Understanding your enemy
Try not to underestimate—or overestimate
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I once texted a history buff I know, “A Senator on TV just said Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.” My taciturn son replied, “Don’t underestimate your enemy.”
It was good advice, and seldom heeded throughout history.
After the Dunkirk evacuation of cornered British forces in a makeshift flotilla across the English Channel during the spring of 1940, Hitler wrongly expected Britain to seek peace, and then wrongly thought his Luftwaffe could make a quick end to the island nuisance so that he could turn his attention to his real interest—Russia. But he underestimated the Royal Air Force and the British “Blitz spirit.”
Turning eastward to a people he dismissed as racially inferior Slavic “Untermensch,” Hitler underestimated the sheer size of Russia, its endless pool of recruits, the heartless determination of Gen. Zhukov, and the Russian winter. His Operation Barbarossa not only proved a failure but is reputed by some historians to be the turning point of the war.
The Führer’s disdain of Russia was partly understandable, of course, since he had witnessed a year earlier Stalin’s own humiliating underestimation of outnumbered Finland’s defense of its homeland in the 1939 “Winter War.” Moreover, after initially overestimating the French, only to find them buckle to blitzkrieg in a mere six weeks, Hitler assumed he could make short work of the Russian “paper tiger” too. (He had forgotten the military axiom, “Never fight a land war in Asia unless you’re heading west.”)
Stalin underestimated Hitler’s treachery and obsession with Lebensraum, and was so lulled into false security by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact that even after three top spies assured him of an imminent German attack—and told him the very date!—he refused to believe them.
At first wildly successful, Hitler’s attack on his erstwhile ally Russia, in the largest land invasion force ever assembled, was doomed when his brutality, plundering, and starving of the Ukrainians—a people whose support he could have gained because Stalin had embittered them by his own brutal collectivization policies—succeeded only in making new enemies.
Japan’s own World War II miscalculations included taking on the United States when it already had its hands full on other fronts, and in making enemies of the Eastern peoples (as Hitler did with Ukraine) whom they would have done well to woo as brothers against the “imperialist” West.
Meanwhile, back in Singapore, hitherto Britain’s stronghold in the far East, Gen. Percival was overseeing his own nation’s great military defeat by erroneously reckoning Singapore to be an impenetrable fortress, and not bothering to prepare for a land invasion through Malaya. Even as the Japanese were methodically plucking their way south down the peninsula, British officers were holding Christmas parties at the Raffles Hotel.
Causes of underestimation, as well as overestimation, may include ignorance, pride, racism, and whatever other failings flesh is heir to. Only the One in heaven sees clearly what for the rest of us is seen through a glass darkly.
God would have us estimate our enemies neither too highly nor too lightly. When “the heart of [King] Ahaz [of Judah] and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” over the menacing Syrian-Israel evil alliance, God was not impressed. “Two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (Isaiah 7:2, 4), He called them: “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is [only] Damascus, and the head of Damascus is [only] Rezin” (verses 7-8).
In the spiritual realm, most importantly, let us neither over- nor underestimate our historic Enemy. On the one hand, soberness and diligence are called for because he prowls with power to devour the unwary (1 Peter 5:8).
On the other hand, Satan’s own vast underestimation is coming to light soon, on the day when “the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendor of his coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
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