Stonewall Jackson’s troops would walk 20 miles a day, many of them without shoes, to get at the enemy. Military psychologists agree on what makes troops fight hard or badly. Abstract war goals (fighting for freedom, for one’s country, for an ideology) play little part when one gets down to battle. What really counts is a soldier’s ties to close comrades and his need for their respect. No one wants to be the first to run, or to leave buddies down. The reverse is equally true: it’s damn hard to fight under officers you despise, especially for a cause you scorn.
Rulers are most likely to enjoy stability when they have the tacit consent of their people. The wisest know that such consent is conditional in nature. Hence, they avoid deeply unpopular decisions or even worse, a whole series of them. Otherwise political legitimacy is lost for good, as happened in Syria and Iran. Now such regimes rest on force alone–a hard thing to retain in the long run. However, the biggest catch is that their huge edge in expensive military equipment is useful only to the degree they can rely on human beings who come from the people being oppressed.
Nazi officers–even those in the SS–complained of growing morale problems among the troops when forced to machine gun hundreds of men, women and children, even babies, and despite the fact that a large number of those victims were Jews, who the troops had been conditioned to to hate. We know that the top SS man in charge of extermination personally warned Heinrich Himmler that the regime would have to find some other way to eliminate undesired civilians. So how much worse can such morale problems become when troops are ordered to target their own population, people with whom they can easily identify.
In crushing any rebellion, dictators always starts with incomparable advantages in in manpower, training and and equipment they have no qualms about using. However they also have a huge Achilles heel that cannot really come into play initially–the huge gap in potential motivation/morale that can comes into play only when the regime has brutalized demonstrators badly enough and long enough to provoke the first defections.
This is where the mullahs grasped what Green leaders didn’t–the key to regime victory is nip things early or “a stitch in time savers nine.” Avoid being caught by surprise. Fill every street corner with thugs before things can get out of hand. It is conveivable that the post-2009 demonstrations might have reached the critical point (defections) had not Green leaders, fearful of any violence, not assisted the Bad Guys by sending “invitations” to security force thugs in advance and by holding protests at announced intervals so thugs could catch a breath. When protest acquires momentum, you don’t put on the brakes.
The more widely a regime is stretched to counter demonstrations, the more it must use “unreliable” troops instead of thugs without conscience. Sooner or later, revulsion induces some of those troops to defect in order to protect the people. If the regime can stop such defections early and as news spreads among the troops, the number of defections can snowball, aided further by the regime’s desperate actions. Eventually the most effective and best trained rebel fighters emerge from the very forces sent to crush them–those who have glimpsed the regime’s dirty underside. In Iran, the very idea of Khamenei’s holiness becomes laughable once you’ve had to sleep with the guy.
In the early stages of military conflict, money buys mercenaries while personal wealth, privilege (and fear) keeps most officers in line. Not much cash is left for the troops especially as large scale protests wreak havoc on an already battered economy. So long as things go easy and the militias can handle most troublemakers, troop motivation remains an insignificant factor. It will matter later. Yet I think of haunting photographs of confident German troops from the 6th army horsing around in the summer of 1943, swimming in nearby river, their faces smiling as they pose with their arms wrapped around photos of their buddies. They were headed for Stalingrad (and Siberian gulags later) and had no idea of how their lives would change.
Hitler enjoyed highly motivated troops who were led by officers they could respect. They were not asked to slaughter fellow Germans(except for certain minorities). In the springtime of conflict, to put down unarmed protestors is as easy as picking grapes off a vine or France invading Monaco. Historically the balance of forces in a revolution can shift with frightening speed. When it does, those officers who engaged in too many atrocities might stay on a sinking ship but why would anyone else? Abstract motives (Defend your leader! Love the Islamic Republic!) look like a joke while the motives that really count in combat have been extinguished by earlier tactics used to compel troops.
Imagine yourself as a professional soldier commanded to enforce mullah rule. Your officers order you to shoot unarmed protestors, smash their faces with your rifle butts or protect specialized thugs inflicting such horrors (Basilj, Iranian or Lebanese Hezboolah, Palestinian “volunteers). The victims (unarmed) resemble your friends, families or acquaintances). Their only crime is to insist on the same things many of the troops desire. (human rights, democrarcuy, a free press, fair elections, etc.)
To “teach youa lesson” your commanding officer shoots your best friend for not firing on civilians when ordered to do so, or for attemptingh to defect. Maybe you’ll be required to pull the trigger. How long before you defect? The number of loyal officers is limited and they can’t stay awake 24 hours a day. How long can such an army function effectively.
A news item from Syria demonstrates nicely how such things snowball. You can bet most Syrians are cheering the FSA today: