This just in: We’re going to win the war on terror. Or so University of Dayton history professor Larry Schweikart says. He is author of the new book, America’s Victories: Why the U.S. Wins Wars and Will Win the War on Terror and thinks the case is made in American military and political history. Schweikart went through some of it in an interview with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: So why does the U.S. win wars?
Larry Schweikart: The glib answer is (cue Bill Murray from Stripes), “We’re Americans, dammit!” In fact, there are several characteristics of American fighting forces — some of them unique to us, some common to most Western nations — that make it difficult for us to lose. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, all free individuals in a volunteer force, come from a remarkably typical cross-section of American society, and always have. Whether it was the free men of color, Indians, and Baratarian pirates who fought under Andy Jackson or the special-ops forces riding horses to rain down precision-guided munitions on the Taliban, our military has generally represented our society almost perfectly. “It ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son,” sang Creedence Clearwater Revival, but in fact the modern military has a higher proportion of sons and daughters of our elected officials than from the population as a whole; and zip-code studies have shown that virtually every zip code is represented pretty proportionally, including the infamous 90210. (Note to John Kerry: The Northeast has, except for the Civil War and the Revolution, been notoriously underrepresented in our wars).
Americans win wars because we learn from loss — this is a no brainer, but there have been, and are today, cultures that find shame and dishonor in admitting a mistake, and thus can’t fix it. We win wars because our fighting men and women are the best trained in the world, then we give them unprecedented levels of autonomy, so that, as one American officer put it, a U.S. sergeant has the operational autonomy of most Middle Eastern colonels. Americans are successful in wars because we embrace technology, which itself comes from a society that tolerates failure and the ability to adjust to a bad hypothesis; we are successful because our protesters actually have caused the military, through their constant focus on American casualties, to relentlessly push down the level of casualties we take and push up the levels we inflict on others; and we are successful because above all we subscribe to concepts of sanctity of life that lead us to “leave no man behind.” In fact, I can find no other military in human history that has attempted so many times to rescue its own prisoners of war.
Lopez: Even so, isn’t your declaration that we will win the war on terror ridiculously optimistic? How do you know?
Schweikart: If it was based on mere political punditry, it might be optimistic. I base my views on the historical record. If you ask any historian, “When did we win the war in the Pacific?” the answer would almost always be, “Midway.” After that, Japan couldn’t win — the only issue was the final, often gruesome, death toll. Think of that! That’s years before Iwo Jima or Okinawa, and yet historically the war was over after June 1942. Likewise, if you look at the Filipino Insurrection (1899-1902, followed by the “Moro Wars”) — which mirrors Iraq very closely, the war was over when William McKinley was reelected. It took two more years for Emilio Aguinaldo to admit defeat, but his stated goal of forcing a political solution by “un-electing” McKinley was finished. I think we hit the “tipping point” in Fallujah in November 2004. After that, the terrorists could no longer hold up in any town for long, nor could they organize effectively. Zarqawi’s recent death closely resembles our Pacific model as well when American P-38s ambushed Isoroku Yamamoto and killed him. Historically, of the 11 “insurgencies” and “guerilla wars” of the 20th century (including Vietnam), the government (in this case, that would be us) won eight. However, most of these took between five and eight years to win. That places us right on our timetable, which is to expect the death throes of the terrorists in Iraq in another year or two.
Lopez: Besides possibly thinking you’re delusional for reasons already discussed, someone skimming your book is going to think you’re an unfair partisan. You have a subhead that reads “Why Does the Left Hate America’s Citizen Soldiers?” This is a book for right-wingers, right?
Schweikart: My editors forced me to exercise restraint, as my original subtitle was, “Why the U.S. Wins Wars and the Left Hates It That We Do!” Actually, this is a book for anyone who honestly wants to understand why our military is so damn good. Far from “broken,” as Jack Murtha claims, our military is kicking tail and taking names, and it has done this for 200 years. What I’m struck by, though, Kathryn, is how often in the past — and even now — our enemies have underestimated us. The Mexican generals boldly predicted they’d march into New Orleans in six weeks; Europeans all expected the Spanish to destroy us; Eric Luddendorf brushed off the involvement of the U.S. into World War I as insignificant; and recently the infamous Osama bin Laden letter to the late Zarqawi urging a “Mogadishu Strategy” has proven remarkably consistent and consistently wrong.
Now, how does this tie in with the Left hating America’s citizen soldiers? Well, we have always had antiwar protesters, from Emerson to Bryan, and one effect that their loud voices has had is to fool our enemies into thinking that the majority of Americans are soft and without commitment.
As for today’s Left, I still await any — and I repeat, any — news of a military victory to which they do not attach a “but.” They are, in Laura Ingraham’s words, the “but monkeys.” Every Fallujah dismantling, every successful election, every dead Zarqawi is adjoined to a “but,” to the point that a headline out this weekend from Reuters — supposedly a news agency, mind you, reported the news that the Army’s recruiting was considerably above its goals, followed with a but “Challenges in the Future Remain.” So our news agencies are now reduced to hoping for future events to temper news of current military successes. It’s sad.
Lopez: How did “we” rewrite Custer’s Last Stand in Fallujah?
Schweikart: The latest research on the Custer massacre is fascinating, indicating that rather than a “last stand,” in which all of Custer’s forces were quickly under assault from a huge body of Sioux, the boy general spread his men out rather thinly while he attempted to cut off the escaping women and children. Meanwhile, the Indians slowly infiltrated the perimeters of the remaining troops and, when they had a critical mass, overwhelmed them. At Fallujah, while there was a final massed assault, it was preceded by months of “battlefield shaping” in which our forces, nightly infiltrated Fallujah — often with the assistance of locals, who pointed out the locations of the baddies — and winnowed down their numbers. One sniper had 100 recorded kills alone! When the final attack came, al Qaeda and the Saddamist resistance were a hollow shell, and collapsed accordingly.
Lopez: Name a military mistake we haven’t learn from and how we can.
Schweikart: I would say that despite the fact that we, better than anyone, embrace new technology, we still have a habit of ignoring some cutting-edge weapons. Hiram Maxim was an American, who, due to lack of interest from the War Department, took his famous machine gun to Britain. Thompson’s submachine gun did not catch on for some time, in part due to the doctrinal emphasis on each soldier being a “sharpshooter.” Likewise, more recently, I think we became absorbed with the Soviet-style battle, with its “front” and its “support units,” and therefore when a guerilla war came, lacking any “front line,” our support units paid a high price in lack of training. But this, ultimately, was addressed. The fate of Jessica Lynch’s 507th Maintenance unit was reviewed and studied, and within months, the Army concluded that all personnel, including “support troops,” were combat soldiers first — something the Marines always understood. As a result, casualties among those units has fallen substantially.
Schweikart: Outside of Vietnam, American pols have a pretty good track record of keeping the U.S. military from losing situations?
Schweikart: Yes, I think that’s true. This goes back to “sanctity of life.” Americans see peace as the norm, and don’t want to fight unless absolutely necessary — quite a contrast from some societies in which warfare is an extension of religion or a means to establish honor. However, this can get us into trouble. Ronald Reagan, looking at Vietnam, established the “Reagan Doctrine” that said that the U.S. should not commit troops without a “clear exit strategy” and a high likelihood of winning. Normally, that’s good advice. But as Gandalf noted in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, sometimes you have to fight because it’s the right thing to do, whether or not there is a high likelihood of winning. That was the case after 9/11. We will win, but it would be the right fight even if we were not sure we would.
Lopez: Then why does Iraq look so bad right now?
Schweikart: This is the value of history. If you look at Iraq through a “current events” mode, it doesn’t look great. But imagine where we were after Midway in 1942: The Germans still occupied a large chunk of Russia, and the Red Army had not yet shown it could beat the Nazis in open combat; the Japanese still held more territory than any empire in history, and still had nearly a dozen carriers to our four or five; and there was no indication that the Brits could hold Burma. Indeed, with a few minor twists and turns, we could have lost Midway, the Russians could have lost Kursk, and the Second World War would have developed much, much differently.
Or consider, from the Union’s point of view, where we were in the spring of 1863. The Army of the Potomac had been soundly thrashed at all but a few battles — Antietam a significant exception — and commanders were being changed faster than Sandy Berger could shove documents down his pants. It looked bad. Yet below the surface, the South had lost a higher percentage of men-per-total forces committed than the North in every single battle except Fredricksburg. Lincoln knew that, and that’s why he was so frustrated with both the Radical Republicans and the Copperhead Democrats for trying to undercut him at every turn. Despite some battlefield defeats, the North was winning — yet only Lincoln could see it.
Lopez: How is the American military underestimated?
Schweikart: We are constantly underestimated because our natural tendency is to abhor war. We are not — contrary to the hysterical shrieks of the Cindy Sheehans and the madcap inanities of Michael Moore — a “militaristic” society. It takes a lot to make us “throw down.” What foreign powers don’t understand is that because our military is so representative of society as a whole, because it is not a group of elites who have purchased commissions, or slaves who are forced into service, our armed forces fight with a tenacity that never ceases to surprise our foes. The Germans were stunned after their first battles with us in World War I, battles in which they dealt us severe casualties due to our inadequate training. But the Germans also knew that we would not relent until we achieved victory. This stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of who Americans are, and how our military works. Yamamoto was one of the few enemies who “got it,” but he could not exert much influence over the Japanese warlords who deceived themselves into thinking along the lines of bin Laden: “a little bloodshed and the Americans will withdraw.”
Lopez: I did not know that Art Carney of Honeymooners fame was wounded by shrapnel while invading Normandy. Not to pick on Hollywood — especially given we’re talking draft vs. non-draft days — but it’s a bit of a different scene there in Tinseltown now?
Schweikart: The Hollywood stories in the book are amazing — I learned so much about that heroic generation. Many of those I discuss, of course, became stars after the war, but many were big names before Pearl Harbor and volunteered. Humphrey Bogart, who fought in World War I, attempted to join up even though he was way too old. Henry Fonda, already a star for his role in Of Mice and Men, and later an antiwar voice, nevertheless fought, as did Jimmy Stewart. Clark Gable, technically too old to serve, also joined up but his publicist requested special placement for him, to which General “Hap” Arnold uncategorically said “no.” Gable began as an enlisted man and became a general officer. One of the more ironic stories involved Werner Klemperer, who gained fame as “Col. Klink” on the TV show, Hogan’s Heroes. He was a prison-camp commandant — a policeman of sorts. Klemperer served in the U.S. Army, in Hawaii as . . . an MP!
So why, or when, did it change? I don’t know why, but the change came, as it did with the news media, in the 1960s, and my hunch is it started well before Vietnam. Some of it was self-selecting: As Hollywood got more left, it repelled patriots and engaged in some of its own “blacklisting.” There are abundant stories out there today of conservatives in Hollywood who cannot fly their colors. Moreover, I think there is a malignant elitism associated with the motion-picture industry today that, rather than entertaining, it is “making art” and therefore is engaged in political discourse. So they tend to think that they are not only too good to serve, but are above all that anyway.
Lopez: And writers, too — Ray Bradbury was a military propagandist?
Schweikart: One of the most stunning things I found was that Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel, was a war art propagandist. His wartime art is “in your face,” to say the least, featuring one “cartoon” in which Hitler and his fellow Nazis jokes in front of several Jews hanging from trees behind him, or another in which a buck-toothed Japanese Emperor is being attacked by American planes and bombs. Walt Disney, although a little more restrained than Dr. Seuss, produced numerous wartime propaganda films and training films using Donald Duck. His “Victory Through Air Power” unabashedly advocated bombing civilian populations in Germany and Japan until those nations surrendered. Japan was portrayed as a black octopus, ultimately killed by a “sword” of air power. When survival was on the line, it’s interesting how the artists and writers suddenly see the value of an American military.
Lopez: What about training? Are our guys and gals getting enough of it — character training included?
Schweikart: Ours is the finest-trained force in human history. Everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that if there is one key difference-maker on the battlefield, it is our men and women are trained, and our enemies — no matter how devious or unorthodox — are not. But this has been true going back to pre-World War II, when the U.S. Army concluded that the single best way to reduce American casualties was through better training, not necessarily better weapons. The Prussians showed in the 1870s that a well-trained army could annihilate an opposing force of equal size and even, perhaps, higher morale, for once the casualties start, morale fades without training.
As for character training, not long ago and exasperated Bill O’Reilly wondered why “we train soldiers in six weeks” and we still haven’t been able to train Iraqi soldiers. The answer is that we aren’t training the Iraqis to be soldiers — many of them already were soldiers. We are, essentially, training them to be “Americans,” to have American values of sanctity of life, to learn from loss, to submit to civilian audit, and so on. We’ve had 200 years to do that. Give the Iraqis a couple of years, Bill.
Lopez: How do protesters make soldiers better?
Schweikart: Conservatives hate to hear this one, but the fact is that since 1920 at least, the U.S. Army (and other service branches since) has been exceptionally sensitive to casualties. The military was shocked at how many ground combat deaths it had in World War I. Typically, antiwar protesters in America have had little success getting Americans worked up about either “collateral damage” to civilians or even brutality to enemy combatants if this occurred in the heat of battle. For example, there were instances of GIs sending home Japanese skulls from the Pacific in the Second World War — it was exceptionally rare, but even then, few people here at home got too concerned about it. Rather, since Korea, the only tactic that the antiwar Left has had any success with has been to play on American losses — the flag-draped caskets, the body bags, the scenes of carnage to “our boys.” The military figured that out some time ago, and has relentlessly addressed what it called after World War I “The Casualty Issue.” Simply put, the protesters’ focus on American losses has led our military to take fewer and fewer battle deaths. This wasn’t the primary factor — winning wars was — but it was an indirect and unintended consequence of the protesters. Santa Anna, in contrast, referred to his soldiers as so many “chickens,” and Zulu kings routinely tested the range of British rifles with the bodies of their warriors. Protesters have paradoxically made our soldiers more lethal than ever, in Patton’s words, making the other guy die for his country . . . or cause.
Lopez: Even Cindy Sheehan?
Schweikart: Every war has its whacko. In the Civil War it was Clement Valladigham — who, as it happens, is buried just across the street from where I teach. This war, it’s ”Mother Sheehan.” As long as she was in the “let’s save our sons and daughters” mode, she had some appeal to the mainstream of society. To the extent that she calls President Bush a “terrorist,” she has no impact on anything and no credibility, and, fortunately, she has drifted more to this extreme in the last year.
Lopez: So a prediction based on your historical survey: What we gonna do about Iran?
Schweikart: You hit the nail on the head: Iran is likely next. Any serious presidential candidate for 2008 with a shred of credibility would already be taking this on (along with illegal immigration). My guess is that they will all ignore it, and allow the Iranians to a) get a bomb and b) do something horrible. The question then is: Will Bush leave office without addressing this? I suspect from what I know of Bush that he does not care what history thinks of him or what Reuters thinks of him. He cares if he has left this country safer. Therefore, my not-so-bold prediction is if we have started to witness an obvious suppression of hostile activity in Iraq by late 2007, you might see a last-ditch diplomatic offensive followed by military action. It is necessary, but it won’t be pretty.
Lopez: How long does it take to write a book like yours?
Schweikart: Some books are in the works for years. I’ve taught a class that students call “Stirrups to Star Wars” for more than a decade, and have amassed much of the research while teaching this class. After completing A Patriot’s History of the United States with Mike Allen, I looked at all this stuff and concluded it could pretty much write itself. So the specific answer to your question is, less than a year to write, a decade to research.
Lopez: Why did you write it? Was there one catalyst?
Schweikart: I’ve loved Victor Hanson’s analysis in NRO, and use his Carnage and Culture for my classes. But I always wanted a brief, one-volume explanation of why we are so successful militarily, and the invasion of Afghanistan — which we completed in a matter of weeks, when the Soviets, with 80,000 men, could do it in years — convinced me that this was the time.
Lopez: Besides, say: We win! Hooraah! What’s the most important lesson from your book?
Schweikart: Military success does not come merely from great generals or high-falutin’ technology: It comes from an ongoing, widespread set of values that make it phenomenally easy to turn civilians into well-trained, disciplined fighting troops. Americans need to know that their fighting men and women reflect them — their sacrifices, their core beliefs, and their unrestrained optimism.