The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
On Forgetting the Obvious

A society that believes in nothing will fight for nothing.

Published on July 1, 2007

Some truths are so obvious that to mention them in polite company seems either pointless or rude. What is left unstated, however, can with time be forgotten. Both of these observations apply today to the American way of war. It is obvious that a military can only fight well on behalf of a society in which it believes, and that a society which believes little is worth fighting for cannot, in the end, field an effective military. Obvious as this is, we seem to have forgotten it.

Remembering will help us in several ways. First, it will show us that the greatest asymmetry in our struggle with radical Islam is not one of arms or organization or even of ideology in any simple sense, but one of morale in the deepest sense. Second, it will provide an insight into the state of civil-military relations in our own country, which is a growing problem many of us refuse to acknowledge. And third, it will show us why some kinds of wars—“in-between” wars, I call them—have become inherently difficult for the United States to fight and win.


If a glimpse of the future is possible, it must come from an intimacy with the present clarified by the great works of the past. For over four years now I have been traveling much of the world in the company of U.S. soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen. Upon a halt in my travels, I re-read both The Art of War by the 6th-century BCE Chinese court minister Sun-Tzu and On War by the early 19th-century Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz. What struck me straight away, thanks to my recent travels-in-arms, was not what either author said, but what both assumed. Both Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz believe—in their states, their sovereigns, their homelands. Because they believe, they are willing to fight. This is so clear that they never need to state it, and they never do.

What is obvious, however, is left unstated not because it is insignificant, but because it is too significant: War is a fact of the human social condition neither man wishes were so. Sun-Tzu, concerned with war on the highest strategic level, affirms that the greatest warrior is one who calculates so well that he never needs to fight. Clausewitz, interested more in the operational level, allows that war takes precedence only after other forms of politics have failed. Both oppose militarism, but accept the reality of war, and from that acceptance reason that any policy lacking martial vigor—any policy that fails to communicate a warrior spirit—only makes war more likely. That is why 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.11.
See The Book of War, comprising Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, translated by Roger T. Ames (1993), and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, translated by O.J. Matthijs Jolles (1943) (Modern Library, 2000). See also, Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (Random House, 2001), Chapter IV.
Clausewitz is no less committed:

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.

The logic of both men is grounded in patriotic commitment and the personal experience of what that commitment does to men and nations. Sun-Tzu was likely a court minister during the chaos of the Warring States 2,300 years ago, prior to the relative stability of Han rule. (Sun-Tzu may never have existed, however, and his book may represent the accumulated wisdom of many people.) Clausewitz was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who served with both the Prussian and Russian armies against the French. What stands out in The Art of War and On War, even more than the incisiveness of their analyses, is the character of the writers themselves: Both would avoid war if they could, but become warriors because they cannot.

Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz could rise to the level of theory only because they had absorbed practice. So I could only grasp their meaning after living beside junior officers and senior NCOs whose logic, like theirs, flowed from patriotism and personal commitment. Now, patriotism, we have heard, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It can be that when patriotism is misappropriated by those who have little loyalty to place, and who therefore lack any accountability for their words or their views. It is easy, after all, to be in favor of this or that cause, or against some other ones, if one has no real stake in the outcome. But while some patriots are scoundrels, the vast majority are more trustworthy than those who are not, precisely because they do accept a stake in outcomes. And they do so most often because patriotism overlaps with what, for lack of a better phrase, is a kind of moral hardiness, by which I mean an attitude of serious engagement concerning right and wrong behavior. I saw this in one American soldier, marine, sailor and airman after another. Two of Joseph Conrad’s characters best illustrate such moral hardiness and its opposite.

Captain MacWhirr is the protagonist in Conrad’s 1902 short story “Typhoon.” The son of a Belfast grocer, MacWhirr is a man of few words and little imagination, a man so taciturn that his chief mate says of him: “There are feelings that this man simply hasn’t got. . . . You might just as well try to make a bedpost understand.” As Captain MacWhirr’s steamer, Nan-Shan, sets out for the coast of China to return Chinese coolies to their homes, a great storm is brewing in the Formosa Channel. But what would terrify most other men, MacWhirr accepts matter-of-factly.

A few hours into the voyage, his ship is in chaos. The wind alone has such a “disintegrating” force, Conrad writes, that it “isolates” every man on board from every other. The mates panic, the coolies riot, and the Nan-Shan nearly splits apart. As for MacWhirr, rather than sail miles off course to get around the storm, he quietly decides to plow straight into it, like a platoon leader charging straight into an ambush. “Facing it—always facing it”, he mumbles, “that’s the way to get through.” So it is that this ordinary, yet still very extraordinary man saves the ship because, as Conrad strongly suggests, he believes deeply in his moral duty to the shipping company and to the men serving under him. Once the storm is past, rather than sleep or even remove his boots, he makes sure that every Chinese coolie gets his proper wages. MacWhirr is not clever. He is not even minimally well-spoken. But his abiding faith results in an iron certainty about himself for which words are quite beside the point.

As MacWhirr is not the type to be afraid, so too during the worst of times in Iraq, one officer after another, commissioned and non-commissioned, communicated to me a fierce conviction. Take the MacWhirr-like Sgt. Major Dennis Zavodsky of Mapleton, Oregon, who remarked at a Thanksgiving service in Mosul that the Pilgrims during their first winter in the New World experienced a casualty rate that would render any combat unit ineffective. “This country isn’t a quitter”, he said. “It doesn’t withdraw. It doesn’t give in.” Stubbornness, inspired by faith, was the rule among those I was privileged to accompany. And I do not mean just or even mainly conventional religious faith. Quite a few of those I met despised “the Bible thumpers.” I mean simply the moral stamina of a MacWhirr—a quality of character that tends to march with the bumps and bruises of an often dangerous, usually uncertain working-class existence.

But there are also the Martin Decouds of this world, the brilliant sneerers who analyze everything into oblivion. Martin Decoud is a character in Nostromo, Conrad’s 1904 novel about an imaginary Latin American country, Costaguana, in the throes of upheaval. Decoud has studied law in Paris, dabbles in literature, writes political commentary and all-in-all, as Conrad explains, is an “idle boulevardier.” Decoud speaks much, but acts only when he is faced with a political crisis that impinges on his own welfare. Yet when he finds himself alone on an island off Costaguana, he gives in to despair, even though he has been assured of rescue. The “brilliant” journalist Decoud, the “spoiled darling” of his family, “was not fit to grapple with himself single-handed.” Despite Decoud’s virtuoso conversation and commentary, in a crisis, Conrad tells us, he “believed in nothing.” Decoud doesn’t represent any particular philosophical position or point of view; he is there to remind us that cleverness should not be confused with character.

Alas, in the unpredictable fog and Clausewitzian “friction” of war, to believe in something is more important than to be blessed by mere logic, or to have the ability for talented argument—even more important than the marvelous gear one carries. “Faith is the great strategic factor that unbelieving faculties and bureaucracies ignore”, retired Army Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters wrote in the Weekly Standard in February 2006. This is not a new idea, of course, just an obvious but too often forgotten one. It suggests particularly that we have forgotten Dostoyevsky, who wrote in The Brothers Karamazov 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, so that the will of a society to fight and survive withers away.

Peters fears that Islamic revolutionaries believe in themselves more than we believe in ourselves. Terrorists do not fear the Pentagon’s much touted “network-centric warfare”, he writes, because they have mastered it for a fraction of a cent on the dollar, “achieving greater relative effects with the Internet, cell phones, and cheap airline tickets” than have all of our military technologies. Our trillion-dollar arsenal, he notes, cannot produce an instrument of war as effective as the suicide bomber—“the breakthrough weapon of our time.” If not Dostoyevsky, Kipling would have understood this. In the poem “Arithmetic on the Frontier” Kipling 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.

This breakthrough weapon is a product of fanatical belief—of a different sort than Captain MacWhirr’s, but of belief nonetheless. Jihad as practiced, not as theorized, places more emphasis on the “mystical dimension” of sacrifice than on any tactical or strategic objective. Jihad is most often an act of individual exultation rather than of collective action, observes Olivier Roy in The Failure of Political Islam (1994). It 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. Clausewitz’s rules of war do not apply here, for he could not have conceived of the modern media, whose members tend to be as avowedly secular as suicide bombers are devout. Without any evident stabilizing belief system, the global media’s spiritual void has been partially filled by a resentment against the United States—the embodiment of unruly modernization and raw political and military power that the global citizens of the media detest. And so it is that the video camera—“that insatiable accomplice of the terrorist”, in Peters’ words—becomes the “cheap negation” of American military technology.

Even as we narrow our own view of warfare’s acceptable parameters, trying to harm as few civilians as possible in successful operations, our enemies amplify the concept of total war: They kill tens, or hundreds, or occasionally thousands of civilians in order to undermine the morale of millions. The killing of 3,000 civilians on September 11, 2001 might have temporarily awakened a warrior spirit in American democracy, but such a spirit is hard to sustain in the crucible of an ambiguous conflict. In Iraq, a country of 26 million people through which more than a million American troops have passed, the loss of a few Americans and three dozen-or-so Iraqis daily in suicide bombs is enough to demoralize a homefront 7,000 miles away. A non-warrior democracy with a limited appetite for casualties is probably a good thing in terms of putting the breaks on a directionless war strategy. That does not change the fact, however, that 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 as we normally think of it, or even moral hardiness as I have described it. It is also a matter of collective self-regard or, put more conventionally, where and how solidly the boundaries of political community are drawn. It is about nationalism—nationalism of a kind that is going out of fashion among the American elite.

In Fire in the East (1999), an analysis of the dawning of the “second nuclear age”, Yale University professor Paul Bracken has drawn attention to the ascent of blood-and-soil nationalism in Asia. In discussing the acquisition of nuclear technology by China, Iran, India, Pakistan and other powers on the Asian continent, he writes:

The link to nationalism makes the second nuclear age even harder for the West to comprehend. 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.

Bracken observes that successful nuclear tests in places like India and Pakistan “set off public euphoria—literally, people danced in the streets.” It was an “emotional embrace of a technology Westerners have been taught to loathe and abhor.” Americans forget how in the 1950s the atomic bomb “was an important source of American pride”, so we should not “be surprised that Asian countries today feel the same way.” Bracken thus warns:

In focusing on whether the West can keep its lead in technology, the United States is asking the wrong question. It overlooks the military advantages that accrue to societies with a less fastidious approach to violence.

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, in whatever form. This lack of faith in turn leads to an overdependence on ever more antiseptic military technology. But our near obsession with finding ways to kill others at no risk to our own troops is a sign of strength in our eyes alone. To faithful or merely nationalist enemies, it is a sign of weakness, even cowardice.


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 specific sections of the country and socio-economic strata from which these “warriors” (as they like to call themselves) hail. They are not characteristic of a country in many ways hurtling rapidly in the opposite direction. This is not the 1950s, when Americans felt a certain relief in possessing “the bomb.” Fifty years later, most Americans feel a certain relief in never having to even hear about “the bomb.”

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: caring, for example, about the suffering of famine victims abroad as much as for hurricane victims at home. Universal values are a good in and of themselves, and they are not the opposite of faith. But they should never be confused with it. You may care to the point of tears about suffering humankind without having the will to actually fight (let alone inconvenience yourself) for those concerns. Thus, universal values may pose an existential challenge to national security when accompanied by a loss of faith in one’s own political values and projects.

The loss of a warrior mentality and the rise of universal values seem to be features of all stable, Western-style middle-class democracies. Witness our situation. The Army Reserve is desperate for officers, yet there is little urge among American elites to volunteer. Thus our military takes on more of a regional caste. The British Army may have been drawn from the dregs of society, but its officers were the country’s political elite. Not so ours, which has little to do with the business of soldiering and is socially disconnected from what guards us in our sleep. According to Marine Maj. General Michael Lehnert, nine Princeton graduates in the class of 2006 entered the military, compared to 400 in 1956, when there was a draft. Some Ivy League schools had no one enter the military last year. Only one member of the Stanford graduating class had a parent in the military.

Nor do our top schools encourage recruitment. In fact, they often actively discourage it, as may be reckoned by the number of elite campuses from which ROTC is banned. Many people, especially academics and intellectuals, have a visceral distrust of units like Army Special Forces. They are more comfortable with regular citizen armies that seem to better represent democracy. But other than a professional warrior class or a reinstituted draft, what is available to a democracy whose upper stratum has a constantly diminishing commitment to military values?

Here is the crux of our civil-military divide: As American society grows more socially distant from its own military, American warrior consciousness is further intensifying within the combat arms community itself. The identities of each of the four armed services gradually grow less distinct. Rather than Army green, Air Force blue or Navy khaki, the slow but inexorable trend is toward purple, the color of jointness. The services have not yet lost their individual cultures, but operations both big and small are more and more integrated affairs. As each year goes by, interaction between the services deepens. The Air Force, with its once cushy, corporate ways, is becoming more hardened and austere like the Army, even as the Big Army becomes more small-unit oriented like the Marine Corps. The Big Navy, with its new emphasis on small ships to meet the demands of littoral combat, is becoming more unconventional and powered-down, also like the Marines.

Without a draft or a revitalized Reserve and National Guard that ties the military closer to civilian society, in the decades ahead American troops may become less soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen, and more purple warriors—in essence 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. Contrast this with the fact that, at the 2006 Stanford commencement ceremony, Maj. General Lehnert, whose son was the lone graduating student from a military family, was struck by how many of the other parents had never even met a member of the military before he introduced himself.

Army-Marine Corps joint sniper training in Djibouti

A citizen army is composed of conscripts from all classes and parts of the country in roughly equal proportion. But a volunteer military is necessarily dominated by those regions with an old-fashioned fighting ethos: the South and the adjacent Bible Belts of the southern Midwest and Great Plains. Marine and Army infantry units, and in particular Army Special Forces A-teams, manifest a proclivity for volunteers from the states of the former Confederacy, as well as Irish and Hispanics from poorer, more culturally conservative sections of coastal cities. In sum, the American military has become in some respects a higher-quality version of what it was on the eve of World War II. The Greatest Generation may have come from all walks of life and all regions of the country, but when it got to boot camp its trainers were professional soldiers, often with Southern accents, intent on doing their thirty years.

The Southern soldier of today is different, even if they have strikingly similar names. Take Army Special Forces Major Robert E. Lee, Jr., of Mobile, Alabama, whom I met in the Philippines in 2003. Major Lee named his son “Stonewall”, but he also worked as a church-based volunteer in a poor, African-American section of Wichita, Kansas. “It was my first real exposure to blacks, I mean not from afar”, he told me. “It was a year of learning, day after day, that folks are just folks.” He is not unusual. It is a commonplace among observers of the American military that race relations in the barracks are better than in American society at large.

Yet even such an encouraging evolution constitutes another sign of the emergence of a separate American warrior caste. It is not just in war zones that soldiers bond with one another. They do so at bases within the United States, too, where troops and their families usually live separately from civilian communities close-by, and the short-duty rotation makes it hard for the inhabitants of the base to develop ties outside it. Spending months upon months with American troops, I entered a social world where friendships stretched across units and racial lines more than across military-civilian ones, and homefront references were to forts and bases, not cities, towns or states.

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, however. 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. But the more that civilization evolves—with its own mass media, non-governmental organizations and professional class—the less credit and sympathy it grants to the American troops who at times risk their lives for it. Irony is stock-and-trade for sophisticated wit, of course. But it cannot forever obscure the contradiction between the functions of an effective warrior class and the unwillingness of those functions’ beneficiaries to support its warriors. I cannot remember how many times a soldier or marine told me that we don’t want to be pitied as victims, but respected as fighters. That respect is not abundant, which brings us to an especially sharp practical edge of what our forgetfulness has wrought.

Fighting “In-Between”

The military historian James Stokesbury’s A Short History of the Korean War argues that 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, in spite of itself, into a patriotic fervor. The small footprint deployments I have covered in recent years are a variation of these little wars, as are the many discreet intelligence operations and raids that various branches of the U.S. national security apparatus continue to carry out around the globe. A very big war we have not experienced lately, which is all to the good, even if—perhaps especially if—you truly follow Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz.

The problem, as Stokesbury explains, arises not with little or big wars, but with middle-sized ones, of which the public is very much aware thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, but is nevertheless confused as to its goals. These “in-between” wars are bloody affairs in which we are forced to place a high value on the individual because of our universal values, even as the enemy does not. Abu Ghraib, which showed America at its worst, does not register in terms of barbarity compared to what the enemy was doing on a daily basis in Iraq at the very same time. But because “in-between” wars lack the context provided by clear stakes and personal commitment, the average citizen is more easily knocked off a moral balance by a media culture whose avocation is not to inform but to win market share.

In big, good-versus-evil wars, on the other hand, the homefront feels itself a part of the fighting machine. In little wars it does not, but in those cases it doesn’t matter that the public doesn’t feel itself to be at war, because it is largely ignorant of such military operations in the first place. It is the “in between” war that creates the worst combination for a non-warrior democracy: one in which the public is keenly aware of the worst details, yet has no context in which to assimilate them and is otherwise unaffected.

Stokesbury’s example of a middle-sized war is Korea, but his point also applies to Vietnam and Iraq. The Powell Doctrine, in which then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs 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, seems overly self-constraining to many. But if one views the Powell Doctrine as a way to avoid middle-sized wars (or little wars that through miscalculation can become middle-sized ones), it makes very good sense for the needs of a non-warrior democracy like ours. Powell understood that in these wars the lack of a broad-based warrior mentality is clearly a disadvantage.

The problem, though, is that it often isn’t clear what will become a middle-sized war and what won’t. The Powell Doctrine was used by many a realist as an argument not to get involved in Bosnia in the 1990s. But we inserted troops anyway, and it did not turn out to be a messy, bloody “in-between” war. The gradual stabilization of the former Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO to the Black Sea suggest that the Balkan interventions of 1995 and 1999 were in the nation’s interest. On the other hand, few if any of those who supported the March 2003 invasion of Iraq expected it to become a middle-sized war that would go on for years. Simply never to get involved anywhere, except in the smallest deployments, or in bigger ones without the absolute certainty of a clean victory, invites defeat by an abdication from the responsibility that comes with power. Alas, the Powell Doctrine is wise for some important purposes, but unavailing for others.

One way to parse the problems of “in-between” wars is to get help from others. Great Britain employed others to help it fight Napoleon, and it maintained an elite navy rather than a vast and financially debilitating national army. We do this, too, after a fashion. Our training missions around the world are designed to bring indigenous forces up to the level where they can fight on their own. The U.S. Pacific Command, among other combatant commands, is obsessed with military multilateralism. Even such a primacist as President Bush attempted to build a military coalition of major nations for invading Iraq before he did so with the palpable help of only Great Britain.

And Iraq was the exception. 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. We may still have to fight middle-sized wars, and we may need larger, more lethal and more flexible forces with which to do so. But we will strive, above all, not to fight such wars alone and far from home at a time when American military dominance is almost certain to erode, if only because the balance of interests—not to speak of faith and nationalism—is at least as important as the balance of power.

Despite globalization, national militaries will not diminish in importance, at least for some decades. On the contrary, they could in some cases grow in significance compared to other forms of human organization. The “technologies of wealth and war have always been closely connected”, Bracken warns. “Missile and bomb tests . . . biological warfare programs, and . . . chemical weapons” have been to a significant degree since the early 1990s “the products of a prosperous, liberalizing Asia.”

Indeed, the political-military map of Eurasia—one third of the earth’s landmass—is changing radically. 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—Israel, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea, to name a few—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, however, will not be their order of battle or their weaponry. It will be the civilian-military relationship in each particular country. As we have seen, the rise of non-Western militaries will be sustained by the rise of non-Western nationalisms and beliefs. As for the West, it is divided. European civilians take little pride in their standing armies; in America, however, civilians still do. Iraq, in this respect, has not been like Vietnam. While Americans may have turned against the Iraq war, they have not turned against the troops there. If anything, in recent years, they have grown more appreciative of them. The upshot is that America has a first-class, professional military that is respected even if it is not reflective of society.

But to see that America’s circumstances are not as bad as those of the European Union is not the point. The point is to remember what we have forgotten. A military will not continue to fight and fight well for a society that could be losing faith in itself, even if that society doffs its cap now and again to its warrior class.

One man who has not forgotten is Air Force Colonel Robert Wheeler, a combat pilot I met with his B-2 squadron on Guam. Wheeler exemplifies the modern American officer: a Midwesterner with an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin and post-graduate degrees, including a master of arts in strategic studies from the Naval War College. Wheeler, who has participated in several wars over the course of three administrations and also served as senior adviser to the U.S. Mission for the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, put the matter like this: “Decadence” is the essential condition of “a society which believes it has evolved to the point where it will never have to go to war.” By eliminating war as a possibility, “it has nothing left to fight and sacrifice for, and thus no longer wants to make a difference.”

It is in precisely such a situation that historical memory becomes lost, and forgetfulness obscures the obvious. When pleasure and convenience become values in and of themselves, false ends displace necessary means. It is 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. But a society will not fight for what it believes, if all it believes is that it should never have to fight.

The United States is still far from being a decadent country. And you cannot blame the American public from becoming disenchanted with a war that has gone on for so long and been so badly handled. The question is, in what direction—relative to our current and future adversaries—are we headed? Argue the question as we may, one thing is clear: We’re fated to find out.

See The Book of War, comprising Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, translated by Roger T. Ames (1993), and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, translated by O.J. Matthijs Jolles (1943) (Modern Library, 2000). See also, Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (Random House, 2001), Chapter IV.

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the United States Naval Academy. This article is adapted from his book, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground to be published in September by Random House.