As you all know, the decade of the 1930s was an era of crisis. The horrible bloodletting of World War I was in the rear-view mirror by now, but it was clear that it had solved nothing. The globe was still split into haves and have-nots, established powers and johnny-come-lately newcomers. An arms race was threatening the peace, actually more like a series of arms races: on land, at sea, and in the air. The international body established to deal with tensions in the diplomatic sphere, disarming them before they could erupt into violence, seemed ever more impotent. The League of Nations tended to react to crises with words, not deeds: speeches, declarations, ultimata, expulsions. None of them seemed to work, unfortunately. The collapse of the international economy was a monster that trampled all attempts at compromise or reason. The rising powers—”revisionists,” they called themselves—took note of the weakness of the status quo, and drew up their plans accordingly.
Then, one day, one of the aggressors decided to march. On the surface, there was no casus belli, no cause for war. The real issue seemed to be testing the will of the democracies and their decadent populations, seeing if they still had the guts for the hard test of war, or if a century of material prosperity and world power had enervated them and sapped their strength. Perhaps they were too old and weak and tired to defend themselves. Perhaps it was time they gave way to vibrant younger powers like Italy, Japan, or Germany. Maybe they should retire and let the stronger states inherit the earth.
And so one of the aggressors unleashed that oldest cliché of all: Shakespeare’s “dogs of war.” I’ve never used it in print before, but this is as good a time as any. Because the notion of “unleashing the dogs” is a good one. When you launch a war, you are entering the realm of the uncertain. You are taking your chances. Will you be able to control subsequent events, or will they control you? Will the passions you unleash eventually devour everything you value? Six months from now, are you going to be shaking your head, binding up your wounds, and saying, “what in the world was I thinking?”
We might ask the same questions about the war under discussion here. It is a gamble from the start. The resources to fight it are short, from manpower to weapons to supplies. You have identified your enemy’s weaknesses, yes, but he also has some real strengths: a reputation for martial valor and a determination to die for the cause, characteristics that fill the history books of his country. Moreover, his land is primitive, the terrain difficult, the road network nearly non-existent, and his soldiers will probably give a good account of themselves.
You have advantages too, of course, or you wouldn’t even be considering war: modern technology, state of the art weapons (for the 1930s), and a doctrine for using them that has been worked out laboriously in maneuvers, exercises, and wargames. You know the difficulties that will accompany this campaign, but you are also confident that your new tanks and mechanized formations will be able to overcome enemy resistance quickly. Above all, you are certain that you can play the terror card: air power. Strafing, bombing, even poison gas if need be. If these weapons work as advertised, maybe you won’t even have to fight an extended land campaign.
And this last point is crucial. The international situation is a question mark, as always. You have worked hard to isolate your enemy, but diplomacy is always a question mark, a game in which today’s winner can suddenly morph into tomorrow’s loser. You have been very clever up to now, certainly, isolating your enemy, playing upon the divisions in the camp of the Great Powers, and thereby winning maximum freedom of maneuver for yourself.
But worries remain, and they keep you up at night. What if your enemy manages to line up allies? What if this nice little isolated war you have planned turns into a struggle against an enemy coalition, one that that vastly outnumbers and outproduces you? Your entire operational plan rests upon winning a quick war and presenting the world with a fait accompli–then as always the strongest card to play in foreign affairs.
Still, the timing seems propitious. Your enemies are divided. Your strength, while not optimal, should be sufficient. Above all, you have confidence in your personal star, one that is justified by previous events. If you had been timid in past moments of crisis, you would hardly sit in the seat of power that you currently hold. Your boldness has made you one of the two or three men currently deciding the course of world history. It is an incredible thought, when you consider where you were just 15 years before, a humble front-line soldier in World War I. A swine from the trenches. Back in the day, you spoke for your fellow veterans, and you rode their anger to power. Now you stand tall, ready to restore the Fatherland to greatness.
And so you decide to act. Your name is Benito Mussolini, you are the commander in chief of the Italian armed forces, and you are about to sign orders for the invasion of Ethiopia.
More next week.