April 23, 2005
Modern War: Gentlemen Versus Bandits, Or the Return of Knights in Shining Armor
Strategists will tell you that these days most of America's wars are asymmetric: the enemy's tools and goals are not the same as ours. But one of the oddest differences in recent years has been between the enemy's fighting men and ours. American troops at home get pointed to as peacetime citizens who embody not just patriotism but also hard work, candor, self-sacrifice, and dedication to community. On the enemy's side, while there may be plenty of civilian sympathizers for violent campaigns of Serbian ethnic cleansing or Afghan hyper-Islamism or Iraqi insurgency, the actual troops of our enemies are increasingly often society's least respected: criminals, unemployed, and generically angry young men. America's wars these days are a matter of gentlemen fighting bandits. There's a "knights versus rabble" matchup in America's wars that hasn't been normal for war in five hundred years, and it tells a secret truth about how much the rest of the world has quietly accepted American priorities.
As Max Manwaring's recent Army War College paper points out, our enemies today often look more like casual urban gangs than popular or national armies. In Iraq, men often confess to having launched attacks for the insurgency because they were unemployed and needed the money; in the Serbian conflicts and in Sudan today, the "soldiers" for the ethnic militias were very often the local criminal or bandit gangs recruited for a suddenly government-approved purpose; in Somalia during the early 90's, and in Columbia's cities' poorer neighborhoods today, "the local militia" and "the local street gang" refer to the same people. American troops have to expect to often face enemies who think and operate like gang members, not soldiers.
Even when we look at organized armies, America's military is today a different beast from the rest of the world. America invests far more in training its ordinary servicemen than anyone except Britain. Hardly anyone else except the Europeans has an armed forces where so many sergeants have ten or twenty years of experience; fewer still try to make career soldiers of so many privates; no one else trains for so many kinds of missions, so often, under conditions so close to live combat. Writers like Dana Priest and Robert Kaplan have recorded how American military missions get far more respect than American diplomats in developing countries. In those countries the army is often the country's one well-organized and disciplined institution. Indeed, coups in poor countries are often initially popular out of hope that the less-corrupt military can clean up the civilians' mess. Instead, unfortunately, usually the mess dirties the military. But the military folk in a country like Nigeria are able to see at once that the American servicemen represent a different breed altogether, the kind of military they'd like to be.
America's research labs and America's businesses lead the world by only a modest and shrinking amount. It's easy to find particular kinds of science or business where the lead belongs to Europe or Japan. But no one (not even China, yet) has had the combined money and will to create an army or air force with training and equipment on par with the United States. And as far as I can tell, no other country thinks of its soldiers in peacetime as such respectable people as Americans think of theirs -- which is another reflection of the level of discipline and the relative selectivity of American troops. A Vietnam veteran said to me in a Mudville Gazette comment thread that he's seen would-be Marine enlistees put on waiting lists today when they would have been shunted into Officer Candidate School in his time. Today's American military really has a huge current edge man-for-man over any other force on the planet -- and that's unprecedented in the last five hundred years.
The normal thing has been for major war to be an affair of equals, where one nation's half-drafted half-volunteer citizens fight the same kinds of people on the other side. Draft-supported armies fought one another in the Korean War, in World War II, in the Civil War, in the Napoleonic Wars. Even in Vietnam the people on both sides were their country's most ordinary folk: while the Vietnamese Communists may have used "asymmetric" guerrilla tactics to fight our largely conventional army, and while plenty of Vietnamese had no liking for Communism, as an individual the typical Vietnamese Communist fighter who set booby traps to kill Americans was just as much in peacetime a perfectly "ordinary Vietnamese Nguyen" as his American enemy was an "ordinary American Joe."
And if we go back further in time, to the wars of the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s, the fighters on both sides were usually career warriors enlisted from society's most restless, least employable or most noble-blooded (the three often went together). Even in wars against technologically handicapped colonized peoples, the two sides' lead fighters were often social equals. The aristocratic British officers who conquered India and later put down the Indian Mutiny in 1857 were going up against native leaders who were from India's own upper crust; when Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico in the early 1500's, his Spanish knights were fighting Aztec warrior elites. For the last five hundred years of Western history, war has been fought mostly by people of the same social groups who happened to belong to different nations.
So what has changed that now the rest of the world will allow the American military to stand without real competition? Even China and Iran's military budgets come to far smaller fractions of their economies than the Soviet Union spent preparing against America during the Cold War. Why is it that so many of our enemies and potential military missions come from the sphere of street gangs and glorified mobs?
The answer may be that the America's military today has acquired a status last seen in the West five hundred years ago, in the days when there really were knights in shining (or at least not rusty) armor. In the medieval and Renaissance years, Europe didn't have much in the way of law and justice -- and because of that, a great deal of respect was given to those who could plausibly present themselves as public-minded enforcers of law and justice. Those, roughly, were the knights. Knights were often selfish, and even when they weren't, they were likely not to share or understand the ideals of the peasants and tradesmen and priests they protected. But if the knights did their job of protecting the rest of society from bandits and thugs, any amount of carelessness might be forgiven.
The original institution of knights, of quality fighters as a separate breed from ordinary folk, came about because in the disordered poverty of medieval times money and training were at a premium: in the Middle Ages well-equipped professional fighters were not just an occupation, but a distinct social class. In today's world, the money and national will to raise a modern professional army are again at a premium; today, the developed world's well-equipped professional fighters have not just an occupation, but a distinct nationality: American.
Like the medieval knights, the American military today is an elite that is grudgingly recognized by the rest of the world as serving a useful role, even when they aren't trusted or liked. For hundreds of years, no one but bandits and mobs rose against the knights, because everyone else in the "developed" fraction of woefully poor medieval Europe had too much of a stake in their own occupations to horn in on the knights. But eventually gunpowder technology and pike formations allowed effective armies to be made out of people who weren't career horsemen. Then kings and tradesmen and merchants assaulted the privileges of the knightly families. Likewise, if and when technology gives other developed countries a way to field armies that can match up to America's, we may see America opposed more seriously, maybe more violently, then it has been up to now.
But for right now, however much they complain, China and France and Germany and Brazil all see the United States, and especially the American military, as a force that maintains an order in the world that's convenient for them -- and because they benefit from that order, they don't invest in an arms race to overturn it. Even China is happy with the world order as long as it makes room for China to achieve rising status and prestige. Right now, the American military are the developed world's knights -- elite, set apart, not always trusted or liked, but granted a certain respect for the burden they spare everyone else and for the common order they preserve.
Knights are supposed to fight bandits, and that's what America's knights will continue to do. In fact, you can argue that one reason the terrorists were able to achieve 9/11 was that we put off dealing with those particular bandits for too long. As long as we're vigorous about fighting the little enemies, no one will see much need to invest in their own armies, which itself will keep us from having to face big enemies.
We should be glad as long as our enemies continue to be more like street gangs than professional soldier elites. If ever that changes -- if people start being willing to invest in armies serious enough to fight us on even terms -- it will mean both that America has acquired much more serious enemies, and that the post-Cold War world that we've come to take for granted is about to be thrown over for a new set of struggles. It would also probably mean that other countries had gone from liking to complain about America to seriously doubting America. And I like living in an America that ultimately people have to admit they respect. I like it that the America's uniformed services are full of people whom, even when America's policies aren't agreed with, can command the kind of grudging but genuine respect once held by knights in armor.
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Posted by danielstarr at April 23, 2005 09:46 PM
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That's exactly right, and a point I was making every day back during "major combat ops" in 2003. If this is a line of thinking that moves you, feel free to drop by the archives at Grim's Hall for March and April of that year.
Posted by: Grim at April 24, 2005 09:01 PM
Stephen Ambrose mentioned something about the character of the American soldier being the one not feared by civlians as so many other soldiers were during those apocalyptic years of WWII. Even today we witness that in the violence and terror that occur within Iraq how it is the children who seek out and smile at the American servicemember, how parents desperate to save their ill children turn to the Americans in hope when all others have turned them away, and how, no matter how deep the MSM tries to bury the fact, the American armed forces are effectively dealing out discipline to their own ranks for behaviors which would have gone unreported and unacted upon in prior times by any other army in history. This is one unique military force, the likes of which have never been seen on this earth since the Pharaoh chiseled the very first records of military glory over 4,000 years ago. We should be in awe of what we have brought forward into the world.
Posted by: Don at April 25, 2005 06:55 AM
This is an interesting point. I'm a retired Navy "O" who went to an Army based college (not USMA), and loved putting on a forest green enemy and playing aggressor against the Army ROTC guys who had to do field exercises. My frined ia an ex-Warthog crew chief, with Desert Storm service. We have played a number of the multi-player first person shooters, to include America's Army. Similar to the discussion, many of the "kids" we encounter have no significant concept of "real" tactics, and we get frustrated, because we have been trained in basic land warfare. You have to adapt to the "other guy" not having the "formal" OJT that constrains their methods. Our troops are in the same situation, but with far more deadly consequences....
Posted by: Curt at April 25, 2005 01:19 PM