By Robert D. Kaplan
The American Interest, July/August 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
A military can only fight well on behalf of a society in which it believes.
And a society which believes little is worth fighting for cannot field an
effective military. The greatest asymmetry in our struggle with radical
Islam is not one of arms or organization or even of ideology, but one of
Sun-Tzu affirms that the greatest warrior is one who
calculates so well that he never needs to fight. 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.
allows that war takes precedence only after other forms of politics have
failed. He says: "In affairs so dangerous as war, false ideas proceeding
from kindness of heart are precisely the worst. ... The fact that slaughter
is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not
provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity.
Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our
In the unpredictable fog of war, to believe in something is
more important than to be blessed by mere logic, or to have the ability for
talented argument. Dostoyevsky wrote that the signal flaw of the upper
classes is that they "want to base justice on reason alone", not on any
deeper belief system absent which everything can be rationalized.
Islamic revolutionaries believe in themselves more than we believe in
ourselves. Our trillion-dollar arsenal cannot produce an instrument of war
as effective as the suicide bomber. Kipling would have understood this. He
writes that as the hillsides of eastern Afghanistan teem with "home-bred"
troops brought from England at "vast expense of time and steam", the odds
remain "on the cheaper man", the native fighter. The suicide bomber is
Kipling's "cheaper man" incarnate.
Jihad places more emphasis on the
mystical dimension of sacrifice than on any tactical or strategic objective.
Olivier Roy observes that jihad is "an affair between the believer and God
and not between the believer and his enemy. There is no obligation to obtain
a result. Hence the demonstrative, even exhibitionist, aspects of the
The suicide bomber is the distilled essence of jihad, the
result of an age when the electronic media provides an unprecedented
platform for exhibitionism. The video camera becomes the cheap negation of
American military technology.
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. But 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.
Holding or not holding a place for warriors in our midst is not just a
matter of faith, or even moral hardiness. It is also a matter of where and
how solidly the boundaries of political community are drawn. It is about
nationalism of a kind that is going out of fashion among the American elite.
Paul Bracken: "Nationalism is not viewed kindly in the West these days.
It is seen as nonsensical, a throwback, and, it is hoped, a dying force in
the world. The notion that the Chinese or Indians could conduct foreign
policy on the assumption of their own national superiority goes against
nearly every important trend in American and West European thought."
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. This lack of faith in turn leads to an overdependence on ever more
antiseptic military technology. To faithful or merely nationalist enemies,
it is a sign of weakness.
Never-say-die faith, accompanied by
old-fashioned nationalism, is alive in America. It is a match for the most
fanatical suicide bombers anywhere, but with few exceptions, that faith is
confined to our finest combat infantry units, and to the communities from
which these warriors hail. They are not characteristic of a country in many
ways hurtling rapidly in the opposite direction.
Faith is about
struggle, about having confidence precisely when the odds are the worst.
Faith is the capacity to believe in what is simultaneously necessary but
improbable. That kind of faith is receding in America among a social and
economic class increasingly motivated by universal values. Universal values
are not the opposite of faith, but they should never be confused with it.
In the decades ahead, American troops may become less soldiers, marines,
sailors and airmen, and more 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. Such
an evolution is a sign of the emergence of a separate American warrior
Liberal democratic societies have commonly been defended by
conservative military establishments whose members may lack the social
graces of the cosmopolitan classes they protect. Such a conservative
American military now has a particularly thankless task. Much of what it
does abroad is guarding sea lanes and training troops of fledgling
democracies, helping essentially to provide the security armature for an
emerging global civilization.
Middle-class democracies fight two
kinds of wars well: little wars fought by professional warriors that garner
little media attention, and big wars that may rouse the whole country into a
patriotic fervor. The problem arises with middle-sized ones. The Powell
Doctrine, in which Colin Powell advised that the United States should not
get involved in a war without overwhelming force, a near-certainty of
victory and a clear exit strategy, makes very good sense for the needs of a
non-warrior democracy like ours.
The American way of war is, by and
large, one of coalitions. This is even true, or will become true, for sea
power. For more than six decades we have been the near-hegemonic successor
to the Royal Navy, but in coming decades we will likely have no choice but
to gradually cede oceanic space to the rising Indian and Chinese navies with
whom, more often than not, we will hope to cooperate.
decreasingly a serious military power. Its own peoples see their respective
militaries not as defenders of their homelands, but as civil servants in
uniforms. A revitalized, more expeditionary NATO might mitigate this
situation, but the overall trend will more likely see Europe devote itself
to peacekeeping and disaster-response roles.
While Europe slowly
recedes as a military factor, a chain of Asian countries have assembled
nuclear or chemical stockpiles, aided by ballistic missile delivery systems
in more and more cases. The key element in judging the future of national
militaries will be the civilian-military relationship in each particular
country. The rise of non-Western militaries will be sustained by the rise of
non-Western nationalisms and beliefs.
America's circumstances are not
as bad as those of the European Union. The United States is still far from
being a decadent country. But a military will not continue to fight and
fight well for a society that could be losing faith in itself. As Sun-Tzu
and Clausewitz said, while a good society should certainly never want to go
to war, it must always be prepared to do so.