Alors, c'est la guerre
Updated: Oct 29
Today is OXI Day, the anniversary of Greece’s entry into the Second World War. As with most anniversaries, it’s a time for reflection into the meaning of a nation-state and how we define ourselves as citizens and individuals.
The Greece of 1940 was not by any means an idyllic place. The economy was largely agrarian: to get from Athens to Thessaloniki was more easily accomplished by steamer ship than by road.
Getting from Athens to the village in mainland Greece my mother called home was a mini-odyssey requiring a steamer from Pireaus and a transfer onto mules that went over mountain trails. There were literally no roads.
It was a journey not only in space, but in time. From the 20th century, arguably, to the 19th. From a capital city with some utilities to a village without. Electricity only came to my mother’s village in the 1970s.
In 1940, Greece was a fragmented country. The country’s borders had changed following the two Balkan Wars, World War I and the 1919-1922 war against Turkey. Greece was dealing with the influx of refugees from Asia Minor as well as the expansion of national territories gained.
The Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, had lived through several wars, exile, the national schism, and exile again, as well as several coup d’etats. He was one of several to argue that Greece could not sustain a military campaign in Anatolia.
His political career in the mid-1930s became increasingly ... erratic. This came to a head in 1936, when he declared an ant-communist state of emergency and began ruling as a dictator. Ironically, he adapted many of the symbols and tactics of Benito Mussolini, including abolishing Parliament, censoring media, engineering a corporatist state, and taking the symbols of the Minoan double-headed axe and the Roman salute.
He was also the founder of the Social Insurance Institute (IKA - Ίδρυμα Κοινωνικών Ασφαλίσεων), which exists to this day.
The decision to oppose the Italian invasion prompted by Benito Mussolini was no surprise. Italian aggression against Greece had been demonstrated by a number of incidents. In 1939, Italy occupied Albania, on Greece’s north-western border, with 20 divisions.
In response, Greece made overtures to the United Kingdom, which was recognized as being the pre-eminent naval power in the Mediterranean, and a necessary counterweight to Italy. This was also despite a professed affiliation by Metaxas for Benito Mussolini and other facist leaders at the time. An Anglo-French military guarantee was provided to Greece in April 1939.
On August 15th,1940, Italy sank the Greek light cruiser Elli at anchor.
On October 28th, 1940, Metaxas was visited by Italian Ambassador to Athens Emanuele Grazzini with a demand for right of passage and occupation of certain Greek military sites by Italy. Metaxas responded immediately, in French: "Alors, c'est la guerre"
This entered popular imagination as “OXI” (no), and is the reason for today’s celebration.
The resulting war between Greece and Italy has entered the realm of myth. A poorly-equipped Greek army not only stopped the invasion by a better-equipped rival, but pushed Italian forces back over the Albanian border, liberating areas that were historically Greek.
It was one of the few, if not the only, Allied Victories against the Axis to that date, prompting a quote attributed to Winston Churchill:
“Hence, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
This in turn forced Adolph Hitler to invade Greece in April 1941, culminating the Battle of Crete in May 1941. This invasion is often credited with delaying Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia, leading to a fundamental change in the outcome of World War II.
I would prefer not to argue about either the Churchill quote or the delay of Operation Barbarossa: there are plentiful arguments for and against.
My point is the following:
Our history shows us that despite whatever aspirations to peace and good relations between neighbours may exist, we need to be ready for military operations to defend our territory.
Rhetoric, good intentions and the rule of law are no substitute for this.
Our history also shows us that in general, democracies do not declare aggressive war against their neighbours. Typically, dictatorships do.
Certainly, at this stage, Greece does not have territorial claims against its neighbours. But there is one neighbour that has active territorial claims against Greece.
We have joined both an alliance of cooperative military defence (NATO) as well as a joint economic area (the European Union), but we all recognize that real military support will not be forthcoming in the case of crisis.
Indeed, most countries with whom we share these alliances actually have greater economic self-interest with the aggressor claiming Greek territory, than with Greece.
If we don’t recognize this, we are deceiving ourselves.
The rival we face is not only much larger in terms of population and military, but has experience in conventional and hybrid warfare from campaigns dating back 20 years. In other words, they are familiar with the use of force. We are not.
Any military conflict will inevitably be determined by:
· Control of the air (which implies sufficient airframes, crews, munitions, maintenance, and C3I). This includes defense of airfields and vital infrastructure.
· The ability to counter a multi-pronged ground attack to seize and control several Greek islands. Some of these will be unpopulated, but it is certain that many will be populated. This requires local command and control, sufficient munitions, the ability to defeat drones, the ability to defeat paramilitaries in civilian clothes as well as regular troops and elite troops, prepared positions, etc.
· The ability to counter surface and underwater assets while at the same time maintaining control of airspace and supporting air-to-ground interdiction missions.
· The ability to maintain communications, command and control in the face of electronic warfare, including the inevitable public relations war.
· The necessity of resupplying vulnerable fronts under hostile air, sea and ground opposition.
In all of these domains, we are unprepared for modern realities. We are under-equipped, under-trained and under-led. This is not a criticism of any one government or person. But it is nonetheless a fact.
We have pockets of excellence in our armed forces, but we lack scale, integration and spare parts. These areas should all be expanded and reinforced, taking into account the extremely high pace of destruction and material use in modern warfare.
We are taking too many aspects for granted and ignoring the fact that in a hybrid war, events will take place on the ground within 3 hours that are designed to fundamentally alter reality. Our command and control system is not ready for this. Our forward dispositions are not ready for it.
We are too reliant on a conscript army that, despite its best intentions, is neither equipped, nor led, nor ready for the type of independent action needed to defend Greek territory across the large number of islands that need defending.
We try to follow the rule of law, against an opponent that does not.
Our mentality is one of a liberal European democracy. We are not encouraged to be militarily ready, even if it were a necessity. We are not supported by our European allies, except as a method of selling more arms.
Our society is simply not ready or focussed on the need for a military defence. Watching military parades on TV does not count.
If we want solutions, there are plentiful ones, and allies such as Israel, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and others from whom we can learn and supply.
The problem is, we don’t really want solutions. We seem to think the problem will go away.
I do not write these words from some militaristic fetish or mid-life crisis. I write them with the objective and unsentimental review of facts which have been visible for longer than I have been alive.
Today we face a very different type of military conflict, and the timeframe will be vastly compressed: into hours and days instead of months and years.
The sooner we begin accepting the scale of the problem, the sooner we will reach a state where we are capable of meeting the challenge.
In October 1940, an impoverished, politically-fragmented, agrarian society mobilized itself and was able to defend its borders.
In October 2020, we should be actively preparing to do the same.