(W)Archives: Size Isn’t Everything

June 13, 2014

As of this writing, the Iraqi army seems to be in free fall while forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are capturing city after city in Iraq. All the tangible measures of military power are in favor of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; the Iraqi army is bigger and better equipped than ISIS. The intangibles, however, tell a different story. The army is low on morale, few of its soldiers have the will to die for Maliki, its command and control structures are slow and unwieldy in ways strikingly similar to those of Saddam’s military, and the degree to which the army’s training really stuck has always been suspect.

This is an old story, as a quick look back at events of 32 years ago reminds us. On June 14th, 1982 the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina was some ten weeks old. On that day, Margaret Thatcher rose to address the House of Commons and asked the Speaker, “may I give the house our latest information about the Battle of the Falklands?” We can hear her voice making this historic statement thanks to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. She told the assembled Members of Parliament, “Our forces reached the outskirts of Port Stanley. Large number of Argentine soldiers threw down their weapons. They are reported to be flying white flags.” The war was over and the British had won. (Listen through to the end of the recording to hear the House shout down a member who tries to debate legislation relating to Public Health Scotland despite the House’s desire to go celebrate this latest British feat of arms.)

While the moral values of the British forces and of ISIS are as different as black and white, what they accomplished is quite similar: a triumph of the military intangibles over the tangibles. Like ISIS, the British seemed to be at an enormous disadvantage vis-à-vis their adversaries. The British forces were operating in the South Atlantic many thousands of miles away from Britain while the Argentinians were operating in their own backyard. The British flagship was an aircraft carrier already slated for decommissioning. The British strength on the ground was less than that of the Argentinians. Moreover, even on the technical level, British forces had only a few advantages over the Argentinians. True, the British had a trump card in the form of the submarine Conqueror which sank the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano with great (and infamous loss of life). On the other hand, the Argentinians had a higher trump card with Exocet missiles launched from French-built Super Etendard strike fighters. With these missiles and other weapons, they destroyed seven British ships and damaged others.

It was a close-run thing as the memoirs of British Admiral Sandy Woodward, the commander of the British task force, make excruciatingly clear. Ultimately, however, the British had more grit, cohesion, and training. Put another way, they were far more skilled at wringing every last bit of utility out of the tangible assets they possessed. Those intangible skills made all the difference.

Napoleon was not entirely wrong when he said “God is on the side of the bigger battalions.” However, size really isn’t everything. How you use your assets matters every bit as much. Things like individual and unit-level skills and morale are difficult for external observers to measure, which is one reason that wars are full of surprises like we’ve seen this week and we saw in 1982.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Hugh Llewelyn