20 July 2008
by: William J. Astore, TomDispatch.com
When did American troops become "warfighters" - members of
"Generation Kill" - instead of citizen-soldiers? And when did we
become so proud of declaring our military to be "the world's best"?
These are neither frivolous nor rhetorical questions. Open up any
national defense publication today and you can't miss the ads from
defense contractors, all eagerly touting the ways they "serve"
America's "warfighters." Listen to the politicians, and you'll hear
the obligatory incantation about our military being "the world's best."
All this is, by now, so often repeated - so eagerly accepted -
that few of us seem to recall how against the American grain it
really is. If anything - and I saw this in studying German military
history - it's far more in keeping with the bellicose traditions and
bumptious rhetoric of Imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II than
of an American republic that began its march to independence with
patriotic Minutemen in revolt against King George.
So consider this a modest proposal from a retired
citizen-airman: A small but meaningful act against the creeping
militarism of the Bush years would be to collectively repudiate our
"world's best warfighter" rhetoric and re-embrace instead a tradition
of reluctant but resolute citizen-soldiers.
I first noticed the term "warfighter" in 2002. Like many a
field-grade staff officer, I spent a lot of time crafting PowerPoint
briefings, trying to sell senior officers and the Pentagon on my
particular unit's importance to the President's new Global War on
Terrorism. The more briefings I saw, the more often I came across
references to "serving the warfighter." It was, I suppose, an obvious
selling point, once we were at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for
"regime-change" in Iraq. And I was probably typical in that I, too,
grabbed the term for my briefings. After all, who wants to be left
behind when it comes to supporting the troops "at the pointy end of
the spear" (to borrow another military trope)?
But I wasn't comfortable with the term then, and today it tastes
bitter in my mouth. Until recent times, the American military was
justly proud of being a force of citizen-soldiers. It didn't matter
whether you were talking about those famed Revolutionary War
Minutemen, courageous Civil War volunteers, or the "Greatest
Generation" conscripts of World War II. After all, Americans had a
long tradition of being distrustful of the very idea of a large,
permanent army, as well as of giving potentially disruptive authority
Our tradition of citizen-soldiery was (and could still be) one
of the great strengths of this country. Let me give you two examples
of such citizen-soldiers, well known within military circles because
they wrote especially powerful memoirs. Eugene B. Sledge served in
the U.S. Marines during World War II, surviving two unimaginably
brutal campaigns on the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa. His memoir
With the Old Breed is arguably the best account of ground warfare in
the Pacific. After three years of selfless, heroic service to his
country, Sledge gladly returned to civilian life, eventually becoming
a professor of biology. His conclusion - that "war is brutish,
inglorious, and a terrible waste" - is one seconded by many a combat veteran.
Richard (Dick) Winters is better known because his exploits were
captured in the HBO series Band of Brothers. He rose from platoon
commander to battalion commander, serving in the elite 101st Airborne
Division during World War II. A hero beloved by his men, Winters
wanted nothing more than to quit the military and return to the
civilian world. After the war, he lived a quiet life as a businessman
in Pennsylvania, rarely mentioning his service and refusing to use
his retired military rank for personal gratification. In Beyond Band
of Brothers, he recounts both his service and his ideas on
leadership. It's a book to put in the hands of any young American who
wishes to understand the noble ideas of service and sacrifice.
Sledge and Winters were regular guys who answered their
country's call. What comes across in their memoirs, as well as in the
many letters I've read from World War II soldiers, was the desire of
the average dogface to win the war, return home, hang up the uniform,
and never again fire a shot in anger. These men were war-enders, not
warfighters. Indeed, they would've been sickened by the very idea of
The term "warfighter" - a combination, I suppose, of "warrior"
and "war fighting" - suggests a person who lives for war, who spoils
for a fight. Certainly, the United States has fought its share of
ruthless wars. But traditionally our soldiers have thought of
themselves as civilians first, soldiers second. Equally as important,
the American people thought of their troops that way.
Why are we now, with so little debate, casting aside an ethos
that served us well for two centuries for one that straightforwardly
embraces war and killing? Possibly because we've invented a
distinctly American product: sanitized militarism. I bumped into it
last week at a most unlikely place.
Last week, I finally made it to Gettysburg, site of the great
three-day battle between Union and Confederate forces in July 1863
that ended with the defeat of General Robert E. Lee's army. Walking
the battlefield was a sobering experience. I found myself on Little
Round Top at 5:00 PM, just about the time of day that Union generals
rushed men to reinforce the hill against a determined Confederate
assault at the close of the battle's second day. Earlier, I was at
the Angle, just when, almost a century and a half ago, Pickett's
Charge failed to pierce the Union center, sealing Lee's fate on the third day.
As these events played through my mind, I marveled that I had
the battlefield largely to myself. Not that I was alone, mind you.
Tour buses circled; cars, trucks, and SUVs whizzed about, but many,
perhaps most, Americans who visit Gettysburg get surprisingly little
tactile or sensory experience of its difficult topography. Yes, a few
kids (and fewer adults) joined me in clambering about the huge,
claustrophobically placed boulders of Devil's Den, and I did spy a
couple of guided tour groups on foot. But at the site of a
bloodcurdling, distinctly septic nineteenth century battle, most
visitors were clearly having a distinctly bloodless, even antiseptic,
twenty-first century experience.
That day, I learned a lot about Gettysburg the battle - and
maybe a little about us as well. As surely as my fellow tourists were
staying in their cars and buses, we, as a people, are distancing
ourselves from the realities of war. As we seal ourselves away from
war's horrors, we're correspondingly finding it easier to speak of
"warfighters" and to boast of having the world's best military.
As we catch a glimpse, from the comfort of our living rooms, of
a suicide bombing in Iraq or an American outpost attacked, then
abandoned, in Afghanistan, are we not like those tourists in buses at
Gettysburg, listening to sanitized recordings telling us what to see
and think about the (expurgated) reality in front of us? And who
dares challenge the "expert" commentary? Who dares turn off the
canned talking heads and stare into the face of war?
But if we are to end our militaristic, yet curiously sanitized,
"warfighter" moment, if we are ever to return to our citizen-soldier
ethos and heritage, this is just what we must do.
After all, it's later than you think. Our military now relies
not only on a volunteer (if, at times, "stop-lossed") Army, but
increasingly on tens of thousands of hired guns, consultants,
interrogators, interpreters, and other paramilitary camp followers.
Private, for-profit "security contractors" - companies like
Blackwater and Triple Canopy - give a disturbing new meaning to our
"warfighter" terminology and the rhetoric that marches in step with
it. As even casual students of history will recall, a clear sign of
the Roman Empire's decline was its shift from citizen-soldiers
motivated by duty to mercenaries motivated by profit.
Replacing "warfighters" with true citizen-soldiers in the mold
of Sledge and Winters would hardly be a solve-all solution at this
late date, but it might be a step in the right direction - however
unlikely it is to happen. For when we look at our troops, if we don't
see ourselves, then we see aliens or, worse yet, superiors
("warfighters") in need of "support." And that's a clear sign of
trouble for the republic.
Want to Be in the "World's Best Military"? Ask German Veterans
It may come as a shock to some, but the American army wasn't the
best in the field in World War I, or World War II either. And thank
heavens for that.
The distinction falls to the Kaiser Wilhelm's army in 1914, and
to Hitler's Wehrmacht in 1941. Even toward the end of World War II,
the American army was still often outmaneuvered and outclassed by its
German foe. Because victory has a way of papering over faults and
altering memories, few but professional historians today recall the
many shortcomings of our military in both world wars.
But that's precisely the point: The American military made
mistakes because it was often ill-trained, rushed into combat too
quickly, and handled by officers lacking in experience. Put simply,
in both World Wars it lacked the tactical virtuosity of its German
But here's the question to ponder: At what price virtuosity? In
World War I and World War II, the Germans were the best soldiers
because they had trained and fought the most, because their societies
were geared, mentally and in most other ways, for war, because they
celebrated and valued feats of arms above all other contributions one
could make to society and culture.
Being "the best soldiers" meant that senior German leaders - whether
the Kaiser, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, that Teutonic titan of
World War I, or Hitler - always expected them to prevail. The
mentality was: "We're number one. How can we possibly lose unless we
quit - or those [fill in your civilian quislings of choice] stab us
in the back?"
If this mentality sounds increasingly familiar, it's because
it's the one we ourselves have internalized in these last years.
German warfighters and their leaders knew no limitations until it was
too late for them to recover from ceaseless combat, imperial
overstretch, and economic collapse.
Today, the U.S. military, and by extension American culture, is
caught in a similar bind. After all, if we truly believe ours to be
"the world's best military" (and, judging by how often the claim is
repeated in the echo chamber of our media, we evidently do), how can
we possibly be losing in Iraq or Afghanistan? And, if the
"impossible" somehow happens, how can our military be to blame? If
our "warfighters" are indeed "the best," someone else must have
betrayed them - appeasing politicians, lily-livered liberals,
duplicitous and weak-willed allies like the increasingly recalcitrant
Iraqis, you name it.
Today, our military is arguably the world's best. Certainly,
it's the world's most powerful in its advanced armaments and its
ability to destroy. But what does it say about our leaders that they
are so taken with this form of power? And why exactly is it so good
to be the "best" at this? Just ask a German military veteran - among
the few who survived, that is - in a warrior-state that went berserk
in a febrile quest for "full spectrum dominance."
Fighting to End Wars
Words matter. Let's start by banishing the word "warfighter,"
and, while we're at it, let's toss out that "world's best" boast as
well. Boasting about military prowess is more Spartan than Athenian,
more Second and Third Reich Germany than republican and democratic America.
Indeed, imagine, for a moment, a world in which the U.S. is no
longer "number one" in military might (and, at the same time, no
longer fighting endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia).
Would we then be weak and vulnerable? Or would we become stronger
precisely because we stopped boasting about our ability as
"warfighters" to dominate far from our shores and instead redirected
our resources to developing alternative energy, bolstering our
education system, reviving American industry, and focusing on other
"soft power" alternatives to weapons and warriors? In other words,
alternatives we can actually boast about with the pride of accomplishment.
Think about it: Must our military forever remain "second to
none" for you to feel safe? Our national traditions suggest
otherwise. In fact, if we no longer had the world's strongest
military, perhaps we would be more reluctant to tap its strength -
and more hesitant to send our citizen-soldiers into harm's way. And
while we're at it, perhaps we'd also learn to boast about a new kind
of "warfighter" - not one who fights our wars, but one who fights against them.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught
at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He now
teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and is the author
of "Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism," among other works
(Potomac Press, 2005). He may be reached at email@example.com.