by R. Anthony Arnold
I’ve been a skeptic about our role in the war over Ukraine for a while. If you’ve listened to our pods here, then this won’t surprise you. This isn’t an attempt to thump my chest or anything. The issue is too complicated for that. It’s just me being honest with you, the audience, about where I’m coming from.
My skepticism has always been fundamentally grounded in one thing, the history of ground wars. But while I’ve held and expressed these views privately, and discussed them on various shows, I haven’t taken the time to write them down and share them with you all.
So, that’s what I’m going to do here. While I do intend to keep this readable and high-level, any discussion like this has to delve a bit into the history of warfare in order to really drive home the point.
When it comes to ground wars, one of the more remarkable things about them is that, in a number of ways, they haven’t changed all that much. The participants have changed. The weapons have changed. But the basic outline really hasn't. Understanding this is the key to understanding two reporting failures that have plagued media coverage.
With traditional ground wars, the kind where two large armies slug it out, the limiting factor has been, for centuries now, how fast an individual soldier can move, not how fast a horse can move, not how fast a vehicle such as a tank can move; but how fast a reasonably fit and motivated person can move. The reason for that is the land mine.
Today, we think of the land mine as a piece of metal that lays in the ground, exploding when a tank or person steps on it. In fact, the land mine is hundreds of years old, tracing back to the Roman empire, predating explosives by at least a millennium. Of course, the design of these early mines was quite different, normally consisting of nothing more than sharp stakes that would trigger when a victim passed directly over them. But the idea was the same.
Men, and in particular calvary, couldn’t afford to simply race through a line of these traps without suffering catastrophic casualties. So, they would either have to maneuver slowly to avoid them, or have people take the time to dismantle them. While this was happening, you would rain arrows or spears, inflicting heavy damage and making them pay for every foot they tried to advance.
That theory of how to stop an advancing army hasn’t changed in the over 2,000 years since Julius Caesar did it in 52 B.C.E.
Even as wooden stakes slowly evolved into traditional land mines, and horses turned into tanks and other armored vehicles, the ability for rows of defenses to dramatically halt the advance of an army has stayed constant. There have been breakthroughs here and there as one side of the equation has a technological epiphany, but it’s, normally, never very long before the other side catches up again. So, when it became clear that Russia's invasion was stalling, reporters and media members should have been focusing on three things, the first two of which are the coverage failures I mentioned earlier:
Once Ukraine regrouped from the initial strike, they would start using minefields, an ancient weapon of war, to slow down Russia.
Once Russia realized they would be slowed down, the task of preparing for the inevitable Ukrainian counterattack was going to start with them using their own minefields.
Recent advances in technology have made large army advances more dangerous than any point in human history.
That last point is very important. I mentioned earlier that, from the beginning, minefields have been supported by fire from nearby stationed soldiers. The only drawback to that is, under most circumstances, if you’re close enough to shoot them, they’re close enough to shoot you. That’s no longer the case.
Drones have completely tipped the scales in favor of defenders. Modern day drones, combined with satellite imagery, can spot an advancing army from space. This also isn’t new. The Cuban Missile Crisis was, partly, started when the Lockheed U-2, which flies at 70,000 feet, gathered intelligence indicating that weapon sites were being set up in Cuba.
The major change now is that drones allow militaries to act on that intelligence immediately, and with overwhelming force. If an army is advancing through a minefield, having to move slowly to allow for detection or avoidance, then drones piloted by somebody stationed far from the battlefield can destroy them in a matter of minutes. To be stationary in this era is to be dead. It’s that simple.
If you’ve read any recent reporting about the status of the war, then you’ll have read something similar. But, what’s crucial to realize is that none of this reporting is based on new information. Minefields are old. High-altitude intelligence is old. At this point, drones are old.
The limitations of ground armies in traditional wars was known. The fact that inclement weather, of the kind that’s soon to arrive in Ukraine, slows down armies was known. The assumption, on the Russian side, that they would roll through Ukraine in a matter of days was foolish, not just because it counted on them being welcomed, but because it ignored centuries of military history. But, the assumption that Ukraine would rapidly overrun Russian defenses was equally foolish.
For months, it was widely reported that Ukraine would be getting tanks and other armored vehicles from the West. I assure you, Russia knows how to read the New York Times and Washington Post, and watches CNN. And thanks to military history, they knew exactly what to do in order to slow them down.
The fact that none of this was discussed, even as a possibility, represents a media failure no less serious than those that happened in the aftermath of 9/11. The reluctance to say something unpopular, to challenge military officials, or to stick out from the crowd is the same. And now, as then, the American people are left with a woefully distorted picture of what to expect.
I want to reiterate that I’m not some pro-Russia plant. Putin is a monster, and he alone bears responsibility for what’s happened. All of this death and destruction is due to the fact that his ego, and his arrogance, simply wouldn’t allow him to accept a reduced role in the affairs of the world. His twisted concern over “legacy” drove him to the point of lashing out in the way that all madmen eventually do.
However, recognizing his actions for the evil that they are is no justification for a failure to diligently report on an issue. It’s not an excuse for members of the media, with historians, military experts, and teams of researchers, not fully laying out the reality of what the war might look like. As the war marches on, and our continued role in it starts running headlong into our political system, it’s never been more important that the writing and reporting on it be clear, accurate, and helpful.
An understanding of (military) history is the best place to begin.