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The White Flag Principle: How to Lose a War and Why (1972)

by Shimon Tzabar

You have heard of Pyrrhic victories. Tzabar suggests that perhaps all victories are Pyrrhic, and that it is far more advantageous to lose wars than to win them. Just look at Germany and Japan.

  • "Intentions," "aims" and "goals" tend to change as the fight goes on. Moreover, no commander or politician will declare his true intentions, especially when his intentions are aggressive. The common justification of war is self-defense.... The nature of such a pretext as self-defense is that it cannot be relinquished at any time. We should not overlook the fact that real aims and intentions are part of the grand strategy and are always kept secret. It is also unusual to make public the true aims of war, since if they are not achieved there is a loss of face. Statesmen have to be careful not to miss their proclaimed targets. The only way not to miss a target is to shoot first and then draw the bull's-eye around the arrow."
  • It can be argued that in this case the claims are not comparable since the Israelis had really shot down the planes, and the Syrians just said they had. This argument can be refuted on the following grounds: (1) There is no way of checking military claims, because anyone trying to check such facts during or immediately after a battle might be arrested as a spy; (2) even if the facts can be checked it is of no use since lies are part of warfare. To claim that four or six planes were shot down is as good as, and sometimes better than, actually shooting them down. Fabricated news has played an important role in war since ancient times and has sometimes been crucial in determining the outcome of real victories and defeats. "Well then," said Socrates, "supposing that a general sees that his force is downhearted, and issues a false statement that help is approaching, and by this falsehood restores the morale of his men: on which side shall we put this deceit?" "I think under Right."
    (22-3; Xenophon quotation is from Memoirs of Socrates and the Symposium, tr. Hugh Tredennick, Penguin, London, 1970, iv, 2. 14-17, p. 187.)
  • Island countries have no contiguous enemies or allies. Making them an enemy is the most difficult of all. The efforts that the United States of America made in the early 1940s to make Japan an enemy and drag her into war can serve as an example of such difficulties. Roosevelt started the process of making an enemy of Japan by freezing Japanese assets and credits in the United States. Then he placed an embargo on the export of aviation fuel and machine tools to Japan. According to Fuller, "This was a declaration of economic war." [J. F. C. Fuller, The Conduct of War, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1962, p. 270.] Nevertheless, the "declaration of economic war" was not sufficient to drag Japan into open hostilities with the United States. On 5 November 1941 Churchill wrote to Roosevelt: "The Japanese have as yet taken no final decision, and the Emperor appears to be exercising restraint. When we talked about this at Placentia you spoke of gaining time, and this policy has been brilliantly successful so far. But our joint embargo is steadily forcing the Japanese to decisions for peace or war." [Sir Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Cassell, London, 1951, III, pp. 526-27.] On the 20 November 1941 the Japanese government sent to Washington a proposal for a peaceful settlement. Roosevelt ignored the Japanese proposal and answered with a ten-point memorandum that was regarded by the Japanese as an ultimatum. Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, admitted before the Congress's Joint Committee on the Pearl Harbor Attack, the reason for this ultimatum: "The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves." [U.S. Congress, Hearings before the Joint Committee on the Pearl Harbor Attack, Washington, 1946, Pt. II, p. 5433.]
  • When commanders lead their troops from behind, they survive their armies even in gigantic catastrophes. Napoleon survived not only the destruction of his army but the destruction of his empire as well. In classical times the same happened to Hannibal. This is also true about General Lee, Chiang Kai-shek, Emperor Hirohito and many others. When contemplating a military disaster it is very important to prevent situations in which those who send others to die save their own skin. The Japanese general Tominaga used to deliver to his kamikazee pilots the following speech:
    "When men decide to die like you, they can move the heart of the Emperor. And I can assure you that the death of every one of you will move the Emperor. It will do more -- it will even change the history of the world. I know what you feel now as you put the sorrow and joys of life behind you -- for you will become gods. Soon I hope to have the privilege of joining you in your glorious death." [John Dean Potter, A Soldier Must Hang, New English Library, London, 1969, p. 128.]
    Did General Tominaga join them in their glorious death? No. At the last moment he fled to Formosa.
  • The release of the POWs and their adjustment to liberty is a serious problem. So also is the restoration of sovereignty to the vanquished which comes as soon as the victor realizes the burden he has put on himself when he occupied his opponent's territory. These problems, however, are not considered military debacles in the strict sense and therefore cannot be dealt with in the present volume. As far as military disasters are concerned, our task has been completed with the march of the troops into captivity. The surrender of the troops and their march into captivity demobilizes the army. With the disappearance of the army, all the military problems -- including debacles -- cease to exist.

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