’t ignore the truth, took those lessons and ran with them.  The German Army of 1939-40 had its weaknesses, many of them.  It was also the most capable force on the planet at the time, to the point it beat the British and French in open battle.


And yet, there are risks in being too innovative.  The Germans wasted a considerable amount of their limited resources in trying to develop wonder weapons (and even naval units they couldn’t really use, like battleships and carriers.)  The history of military development is littered with boondoggles that absorbed money and returned little.  One doesn’t need to look further than Arthur C. Clarke's Superiority to realise that a technologically-advanced military could be defeated by a primitive, but more numerous force (as happened to Custer at Little Big Horn).  The trick, as always, is to remain on the cutting edge without sacrificing the keystones of survival and eventual victory.



In 2000, the Bush Administration believed the only major threat to the United States - and the global order it had created - was China, a rising power.  The reforms to the American military proposed by Donald Rumsfeld, amongst others, were designed to fight and win a war that was assumed to be something akin to the Falklands War, although on a much larger scale.  The war would be limited.  The Americans would either safeguard Taiwan and put the Chinese back in their box or lose control over the waters surrounding China, in which case China would dominate Taiwan and the surrounding nations.  There was no concept the war would turn general, with engagements being fought all over the world, or nuclear. 


This was not an unreasonable assumption, at the time.  However, it didn’t account for terrorists who could - and did - turn airliners into makeshift cruise missiles.  (Not unlike submarines and aircraft, the threat was first discussed in fiction and largely ignored by the militaries.)  The United States and its allies found themselves grappling with a new kind of war, facing challenges they were not mentally prepared to handle.  They had to deploy forces to Afghanistan and later Iraq, becoming embroiled in complex issues that were either unprecedented or, in the past, had been handled in ways that were now politically unacceptable.  Worse, the terrorists and insurgents who survived their first encounters with American and allied firepower learnt from their experiences.  They found ways to minimise American advantages, they found ways to circumvent or outsmart American technology and they found ways to create legal and ethical problems for their American opponents.  Worst of all, the terrorists were ever-present.  When the allied forces pulled out, the terrorists moved back and undid all their good works. 


The problem exists on a much bigger scale.  China, Russia and Iran - and other enemy states -have a very good motive to find ways to circumvent American advantages and bring the United States to heel.  The Chinese investment in antiship missiles, for example, can only be explained as a bid to deter American carriers from approaching the South China Sea or preparation to sink one if she did.  The Russians have been working on building up their deployable technology, claiming that it can match American technology (and, just incidentally, selling it without strings attached).  The assumption the United States - and the West in general - will retain its technological edge for the foreseeable future is nothing more than wishful thinking.


Technology is not the only issue.  Saudi Arabia, for example, has spent vast sums of money on buying everything from modern tanks to aircraft.  It has one of the largest defence budgets in the world.  And yet, the Saudis are quite unable to protect themselves against a peer power.  The Saudis have spent so much time coup-proofing their military and setting up rival units that their actual fighting power is quite low.  Even basic maintenance is a non-issue.  It is true the Saudis did better than their critics expected, during the Gulf War, but the bar was not set very high.  Modern militaries require more than giving a man a rifle and pointing him at the front.  They need training in how to handle and maintain their weapons, then training that draws directly from real-life experiences.  It is all too easy, when there is no sense of urgency, to allow standards to fall by the wayside.


The belief that the West will maintain its superiority tends to breed complacency.  The planners of Operation Iraqi Freedom overlooked a number of factors that made the invasion and occupation a great deal harder than it could have been.  Their mindset refused to allow them to grasp the nettle and admit that they would have to make hard decisions and yes, there would be casualties.  In a sense, the complacency continues to pervade American and Western military thinking.  Our governments are often more interested in looking good than actually making hard decisions and sticking to them, because they believe - deep inside - that total defeat is simply not a possibility.  This is, unfortunately, untrue. 


There are three basic possibilities that must be acknowledged, considered and prepared for:


First, we may face another paradigm shift in wartime.  Instead of a major invasion, we may see insurgencies and uprisings within major cities, particularly in districts dominated by ethnic and religious groups hostile to the government.  This would present us with a legal and ethical quandary, as we would start by treating the matter as a police issue rather than calling on the military.  The insurgents, in such a scenario, would try to play on this as much as possible, alternatively claiming to be a rival government or demanding the protection of the law depending on the exact situation.  This would rapidly lead to hardening attitudes, particularly if the government refused to commit itself to defending the country until it was too late.  If this happened, our values as a society would be effectively dead.


Second, we might face an enemy force that outnumbers us so badly the tech advantage is effectively meaningless.  China, for example, might throw hundreds of primitive cruise missiles at a carrier battle group and count it a victory; Russia might launch a massive invasion of Europe, accepting the loss of ten Russian tanks for every European tank and coming out ahead.  If this happened, the world order would be completely reshaped.


Third, we might face a different paradigm shift.  The Russians or the Chinese might manage to gain effective control of space, allowing them to bombard the United States from orbit until the United States surrendered.  This would not require (much) additional technological development, merely the will to invest money and resources and the determination to overlook early failures.  If this happened, the world order would be shattered beyond repair.



In these books, the Terrain Marine Corps met - for the first time in centuries - an opponent that matched them in technology and came close to them, although not completely, in training.  The marines had problems handling the challenge because they assumed, even though they should have known better, that they were the best.  They were too used to enemies who were unable or unwilling to match them in a straight fight.


In the real world, the results might not be so kind.  The world is not a safe place.  The current global order has its problems, some of which are easy to see, but it is far better than the alternative.  There is no reason to believe - and quite a few reasons to disbelieve - that a world dominated by Russia, China, Iran or Islamic State’s successors would be any better.  We must ready ourselves for battle, for being ready to fight is the only way to prevent a war.


And now you’ve read the book, I have a favour to ask.


It’s getting harder to earn a living through indie writing these days, for a number of reasons (my health is one of them, unfortunately).  If you liked this book, please post a review wherever you bought it; the more reviews a book gets, the more promotion. 


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2020