Elvis Won the Cold War

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 10-10-2021

    General’s and theoreticians for five millennia have insisted you must “know your enemy.” Yet, the list of those who’ve failed to take that advice is long and distinguished.

One of history’s truly magnificent failures in understanding the enemy was committed by perhaps the greatest field commander in history: Hannibal. Hannibal invaded Italy in 218 BC and for 16 years raged up and down the peninsula inflicting a series of spectacular tactical defeats on the Romans and their allies. These defeats are so astounding, the battles he waged so perfectly executed, that they’re still studied with almost reverence by soldiers and historians around the world. 

In one of the greatest single day bloodlettings in history, the battle of Cannae in August of 216 BC, Hannibal, with perhaps 40,000 men and 10,000 cavalry defeated a Roman army of some 90,000 - killing at least 50,000 (some estimates run to more than 80,000 Romans), while suffering some 6,000 casualties. To put that in greater context, the vast majority of the organized fighting took place in about 4 hours from late morning until early afternoon, and the vast bulk of those killed were killed with hand-held thrusting spears and short swords. 

The population of Rome and its allied city states at that time was roughly 5 million. Thus, in a single day 1% of the entire population was killed in combat. Imagine 3.3 million Americans being killed, in combat, today.

And what did the Roman Republic do in the wake of this disaster? It raised another army. And kept armies in the field opposite Hannibal for the next 14 years.

Hannibal, in fact, never lost an engagement in 16 years of combat until he was defeated at Zama, near Carthage, in 202 BC, by Scipio Africanus. Scipio was a superb general, but key to Hannibal’s defeat was that a large slice of his army defected to the Romans the morning of the battle.

In all this, Hannibal was certain that if he kept defeating Roman armies that the Roman allies that made up all the small city-states of the Italian peninsula would eventually come over to the Carthaginians. They never did. 

Hannibal suffered from the same misunderstanding that the Pentagon has suffered from for the last 75 years, a failure to understand will.

In the wake of our retreat from Afghanistan there have already been scores of articles. (books are certainly on the way), asking and answering the question: Why did we lose? But, perhaps that’s the wrong question. Instead, we need to ask and answer the opposite question: “Why did we win? Why did we win WWI, WWII, and the Cold War?”

There are a host of elements to that answer: US economic and industrial capacity, our huge pool of manpower, eventually, superior technology, etc. But, in the end, the answer boils down to the same reason Rome was able to beat Hannibal: will.

Yet the Pentagon continues to focus on TTP (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures), doctrine, operational art, military strategy, national strategy, even a tightly woven “whole of government” grand strategy. None of these will answer for a lack of will. And there is no will if there is no skin in the game. 

At the very root, we won World War I, World War II, and the Cold War because the American people as a whole, despite the concerted efforts of any number of leftist politicians and academicians, were committed to winning. How committed? Elvis Presley even thought so. Sure, Colonel Tom Parker may have seen it as key to his public relations, but isn’t that the point? The Colonel recognized the American people weren’t going to give even Elvis a bye when it came to serving the nation. That sense, that he needed to go because America would demand it, is missing. It’s missing for any number of reasons: the strategic confusion in Vietnam, the concomitant social and cultural upheavals, the rise of the professional military, the increasingly technical and technological nature of combat, misguided public education, etc. 

We can list all sorts of reasons why we retreated out of Afghanistan, we can rightly insist that we bested them in combat again and again, but in the end, the Taliban won, and we left. After all the talk of TTPs, of technology, of training, of dominant battle space awareness, of persistent surveillance, of increasingly precise weapons (the weapon that was fired several weeks ago went exactly where it was supposed to go, it was just a horribly, tragically wrong aim point), all that mattered not at all. 

The hard fact is that less than 100,000 folks armed with nothing more than AK-47s and old RPGs won. No cutting-edge technology, no tightly integrated command and control, no focused logistics, no Artificial Intelligence, no comprehensive Cyber Doctrine, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Walking around in sandals, they won. We lost. That is a function of will. They had will, we did not; we as a nation did not. 

We as a nation were not at war. In fact, from day one we were told that we must live our lives as if nothing had happened. I understand the intent. But the message as it was internalized meant that for the vast majority of Americans, the war had no substantive impact and required no commitment. It happened far away, it involved other people, it affected them economically not at all, and socially and culturally was little more than an inconvenience.

In the end, Rome beat Hannibal not because Rome was richer but because the Romans were committed. Yes, Rome was richer and had more men. But the casualties were immense. Nevertheless, Rome kept accepting the losses. The people of Rome kept accepting those losses. The People of Rome were committed to their freedom, to their republic; they had will. 

We won World War I, we won World War II, we won the Cold War, because the citizenry were committed; everyone in one way or another was involved. Like the Roman Republic, the citizens had “skin in the game.”

That Elvis Presley went to Germany can be seen as a small but real demonstration of national will, and the concomitant national identity. Colonel Parker rightly understood that Elvis had to be seen as a real GI if his reputation was to survive. That sense, that we are all in this, held together. Until we recapture that national commitment to our security and our identity, true victories may be hard to come by.