Merciless brutality: an effective strategy?

Nov 2013
570
Kingdom of Sweden
#1
This thread is particularly focused on World War II, but can apply to any era in history.

We all know of the brutality of the world wars, with unarmed prisoners of war being massacred in the hundreds or cities being bombed mercilessly. But were such brutal acts against civilians an effective method of warfare? I know that the German bombing campaign against Britain failed to achieve the intended psychological damage - quite the opposite, in spurring the English to fight harder. On the other hand, the Mongols would conquer a quarter of the world thanks to their unrivaled brutality and merciless effectiveness.

But what if one of the great powers indoctrinated complete lack of mercy and unrivaled brutality in its entire armed force? What would the psychological and practical effects be for the enemy? This includes (but is not limited to); always massacring prisoners of war (the only possible exception being high-ranking commanders), exterminating the population of entire cities at any sign of civilian resistance, frequently using chemical and biological weapons, publicly displayed acts of torture, and organized campaigns of rape and plunder in newly occupied land. Among other atrocities that you might be able to imagine.

All this done deliberately, without mercy, by the entire army.
 
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May 2011
13,438
Navan, Ireland
#2
Well for instance the British were happy to surrender after all they'd treat prisoners fairly --- tens of thousands of Italians were positively eager to surrender to the British in North Africa rather than fight to the death for Mussolini.

So in the far east when the British surrendered to the Japanese they were treated like ****.

This eventually filtered down to the British rank and file so in battles such as Admin Box and Kohima often quite 'weak' rear echelon troops new that their choice as to fight and win or die -- fight they did.
 

Edratman

Ad Honorem
Feb 2009
6,063
Eastern PA
#3
The Mongol Horde conquered much of the world with brutality a major component of their tactical array.

Purposeful brutality probably has its place as a successful tactic. Like most military tactics, it also has a flipside.

The brutality of the Nazi's toward Russian civilians was not a military tactic, it was merely bestial behavior. The same could be said for the abuses the Japanese Army inflicted on the civilians an POW's of WW II.

Regardless, if you just some poor schmuck civilian in 1942 Russia or 13th century Asia, getting killed for no apparent reason sure appears pointless.

The success of Mongol tactics hinged on fear: to induce capitulation amongst enemy populations. From the perspective of modern theories of international relations, Quester suggests that, "Perhaps terrorism produced a fear that immobilized and incapacitated the forces that would have resisted."[9] Although perceived as being bloodthirsty, the Mongol strategy of "surrender or die" still recognized that conquest by capitulation was more desirable than being forced to continually expend soldiers, food, and money to fight every army and sack every town and city along the campaign's route.

Destruction under the Mongol Empire - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 
Mar 2014
8,881
Canterbury
#4
If done as part of a carrot and stick approach ('surrender to us and you can live, do not and we'll kill you all') it can be a very effective approach, provided you have the reputation and discipline to do it justice.

If done for its own sake, though, it rarely works: if a civilian is as liable to be killed as a resistance fighter, they've not only lost all reason to not become a resistance fighter but been given active encouragement. If a soldier isn't able to surrender, they'll fight on, and needlessly cost lives in the process.
 
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Dec 2014
518
US
#5
This thread is particularly focused on World War II, but can apply to any era in history.

We all know of the brutality of the world wars, with unarmed prisoners of war being massacred in the hundreds or cities being bombed mercilessly. But were such brutal acts against civilians an effective method of warfare? I know that the German bombing campaign against Britain failed to achieve the intended psychological damage - quite the opposite, in spurring the English to fight harder. On the other hand, the Mongols would conquer a quarter of the world thanks to their unrivaled brutality and merciless effectiveness.

But what if one of the great powers indoctrinated complete lack of mercy and unrivaled brutality in its entire armed force? What would the psychological and practical effects be for the enemy? This includes (but is not limited to); always massacring prisoners of war (the only possible exception being high-ranking commanders), exterminating the population of entire cities at any sign of civilian resistance, frequently using chemical and biological weapons, publicly displayed acts of torture, and organized campaigns of rape and plunder in newly occupied land. Among other atrocities that you might be able to imagine.

All this done deliberately, without mercy, by the entire army.
If one side wants to be treated with merciless brutality, it can guarantee that treatment by adopting a policy of merciless brutality. What I'm saying is that its never smart to be brutal and merciless, because it attracts the same treatment from the opposite side.

But in war its impossible to be merciful that is why war itself is not an intelligent endeavor. People who start wars always end up suffering because of it in one way or another.
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,386
#6
The brutal and merciless campaigns of the Mongols are definitely overstated. Romans and many others were far worse. As for Mongol political aims and psychological warfare you have to recognize the era and opponents they were operating within and against.

Firstly most of the Mongol brutality was in response to rebellion or long sieges and more aimed at ensuring the peace afterwards. Weakening the resolve of current opposition worked for the Mongols because their enemy was usually also a conquering people with many subject peoples who were usually forced to contribute themselves by their overlords and Mongol brutality during campaigns was less important than the seeming implacability of the Mongol victories. When Mongols faced a relatively united and self identified state/people they had much more difficult campaigns.

In the modern world then horrible brutality might make sense in a very few places but more often than not the results would be far worse- when people have nothing to lose by fighting why wouldn't they choose to fight? It is much easier to force capitulation due to the perceived failure of an opponents political leadership and then complete the conquest with relatively light occupation with just enough presence to ensure the political stability of a picked puppet government.

This failed in the U.S. occupation of Iraq because the initial invasion was overly successful in what targets were hit- destroying large amounts of infrastructure and then trying to wipe out not only the upper leadership of Iraqi government but down to relatively local Ba'ath party officials and focusing on exploitation of Iraqi oil reserves ahead of rebuilding other infrastructure. This created power vacuum as the handpicked leaders in Baghdad were separated both geographically and politically from the rest of Iraq and local government was either absent or failed to sustain public trust let alone patience when infrastructure was not rebuilt quickly enough outside of the oil fields.

Propaganda of the U.S. which said Iraq was basically 'evil' and the ongoing destruction of the bureaucracy of the state without recognizing that mostly the state apparatus and Ba'ath party were ingrained part of Iraqi identity and destroying that left an anarchy of tribal, religious, and ethnic affiliations. Not to mention that it was the 2nd U.S. attack in about a decade made most of the people who lived in Iraq yet had nothing to do with the narrative which U.S. stated was the reason for the attack felt they had nothing to lose even if U.S. wasn't leaving bodies littered in the streets there were enough civilian deaths and impact on the quality of life for most of the population that it felt like a merciless attack. U.S. bombs might have mostly avoided hospitals (there were a few accidents) but the bombs did hit power stations and warehouses which made those hospitals function.

Most large states in the modern world have fairly strong identities and complicated infrastructure where brutal and merciless is likely to make the entire population resist strongly since they are all under attack and can only expect relief by victory. So unless the invading nation has vastly more manpower it just won't work. China taking Tibet, Russia seizing Crimea, etc.

Even the Japanese invasion of China (where Chinese manpower was significantly higher) was only somewhat successful due to splintered Chinese identity and mutual distrust of the various Chinese leadership groups. Most of the rest of the modern large scale invasions have been conducted by the U.S. against vastly weaker opponents with only the Korea and Vietnam ending in relative stalemate due to Chinese intervention and all other U.S. invasions succeeding in the immediate objectives though also failing in the long term.

Israel/Arab wars aren't really 'large scale' though more than border skirmish the number of people involved and size of territories are relatively small. That leaves Chinese attack into Vietnam, India/Pakistan, and maybe less than a handful of other examples of relatively large scale attempted invasions none of which were overwhelmingly brutal. For real brutality you have to look at more localized conflicts that are mostly civil wars. Balkans, Sudan, Cambodia, Congo, Latin American conflicts, etc.
 
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Nov 2011
4,640
Ohio, USA
#7
Originally Posted by Ichon
The brutal and merciless campaigns of the Mongols are definitely overstated. Romans and many others were far worse. As for Mongol political aims and psychological warfare you have to recognize the era and opponents they were operating within and against.

Firstly most of the Mongol brutality was in response to rebellion or long sieges and more aimed at ensuring the peace afterwards. Weakening the resolve of current opposition worked for the Mongols because their enemy was usually also a conquering people with many subject peoples who were usually forced to contribute themselves by their overlords and Mongol brutality during campaigns was less important than the seeming implacability of the Mongol victories. When Mongols faced a relatively united and self identified state/people they had much more difficult campaigns.
I think the inhabitants of Zhongdu, Bukhara, Samarkand, Vladimir, Baghdad, Delhi, and Aleppo would disagree that Mongol brutality was 'overstated' or that 'Romans and many others were far worse.'

In all fairness though, I will differentiate between the calculated brutality of, say, Genghis Khan, with the wanton brutality of Batu, Hulagu, and Tamerlane. All were quite brutal, however.
 
Jan 2009
8,405
In the Past
#9
Personally if I were at the head of a powerful ancient army, and I proved a great general, then my neighbors had better pray to their God for mercy, because I would give them none. I would burn half the continent out of existence to enforce my domination, and their inhabitants would be the fuel with which it burned.

However, I'm not the leader of a powerful army. So everyone's a little more safe. a little.
 

SSDD

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
3,876
India
#10
Yes they are effective, after all in war the moment one takes weapons and prepares to kill , he becomes morality less. Fine example is Islamic conquest of India. Muslim armies ravaged everything where they went including wholesale slaughter of civilians and destruction of temples, poisoning wells, taking slaves and forced conversion. But when Hindu armies fought they generally tended to fight in Just War Theory. The result everyone knows.
 

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