TCS Daily

The Soldiering Ethos

By Michael Vlahos - February 19, 2004 12:00 AM

America has fought a war for two years with its peacetime military. Moreover this is what both the nation and the military have wanted. But the situation is changing. Effective insurgency in Iraq is just the first step moving America's military into long-term wartime.

Like so many others before us, we find it is the enemy that is the real instrument of change. In today's context, thus, it is America's enemies that are bringing true "transformation" -- in the form of a modern and yet also ancient, soldiering ethos. The current war will not be won by citizen soldiers and loyal allies but by a professional veteran soldiery and US-led local (once called "native") forces. This is the long-awaited transformation, and it comes at a price. But then, victory always has a price.

How could our nation's armed forces officially at war still be peacetime military? Perhaps it is worth explaining what "peacetime" has meant to Americans. We must remember that to America's first seven generations, peacetime meant just that. No war. The United States created itself as The People's answer to corrupt European monarchies. Its kings fought wars at their whim. Thus in the eighteenth century -- at the time of America's founding -- it could be said that there was no such thing as peacetime in Europe.

A new America only reluctantly allowed a military at all. It was finally created to protect the national interest in time of peace and give The People a small, professional soldiering corps to assist in mobilization and offer trained leadership in time of war.

To Americans, "war" meant mustering the Militia. The citizenry fought our nation's wars -- and war was about the mobilization of citizen-soldiers.

Thus it can be said in truth that -- since this country turned over its defense to a professional military, and since this military has begun to fight real wars with only the merest demur from us about mustering the citizenry -- there has been no traditional "peacetime" for some time.

Expectations Game

But "peacetime" means one thing to the nation, and quite another to military societies. Since Americans and their military were officially separated in 1973, military ethos has sought to successfully juggle two expectations that promised someday to bring us to a national-existential contradiction.

One was the expectation that the Military would take care of all our national security needs unless some unimaginable (and thus nearly impossible) emergency arose, like the resurrection of Hitler or Stalin. Thus the Military would not simply, as in ancient tradition, protect the national interest abroad; it would fight any and all small-to-medium wars without resort to national mobilization.

But the other expectation was that an American military designed to fight wars without mobilization would still embody a bit of the old Republic's Militia Ethos -- to keep from becoming legionnaires with the eagle-standards of Emperors and kings. This means keeping somehow to the Founders' Cincinnatus tradition, where the citizen lays down his plough to take up a sword in time of national need. The army that fights America's wars must always be at least in part, part-time. It must not become wholly the hard-bitten force of our leaders.

Hence two responses: the Volunteer Force, and Military Transformation.

The so-called Volunteer Force is really a professional military supplemented by reservists. These supplemental forces were designed to be used sparingly. Inasmuch as some were veterans with unmatched skills, reserve forces were a way to keep valuable soldier-experience in the force. But as necessary as supplemental forces might be, they also have had an essential cultural mission: to preserve at least the symbol of a republic defended by citizen-soldiers. Thus the conundrum: use them sparingly, or they cease to look like citizen-soldiers.

The Transformation

But how could the Volunteer Force -- with only a light touch on its own reserves -- be enough to fight America's future wars? The answer that emerged during the 1990s was "Transformation." Transformation seemed to be all about technology, but of course it meant much more than just building a better military. It was a big concept because it promised that just over a million people on the ground (the Army's "Total Force") could fully meet America's global national security needs. [i] Military Transformation sought to achieve this with a mix of new and old: new technology and new ways of war, in concert with an old established orchestra of "friends and allies."

What the Volunteer Force and Transformation offered may not have been peacetime as in the days of Young America or the Gilded Age or the Roaring Twenties. But neither, suggested its visionaries, would it entail national sacrifice on the scale of, say, the Cold War's Vietnams and Koreas. There would be some actual war "events," certainly a fair share of "combat," and lots and lots of "peacekeeping" and "peacemaking." America could rely on volunteers and on technology, enough still to take us to the Promised Land. Call it, New Age Peacetime.

But why bring up ancient history? Because for a golden decade this solution worked -- but it worked to set us up. When unexpected challenge came, it came in the form of something as significant as any world war. Yet this big challenge would not let us face it like a world war: in other words, it would not let us do what we do best!

So we were left with the military of New Age Peacetime. We rushed the Muslim World with what we had and hoped that would be enough. After two years and some, a national-existential contradiction is finally upon us. The United States and The People can no longer sustain both Big War and Old Identity.

Three Vignettes

Three vignettes show what is happening.

In September I had lunch with a thoughtful Flag Officer. He told me that all through the summer, while casualties from the Iraq insurgency piled up, his Pentagon colleagues were still on the old lifestyle clock, punching out promptly each day for their 1700 golf date at the Army-Navy Country Club. We know the Government was surprised by the "postwar" Iraqi insurgency. But that should come as no surprise. The real surprise is that they have taken so long to take the measure of what the resistance really means - not in terms of tactical responses "on the ground," but rather in terms of fundamental reassessments required by the true nature of the war.

Second vignette: a long story in the metro section of the Washington Times -- hardly media-critical of the war -- dated 20 December 2003.[ii] The byline: "I'm never wearing tan again." It was about returning soldiers from the 115th Military Police Battalion, Maryland National Guard. They had been deployed, active-duty, for 27 months. The supplemental citizen-soldiers have outdone themselves in service to their country. But a "forever war"[iii] is not what they signed up for. And a forever war is what we have.

Third is an accountant's entry. The US has over a third of its people deployed overseas. New Age Peacetime was above all a lifestyle military. But the US cannot keep a third of its active (and supplemental) force deployed "out of area" (away from home).[iv] The law of New Age Peacetime is clear: only one battalion out of every four (or even five) can be deployed. This ratio worked out OK in the 1990s for Bosnia and Kosovo -- it was just enough.

Military Transformation suggested if it did not actually promise, that war had become a sort of premium service that only the US could afford. Campaigns would be blisteringly brief, and only a very few in war paint would ever taste the fetid dust of combat. "Shock and awe" would prevail. Modernity's "all-seeing-eye" -- Network Centric Warfare -- would catch the slightest rustle of disobedience, just as it does in that Lockheed-Martin TV ad: "Bring it on," it whispers.[v]

Administration strategists calculated that the Global War on Terrorism could still be handled by the just-enough paradigm of New Age Peacetime. Thus even periods of relatively intense combat operations could be sustained through a plussed-up overhead of world security management.

Just the Beginning

Iraqi insurgency is slowly destroying this calculation. Not because budget deficits will blow the overhead. Not because we will take too many casualties. Not because we won't win in Iraq. New Age Peacetime is winning in Iraq -- in the sense of containing and ultimately eradicating resistance there.

But this is not a war about Iraq. This war is only beginning. America faces the prospect of continuing conflict in the Muslim World. Future conflict may look like what we have encountered in Iraq, but on a much greater scale. Future pre-emptive interventions already under active discussion by the Washington establishment include Syria -- an Iraqi "comparable" -- and Iran -- a conflict of incomparably greater magnitude. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are fragile and unstable, and Pakistan even more so.

It is almost certain that Americans will end up fighting in places that, like Baghdad and Kabul, once seemed unimaginable. Now they are not only imaginable but also imminent. We must come to terms with the true nature of the war, and realize that it is not about "terrorism" but a deep struggle within Muslim identity over the very spirit of Islam. Thus, to turn a Churchillian quip, Iraq will not mark the beginning of the end, nor even the end of the beginning, but rather only, our own end of innocence.

The American Military -- and especially the US Army -- must find a way to effectively prosecute this war over an expanding theater of operations and for an indefinite period of historical time. Furthermore, it must do so without resorting to national mobilization and without ending up as an imperial service. Or at least it must disguise the latter for a while.

Because something has to give. Maybe not right now, but in five or ten years from now - or very possibly even next year. Chances are we will give up a treasured part of our national identity as the price of victory.

Here are three payments that must be made.

Move Toward Leadership Based on Battlefield Performance -- and Local Horse Sense

Peacetime military performance is assessed on three criteria: program delivery, status delivery, and political delivery. Program delivery means securing big money or managing a big money program well. Status delivery means elevating the agency or department you represent within the larger Defense World hierarchy. Political delivery means demonstrating your utility to the White House and to Congress. Thus, winning the "war" in Kosovo through air power alone. Thus, the selling of "shock and awe" as the vehicle for bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Wartime military performance is based on winning. This assertion should be obvious, but its essential truth is obscured by our semiotics of war. For example, Operation Iraqi Freedom was not a "war" but rather, reminiscent of a live-fire exercise, in the sense that it was not merely foreordained but completely controlled from moment-to-moment. Military leadership, especially at the top, could not "lose," they could only screw up the media modalities of "winning."

The situation in Iraq today is much more difficult. If winning is no longer uncertain, then neither is the precedent of new war that Iraq presents. It promises that future campaigns in the Muslim World will put a premium on a new kind of American soldiering. We earnestly hope that Iraq will soon be put to bed, but possible US occupation of Arabia or Egypt, an invasion of Syria or Iran, is creating a new standard for battlefield performance.

But just what does battlefield performance really mean in a war of quick campaigns and long counter-insurgency?

Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers has been playing in the Pentagon since summer, and is now showing on the streets of downtown DC. It is the best cinema verite ever made about counter-insurgency war. But the war in Algeria is not our war. The French were fighting an insurgency they understood: a national liberation movement with Western-style socialist trappings. We are fighting an insurgency within Islam, and it is not simply about liberation but the renewal of a civilization.

Thus "battlefield performance" necessitates cultural sensitivity -- call it, "civilizational horse sense." Americans must go in speaking Arabic (or Urdu or Farsi!), respect local customs and taboos, and move quickly to political cooptation.[vi] In Iraq, for example, this should mean early elections and a Shi'a government. We are not Victorians, and we cannot hope to set up, like the British in Egypt in 1882, a stooge Khedive -- and hope to pull strings and keep bases there for the next three score and ten.

But what if the US Government keeps its ruling council in power instead? It is possible that the US Military will preside over a violent and unstable Iraq for years to come. Are we not still in Bosnia, a much lesser place?

Thus military leadership in future will be judged by its ability both to handle fighters and society in several, simultaneous countrywide battlefields. If a situation cannot be resolved or is politically extended, new leadership will be brought in. And if the situation continues to deteriorate new leadership will be demanded wholesale -- throughout the Pentagon. In other words, long-term war in the Muslim World will demand -- if not actually force -- a very different US Military "Top Brass."

The US Military has not faced this sort of forced leadership transformation since World War II, when scores of general officers were sacked for poor battlefield performance. But going further back, an even bigger leadership upheaval was required for Union armies to win a civil war. But now, because the battlefield is everywhere, performance will be even harder to measure and harder to see -- killing insurgents will not be enough. Remember, US Federals won on the battlefield only to lose a counter-insurgency war of "Reconstruction."

Our own Civil War carries an important warning. Political leadership may well make choices -- as it is doing right now in Iraq -- that make "battlefield" victory over an Islamist insurgency more elusive than ever. Yet it is in this milieu that battlefield performance will be judged.

Move Toward an "All-Fighting Force"

An "all-fighting force" is a military where everyone is a fighting soldier, sailor, or airman. Today's peacetime military, in contrast, has been a class-based society, where until now only the first-class fight. There are only a tiny number of "Jedi Knights" among the 5000-plus sailors on a carrier. Only a handful of men get to paint their faces and kill the enemy face-to-face -- or as celebrated by Donald Rumsfeld himself during Operation Enduring Freedom -- or ride Afghan ponies in flowing garb.

Because New Age Peacetime has never really been about fighting. Its recruiting campaigns, with the exception of the Marines, focus on lifestyle and life benefits. Its way of life makes officers like corporate managers, and enlisted personnel, technicians -- or "specialists." But the war in Iraq is changing that.

This is an equal opportunity war when it comes to casualties -- and this could have profound cultural impact on the American military ethos. Sacrifice transforms everyone in uniform into an equal fighter and defender.

Military life now means being a fighting soldier, sailor, or airman. This in turn suggests not only a fighting military, but also one where fighting is its constant profession. This means soldiers that fight like teachers teach or drivers drive. Fighting is what is does. Moreover the scope of the Iraqi deployment -- and succeeding deployments sure to follow -- suggest that all future American soldiers can expect to serve the balance of their careers in the combat theater.

But how can this ever be made to work? Right now the US Army is at the breaking point keeping a third of its Total Force deployed.[vii] If the Volunteer Force is a lifestyle military that can routinely deploy only a quarter or a fifth of its force, how can we ask it to deploy, say, two-thirds in the combat theater? In World War II America put 12 million men in uniform; and by war's end all of its 90 divisions and 5000 ships were in combat theater. But that war had an end as well as a beginning, and it was throughout a shared national experience. This war in contrast has no discernible finish, and its current dynamic suggests decades -- some say, even a century -- of conflict.[viii]

In this forever war there can be no National Guard -- no non-combat MOS (Military Occupational Specialty, or job identity) even -- because everyone will be, inevitably, a true professional soldier in combat -- in the Muslim World. Moreover the US simply will not meet urgent future military commitments without all of its force being a combat force. There are two options. But be warned, they may threaten some core values.

  • Contract out most support (even some of the combat support and combat service support mission if possible). Make every military person a fighter, which is to say all military personnel are combat MOS, instead of the hundreds of alternative and often implicitly non-combat jobs. The big upside in contracting-out is easy: no military pensions for contractors, no training costs, and reduced liability. Save our national taxpayer dollar for the American soldier. We will eventually need all of them -- on the frontline. The US Military's goal should be two-thirds of the Total Force deployable in-theater for war's duration.
  • Build strong local military and paramilitary forces across the Muslim World. To ensure their loyalty and reliability they must be well paid and American-managed, if not American-led. They can be quite large in comparison with the US Total Force; the British found that in India, an effective "native" army could be double the size of the UK regimental force in-theater. At three to four times, however, their reliability -- as evidenced in the Great Mutiny -- declined.

To be effective, both options must be front and center. Then the nation must begin the delicate process of legitimating a military unlike any in our national experience.

Move Toward a New "Heroic Narrative"

There is a necessary third part to the soldiering ethos: a new identity. But it will be very different from the ideology of Transformation.

The occupation of Iraq was expected to conform to US experience in Bosnia and Kosovo -- summed up by code words like "peacekeeping" and "nation-building." Although the current counterinsurgency campaign may look on TV like a clip from "Cops," it is not policing activity but real combat. What positive military identity can be extracted from a COIN-SWAT way of life -- for Counter-Insurgency and Special Weapons and Tactics, the place where military and police become one? If creatively handled, it could lead to a new "heroic narrative" -- one that sustains our soldiers in the forever war, but also one quite different from former tradition.

All military societies build their identities on a canonized heroic narrative. But for true soldiering societies, the narrative itself must take on almost liturgical authority, as exemplified by the French Foreign Legion or in British regimental traditions -- or in the haunting words of Douglas MacArthur, spoken in that sacred moment at West Point. It was his farewell to the Corps, and no cadet ever forgot his words without a slight shudder of realization.[ix] But as America slipped into Vietnam, MacArthur was out of place, a single representative of the soldiering ethos -- a stranger in a strange land, a century before his time.

A soldiering ethos means a military society led by many MacArthurs. For example the French Foreign Legion still celebrates a lost engagement of a forgotten war in a faraway land - as the realization of its very identity. Surrounded by an army of Mexican insurgents, Captain Danjou's small company holds out to the death. At the very end, like the scene of a movie's end, the last five, out of ammunition, fix bayonets and charge into the teeth of insurgent fire. So today and always, Danjou's wooden hand must still be taken from its shrine and revealed to new legionnaires. That moment, where identity is crystallized as though through the reliquary of a Medieval Saint -- is the heroic liturgy of the soldiering ethos.[x]

Certainly American military societies have their own glorious traditions, but most are rooted in great national wars rather than in the stories of tight-knit societies -- old regiments and soldier brotherhoods. Thus the heroic narrative of this very different US military in the making should be made to emerge de novo from experiences yet forthcoming in this war.

However, weaving these experiences into a heroic narrative of identity will require a new social framework in which it can be assimilated and enshrined. This means quite simply the creation of a new primary social structure for the US Military: one with the motivational authority of the French Foreign Legion or the British regiment, but at the same time, embodying uniquely American values.

But what does this mean? The United States cannot long survive with a military that is a mercenary force of killers serving the state, nor can it abide a military that is loyal only to the executive, like some European monarch or -- God forbid -- Roman Emperor! But what sort of hard-bitten, gritty bunch of Legionnaires will still be able to call themselves, Americans?

The puzzle is to discern a military identity from of this war that is both supreme on the battlefield and yet somehow remains consonant with our national life and loyal to the American ethos. Perhaps MacArthur would have an answer.

The Coming Soldiering Ethos

So why is the coming "soldiering ethos" a positive development for the US Military? Three reasons.

First, the US cannot win this war with its current, peacetime military, because over time the conflict will outpace peacetime's ability to manage it. The war that seemed manageable in May is now showing its underlying dynamic. Even an acceptably successful outcome in Iraq will not necessarily slow the changes occurring within Islam, in the form of a broader insurgency in the Muslim World.

Second, the US cannot, for cultural reasons, return to the "Nation-in-Arms" solution of national military tradition. -- a lá the Civil War and World War II -- nor to the delicate balance of New Age Peacetime. It must fight and win this war with its standing professional military forces -- surprisingly transformed.

Third, if these forces are to prevail, they must believe in themselves and their leadership. This means being able to transcend both accumulating battlefield casualties and serious campaign setbacks -- even defeats. And if setbacks are not welcome (as they should not be!), perhaps they should not in the end be seen as all bad. Moreover military setbacks -- even if they cannot be foreseen -- must be expected, given the world-historical scope and cultural intensity of this war. Furthermore, they are inevitable the longer this peacetime military leadership lingers.

But if a soldiering ethos is in part the necessary stepchild of setback, its culture is also the surest way to surmount it. It is, the price of victory.

Michael Vlahos is a frequent TCS contributor. He last wrote for TCS about Breaking the Resistance in Iraq.

I In truth Military Transformation is also a bigger and more inclusive concept than the original meanings of its creators. It has become something of a loose ideology, to be used sometimes even as a talisman or fetish- protecting America's military societies.

II Foster Klug, "I'm never wearing tan again," The Washington Times, December 20, 2003, A9.

III A classic science fiction novel by Joe Haldeman:

IV "By late October, some 370,000 US Army active and reserve component troops were deployed were deployed overseas, or more than one-third of that service's total active-reserve force of just over one million." Jeffrey Record, "Is the War on Terrorism Sustainable?" Naval Institute Proceedings, December, 2003, 44-46.

V One such ad is included in Bill Moyer's PBS program, NOW with Bill Moyers, 1-31-03 transcript:

VI One standout leader is Gen. Jim Mattis, USMC. Read about him, listen to him in Ray L. Smith, Bing West, The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, Bantam, 2003.

VII Permanently deploying Marines like Army ground units would help, as would an altogether larger Volunteer Force. But a larger active force might not even offset the near-future erosion of Guard/Reserves.

VIII From presentations by James Woolsey and William Cohen at "Counterproliferation at Ten: Transforming the Fight Against Weapons of Mass Destruction," hosted by The USAF Counterproliferation Center and The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Hilton Alexandria Mark Center, 8-9 December, 2003.

IX "The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country. ... Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps." The entire text is here:

X Read the story here:;

See the hand here:


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