Attacking First: Lessons from Copenhagen 1807 and Iraq 2003

The classic example of a preventive strike is the 1807 Battle of Copenhagen.  Since this battle was used as a precedent for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it only seems right to compare the two preventive attacks. A US or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would also be a preventive strike.  Granted, it is difficult to compare events that occurred across over 200 years, the world’s international norms are indeed almost incomparable. Despite this some broad lessons can be drawn.   

Algiers bombardment

First a note on definitions.  A pre-emptive strike occurs when a state fears real foreign aggression, and thus attacks to gain the advantage in an impeding conflict.  A preventative strike occurs when a state fears another state may change the balance of power against itself, and attacks to counter this.   

The failure of appeasement is often falsely used to justify preventive attacks 

Since the 1939 Munich agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany, ‘appeasement’ has been labelled as a bad strategy.  If only the allies had pre-emptively attacked Hitler, the devastation of World War 2 would have been prevented.  Often this example is cited as a reason to attack preventivey to prevent radical states from acting aggressively.  This argument is flawed because it does not argue for a preventive attack, but rather a pre-emptive attack, since it was clear Nazi Germany was preparing for war.   Furthermore it does not even cite a pre-emptive attack working, but rather the lack of a pre-emptive attack failing.  A more accurate example of a preventive attack being used with success occurred during the Napoleonic wars: Copenhagen 1807.

Battle of Copenhagen 1807: Brutal but effective

Napoleon at Friedland

Napoleon at Friedland

Never was Napoleon Bonaparte able to muster enough ships to rival the British Royal Navy on the high seas.  He was thus never able to directly threaten the British mainland.  He instead attempted to starve Great Britain of European trade by imposing the continental system wherein the continental European states were forbid to trade with England.  Both the Peninsular War which resulted in what would soon be coined as the ‘Spanish ulcer’ and Napoleon’s disastrous Russia-campaign were caused by Napoleon attempting to impose this trade-regime.  Thus these developments were caused by Napoleon’s lack of a significant Navy.1807 Europe

1807 Europe – the apex of Napoleon’s control
Arthur Wellesley aka The Duke of Wellington

Arthur Wellesley aka The Duke of Wellington

Napoleon’s lack of a significant Navy – and thus his inability to impose the continental system – was in turn at least partially caused by a preventive strike by England.  In June of 1807 Napoleon had crushed Russian forces at Friedland.  In July he had made peace with Czar Alexander I of Russia at Tilsit.  This treaty created the Duchy of Warsaw, a new state allied to Napoleonic France.  Previously, the newly formed Confederation of the Rhine had also joined forces with Napoleon after the Battle of Austerlitz.  The Baltic was quickly becoming a French controlled lake, and a significant battle-fleet based in Copenhagen was at risk of falling into French hands.  To prevent this from happening, in August of 1807 British troops led by Sir Arthur Wellesley landed and surrounded the city, while the British Navy set to bombard the capital from sea.  When the Danish commander, General Ernst Peymann, refused to surrender the city and subsequently the Danish fleet, the bombardment began.  On September 7, 1807, the Danish fleet was surrendered to England.

The modern view of pre-emptive and preventive war

Today both pre-emptive and preventive attacks are considered aggression, and both are considered illegal by international law unless approved of by the United Nations Security Council.  Despite this preventive attacks still occur, from the Six Days War in 1967 (which actually can be considered both preventive and pre-emptive) to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Furthermore, the Battle of Copenhagen has been criticized heavily, being called one of the first terror attacks on civilian population in warfare.  2,000 civilians were killed causing US President Thomas Jefferson to memorably brand the British action as being “signalized by the total extinction of national morality.”  Although there is little doubt the bombardment of Copenhagen was brutal, it is fallacy to hold military actions of the early-1800s to today’s moral standards.  What must be remembered is that the Battle of Copenhagen was successful in preventing Napoleon from mustering a significant fleet, and thus Britain was never rivalled on the high seas.  As such this preventive strike was thus used as a precedent for other preventive strikes, from the British bombardment of the French fleet at the Algerian coast at Mers el-Kebir in 1940 (to ensure the French fleet would not fall into Hitler’s hands) to the United States invading Iraq in 2003.

Iraq Helicpter

Iraq 2003: Going too far

If a preventive war is to ever be justified in the modern world, it must neutralize a legitimate threat, and must limit cost and loss of life.  The United States launched a preventive attack in 2003 against Iraq.  In the wake of September 11, the United States believed invading Iraq would tip the balance of power in its favour and against Islamic terrorism.  But, as I argue in The Utility of the War on Terror the invasion of Iraq worked against the Bush administration’s interests because it did not understand the nature of Islamic terrorism.

Perhaps Iraq can be seen as a pre-emptive attack because the Bush administration believed attacking Iraq would be an effective way to maintain US security (despite being mistaken) and it believed Iraq possessed WMD (as I argue in The Weapons Weren’t There – The Intelligence Failure that was Iraq).  I believe it is preventive because it did not fear an immediate Iraqi attack, but rather Iraq’s influence.  It thus attempted to make Iraq an example to states and networks that worked to threaten American security in the wake of 9/11.

Lessons from Copenhagen and Iraq applied to Iran

Despite Iraq, preventive war comes with its proponents.  I can see the value of a surgical airstrike of Iran’s nuclear facilities should all other tactics of prevention fail.  Doing so would be less dangerous than allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons and triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East (I explore this further in A New Strategy on Iran).  Thus we must examine the recent and classic history of preventive war.  When comparing Copenhagen’s legacy with that of Iraq, three broad lessons can be drawn.  These lessons can be loosely applied to Iran.


A precision attack

First, the goal is not to defeat and occupy the enemy state itself, the goal is to prevent it from causing a threat.  This is a lesson that seems to have been forgotten by the Bush administration when it attacked Iraq in 2003.  English forces did not work to occupy Denmark in 1807, they simply nullified the threat the Danish fleet posed.  To truly prevent Saddam from harbouring and/or using WMD in 2003 (the stated goal of the invasion) the Bush Administration should have targeted individual sites and facilities.  Instead it embarked on a long and costly occupation of Iraq.  Granted, the true political goal of the Bush administration was to make an example of Saddam to enemies of the United States – one can only wonder if there was a less heavy-handed way of accomplishing this.  Concerning Iran, America and/or Israel must surgically destroy nuclear sites and facilities with as little loss of civilian life as possible.  Only by targeting the specific threat can the political goal of the preventive attack be achieved.

In it for the long hall, occupation of Iraq

Second, the goal of a preventive attack must be clear and easily achievable.  The invasion of Iraq occurred in the wake of 9/11 and was thus used loosely meant to combat foreign Islamic terrorism.  The Bush administration believed by invading Iraq it could intimidate other international actors by displaying the fact that America was prepared to use force first.  Changing the willingness of international jihadist networks to prevent a terrorist attack through the invasion of a unrelated state is not clearly achievable.  As such the attack failed.  In 1807 it was clear Napoleonic France could use the Danish Navy to its advantage, and it was clear capturing the fleet would prevent this from occurring.  As such the attack succeeded.  Concerning Iran the goal is clear, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  It is also easily achievable, by destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities .  Whether Iran decides to continue developing nuclear weapons after this setback is an unrelated matter.  Napoleon could have decided to invest in ship-building after 1807’s setback, but decided not to.  Like Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, Iran may give up after such a setback.

Third, a pre-emptive strike must always be used as a last resort.  To avoid being branded an aggressor all other options must first be explored.  In 1807 the British first requested that the Danish fleet be willingly surrendered.  One wonders if the Bush administration could have implemented a more long-term strategy.

A final reminder

One thing not learned from Copenhagen but integral for Iran’s success is the precision of the attack.  The world is not like it was in 1807, and the death of civilians is exponentially more undesirable.  The United States and/or Israel must be extremely careful when limiting the the death of innocents.  In fact any collateral damage would work against the United States and Israel by turning the Iranian population against foreign influence.

Works Cited

Davies, Peter. Copenhagen’s Second Battle Remembered, The Times. London: 2007.

Markham, David J and Cameron Reilly. Napoleon 101 Podcast.

Record, Jeffrey. Wanting War. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books Inc., 2010.

Simms, Brendan. “Castlereagh’s Catechism,” Foreign Affairs vol. 92 no. 2 March/April 2013.

Taming American Power, Stephen M. Walt, 2005.



  1. liz

    Ah yes! And as for Afghanistan a few lessons were never learned from the years of the Great Game. I’ve a particular affection for this/Copenhagen battle since one of my great great great great uncles fought under Wellington there…he died (as opposed to killed) in the Peninsula Wars – some horrid ague.

  2. Gerald

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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