"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Mission creep, once it starts, can gather pace and prove impossible to hold back"
In his 1967 novel, "Why we fight in Vietnam," Norman Mailer identified "corrupt capitalism, imperialism, and aggressive hyper-masculinity" as causes of war that bled American innocence dry. Add to that profound misunderstanding.
America entered a civil war it couldn't comprehend or win. Atop that, all its fancy weapons systems, analytics and heroics made no difference. Afghanistan is another example.
All this came back to me as the latest evolution of war in Ukraine hauled into view. Yet, cutting through the propaganda fed to the mainstream media (uncritically lapped up by supine editors) remains a challenge.
When the history of the First World War was written, many reasons fell away for the onset of the slaughter leaving the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand as the pivot point. Likewise, for the Second World War, people point to the invasion of Poland as the starting point. However, they ignore the fact that Japan was already rampaging through China, before it went on across Asia.
I do wonder what future historians will conclude, if any are around, when the text of the next big one gets written. Will it be the invasion of Ukraine or the formal recognition that NATO is at war with Russia? I ask because the facade of the proxy war has slipped.
In the past weeks, we've had a steady diet of news about supplying tanks to Ukraine. I'll explain why Germany faced tremendous pressure to provide its formidable Leopard II. At times, even blackmail by way of reminding Germany about its moral duty after the Second World War.
In supporting Ukraine, the Germans are generally considered the most reluctant mainstream NATO ally. Since the outset of the invasion, they've prevaricated. Mocked for offering to send thousands of helmets in the early days, they've shown a distinct unease at getting involved. Hence, some strategic bullying proved necessary to whip them into line. Commanding the moral height of shaming Germany is the latter-day Übermensch.
Zelensky, the darling of the West's politicians who bask in his reflected glory, demanded Leopard II tanks. He again demonstrated a superb command of the narrative by framing the request as 'defending the freedom-loving west.'
Still, months ago, Biden and NATO asserted that the provision of tanks was impossible. So what has changed? Well, despite all claims to the contrary, Ukraine is losing ground while the Russians continue throwing missiles around. In a war of attrition, Ukraine will struggle to hold on.
Additionally, sanctions aren't working, and the Russian people remain behind Putin or are at least indifferent. Sure, some have fled to avoid military service, but not in the numbers that will make a significant difference. Likewise, Biden's assertion he'd collapse the Russian economy has proven hollow. If anything, the sanctions have hardened attitudes in Russia by affirming the view that the West seeks to destroy them.
Meantime, India, China and many others are more than willing to take Russian oil as Europeans see their fuel bills go through the roof. With the U.S. threatening their interests, the emerging superpowers will continue to play a canny game and leverage developments to their advantage.
So, why is Ukraine so keen to get its hands on the Leopard II? To answer that question, you must know that wars are won by logistics and by making things as simple as possible. And in the Western narrative, the right tank could be the game changer.
The Leopard II, reckoned to be the best tank for the job, is available in numbers in Germany and elsewhere in the region, with estimates of 2000 ready for use. Unlike the over-complicated U.S. M1 Abrams, with its fancy jet engine and sophisticated fire control systems, the Leopard II has a diesel engine, can move fast and has a decent gun.
Also, training and maintenance for the Leopard II will prove easier. A well drilled crew can do a full, in the field, engine change in 20 minutes. But, I have to say, none of the tanks offered by NATO nations will soon reach the battlefield. So don't get fooled by the hype. It may take months, if not years, before the full complement is ready for action.
Meanwhile, to spare its politician's blushes from the reluctant German people, the U.S. gives political top cover by providing some 30 M.1 tanks. Although U.S. officials admit, these won't arrive for at least six months. Last year, the U.S. made much noise around supplying the Patriot missile defence system to Ukraine to stop crazy Vlad's rockets. But, unfortunately, the system still hasn't arrived.
The Brits have made two Challengers immediately available in what appears to be another piece of window dressing. The Challenger is an excellent tank, but two won't make much military difference. Another 12 are said to come from Britain's paltry number of around 240. It's reported that poor maintenance means it will take time to get them ready. Only months ago, Britain contemplated scrapping the lot.
With Leopards from Germany, Spain, Canada and Poland, a few Challengers and French tanks, the Ukrainians could, in time, make up a credible force of over 130 tanks. Germany indicated it could provide 90 Leopards; add to that 14 from Poland.
Still, when you cut through all the media trumpeting of Biden and NATO, a few home truths need asserting. The supply of these tanks, whether Challengers, Leopards, Abrams or whatever, makes no difference to the immediate battle on the ground.
Why do I say that? Well, for starters, such a mix of tanks will need long supply lines, different maintenance regimes, and a wide variety of spares and technicians. All this takes time and creates complications in an already stretched Ukrainian military. Plus, it begs the question of whether NATO technicians must be close to the battlefront to service the tanks. If yes, that raises the possibility of their direct involvement.
Let us not forget that the Ukrainians received about 300 former Warsaw Pact T-72 tanks last year. It's not clear how these fared.
Generally seen as offensive rather than defensive weapons, tanks can make a difference. Yet, they also need infantry deployed with them to provide cover from the modern and potent anti-tank missiles. Last year, the Russians relearned that lesson the hard way. As a result, how Ukraine can integrate these various tanks, with different capabilities, into a coordinated, effective, mechanised unit remains unclear.
Of course, the danger in supplying more potent weapons is that NATO is pouring fuel on the fire and making negotiations harder. All wars end in negotiations, and as the first anniversary of Putin's illegal invasion arrives, the chance of talks is receding.
Mission creep, once it starts, can gather pace and prove impossible to hold back. Now, having a promise of his tanks, Zelensky wants long-range missiles and fighter jets.
Shortly, Russian soldiers could again be cut down by German tanks. Putin will doubtlessly summon up the weight of history to claim the Germans are on the march. Arguably, NATO handed him a propaganda victory. No wonder the Germans were reluctant to act.
Returning to Mailer's book, he provides a potent reminder of how nations become entrapped by aggression once the war machine rolls. As his protagonist, Randy Jethroe, stalks a bear (how apt) through the woods, tracking and eventually killing the animal, he loses his soul — "violence is as American as cherry pie". The next day he ships to fight in Vietnam, and we hear no more of him.
On this bleak scene we now gaze to ask, is this the point when it all kicks off? It's no coincidence that last week, the doomsday clock advanced 90 seconds towards midnight.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.