Martin van Creveld: Our armies become pussycats, part 2

Summary:  In this second post about the real revolution in military affairs, Martin van Creveld examines why men fight. Rather than the conventional political and geopolitical factors, he looks at the psychology of excellence, honor, spirituality, and PTSD. It’s worth some thought as we begin the second round of our long war.  See part one here.

"Mars, god of war" by GhostsAndDecay at DeviantArt
Mars, god of war” by GhostsAndDecay at DeviantArt

 

Pussycats II: Seek and You Shall Find

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 17 September 2014

Posted with his generous permission

 

“Seek and you shall find,” says the Gospel. Never more so, one supposes, then in our own “post-modern” age when everything goes and countless things that were supposed to have an objective existence suddenly stand revealed as “constructed” in this way or that. Not only words, as Humpty Dumpty said, but things mean what we choose them to mean. If not completely so — here I differ with some of the most extreme followers of Michel Foucault — then at any rate to a considerable extent. Take the case of war.

The age of prowness

In ancient Greece and Rome war was supposed to be associated with arête and virtus. Both are best understood as (manly, but in the present context that is beside the point) excellence and prowess respectively. Achilles preferred a short, heroic life to a long and dull one. Alexander, who studied Homer under the guidance of Aristotle, told his troops that “work, as long as it is noble, is an end in itself.” Virgil, by common consent the greatest Roman poet, celebrated virtus, the quality that had made had enabled his city to conquer first Italy and then the world, as follows:

Achilles

Strong from the cradle, of a sturdy brood,
We bear our newborn infants to the flood;
There bath’d amid the stream, our boys we hold
With winter harden’d, and inur’d to cold.

They wake before the day to range the wood
Kill ere they eat, nor taste unconquer’d food.

No sports, but what belong to war, they know;
To break the stubborn colt, to bend the bow.

Our youth, of labor patient, earn their bread;
Hardly they work, with frugal diet fed.

From plows and arrows sent to seek renown,
They fight in fields, and storm the shaken town.

No part of life from toils of war is free,
No change in age, or difference in degree.

We plow and till in arms; our oxen feel,
Instead of goads, the spur and pointed steel;
Ev’n time, that changes all, yet changes us in vain;
The body, not the mind; nor can control
Th’ immortal vigor, or abate the soul.

Our helms defend the young, disguise the gray
We live by plunder, and delight in prey.

"The Accolade" by Edmund Leighton (1901)
“The Accolade” by Edmund Leighton (1901).

The age of honor

At some point during the Middle Ages the idea of excellence was replaced by the related one of honor. The rules of honor dictated that fights should be fair. This was just the opposite from antiquity when stratagem was often seen as preferable to a head-on clash.

In tournaments and other forms of mock warfare, the outcome was attempted to ensure that the opponents should be balanced as well as the use of umpires. Again this was just the opposite from the gladiatorial games where umpires were inconceivable. Honor meant that one should respect the enemy’s courage. One should not stab an opponent in the back. One should not violate truces. Oaths, even those made to the enemy and even those that result in negative consequences for oneself, are binding and should be kept.

Better death than disgrace. Roland, the hero of the poem by that name, prefers death to the likelihood that subsequent generations will sing of him as a coward. At the Battle of Maldon the defending Anglo-Saxons voluntarily surrendered the tactical advantage they held over the invading Vikings. As a result they were defeated, or so we are told.

Following his crushing defeat at Pavia in 1525 King Francis I of France is said to have exclaimed that “everything is lost, save honor.” The embodiment of this ideal was Francis’ contemporary Bayard, the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, Such was his reputation that, having been captured twice, each time he was released without having to pay the customary ransom. So conscious of honor were Spanish soldiers during the same period that they sometimes executed those of their comrades who proposed surrender.

As expressions such as “the field of honor” and an “honorable death” show, such ideas had a long future in front of them, They also underlie many royal mottos, including “Dieu et mon Droit” (the English Crown’s “God and my right”), “nemo me impune lascevit” (the ‘Scottish one), Ne Plus Ultra (Emperor Charles V), and “Je Maintiendrai” (the House of Orange’s “I maintain”). Louis XIV had “nec pluribus impar” {meaning lost over time}.

The Sun King opened his memoirs by explaining that, to earn honor, it behooved a young prince in particular to go to war. Frederick the Great once said that the only thing that could make men march into the muzzles of the cannon trained on them was honor. But he did not always have it his way. In a fit of pique, he once ordered one of his subordinates to demolish the property of an enemy commander. Only to have the officer in question invoke honor and refuse.

Soldiers

The age of war granting an esoteric knowledge, at a price

Nor was honor the final word. As my friend and former student Prof. Yuval Harari has shown in his book, The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000, towards the end of the eighteenth century it became outmoded in turn. Its place was taken by the idea of some kind of secret, or superior, knowledge only those who had been through war and battle could acquire. That notion went well with the waning of aristocratic rule and the dawning of the bourgeois age. Here is Siegfried Sassoon, English poet and a serving officer in World War I, writing to his family in 1916:

“Last year, before the Somme, I had not known what I was in for. I knew now; and the idea was giving me emotional satisfaction! I had often read those farewell letters from second-lieutenants to their relatives which the newspapers were so fond of printing. ‘Never has life brought me such an abundance of noble feelings,’ and so on. I had always found it difficult to believe that these young men had really felt happy with death staring the in the face and I resented any sentimentalizing of infantry attacks. But here I was, working myself up into a similar mental condition as though going over the top were a species of religious experience.”

Needless to say, the transition from one idea to the succeeding one was not a simple one. It proceeded in different ways, at a different pace, in different countries and among people belonging to different social classes. There were always those who adhered to old ideas even as others were already discarding them. As even the most superficial inquiry will show, to say that the ideas in question always made themselves felt would be a gross overstatement. Yet to say that they were merely a hypocritical cover for barbaric deeds and never had any influence at all would be an even greater one. They are perhaps best understood as forming the mental framework that formed the skeleton or chassis, of war; one that had a certain impact even when it was violated.

ptsd

The age of war as ugliness, the age of PTSD

At the time Sassoon wrote war was still supposed to generate “an abundance of noble feelings” in the breasts of those who had experienced it. Shortly after, however, and with Sassoon himself very much in the lead, that idea in turn started waning away. The essential nature of war remained what it always had been. What changed was the way it was perceived and understood. From a revelatory experience akin to a religious one — Sassoon again — it was turned into a thoroughly rotten business. It was without either virtue or honor or knowledge; merely a process whereby obtuse generals sent millions to be mechanically slaughtered, often by men and weapons whom they never laid their eyes on.

Excitement and heroism were out, unspeakable suffering was in. All “for an old bitch gone in the teeth, for a botched civilization” (the American poet Ezra Pound in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly“).

Throughout the interwar years famous writers such as John Dos Passos, Robert Graves, and Ernst Hemingway never stopped hammering away on this theme. So did the most famous anti-war writer of all, Erich Maria Remarque {All Quiet on the Western Front}.

From there it was but a short step to the idea that war, far from elevating the soul in some way as most past generations had believed, was harmful to it and that anybody who spent enough time fighting had to suffer psychological damage. This was almost entirely new. Some modern psychologists — but few historians — have done their best to project Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as distinct from the most intense fear and trembling experienced before and during battle, as far back as Achilles around 1200 B.C.

In fact no period earlier than the American Civil War seems to have been familiar with it. Nor will anybody who has read his Iliad with its gory descriptions of brains being dashed in and blood spurting out in face-to-face combat — often conducted by men who knew one another — necessarily agree with those who claim that modern war is more terrible, hence more likely to give rise to PTSD, than any of its predecessors.

Instead, the rise to prominence during World War I of what the British knew as “shell shock” and the Germans as “war neurosis” both reflected the idea that war was not worth fighting and promoted it. It was from this point that PTSD began its march of conquest. During World War II, there were moments when the number of GIs discharged from the U.S Army exceeded that of recruits being drafted into it.

Following Vietnam, the problem assumed such huge proportions that not only the military but public opinion at large became alarmed. Henceforth no war, however short and however easy (the First Gulf War is a good example) that did not produce an abundant crop of PTSD victims. Rising to the occasion, physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists leaped into the breach, using it to have the satisfaction of serving their country, help their fellow men, and make money, all at the same time.

Worst of all, to avoid subsequent lawsuits the U.S military started insisting that all personnel returning from war be screened for PTSD. Seek, and you shall find. Instead of being welcomed home as heroes, the troops are being treated as damaged goods. No wonder that, by 2014, the cost of treating veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, including also the pensions paid to many serious victims, was said to run into the billions each year. The consequences, both for them and for society’s readiness to go to war in order to protect its interests, its way of life, and yes, its honor, were predictable.

Conclusions

To conclude, two points. First, I think that the approach to the history of Western military history expounded in the present essay — periodizing it by the way war was understood rather than by organization, technology, strategy, tactics or whatever — is as good as any.

Second, one cannot help but wonder whether PTSD has also affected those who, in recent years, have fought against the West — in Vietnam in 1965-73, in Afghanistan in 2002-14, and in Iraq in 2003-10. How about the Viet Cong? How about the Taliban? How about Daesh? Many of those troops committed worse atrocities, and suffered proportionally more casualties, than Western soldiers have done at any time since World War II. Did that cause them to come down with PTSD?

If not, why? Did what, at first sight, looks like a unique Western weakness, play a role in the rise of pussycat-ism? If so, what can and should be done?

Given the present state of knowledge, my friends, the answer is blowing in the wind.

———————-———————-

Other posts in this series

  1. Pussycats – Part I.
  2. Seek and you shall find.
  3. Do the cycles of history turn our armies into pussycats?
  4. Learning to Say No.

Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war: Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present.

Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as   Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?.

He’s written one of the most influential books of our generation about war, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.

For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these…

Supplying War
Available from Amazon.
Command In War
Available at Amazon.

38 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld: Our armies become pussycats, part 2

  1. Fabius Maximus,

    Two thoughts on this piece.
    1. Is the author a veteran? He is clearly a distinguished author and researcher, but his bio does not reveal on this point. His status would change how I read what was written here.

    2. He writes “Shortly after, however, and with Sassoon himself very much in the lead, that idea in turn started waning away. The essential nature of war remained what it always had been. What changed was the way it was perceived and understood.”
    I disagree that war stayed the same. Wars hellish nature never changes, but the nation-state took it and made it a bureaucracy. It is one thing to be called to war by local leaders, fight with them and die with them. It’s very different to recoece a letter in the mail and with all the efficiency of modern management end up dead on the battlefield. Modern war is a different experience when you look at how much more efficiently it sucks.

    PF Khans

    1. PFK,

      (1) “His status would change how I read what was written here.”

      MvC’s military experience: “He was drafted to the Israel Defense Forces and served in logistics, but was soon granted an early discharge for medical reasons due to his cleft palate.” I can’t imagine why this makes a difference.

      (2) “It’s very different to recoece a letter in the mail and with all the efficiency of modern management end up dead on the battlefield.”

      Conscription (forced enlistment in military forces) is a commonplace in history, going back to ancient times (see Wikipedia). Until the French revolution most people were just subjects, with no expectation that they would love the political regime — let alone fight and die for it. Troops were often forcibly enlisted, with no pretense of fairness in the selection process — a process far worse than a modern draft (families were often left destitute).

      The British navy used press gangs to forcibly recruit people into the Navy from 1664 to 1814. The US did so during the Revolution.

    2. “Modern war is a different experience when you look at how much more efficiently it sucks.”

    3. Fabius Maximus,

      1) the first point matters to me because this post and the one previous to it do not wrong true to me, a combat veteran in a number of ways. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have an interesting theory and a well articulated assessment of previous battlefields, but I don’t think his analysis of contemporary war is as accurate as it might be, if he had in fact seen combat.
      Regardless, as an Israeli who did serve, however briefly, I can imagine he did witnessed at least some go what I’m talking about. If you want a clearer explanation, I can look at the two posts and be explicit about where I raised my eyebrows.

      2) I don’t deny, nor am I misinformed about the way that armies and navies were raised in the past. It was brutal and involved enslavement in a large number of cases. But MvC makes the case that we changed our view of war in a way that makes us worse at fighting, when it’s more accurate to say that our western leaders adopted a form of warfare that people cannot handle.
      First off, the vast majority of deaths in ancient times are now prevented by medicine. You might as well argue that modern war causes cancer because of the increased number of veterans that now get cancer when previously it was unheard of.
      Second, my experience is that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are traumatized by the war in a similar way. A doc told me about numerous afghans complaining about things that sound like psychological problems like PTSD. When you “hurt everywhere and nowhere” it sounds like mental issues. Our enemies are doubtless kept awake by loud thumps and passing aircraft and if they live long enough will doubtless suffer from mental trauma of being helplessly slaughtered.
      Third, I’m a vet and I don’t have PTSD. I know some who do and plenty that don’t. It’s a tricky business and all I know is that I was careful about taking steps to help prevent it, and they seemed to have paid off.

      Lastly, these posts strike me as an academic version of the story platoon sergeants like telling young soldiers about the enemy being hard bastards who eat once and never care about anything other than cutting Americans throats while on guard duty. It is both true and irrelevant. It’s like a short guy complaining about the basketball game of a tall guy. You work with what you have and make due. Americans have million dollar soldiers that need to be reintegrated into a trillion dollar society afterwards. That’s challenging. Afghans have hundred dollar soldiers going back to a million dollar society, it’s easier and cheaper.

      PF Khans

  2. “The British navy used press gangs to forcibly recruit people into the Navy from 1664 to 1814. The US did so during the Revolution.”

    Sure, and women use sex to force men into their demise,
    namely, marriage.

    Whats your point Editor?

  3. “I can’t imagine why this makes a difference.”

    It makes a difference the same way you would read a tent’s review from an Eagle Scout differently from a review from someone that is not, Sir.

  4. I found this very interesting. I had not thought about the history of it at all.I do think there is a difference today vs 200 years ago. Perhaps several.

    first I suspect that most wars back then were more maneuvering for days if not weeks with out contact with the enemy, followed by a big battle that was over in a few hours or maybe a few days. As things progressed with weaponry during the Civil War and later there were longer periods under fire, and often without direct contact with the enemy. The stress levels were naturally much higher.

    The second part may be that we now wage wars were we often cannot identify the enemy when he is standing next to us.

    So I believe PTSD is real. That said, I suspect that just like ADHD and Autism that MvC is correct when he state seek and ye shall find.

    Anyway thanks for the post. It was thought provoking.

  5. Surveying the aftermath of Omdurman, in 1898, where British Gatling guns had mowed down dervish cavalry, young Winston Churchill noted that modern mechanized warfare was a dehumanizing process, that no moral victory had been or could be achieved, but rather brutal destruction.

    Subsequently, Churchill would promoted the battle tank as a means of overcoming this mechanized destruction. Gallipoli, while a disaster, was nevertheless his effort to execute an end around of the mass destruction of the Western Front.

    The PTSD and related issues to which van Creveld refers are one aspect of this dehumanization. In a broader sense, the Lost Generation and related alienation of post-WWI Western civilization likewise flow from this. Remember, also, that Hitler had been a wounded WWI vet.

    The subordination of man to the machine has by no means been limited to the military, as the legend of Casey Jones and his hammer attests. There are libraries devoted to man’s social and economic subordination to the machine as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution.

    1. dckinder,

      Discussions about the nature of war are — as we see here — largely subjective. These read to me like tracts on medieval medicine. Is modern warfare — machines shooting at each other, with people inside (or now, controlling them from thousands of miles away) dehumanizing? Or is it more dehumanizing to condition soldiers to regard the others as not-people, so they can be slaughtered face to face — with a small sword (the gladius, 2 or 3 feet long)? What tests can we apply to give us a reliable answer.

      Is it “subordination to the machine” to have brutal labor eased, or is the real subordination to be found in slavery?

      As you say, people confidently giving answers to these questions fill libraries. But all this is tangential to the highly specific subject of this series by MvC. After 40 thousand comments, I’ve found that one indicator that a post has hit pay dirt is that commenters find it too disturbing to deal with, and so talk about small phrases in it — ignoring the overall message.

    2. Re: Whether slavery or industrialization constitutes subordination.

      It is of course quite possible for both so to be. Amongst the libraries to which I refer, are many discussing the American Civil War in precisely such terms.

      BTW: My apologies. I happen to be signed into WordPress for some reason, which I usually am not. I am Duncan C. Kinder.

    3. Duncan,

      Quite right, dehumanization is such a vague term that it can apply to a wide variety of things. It is sort of a Swiss Army knife of criticism.

      War is so awful that it is easy to critique. Also fun is debating what kind of war is worst, much like which army was best, or which fighter aircraft or battleship was best.

      Still, I think the most interesting aspect of the thread is everybody’s disinterest in discussing MvC’s message. That suggests that readers find it seriously disturbing, unlike the fun debates about war that overflow discussion boards.

    4. Fabius Maximus,

      You care to write a condensed version of what you think MvCs point is? Because from the way I read it, given the title and the theme of his conclusion is that he thinks that our own assessments of war and what is good or bad cause our soldiers trauma. In the past, when was was seen as an honorable thing or soldiers treated with more respect and honor, they suffered less from the psychological damage our current crop of western warriors face.
      Please let me know if I read this wrong, and in what way.

      PF Khans

    5. PFK:

      The title of the gives a clue to its content: “Our armies become pussycats, part 2”.

      The first post described the problem (armies become pussycats). The second discusses how to evaluate that theory, in terms of an analytical method and evidence. His conclusion gives a summary of both:

      First, I think that the approach to the history of Western military history expounded in the present essay — periodizing it by the way war was understood rather than by organization, technology, strategy, tactics or whatever — is as good as any.

      Second, one cannot help but wonder whether PTSD has also affected those who, in recent years, have fought against the West — in Vietnam in 1965-73, in Afghanistan in 2002-14, and in Iraq in 2003-10. How about the Viet Cong? How about the Taliban? How about Daesh? Many of those troops committed worse atrocities, and suffered proportionally more casualties, than Western soldiers have done at any time since World War II. Did that cause them to come down with PTSD?

      If not, why? Did what, at first sight, looks like a unique Western weakness, play a role in the rise of pussycat-ism? If so, what can and should be done?

      Hence my objection: you said “these posts strike me as … like telling young soldiers about the enemy being hard bastards”. That was not an accurate summary of this post, and barely even a relevant description.

      PFK: “Because from the way I read it, given the title and the theme of his conclusion is that he thinks that our own assessments of war and what is good or bad cause our soldiers trauma.”

      Yes, that is a summary of one of the two themes. It is a historical fact that the increased rates of PTSD among western soldiers are not seen in the insurgent foes we face. That might play a role in the consistent failure of western troops to defeat insurgents. He attempts to explain it in terms of how our soldiers and our society conceptualizes war, which is IMO quite logical — although that is not evidence.

      Side note: PTSD is not entirely a result of the nature of war changing, as implied in some comments here. Note the PTSD cases from the first Gulf war. Also, suicide rates among our troops have risen substantially, but the incidence is not related to the number, length, or type of deployments to war zones.

    6. Fabius Maximus,

      Thank you for clarifying. I do believe I understand where our conflict truly lies.

      “It is a historical fact that the increased rates of PTSD among western soldiers are not seen in the insurgent foes we face.”

      1) You’ve presented no evidence of this fact, and there does seem to be at least some that would dispute it.

      See “Do the Taliban Get PTSD?” (a quick Google search suggests that research in the area indicates its a problem for all involved), also consider the implications for how cowards were treated over time in such books as “Cowardice” by Chris Walsh. His book details the ways in which we used to eliminate cowards and now we treat them (an insufficient analysis, to be sure). If you kill everyone who shows signs of PTSD, you’ll see a lot less of it.

      ” He attempts to explain it in terms of how our soldiers and our society conceptualizes war, which is IMO quite logical — although that is not evidence.”

      It is logical, but it isn’t really the full picture. MvC says, “Excitement and heroism were out, unspeakable suffering was in.” and that is part of how we view war and the military, but I do not think that a majority see it that way. Some of our elites think of war this way, although they still are interested in using war for their purposes. Plenty think like MvC is asking us to, and so does the majority of Americans, if we look at the box office performance of American Sniper as any indication. Heroism and redemption through a terrible but valuable experience is still how Americans seem to think of war. Only academics and leftist groups don’t glamorize and glorify our soldiers.

      To be honest, we used to value our armed forces less and they did better in wars. We used to treat the assessments of security threats with the same sort of “Show me” attitude that we took with every other issue, and we did better at wars then.

      I don’t think the evidence supports his conceptualization of war as much as you and he suggest

      “That might play a role in the consistent failure of western troops to defeat insurgents.”

      It might, but I can’t imagine it playing a leading role in comparison with the total rot of our high command and national leadership.

      “Also, suicide rates among our troops have risen substantially, but the incidence is not related to the number, length, or type of deployments to war zones.”

      I recall a formation after over three soldiers had committed suicide over a weekend. Commander mentioned that there was no single factor that could link these three together. I’m pretty sure there was. They were all in the fucking Army. War is hell. Bureaucratic war is a unique hell.

      PF Khans

    7. PFK,

      Many of these issues are beyond the kind of evidence that can be shown in comments, and some is beyond the realm of proof.

      Also, what happened to the points I made in response to your previous comments about conscription and “these posts strike me as … like telling young soldiers about the enemy being hard bastards”. These threads feel like wack-a-mole, as a each rebuttal is replaced by new claims.

      A few points in response to you latest comment.

      (1) Insurgent’s ptsd.

      The specific case presented at the opening of the Newsweek article describes concussive shock. Does anyone say that insurgents are supermen, immune to brain damage? Also they dsicuss the horrific stress of living in Afghanistan, which has been a war zone for several generations (since 1978). We don’t need Freud to know that would create high levels of mental illness.

      Neither of these is relevant to a discussion of PTSD among US troops (brain damage is serious, but a minority of cases of PTSD). As for cowardliness, that’s a factor in a relatively small fraction of PTSD cases — many of whom were not in circumstances in which that was a relevant factor. More relevant is the rising incidence of suicide in troops, quite unrelated to combat exposure — or even foreign deployments.

      (2) “It is logical, but it isn’t really the full picture.”

      Yes. We could write something the length of the Britannica and still get that reply — correctly.

      (3) “if we look at the box office performance of American Sniper as any indication.”

      I disagree, but it’s not a disagreement we can settle here.

      (4) “To be honest, we used to value our armed forces less and they did better in wars.”

      I think that’s wildly inaccurate, but again not going to be resolved here.

      (5) “I can’t imagine it playing a leading role in comparison with the total rot of our high command and national leadership.”

      As I and others have said so many times for so long, almost every foreign army has lost to local insurgents since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII. Depending on how you count, it’s 80-100 conflicts. Developed nation and less-developed nations have tried, using weapons up to and including low-level genocide. It’s not a US problem.

      (6) “Bureaucratic war is a unique hell.”

      Perhaps it is unique, although I’m skeptical of claims that any social phenomenon is substantially unique. But that can hardly explain the rising rate of PTSD in western armies unless you believe that “bureaucratic war” is not only “unique” but also worse than other kinds of war. That is IMO absurd.

    8. Fabius Maximus,

      I think I better understand your position, so I appreciate you taking the time to respond in spite of what you see as a whack-a-mole. I do think I tried to answer your questions about conscription, but all you took away from it is that I found MvCs article polemical in the same way that I think some Platoon Sergeants are so. I was mistaken in your point because PTSD has, sadly, an ambiguous definition.

      From your response, it sounds as though you and MvC seem to be most concerned with why non-serious/combat related PTSD is on the rise, which it is, in the military. And how that seems to be contributing to rot in our military. That’s a different question, and, if you’ll pardon me saying so, obscured quite a bit by the title of these articles and the general content.

      In any case, PTSD is on the rise because America thinks that and treats victims with greater respect and care than anyone else at this point in time. For some reason, victimhood is just about the only signifier of moral superiority left in this country. It’s madness but so is much of what we do in this country. This is just an extension of that phenomenon. We think we’re aiding them because trauma creates victims is the way America perceives the world.

      As for “As I and others have said so many times for so long, almost every foreign army has lost to local insurgents since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII. Depending on how you count, it’s 80-100 conflicts. Developed nation and less-developed nations have tried, using weapons up to and including low-level genocide. It’s not a US problem.”
      Have you read “Guns, Germs, and Steel”? There’s a very interesting intersection between the spread of modern medicine and the failure of counter-insurgency. Another interesting book to consider on this topic is “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” which is a great book examining first-hand accounts of soldiers for the first couple years of the Civil War. Interestingly, the men who are most “hard,” those mountain folk from Shenandoah are in fact the least effective soldiers due to their constant illness due to their mingling that is caused by modern armies and war.
      We cured cholera, we cured polio. Previously, an occupying army would roll in, win some battles spread some disease and the men and women would get sick enough to keep things peaceful. That’s not happening any longer. The advantage used to be guns, germs and steel in a battler against an insurgency. At this point, it’s just logistics that the west holds over insurgencies. It’s a big change, and we haven’t addressed this major change to how wars used to be fought. So my money is that the problem with counterinsurgency lies there than in PTSD/victimhood issues, which are problems in their own right but less essential to the destruction of insurgencies.

      PF Khans

    9. PFK,

      (1) “it sounds as though you and MvC seem to be most concerned with why non-serious/combat related PTSD is on the rise, which it is, in the military.”

      No. MvC uses PTSD as a symptom or cause of a serious trend: the evolution of the west’s armies into pussycats.

      (2) “In any case, PTSD is on the rise because America thinks that treats victims with greater respect and care than anyone else at this point in time.”

      Very false. First, it is rising in other nations. Second, are you seriouosly implying that PTSD not a real condition, but only resulting from how we treat it?

      (3) “Guns, germs,and steel. …That’s not happening any longer.”

      There’s nothing about insurgencies in the original 1999 edition. The 2003 edition has an update at the end. But its a weird theory. Germs have not been a factor aiding colonial forces for a century — and were never a factor in Africa (there germs prevented deep European colonization until the mid to late 19th century.

      (4) “my money is that the problem with counterinsurgency lies there than in PTSD/victimhood issues”

      That’s missing the point. He cites PTSD as a symptom of the larger trend, not the trend itself.

      (5) “It is one thing to be called to war by local leaders, fight with them and die with them. It’s very different to recoece a letter in the mail and with all the efficiency of modern management end up dead on the battlefield. Modern war is a different experience when you look at how much more efficiently it sucks.”

      This was your example of war being worse. I showed that this is quite false. Nations have always conscripted men — by means far worse than today’s rational selection, sending a letter that gives time to prepare — plus giving pay and often other benefits to the family. It shows improvement, not making it worse.

  6. I think that to understand better why “we Westerners have become pussycats” we should look at our breeding and daily life.

    First thing: being acquainted with violent death and spilled blood since infancy. The world where violent, bloody death is normal and commonplace is completely different from the world where you just watch it on TV.

    If you were born in the country, at least until just a few decades ago, in your daily experience you became acquainted, since you were a little child, with: killing animals, small and not so small, with your hands; hunting, fishing; you were told not to make a fuss when you got hurt; and in Italy, if you were a male, you were often told the following proverb: “Chi non è buono per il re, non è buono per la regina”, i.e., “if you are not good for the king (aka, for being a soldier) you are not good for the queen too (aka, women will despise you).

    Being a city boy, I used to spend my summers in the country, in a relative’s farm; and if I wanted to survive my holidays, I had to do everything which the country boys did (I still remember the first time I killed a chicken: being afraid not to be able to kill it expediently, I tore away its head, and the poor beast run many headless circles before dying at last. Next step: killing a pig). A couple of decades later, serving in Lebanon with the Italian Army, by chance I had a hand-to hand fight with a Phalangist. I’ve been lucky. What did I think to, just after the fight? Yes: the first time I killed a chicken.

    Second thing: a tightly knitted community life. Where do you find it, now? If you fight side to side with people whom you know since you were born, who share your experience, way of thinking and living, your dialect, to make a long story short with people with whom you feel at home, well, I think that
    a) you’ll fight better, because you don’t want to be despised by your friends
    b) you’ll cope better with your war experiences, because you’ll be surrounded by them: death is very cold, home is very warm.

    In our Army, one of the best Corps are the Alpini, recruited on a regional basis: in any division, you always fought with people born in the same places you were, speaking the same dialect, etc. In WWII, a disastrous strategic decision pitted the Alpini Divisions, equipped and trained for mountain warfare, in the Russian plains, to fight against tanks and mechanized infantry. When the front broke, they were encircled by the advancing Soviet Army, but broke the encirclement (the Tridentina Division broke the encirclement 23 times, while retreating towards the new front line established by the Axis, losing two thirds of its forces; the Cuneense Division was totally wiped out).

    1. Roberto,

      Thanks for the thought-provoding comment.

      I am skeptical that modern Americans are less well acquanted with violence than those of the WWII “greatest generation”. Few city kids back then spent much time in rural areas, let alone in the wild. The levels of violent crime were (I believe) far lower than ours. And their exposure to media (books and films) were far less violent than ours. The intensity of modern media is similar to that of watching the Games in Rome. Can it not have an effect?

      As for the effect of social cohesion — and especially unit cohesion in the military — most analysis agrees with you on its decisive effect. Lots of evidence showing this, in many ways.

  7. Thank you for your reply. Of course you’re right in your comparison between WWII generation and today’s. But you see, I was thinking about Italy, not about America.

    Just 50 years ago, Italy was a predominantly peasant country: we began to be an industrial country around the Thirties. And maybe (who knows?) there are different ways to get acquainted with violence and spilled blood, which produce different results in military prowess. In my (limited) experience, people who came from criminal backgrounds (we had more than a few) were more acquainted with violence: some of them had probably killed someone, all of them had fought hand to hand, with knives, etc.; but they were worse, not better soldiers: because they were not used to dominate violence, and because for them, either you dominate or you are dominated: they were often incapable of friendship on equal terms, solidarity, etc.

    I found that the best soldiers were two kind of people: a) coming from military background b) coming from working class or peasant background, with strong loyalties and pride for their relatives, city, friends. To sum up: in my (I repeat: limited) experience, the best soldiers came from people living a frugal, not too easy life: but a life which was ordered and meaningful in deep. War is a terrible disorder, and makes you think that the world is devoid of any meaning. If you do not know, inside your soul, what order is, you give up, get crazy, despair, collapse. And watching violence on Tv or videogames does not prepare you for what real violence looks like…

    1. Thank you for writing that Roberto, and thank you for mentioning the Alpini.

      Mountain warfare is the most complex kind of warfare. 4GW mountain warfare is brutal. 4GW high-mountain winter warfare is beyond supercomplex.

      Once I met a USA-naturalized Norwegian that fought with the allies in the alps in WW2. I will never forget this phrase “It is much easier to make a soldier out of a skier than to make a skier out of a soldier”

  8. Fabius Maximus,

    Given your response I think it is best to separate the two arguments we are having because I don’t think they are terribly connected and it’ll be easier to communicate that way.

    Conscription
    ——————
    I said that: “It is one thing to be called to war by local leaders, fight with them and die with them. It’s very different to recoece a letter in the mail and with all the efficiency of modern management end up dead on the battlefield. Modern war is a different experience when you look at how much more efficiently it sucks.”
    and you pointed out that: “Nations have always conscripted men — by means far worse than today’s rational selection, sending a letter that gives time to prepare — plus giving pay and often other benefits to the family. It shows improvement, not making it worse.”

    I do not dispute what you said, but it is not the full picture. Getting a letter in the mail is better than being kidnapped from your home. Compensating family and the person serving much better than previously is also an improvement, a vast improvement over how it used to be.

    But conscription in the past was not as efficient as it is today. People fell through the cracks far more frequently than they do today. It’s a fact that our modern bureaucracy can mobilize a far larger percentage of the population than previous institutions. We can move them faster and quicker to war and now it’s no longer an issue of how fast you can walk to the front but how fast a plane can fly. Someone who’s heart dreads war will normally lag behind in a column of troops marching hundreds of miles to fight.

    My own experience demonstrated to me that people who really really didn’t want to be in a firefight found ways to get hurt/prove un-useful. I’ve seen malingerers. They exist in all armies. But a key difference now is that malingerers are still transported to the fight nowadays though. Previously, how would they get there? If they were driven there by the violence of a sergeant and were still cowardly, then they’d be shot. So no PTSD.

    Another critical difference is how humans are raised and treated prior to war. A human from 15th century France or Turkey is going to have to be able to use his body to perform manual tasks and use language to conduct business and little else. A human today is far more highly tuned and maintained. To exist in a modern Western society, you have to be higher functioning than an illiterate peasant. That’s just a fact. War, though, has not changed in its barbarity. If you compare a 15th century soldier to a 20th century soldier, one is a cheaply made hammer and the other is an expensive laser tool. But they are both used to smash things. We might think we’re using the laser better, but war is war. So you have greater problems that come from the relative changes in violence that occur now from peace to war and the relative changes of expectations as being valuable that occur now from peace to war.

    I’ll give you an example. In a chemical battlefield, to check conditions, the US Army’s guidance is that if unsure, then the least valuable member of the team should take his/her mask off and test the environment. In America, where everyone is supposed to be uniquely valuable and is taught as such, how do you internalize being told you’re the least valuable? If you survive, what sort of additional trauma is being lumped on your soul? For an illiterate and beaten-down peasant, such news is no shock, so what’s the difference to him? You cannot just measure the absolute pain and experience of combat and the violence. You also have to consider how the relative changes in prosperity and quality of life impact people.

    The military doesn’t do that. It treats people like a logistical part of the equation of solving a war. If X people and Y guns and Z mortars are at place P, we will win B number of battles and thus be assured of victory. This compounds the problem of the relative distance one must travel from Topeka, Kansas to Kandahar because they system doesn’t work if you don’t work right all the time and pressures its soldiers to fit into that X mold rather than handling combat like something other than a bureaucratic problem.

    I hope that clears up my position on why there’s a difference on conscription some. I appreciate your patience on my response to this, I realize I haven’t prioritized answering this question.

    PF Khans

    1. PFK,

      Thank you for the explanation. I still don’t see that you’ve shown why modern combat is worse than in the bast, a “bureaucratic hell.”

      “But conscription in the past was not as efficient as it is today.”

      I would like to see evidence of that. I doubt it. Napoleon’s conscription mobilized the young men of France very efficiently.

      “My own experience demonstrated to me that people who really really didn’t want to be in a firefight found ways to get hurt/prove un-useful.”

      That’s very false as a difference. Even if “modern” (I assume you mean from WWI and after) mobilize a higher fraction of the male population, in modern armies a FAR smaller fraction of the uniformed troops actually fight (i.e., the “tails” are much larger fraction of the total).

      “But a key difference now is that malingerers are still transported to the fight nowadays though. Previously, how would they get there? If they were driven there by the violence of a sergeant and were still cowardly, then they’d be shot. No PTSD.”

      First, as I’ve said many times, you seem to believe PTSD results solely from combat. To repeat, it does not. Second, the rest of your comment is not about conscription or PTSD, but discussing — as MvC does – the difference between armies today and in the past. As I said earlier, on this subject people can do little more than state their opinions. My disagreements were not about these things.

    2. Fabius Maximus,

      “I would like to see evidence of that. I doubt it. Napoleon’s conscription mobilized the young men of France very efficiently. ”

      So we’re going to have challenges here because one era and nation’s mobilization efforts are very different from another’s mobilization efforts. And that impacts things. If we’re going to discuss Napoleonic France, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n10/mike-jay/the-wrong-head.
      There’s some suggestion that mental illness in France post-Napoleon’s departure was higher than it previously had been. I don’t think there’s a clear link there because it’s 200 years ago and a lot wasn’t written down, but it’s worth investigating.

      “That’s very false as a difference. Even if “modern” (I assume you mean from WWI and after) mobilize a higher fraction of the male population, in modern armies a FAR smaller fraction of the uniformed troops actually fight (i.e., the “tails” are much larger fraction of the total).”
      That’s the American way of war. I’ve read that the tail for the German and Soviet armies were closer to 2:1 instead of America’s 10:1.
      I think it’s a mistake to ignore the fact that modern transportation no longer requires motivation to get thrown in a fight or that the military application of bodies to a problem is far more widespread than previously.

      “First, as I’ve said many times, you seem to believe PTSD results solely from combat. To repeat, it does not.”
      My mistake. I think PTSD has to do with trauma, of which, combat is one. Military institutions are another. You haven’t addressed my point about medicine allowing more people to live than before even once. Is it not possible that PTSD was experienced by people in the past but they just ended up dead because of it (unable to function well enough to live) instead of needing treatment?

      PF khans

  9. Fabius Maximus,

    The other thing you and MvC appear to be claiming is that PTSD (in its suicide inducing form) is more prevalent than ever in our military than ever before and that this is a new thing and possibly related to how we treat our armies.

    First off “are you seriouosly implying that PTSD not a real condition, but only resulting from how we treat it?” Please. No need for this kind of attitude.
    I do know of individuals who “suffered” from PTSD without the desired trauma because there was money to be made in it. There were disability checks in it. I know guys who had it bad and would have traded the world for a good nights sleep without nightmares. It’s complex and terrible as the human mind is both.

    Secondly, I don’t think I understand what it is MvC means by “our armies become pussycats.” Our armies are as willing as ever to engage in combat. Our soldiers are as likely as ever to die to the last man fighting the enemy. Your concern that we keep losing insurgencies and have been but didn’t always lose them and that we have more and more soldiers killing themselves and being psychologically wounded doesn’t sound like pussycat behavior to me.
    In fact it sounds like the opposite. It sounds like the behavior of addicts and the insane. The problem isn’t a lack of will to fight, it’s a lack of skill and thoughtful application of force. I don’t think we win insurgencies now because there’s no loser in not losing an insurgency. Winning takes effort, not losing seems to take just enough less to not matter.

    As for my point about the damage done by disease to suppressed populations, it’s probably more accurate to say that civilizational diseases were a factor in successful counterinsurgency and in preventing conditions for insurgencies to begin with. Malaria kept out plenty of European invaders, but cholera, small pox, and typhus were major killers in Africa and India as well. But this is not a highly studied area as disease is very much considered a universal evil and there’s not much anyone would ever do to bring it back, so I can understand your skepticism.

    PF Khans

  10. Fabius Maximus,

    Not sure if this impacts your or my position, but in {the NY Times}: “Nationally, the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily since 2007: from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 to 11.1, in 2013 (the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).” Suicide is up in general which suggests that the PTSD phenomenon has less to do with combat and more to do with something else in our society.

    The American Conservative wrote “We should be seriously concerned by a culture in which academic accolades and prestige outweigh our concerns for inner emotional wellbeing.” about the same topic.

    I think the same could be stated about our military. Combat requires a great deal of cohesion amongst men and the support they get in combat washes away within months of redeployment. It wasn’t half a year before 80% of my units was different than those I was at war with. The human heart is not capable of handling the needs of modern war and the modern bureaucratic systems that run the world.

    PF Khans

    1. PFK,

      The increased rate of suicide is far higher in the military. It was below the civilian population on an age-adjusted basis; now it’s slightly higher. And, as I keep saying, you are incorrect to attribute this to combat or deployments. Every study of the subject confirms that. Unclear to me why you keep implying otherwise.

    2. Fabius Maximus,

      I said: “Suicide is up in general which suggests that the PTSD phenomenon has less to do with combat and more to do with something else in our society.” and “The human heart is not capable of handling the needs of modern war and the modern bureaucratic systems that run the world.”

      I don’t think that PTSD is related to combat except insomuch as it is a traumatic thing and can trigger it. I think the military bureaucracy is clearly something that aggravates these problems. This is the point I’ve been trying to make. Apologies for the confusion.

      PF Khans

    3. PFK,

      Thanks for the explanation. However, the increase increase in PTSD and suicide began after 9/11. The US military didn’t become more bureaucratic after 9/11. Perhaps the opposite. Most indications of morale improved during the long war. They were at worrisome low levels during the late 1990s.

    4. Fabius Maximus,

      “The US military didn’t become more bureaucratic after 9/11. Perhaps the opposite. Most indications of morale improved during the long war. They were at worrisome low levels during the late 1990s.”
      That’s a really good point. I suppose that I’m not quite convinced that the level of bureaucracy went down for the average soldier, but I don’t have knowledge of the relative nature of its impact over the past couple decades.

      A thought occurs, though. I do believe that I am well informed about PTSD as an individual illness and its impact on myself and others, but you seem to know quite a lot on the subject. I know that the American public at large is significantly less well informed on the issue than myself. Perhaps you might consider writing a post on the topic? Something of a primer?

      PF Khans

    5. PFK,

      I know about it from my reading and family experience.

      We try here to provide information to the public on matters not well covered, or not covered by easily found sources. There are many excellent sources of information written by professionals about PTSD, far better than anything I could do.

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