Wars Rarely Achieve Their Initial Goals: The Curse of Second-Order Effects

Initial victories do not guarantee the war will be won. Rather, they arouse the most dangerous enemy: the fatal hubris of over-confidence.

War tops the long list of human folly for a basic reason: it rarely achieves the initial goals of launching the war. It takes a special kind of human folly to discount all the negative possibilities that come from starting a war and focus exclusively on the one positive outcome in the belief it is inevitable, guaranteed, etc.

Wars carry a particularly heavy curse, that of long-term second order effects.

The decision to launch a war must discount bad outcomes and extrapolate previous minor military campaigns as “proof” that the war will be won quickly and with minimal second order effects. (First order effects: actions have consequences. Second order effects: consequences have consequences.) Put these two gratifying assumptions together and you arrive at a third assumption: the war will be over before we know it.

And so civilians make haste to view the initial battle lest they miss the all-too-brief excitement (First Battle of Manassas, American Civil War) or the combatants proclaim the war that started in late August will be over by Christmas (World War I). Alas, both wars dragged on for over four years as the bodies and consequences piled up.

All sorts of contingencies arise in war as plans go awry. For example, supplies viewed as more than ample for the expected lightning war run out as the war drags on, and there were no plans to resupply during the conflict. Opponents who were expected to run out of defensive ordnance manage to get resupplied, often by ingenious methods the attackers overlooked in their haste to grasp the easy, quick victory.

For example, when Israeli aircraft suffered major losses in the first stage of the 1973 war, the U.S. ferried A-4 Skyhawk aircraft across the Atlantic by positioning aircraft carriers so that pilots could hopscotch the short-range Skyhawks to the battle zone in record time.

Those launching wars tend to exaggerate their own ingenuity and forget that the fight for survival quickens the ingenuity of the opponent as well. It also quickens acts of heroism and hardens resolve. The Japanese aboard Imperial Navy ships steaming toward the island of Midway in June 1942 were surprised by American torpedo planes attacking without fighter cover, attacks that were essentially suicidal given the low odds of success. All the American planes were shot down and not a single American torpedo struck a Japanese ship.

Perhaps the ease of this small victory added to the hubristic over-confidence of the attackers, a hubris which when combined with the myopic planning mentioned above and the contingencies of combat mentioned above, left the cream of Japan’s carriers exposed to an attack by American dive bombers. Three of Japan’s four main battle carriers were left burning hulks and the fourth was destroyed within hours by secondary dive bomber attacks.

The U.S. Navy lost one carrier in the Battle of Midway. Japan lost the initiative. From then on, Japan was on the defensive.

Nobody makes war movies about logistics and supply lines. Moving rations, fuel and ordnance to the front lines is tedious and undramatic. Yet if the logistical train of the army or navy fails and rations, fuel and ordnance run out, the battle is lost and then the war is lost. War boils down to logistics, and the longer the supply lines, the greater the opportunity for disruption or destruction of the supplies by enemies. It turns out you need a second army and/or navy to protect your supply lines–something those confident in quick victory tend to overlook.

As the war drags on, the frustrated attackers resort to extremes of cruelty and destruction in a futile attempt to force a victory. But all the excessive cruelty and destruction does is launch a thousand second order effects, often including a hatred of the attackers that lasts decades or centuries.

It’s difficult to find a war that went as planned and impossible to find one that did not launch long-term second order effects. Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) is instructive on virtually every count of war’s folly: every attack galvanized opponents, every new campaign bled the treasuries of the attackers dry, every wave of destruction triggered a counter-wave of destruction until the exhausted combatants finally concluded the victory they’d anticipated was forever out of reach and so they settled for peace rather than war.

Wars are started with the assumption that the players and chessboard will remain as-is after the conflict, but this isn’t what happens. Consequences have consequences, and the players and chessboard change: some alliances strengthen, others weaken and dissolve, trade routes vanish and the weaker players are bankrupted by either the war or the occupation of the still-hostile opponents.

Nothing galvanizes opposition quite like naked aggression and nothing galvanizes domestic opposition like promising a splendid little war that transmogrifies into an endless costly occupation, bankruptcy and defeat.

Human folly depends most heavily on human pride. It’s difficult to swallow one’s pride and declare victory as a transparent cover for exiting the quagmire. (An honorable peace and other threadbare fictions.) The cost of pride not only bankrupts the treasury, it also lays waste to trust in the attacking nation to keep its word and sets aside whatever squabbles kept opposing nations from forming a united front.

Initial victories do not guarantee the war will be won. Rather, they arouse the most dangerous enemy: the fatal hubris of over-confidence.

The important lessons come from defeats, not victories. But by the time those lessons are absorbed, it may be too late to make use of them: the second order effects won.

This is a memorial outside an ancient village in the south of France. It is a typical village, perhaps a few hundred residents. The memorial commemorates three young French civilians who were taken out and shot by German soldiers in World War II for “crimes” of resistance.

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