Napoleon famously said that “morale is to the physical as three is to one.” More troops and bigger guns don’t necessarily guarantee victory, as Napoleon himself demonstrated. The post-revolutionary French army took on the wealthy great powers of Europe and with the exception of England, inflicted on them defeat after defeat, dominating most of continental Europe from 1804-14. History is full of other conflicts and battles in which the motivations for fighting trumped the greater numbers of the foe. Indeed, the West only exists because twice, in 490 and 480 B.C., the free Greeks defeated the massive, servile armies of the autocratic Persian Empire, preserving the ideals of political freedom and equality.
What people are willing to fight, kill, and die for, then, is three times more significant than the materiel with which they wage war. This means that our culture’s fashionable self-loathing––its “oikophobia,” as the late philosopher Roger Scruton called the hatred of one’s country, its institutions, its history, and much of its people evident in our universities, media, entertainment, and even military establishment––is so dangerous that not only does it erode morale, it signals to our foes that for all our economic and military power, significant numbers of citizens will not risk their lives to defend their country from those who wish to supplant it.
Given this long history showing that the foundational beliefs people fight for is itself a force-multiplier, it’s puzzling to read this paragraph from Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Robert Kagan’s long essay in the Wall Street Journal. After summarizing the 20th Century history of aggressors underestimating the power of the U.S., Kagan writes:
“Are Americans as a people up to a major confrontation with another great power, whether in immediate conflict or a protracted Cold War-like struggle? It would be dangerous for a potential adversary to assume they are not. Whatever condition the American political system may be in, it is not appreciably worse than it was during the 1930s. That, too, was a deeply polarized America, including on the question of whether to intervene in the world’s conflicts. But once the U.S. found itself at war, dissent all but disappeared. If ever there could be a cure for American political polarization, a conflict with China would be it.”
Notice that Kagan focuses on the “political system,” clearly referring to the frequently circulated clichés about “partisanship” and “polarization,” which when war came “all but disappeared.” But the Americans today who would fight, or the politicians who would oversee a conflict or second Cold War are very different from the ones who won two World Wars and the Cold War.
For one thing, most Americans who fought in those conflicts grew up and lived in a harder and less forgiving world than the Millennials and Gen Z’ers who would to do the fighting in a major war. It was a world where more young men experienced physical work, hunted, settled disputes with fist-fights, and faced more risks and less daily comfort than most of us have.
Most of them also didn’t have the luxury of the extended childhood and the astonishing wealth and comfort that the nation has provided our young. Nor did they have the elevated expectations or standards of happiness that we all, young and old, consider entitlements rather than blessings. In contrast, there are the young men who after the attack on Pearl Harbor crowded the recruiting offices, and who felt shame when deemed unfit for service––a generation that Kagan oddly smears as “bloody-minded,” filled not with patriotism and righteous anger at those who attacked and killed fellow Americans, but with “furious blood lust” and “racially charged hatred.”
Most important, public institutions before the Sixties celebrated and promoted faith and patriotism, rather than the fashionable cynicism of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” the trite disdain for virtue, faith, and love of country as illusions fed to the ignorant masses in order to condition them to kill and die for their capitalist, neo-imperialist overlords. Yes, back then there were also social injustices like legal segregation and blatant racism, the failure to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
But that failure reflected an innately flawed human nature, not the ideals themselves, which remained worthy of fighting and killing those who believed in tyranny rather than freedom––the freedom that Ronald Reagan, an “amiable dunce” to the foreign policy elites, promoted and backed with force to end the Cold War.
Our political and cultural world is also radically different than that of the Thirties and Forties. Our oldest of two political parties has in a few decades gone from the traditional liberalism of freedom for individuals and the economy, to collectivists technocrats promoting radical egalitarianism, public hedonism, and a technocratic, globalist tyranny of oligarchs that strike at the foundation of our Constitutional order, and dismiss common sense and practical wisdom, and the traditions and faith that made America exceptional. Not even the military services, now subjecting its soldiers and officers to “critical race theory” and “transgenderist” claptrap, have succumbed to this “higher nonsense,” divisive ideas toxic for creating the group cohesion and loyalty vital for producing effective warriors.
As a result, we have raised a whole generation committed to a “continual, interminable liturgy of self-adoration,” as French philosopher Pierre Manent put it. Such solipsism is unlikely to create an effective fighting force.
Some of the blame for this generational decay rests with the malign consequences that result from the prejudices and preferences of a progressive ruling class who dominate education from kindergarten to graduate school. The generation we will need to fight a serious conflict has been marinated in curricula that promote ideological hobby-horses like radical secularism, “systemic racism,” transsexualism, the suicidal “green” energy cult, “moralizing internationalism,” quasi-pacifism, anti-gun-nut doctrines, and a belief that war is rarely, if ever, justified, and that globalist transnational institutions, diplomacy, multinational treaties and policies should replace lethal force.
For example, evangelical secularism has created a generation, particularly those of the cognitive elite, that approves of the anti-faith policies pursued by both the federal and some state governments. Such policies, contrary to the First Amendment, target, harass, and seek to silence people of faith.
The FBI, for instance, investigated what it called “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in radically traditionalist Catholic ideology” who endorse the archaic Latin mass. Last year a federal SWAT team of 20 armed agents invaded the home of pro-life Catholic Mark Houck over a minor altercation in front of an abortion clinic. After the Dobbs decision, pro-life counseling centers and Catholic churches were fire-bombed and vandalized, while the FBI did nothing. More recently, a Catholic school group wearing pro-life beanies on a tour of the Smithsonian were mocked and kicked out of the museum, thus violating two of the First Amendment’s unalienable freedoms––speech and religion.
Federal agencies are reflecting the decades-long disparagement of Christianity that pollutes our schools and culture both high and low. Typical of this childish sensibility was the recent Grammy Awards show in which a transsexual singer performed a Satanic, devil-worship number called “Unholy.” A sign of how mainstream, and banal, such mockery has become, CBS issued a juvenile tweet, “Let the worship begin!” and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer signed the singer up for a commercial.
Nor is it about the “separation of church and state.” Publish some caricatures of Mohammed, and these same elites who dismiss religion as a Freudian “illusion” or a Marxist “opiate” will explode in apoplectic rage over “Islamophobia,” which the late atheist Christopher Hitchens defined as “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
Considering the central role patriotism and faith have played in sustaining morale in a conflict, the institutionalized disdain for both should worry us, especially given China’s massive efforts to build a military equal and eventually superior to our own. After all, the quantity and quality of weapons are less important than morale, but are still vital.
And there are several global rivals who have us in their sights, the most dangerous being China. Recently the Heritage Foundation reported, “In addition to this massive expansion of its ICBM force, China is cranking out nuclear warheads; has completed a nuclear triad of land, air, and sea nuclear capabilities with the deployment of a strategic bomber; and is improving its arsenal of regional nuclear missiles that can reach the U.S. island of Guam. The Pentagon recently predicted that China would be able to deploy as many warheads as the U.S. does by 2035. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if China moves that timeline up.”
But the debt, deficit, and entitlement crisis, on a track to blow up the economy in a few decades, has kept the defense budget well below what’s needed to fulfill our global responsibilities and keep our military preparedness strong enough to match China’s program and deter its ambitions.
Last week Texas Congressman Chip Roy and Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Victoria Coates documented the damage caused by our failure to rein in spending. Noting that defense spending is 3.3% of GDP and “projected to go lower,” Roy and Coates write that “if Washington continues spending as it has, we will never again have the economic heft to mount the kind of military buildup the U.S. had in the early 1940s.”
Moreover, “The current ratio of debt held by the public to GDP—one gauge of a country’s ability to pay its debts—is around 100%. . . . The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania projects that, at the current rate of spending, the debt-to-GDP ratio will be 225% by 2050. Such massive indebtedness would gut the U.S.’s ability to respond aggressively in a conflict with China. . . .” In other words, just increasing defense spending isn’t enough. “Restoring fiscal discipline” is an imperative in order to keep our military strong and effective.
Finally, the abolition of the draft in 1973, while leading to a much more efficient and lethal fighting force, has professionalized national defense, weakening the obligation of citizens to defend their country and way of life. As Max Boot reports in The Washington Post, the recruiting crisis the services, especially the Army, are experiencing reveals another problem with an all-volunteer army. According to a retired general, Boot writes,
“‘The AVF is facing its most serious crisis since Nixon created it.’” All of the services are struggling with recruiting. The crisis has been especially acute in the Army. Last year, it missed its recruiting goals by 15,000 soldiers — an entire division’s worth. That is a particularly ominous development given the growing threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.” Low unemployment, obesity, and drug use gave reduced the number of eligible Americans to 23%. Moreover, Max continues, once one of the most trusted institutions in the country, according to the Ronald Reagan Institute found that “the number of people expressing a great deal of trust and confidence in the military declined from 70 percent in 2017 to 48 percent in 2022.”
We are not doomed to degenerate into a “weak, pitiful giant,” as Richard Nixon warned. Democracies are notorious for putting off spending more on guns than on butter until they are forced by dire circumstances to concentrate their minds on defense. But as the short-lived burst of patriotism and support for the military after 9/11 showed, our culture today has been shaped by toxic ideas that erode patriotism, and by the feckless redistribution of wealth that makes our efforts reform and the sacrifices it requires much harder and more costly.
If we choose not to restore our morale and strengthen military preparedness, we will, as Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons after the Munich debacle, have to drink from the “bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we rise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”