Friday, May 13, 2011

The long unbroken line....

The changing evolution of how our soldiers fight was made by advances in technology and more efficient methods of protecting the basic infantryman and by doing so, making sure he was able to stay in the battle....I was on the USS Constitution back in 1997 giving tours to our guests who wanted to see the ship. One woman asked me if I ever thought about if you could trade places, would I have wanted to been on the ship back in the late 1700-early 1800s when she was in her hey-day.

I thought about it for a minute and said, "No ma'am...they dealt with bad food, exposure to the elements, lack of decent medical care, etc. I am glad to be here today to tell their story."

Yes, it would have been something to see what it was like when the military and service was a rougher experience without the basic things we take for granted. We are the legacy of the sacrifices made by those who preceeded us and we able to share their story with those who will follow us in the long unbroken line of Patriots who defend our way of life.

The picture enclosed is of a flag flying at half-mast over FOB Lagman in Afghanistan.

Where They Got Their Grit

Why men fight, or more precisely, why they hazard their lives in combat, is a question of abiding interest, given the lunacy of braving the hiss and spat of bullets, of risking death and disfigurement by foes unseen, when shirking or flight offer tempting alternatives.

Surely, after a few unpleasant minutes in the maelstrom of Waterloo or Fallujah, Iwo Jima or Marathon, any "rational army would run away," as John Keegan, the author of the classic "The Face of Battle," famously observed. (Sir John was quoting Montesquieu, or at least thought he was: I recently passed on to him my finding that it was actually G.K. Chesterton.)

Yet, no matter who said it, most armies do not run away. Consider the American forces in Afghanistan, now in almost their 10th year of fighting—the same length of time, coincidentally, as the Greeks besieged the Trojans. As Agamemnon discovered, what with Achilles sulking in his tent and Odysseus intriguing behind his back, it is hard to keep warriors motivated for so long.

Nevertheless, despite multiple deployments, unclear strategic objectives, unrealistic tasking, a steady increase in casualties, and sometimes capricious political and public support, the esprit de corps and lethal effectiveness of American frontline units remain remarkably high.

As Christopher Hamner makes clear in his superb "Enduring Battle," America's warriors were similarly steadfast in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II. Why did American soldiers remain so persistently, or irrationally, devoted to duty in those conflicts? The traditional answer is that, ever since Homer and within every army, primary-group cohesion—the band-of-brothers-style loyalty to squad and platoon mates that includes a willingness to sacrifice one's life to save theirs—has been the universal, immutable motivator.

Mr. Hamner challenges this view by arguing that technology is in fact the cause: specifically, weaponry that between 1776 and 1945 fired farther, fiercer and more frequently, creating a need for new battlefield tactics that in turn changed how American soldiers experienced combat.

In the 18th century, says Mr. Hamner, armies robotically maneuvered in tight lines and columns under the strict watch (and stern discipline) of their officers. By the Civil War, to evade the ever deadlier enemy shot, formations that once had been dense were dispersed across the field and even permitted to seek cover. Soldiers, having escaped from the beady and vengeful eye of their superiors, could no longer be threatened with the lash or the gallows for their reluctance to serve, if necessary, as cannon fodder. Persuasion—in the form of stirring appeals to self-interest and core values—replaced forceful prodding as a means to motivate infantrymen.

The appeal to self-interest and core values became still more pronounced in the 20th century; from World War II onward, the American soldier was autonomous, not an automaton. Unlike his forebears, who had glumly accepted the randomness of death as they were ordered to advance toward the sound of guns, the modern infantryman is trained to follow rules of good practice (i.e., do it this way and you'll be OK) as he thinks fit to ensure survival. This radical shift in attitude and expectation helps keep today's American soldier motivated to fight. Monarch of his own fate, never a slave to chance, the modern warrior relies on his skills, judgment and prowess to control the future.

One can cavil that Mr. Hamner relies too much on instances of big-army conventional warfare to argue this assertion. Irregular outfits like Revolutionary militias, for example, did not fight in close-order linear fashion and were never subject to harsh discipline, so what motivated them? Those plucky, cranky Yankees at Bunker Hill were very much their own ornery men.

We should be wary of truisms, too, that are partly falsisms. Despite popular perceptions of the severity of military discipline in the 18th century, it was by no means universally feared, for its application and vigor varied widely depending on unit, environment and commander. For every martinet of an officer there was a merciful one. And the "dumb robot" stereotype of the soldiery in that era turns individuals of flesh and blood into abstractions.

A more serious objection concerns Mr. Hamner's presumption that advancing technology unilaterally causes institutional change (in tactics, training, planning, equipment, force structure) and thus dictates combat behavior.

Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, when excitement over the possibilities of technology ran white-hot, the idea that inventions and innovations acted as agents of change became conventional wisdom, particularly in military circles. By the 1980s and 1990s, the high priests of the futuristic movement known around the Pentagon as the Revolution in Military Affairs were confident that the silicon chip would forge a gleaming new era in warfare. Information technology, precision-guided munitions, stealth, satellite surveillance and sophisticated command-and-control would henceforth win wars swiftly without need of ground troops, brute force or bodybags.

Alas, 'twas but a cruel illusion. The arrival of a given technology—whether breechloading rifles, tanks or computers—does not itself miraculously produce progressive change or induce soldiers to behave differently. It's not that simple. In fact, it is the prevailing culture—a community's outlook, values, fears, myths, ideology, arts and traditions—that defines the rate and extent of any technology's adoption and use, its diffusion and impact. This is as true in the military as in any other quarter of society.

How we war, in short, is culturally specific, not technologically determined. In the 1500s and 1600s, for instance, the throned dynasts of Europe, Africa and Asia all put the same technology—gunpowder—to widely disparate uses and ends. Japan's reactionary Tokugawa shogunate employed gunpowder to obliterate troublemakers and then banned all guns—even its own—for the sake of preserving the samurais' sword-wielding hegemony.

The ruling Mamelukes of Egypt also forbade guns, not because they feared rebellions but because they haughtily believed that firearms were fit only for infidels. Meanwhile, the nearby Sharifs of Morocco enterprisingly outfitted their cavalrymen with guns to defeat the Portuguese and to establish themselves as a Mediterranean power.

Even in Europe, the place where gunpowder is assumed to have rapidly "caused" Western superiority and created the modern world, it actually took centuries to replace good old crossbows, longbows and pikes with firearms. As late as 1776 even that forward-thinking fellow Benjamin Franklin was convinced that pikes and bows were more effective and less troublesome than guns.

The Pentagon's Revolution in Military Affairs school unfortunately never grasped the concept that other cultures might be able to frustrate advances in technology. The puzzling inability to win outright in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fierce and strange foes encountered there, and the alien attitudes and mercurial tribalism of that theater's inhabitants made it imperative to understand an enemy's culture as intimately as our own, but we are only now coming up to speed.

Since military historiography often reflects current events, historians have begun to broaden the traditional master-narrative of American military affairs. In light of the bitter experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, Civil War scholars are spending less time on the big battles in the East and more on the extraordinarily violent guerrilla fighting in the West. There is, as well, a deeper interest—the reasons for which are obvious—in the 19th-century Army's efforts at Indian pacification and its "nation-building" operations on the frontier.

In keeping with this trend, Wayne Lee focuses his "Barbarians and Brothers" on the period 1500 to 1865, proposing that there was once a distinctive Anglo-American way of warfare. Mr. Lee delves into topics unfamiliar to many Americans, such as the Elizabethan wars in Ireland and the English Civil War, before shifting his attention to America and discussing the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. His central claim is that how the enemy fared depended on whether acculturated Anglo-Americans regarded their foes as dirty-fighting savages or as civilized combatants. If the former, well, they would be annihilated or ruthlessly suppressed and their land expropriated; if the latter, assimilation or reformation was preferable and they were treated honorably.

The author ends his panoramic analysis with the Civil War, for his model no longer holds in an era when (American) atrocities against civilians are rare and restraint common. Culture is not immutable, after all. While there are certainly any number of long-lived continuities between today and 1865, our culture has changed vastly over the intervening sesquicentennium, and there were similarly profound shifts in the century after 1775.

Americans themselves are much transformed since independence, and as "Enduring Battle" and "Barbarians and Brothers" demonstrate, today they not only fight differently from men of yore but fight for different reasons.

—Mr. Rose is the author of "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring" and "American Rifle: A Biography."

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