American Warriors

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 morale.

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.

Clausewitz 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 arms."

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 attacks."

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 caste.

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.

Europe is 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.