Friday, January 18, 2008

Death of the Warrior Spirit

This is the concept of the article entitled "On Forgetting the Obvious" by Robert Kaplan, author and oft-contributor to The Atlantic on the all subjects military. Xanthippas tipped me off to this a while ago but I've only gotten around to it now. In this piece, he treats us to his observations on the American way of war, and most especially why it's wrong.

It is obvious that a military can only fight well on behalf of a society in which it believes, and that a society which believes little is worth fighting for cannot, in the end, field an effective military. Obvious as this is, we seem to have forgotten it.

I'm not too sure how obvious that is. Athenians and Spartans fought pretty well, but the most effective fighting force of the ancient world was the Roman army, many soldiers of which were little more than mercenaries who had no stake in the society in which they lived (which is why they had no problem repeatedly invading Rome). Plenty of highly effective mercenaries roamed around during the 30 years' war too. On the contrary, plenty of nations have believed in themselves and fielded absolutely worthless armies. Such as the American colonies in the early days of the war!

As to the second point, the question is really this: why would such a society feel the need for a military force?

Kaplan feels he's revealing great truths to us here, which we are simply not seeing, but in fact he's basing his arguments on another assumption (which he attributes to both Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz): "War is a fact of the human social condition." I have no argument that war has happened many, many times in human history. When people could no longer simply walk away from each other and move to uninhabited land, a constant state of war began among humans everywhere. Since that time, there has not been a day on this earth that humans have not been at war somewhere. So it would seem to be a safe assumption that war is a natural part of our existence.

Now I would have to digress into a discussion which is far too lengthy to include in this post to explain all the theories scientists of various disciplines have come up with to explain the role of warfare in human existence. Population control is one, a psychological need for violence, competition for resources, cultural and social causes are among many theories. The point is that while most of them view war as being a normal part of human existence, it's not necessarily inevitable. Most people would not think up war as a method of population control; the argument is that it is a cultural response to environmental factors. But there are other ways of overcoming those environmental factors. Contraception and abortion are at least as effective as war at controlling the population and come without associated costs. Increasing food production is another way to alleviate population and environmental pressures. Is war inevitable? War has been avoided in the past. During the Cold War, for example, despite the incredible pressures pushing us towards war with the Soviet Union from our military and many civilian leaders, John F. Kennedy stood firm and said force would only be a last resort, and that the US would not fire first.

Kaplan obviously subscribes to the idea that when two societies clash, it is an overt decision based on some rational thought process. Certainly people make a choice to go to war, but one must question why they make that choice. Kaplan does not. Therefore he goes on to assume that the one and only way you can meet violence is with violence. I'm sure Kaplan believes in reconstruction efforts aimed at helping raise the living standards of the average Iraqi. But he also believes in having an occupying army in Iraq to deal with sectarian violence in Iraq.

Kaplan pays token respect to the idea of diplomacy. As he says, "Clausewitz, interested more in the operational level, allows that war takes precedence only after other forms of politics have failed. Both oppose militarism, but accept the reality of war." Clausewitz was an eminently rational military man, but he doesn't concern himself with the question of how one avoids war in the first place, or whether wars are right or wrong. That is the thinking of a military man. It's not really flawed so much as it is narrow. Medical doctors seem to often disparage surgeons because surgeons almost always think surgery is appropriate. But sometimes surgery is necessary. Of course surgeons want to think that their area of specialty has the best answer. Military people think likewise. Not only is that acceptable, it's desirable. Surely soldiers have to believe in what they're doing, or they wouldn't do it. And we do need someone to do it, but I can find fault with Kaplan for buying into that belief when he's not a member of the military. In his book 13 Days in October, Robert Kennedy says that JFK wondered what the value of military men who didn't believe in military solutions would be, but Kennedy firmly rebuffed Curtis Lemay's insistence that we needed to strike first with our nuclear missiles.

I've read On War, and Clausewitz makes a lot of sense, but one thing he makes utterly clear whether he wanted to or not is that a military must be always completely subordinate to civilian authority and must be given its priorities by that civilian authority. Why? Because the purpose of the military, dress it up as you may, is to wage war and destroy the enemy. As Clausewitz also points out, earning much opprobrium from later critics in the Cold War, the natural type of war is total war. That is, war in which there are no constraints and the entire nation bends its efforts to completely dominating and ultimately destroying the enemy nation. Clausewitz was not advocating this kind of ruthless, apocalyptic war, but logically it makes no sense to constrain oneself when fighting a life or death battle against an enemy. To win, one must strive with 100% of one's resources and one must not artificially constrain one's own efforts. A simple analogy is the difference between two soldiers on the battlefield struggling with each other, striking with rifle butts, bayonets, helmets, or whatever weapon they have in an attempt to kill the other man vs. a boxing match with it's refined rules (like no striking below the belt and fist coverings).

Clausewitz knew that war is two nations struggling to the death, and the nation that wins is proven right by the simple fact of its survival. He saw that, from a military point of view, there is no morality other than victory. But Clausewitz also knew that this is why soldiers must be restrained by civilians. To turn a death match into a boxing match so that in the end, whether you win or lose, you survive, which means you've always got one more chance. As Kaplan also admits, Sun-Tzu knew of no place for morality in war:

Sun-Tzu only respects a leader “who plans and calculates like a hungry man”, who sanctions every manner of deceit provided it is necessary to gain strategic advantage, who is never swayed by public opinion, and “who advances without any thought of winning personal fame and withdraws in spite of certain punishment” if he judges it to be in the interest of his army and his state.

Again Kaplan perfunctorily admits that peace is better than war but comes back with his assumption that war is inevitable:

What stands out in The Art of War and On War, even more than the incisiveness of their analyses, is the character of the writers themselves: Both would avoid war if they could, but become warriors because they cannot.

To be nitpicky, only Clausewitz was a soldier. Sun-Tzu was a military theorist, if he existed at all. There's a need for clarification here. Neither man was concerned with avoiding war by non-military means. Both men thought of the prevention of war as a military mission, solved by demonstrating superiority. That's one way to do it, of course, although against a fanatical or desperate enemy you won't find it enough of a deterrent.

So Kaplan would have us believe war is inevitable and that those who believe in the rightness of their own cause enough to free themselves of any artificial restraints on their own conduct will triumph.

In such a world, the real threat to our national security may be our own lack of faith in ourselves, meaning not just faith in a God who has a special care for America, but faith in the American national enterprise itself, in whatever form. This lack of faith in turn leads to an overdependence on ever more antiseptic military technology. But our near obsession with finding ways to kill others at no risk to our own troops is a sign of strength in our eyes alone. To faithful or merely nationalist enemies, it is a sign of weakness, even cowardice.


Even as we narrow our own view of warfare’s acceptable parameters, trying to harm as few civilians as possible in successful operations, our enemies amplify the concept of total war: They kill tens, or hundreds, or occasionally thousands of civilians in order to undermine the morale of millions. The killing of 3,000 civilians on September 11, 2001 might have temporarily awakened a warrior spirit in American democracy, but such a spirit is hard to sustain in the crucible of an ambiguous conflict. In Iraq, a country of 26 million people through which more than a million American troops have passed, the loss of a few Americans and three dozen-or-so Iraqis daily in suicide bombs is enough to demoralize a homefront 7,000 miles away. A non-warrior democracy with a limited appetite for casualties is probably a good thing in terms of putting the breaks on a directionless war strategy. That does not change the fact, however, that Americans as a people are ever further removed from any semblance of a warrior spirit as we grow increasingly prosperous and our political elite grows increasingly secular.

Now we come to the crux of the problem. What exactly is Kaplan suggesting? I'm not sure, but I can see shades of meaning in what he says:

Alas, in the unpredictable fog and Clausewitzian “friction” of war, to believe in something is more important than to be blessed by mere logic, or to have the ability for talented argument—even more important than the marvelous gear one carries. “Faith is the great strategic factor that unbelieving faculties and bureaucracies ignore”, retired Army Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters wrote in the Weekly Standard in February 2006.

Peters fears that Islamic revolutionaries believe in themselves more than we believe in ourselves.

But faith in what? Believing in yourself is not an explanation of anything. Believe that we can do it? Believe that we're right? Or simply believe that when the decision is made to fight, we must fight and win regardless of anything that happens? People like the fighters of Al-Qaeda do indeed have an unreasoning, unquestioning belief in their own rightness. Kaplan somehow sees that as a virtue! I'm not saying he's saying it's "good", but in terms of war, it's an advantage. Well, perhaps it is, if you approach the issue with the mentality that in war the only "right" is winning. But is Kaplan saying that we should approach war with that same mindset? Should we indeed unapologetically bomb civilian homes and burn their crops to kill the enemies hidden among them and starve them? What does believing in ourselves mean?

I may be giving Kaplan too much credit, but the only sense I can make is that he's saying that when we're fighting a "right" war, we must resolve to win it no matter the losses we suffer and that our support must be as fanatical as theirs. Yet Kaplan is seemingly mourning our lack of resolve with regards to the Iraq war. He doesn't seem to realize that resolve is lacking exactly because most of us no longer believe it is a right war and that we don't believe in supporting pointless, destructive wars. By comparison, most of us do still support a military presence in Afghanistan, not because we're losing fewer soldiers but because that's where we're fighting Al-Qaeda. To civilians it matters why we go to war and why we stay in war, and it should!

Yet here is the pinnacle of the kind of thinking Kaplan espouses:

Wheeler, who has participated in several wars over the course of three administrations and also served as senior adviser to the U.S. Mission for the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, put the matter like this: “Decadence” is the essential condition of “a society which believes it has evolved to the point where it will never have to go to war.” By eliminating war as a possibility, “it has nothing left to fight and sacrifice for, and thus no longer wants to make a difference.”

"Decadence is the essential condition of a society which believes it has evolved to the point where it will never have to go to war." Instead of this being our goal, he is saying this should be our ultimate fear. Instead of striving for peace without war, we must strive for peace through war. Wars in which we will not admit wrongness despite whatever reasons we may have gotten into the war and despite changing circumstances during the war that may make it more to our advantage to leave. Kaplan must be one of those who bitterly regrets our abandonment of the Vietnam conflict.

Strangely, the moral high ground never comes up in Kaplan's argument. There is no argument that we're right, no argument that they're wrong. Simply that in any conflict, we must unfailingly support a war and our soldiers because it's "us vs. them." On the one hand, he berates those of us who are morally conscious of war while lauding the terrorists because they are acting out of a belief in their own rightness. That is because, I must assume, anything that leads to an unreasoning belief supporting one's own war effort is, to Kaplan, morally correct whereas anything else is morally incorrect.

The one and only conclusion that can be drawn from this thinking is that war is the ultimate "right". Kaplan does not seem to grasp the concept that many of us see war as the ultimate wrong. We can't unquestioningly support it. We can't view it with neutrality when to us, soldiers are still human no matter what colors they wear. Kaplan says:

I cannot remember how many times a soldier or marine told me that we don’t want to be pitied as victims, but respected as fighters. That respect is not abundant, which brings us to an especially sharp practical edge of what our forgetfulness has wrought.

Forgetfulness, Kaplan? I think you forget that to every mother, father, child and sibling of those soldiers, they will never be anything but a cherished family member. Why should civilians be so willing to spend coin measured in the lives of their family members? Why should we not turn our backs on war? War is indeed a necessity sometimes. But it's a necessity as dictated by the good of the nation from a civilian viewpoint, not a military one. This is what Kaplan has forgotten. War is never right simply because we started fighting it. The world is not and cannot be that simple for people to whom morals do matter.

1 comment:

Xanthippas said...

There is no argument that we're right, no argument that they're wrong. Simply that in any conflict, we must unfailingy support a war and our soldiers because it's "us vs. them." On the one hand, he berates those of us who are morally conscious of war while lauding the terrorists because they are acting out of a belief in their own rightness. That is because, I must assume, anything that leads to an unreasoning belief supporting one's own war effort is, to Kaplan, morally correct whereas anything else is morally incorrect.

Any discussion of our unwillingness to absorb casualties in either Vietnam or Iraq, especially as a pretext to an argument that our society is "decadent" and unwilling to fight, cannot possibly be complete without a discussion as to the moral rightness of the war. Kaplan is all wrong. Our societies have evolved to such a point that the moral rightness of a war is an essential element to the vigorousness and ferocity with which we fight, and lacking moral rightness, many people are unwilling to see soldiers (or civilians to a lesser extent) die for what appears to be no good cause to them. It's ridiculous to condemn our society for our unwillingness to fight, and cite to immoral wars like Vietnam and Iraq as evidence. Even citing to conflicts as recent as the ones in Kosovo, Bosnia or Somalia, it's quite clear that our willingness to fight (and absorb casualties) depends on the purpose of the war, the extent of the engagement, and the amount of casualties we are absorbing and inflicting. It should be no other way, and talk of moral decadence and an unwilligness to fight is just plain silly.