Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Sun-Tzu , Clausewitz, and a country worth fighting for

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, has written one of the more important articles we have encountered of late dealing with issues of war and the military. Kaplan, writing in The American Interest, begins with this observation:

Some truths are so obvious that to mention them in polite company seems either pointless or rude. What is left unstated, however, can with time be forgotten. Both of these observations apply today to the American way of war.

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.

Kaplan goes on to discuss that "the greatest asymmetry in our struggle with radical Islam" is morale, plain and simple. And he goes on to discuss why this is, and what it means for us as a country. He writes:

If a glimpse of the future is possible, it must come from an intimacy with the present clarified by the great works of the past.

For over four years now I have been traveling much of the world in the company of U.S. soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen.

Upon a halt in my travels, I re-read both The Art of War by the 6th-century BCE Chinese court minister Sun-Tzu and On War by the early 19th-century Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz.

What struck me straight away, thanks to my recent travels-in-arms, was not what either author said, but what both assumed. Both Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz believe—in their states, their sovereigns, their homelands.

Because they believe, they are willing to fight. This is so clear that they never need to state it, and they never do.

Kaplan goes on to talk about the fact that he only began to understand the contexts in which Clauswitz and Sun-Tzu wrote after spending long periods of time with American soldiers. In short, "after living beside junior officers and senior NCOs whose logic, like theirs, flowed from patriotism and personal commitment."

We all know the canard that says that most men and women only join the military because they want an education and it is the only way to get one for many. We know this because world-renowned military psychologist Rosie O'Donnell repeatedly threw it into Elisabeth Hasselbeck's face on The View.

And yet, when one is inside the world of the military, it is indeed a world heavily populated by one end of the patriotism bell-curve. Some are offended by this suggestion, since it seems to imply that those who didn't serve their country in uniform are unpatriotic. Far from it. But as Kaplan points out, there is a growing divergence between the mindset of the American elite and the mindset of those who have dedicated their lives to military service.

This disconnect has been brought into stark view by the kind of wars or struggles we are now engaged in:

The suicide bomber is the distilled essence of jihad, the result of an age when the electronic media provides an unprecedented platform for exhibitionism. Clausewitz’s rules of war do not apply here...


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 brakes 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.

And there, in that last sentence, is the thing that gnaws at so many of us, even if we (wearing our civilian hats, so to speak) disagree with the wisdom of this particular conflict in Iraq.

While it is perhaps less true in the South and in certain other states like Montana, which have strong traditions of military service, that gap is there, and it is keenly felt by those who serve -- particularly those who have dedicated their lives to such service: officers, NCO's, members of elite fighting forces.

In order to make what the military does more palatable, we actually weaken ourselves in the eyes of the world:

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.

It is not that faith -- the kind of faith that wins battles and wars -- is absent in America. It is, however, increasingly compartmentalized within American society -- compartmentalized by region, class, and self-perceptions of intellectualism (or absence thereof.)

Kaplan talks about the virtual absence of military recruits from our nation's elite universities -- a state of affairs that America in the 1950's would have found astounding. In one particularly poignant story, he tells about a recent graduation at Stanford:

...in the decades ahead American troops may become less soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen, and more purple warriors—in essence a guild in which the profession of combat-arms is passed down from father to son.

It is striking how many troops I know whose parents and other relatives had also been in the service, especially among the units whose members face the highest level of personal risk.

Contrast this with the fact that, at the 2006 Stanford commencement ceremony, Maj. General Lehnert, whose son was the lone graduating student from a military family, was struck by how many of the other parents had never even met a member of the military before he introduced himself.

The entire article is well worth reading, since the subject matter is a vital one for our country:

The point is to remember what we have forgotten. A military will not continue to fight and fight well for a society that could be losing faith in itself, even if that society doffs its cap now and again to its warrior class.


Jay Stevens said...

Man, Kaplan and his "warrior spirit" give me the heebie-jeebies.

Chapter 2 of the "Art of War" pretty much sums up the present reality of Iraq, as opposed to this mythical "warrior spirit" claptrap.

Remember as you're dividing the ranks of Americans into "warriors" and "elites" that America has always been impatient with drawn-out conflicts, especially so for ones that fight no imminent danger and are far-flung.

This Kaplan crap is just another attempt to blame liberalism and the left for some sort of "feminization" of the country that promises to lead to our downfall. In reality, of course, military dictatorships are usually the downfall of republics. It's the "warrior spirit" and a professional warrior class that are the real danger.

Bring back the draft.

Montana Headlines said...

Kaplan actually notes in his article that the only things that could break down the divide that he talks about are the draft, or a revitalized National Guard and/or Reserves. So your final comment hardly contradicts him.

He also notes that middle-class democracies are good at little wars that can be fought off the radar screen by elite warriors (and we've always had elite warriors, as has every other major nation) and that they are good at major wars like WWII.

It's the in-between stuff that we are inherently bad at -- i.e. ones precisely like Iraq that pose "no imminent danger and are far-flung," as you put it. Nowhere in the article does Kaplan defend the Iraq war.

Kaplan points out that our professional military has been put to use in creating a global society -- which was no less a project of Presidents like Clinton than of the Bushes, it should be noted.

And yet he points out that this same "warrior class," with its inherent nationalistic patriotism, is not only unappreciated by this global society but actually disdained (and occasionally pitied -- the real point of TNR publishing those Beauchamp pieces.)

Unspoken in this is the danger to a society that needs warriors, but is deeply divided from them. So far from ignoring your concerns, Kaplan actually addresses it quite directly.

By going straight to "heebie-jeebies," you have in your own way demonstrated the divide that he is talking about.

And that sort of thing is a part of why the "we support the troops" rhetoric from the left, while better than the alternative, still rings hollow, and sounds more like "we feel sorry for you guys and hope you don't get hurt." It is hard to support something that you don't viscerally understand.

Ed Kemmick said...

I'm a little wary of the "warrior spirit" myself. World War I was a great example of what happens when everyone is bursting at the seams with warrior spirit. People like that will find a war to fight even if they don't know what the war is about.

And if middle-class democracies are good at the little wars and the big, important ones, what's the problem? Just avoid those in-between wars and we should be all right.

One more thing: Your analysis ignored one large consideration. Yes, the liberal elite may be a bit soft and lacking in the warrior spirit, but what about the conservative elite, which talks like Nietszche but doesn't send its kids to war, either? The hypocrisy of the chickenhawks, as they are known, is more revolting to me than the "We support the troops" rhetoric of the anti-war crowd.

Jay Stevens said...

And that sort of thing is a part of why the "we support the troops" rhetoric from the left, while better than the alternative, still rings hollow, and sounds more like "we feel sorry for you guys and hope you don't get hurt." It is hard to support something that you don't viscerally understand.

Hm. Of course I can't "viscerally understand," as you put it, b/c I haven't served in the military, but I think I can understand it, intellectually. I recognize esprit de corps is necessary in a military body, but I also think it can be dangerous, especially if a society isn't divided about using the military.

The military is absolutely necessary, and I'm glad it exists, am thankful for the service of its members, but do not want it to run the country, or even be the source of American values.

Montana Headlines said...


Re WWI -- no argument. That was a war with an unbelievable number of bad precedents set. It is precisely the Wilsonian tenor of Bush's foreign policy that makes so many old-fashioned conservatives mistrust it.

Re avoiding "in between" wars -- couldn't agree more. Vietnam and Iraq are prime examples. Can we usually avoid in-between wars? Probably. Most countries do.

Will have to check the Kaplan article later, but my post doesn't, to my recollection, use the word liberal, or state that the elite being spoken of is exclusively politically liberal.

I would completely agree that the "chicken-hawks" are a particularly distasteful part of the political elite, and are the flip side of the same coin.

More on that subject and on Jay's comment later.