Never Underestimate Fanaticism

Why men fight in an organized fashion is one of history’s more interesting questions. Yes: men. Although many Western militaries today include women in their armed forces in considerable numbers, even in combat roles, this is a recent affectation whose duration we don’t yet know. Over the course of history, war has been an overwhelmingly male phenomenon in terms of direct participation.

Eons ago Thucydides explained that wars emerge from three factors: fear, honor, and interest. Over the centuries these factors have indeed played a big part in why wars happen. When fear, honor, and interest combine — one could detect all of them at work back in 2002-03, when many Americans (however misguidedly) believed Saddam Hussein needed to be taken out, for instance — war becomes much more likely.

Of course, many scholars of war tend to focus on less personal factors, preferring theoretical, jargon-laden discussions (at its worst: game theory) that tend to undervalue if not wholly ignore intangibles like honor and fear, which are things that touch average people more than they do academics.

Then there’s the reality, seldom mentioned among professors, that some people simply like war. Pointing out that war is a pursuit that many men over the centuries have simply found a lot of fun is not something that will endear you to the tenured or think-tank set.

Yet it’s undeniably true and always has been. This is tough to imagine if you’re a post-modern Westerner whose life is one creature comfort leading to another. If you can barely lift your eyes from your smartphone, you’re not likely to embrace a life of bloodshed and sacrifice just for the hell of it. But if you’re, say, a Somali teenager with zero life prospects outside jihad — which, in practice, is frequently just a cover for rampaging, raping, and plundering (all of which sound pretty cool to you, compared to being a broke fisherman without fish to catch) — it looks rather different.

The U.S. military in the twenty-first century has become a killing machine that is unique in military history. Particularly in our War on Terrorism (or whatever we’re calling it this week), our crack Special Operations Forces combined with precision real-time, multidisciplinary intelligence represent something that previous generations of warriors could only dream of, not to mention that American SOF has something approximating global reach.

Yet SOF is not the military, rather a small, self-selected portion of it. In the ranks of special operators you will find men who do like war, though they are usually sensible enough not to say so when reporters are around. They are not, however, representative of the whole U.S. military. Neither are SOF magic, media portrayals to the contrary, as numerous slip ups over the years demonstrate.

The American way of war as it has evolved in our era is a very expensive and technology-driven enterprise. Global strike capabilities are costly — so costly that only America can truly afford such things, and even our ability to keep paying for it may be in doubt. In such an environment it’s worthwhile to remember that motivation in war counts too. While fanaticism alone cannot offset firepower — ask the Japanese in World War Two how that worked out — it plays a larger role in warfare than most experts allow.

Field Marshal Bill Slim, commander of British ground forces in India and Burma in the latter half of WWII, said that every Japanese soldier would have won the VC, meaning the Victoria Cross, the highest British valor decoration. He spoke the truth, yet Slim’s 14th Army, once properly trained and equipped, pushed the outgunned Japanese Army back again and again, through the dense jungles of Southeast Asia, one sharp firefight at a time.

But what if fanaticism could be harnessed with solid fighting ability and modern weapons? That’s when things get interesting. We have relatively recent information on this. The performance of Hitler’s forces, particularly the more elite units, in the latter half of WWII, when defeat approached but the Wehrmacht showed no signs of capitulation, may offer a guide.

After Stalingrad and especially Kursk, when it was obvious to the sentient that Germany was going to lose the war, the National Socialist regime put a lot of effort into keeping morale high, despite the military realities. Hitler was determined to resist to the bitter end. The humiliation of November 1918 — his humiliation — when the German Army gave up when still on foreign soil, would not be repeated. They would fight until they could fight no more. So they did: in this wicked sense, Hitler achieved his aim.

In the last two years of the war, the term “fanatical” became commonplace in the fitness reports of German combat leaders — in a most positive way. Although it’s not politically correct to say so, a lot of German soldiers fought so hard because they believed in National Socialist ideals. Propaganda often works. Dispassionate analysis of the views of the average Landser reveals that Hitler’s worldview had taken hold, especially among younger Germans who came of age after 1933. With the addition of National Socialist Leadership Officers in 1944, mimicking Red Army practices, intense propaganda in all Wehrmacht units encouraged total resistance. By and large, this worked.

When the tactical acumen of the Germany Army, which generally outclassed all the Allies, was married to ideological fanaticism, the battlefield performance of the Wehrmacht astonished all comers. Despite the fact that the war was clearly lost after the failure to stem the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, German soldiers kept fighting like devils, against hopeless odds.

Even though two million German soldiers had already died on the Eastern Front — the best two million — before any Allied troops set foot in France, German forces routinely inflicted far higher casualties than they incurred, despite usually being severely outgunned. Recent popular American depictions of elites such as Rangers and Airborne units, filled with highly motivated and superbly trained volunteers, create a badly distorted image. In truth, the American Army was seriously outperformed by the Germans in Northwest Europe in 1944-45 at a tactical level. Non-elite divisions were filled with conscripts, many diffident and poorly trained. They were deeply dependent on massive fire superiority from artillery and aircraft to advance.

The verdict of a retired general and decorated Vietnam veteran that WWII’s U.S. Army, with its ill-trained conscripted infantry, represented a “self-killing machine” is harsh but not inaccurate. They were viewed as second-rate by the Wehrmacht, who feared American artillery and airpower but usually not “Ami” infantry, which was timid in battle. (Landser views of the British and Canadians were broadly similar.) There was respect for the Russians, in German eyes, since they were tough, brave and suffered enormous casualties. “They fought like men,” explained an elderly Wehrmacht veteran who fought on both the Eastern and Western fronts in WWII, whose views of “Amis” were less respectful.

To say nothing of the true fanatics of the Waffen-SS, Hitler’s political soldiers, who fought with astonishing ferociousness, which was sometimes visited on civilians too. The newly formed 12th SS Panzer Division, termed the Hitler Youth Division since its rank-and-file were fanatical teenagers, inflicted horrific casualties on Canadians in Normandy, despite being badly outnumbered and outgunned. Fanaticism, when combined with experienced officers and NCOs, was a lethal combination.

It’s easy to encounter misplaced nostalgia about “the Good War,” a view that I’ve seldom seen endorsed by American veterans who actually fought against the Wehrmacht close-up. Neocon cheerleaders continue to tell us that, if only Patton had been unleashed, WWII might have ended much earlier.

While Patton was a fine commander, he understood the forces at his disposal better than latter-day “experts” do. He knew that overwhelming American advantages in firepower were needed to compensate for infantry weakness. As he explained at the end of the bitter and mighty struggle, “I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know. The artillery did,” adding acidly, “The poorer the infantry, the more artillery it needs; the American infantry needs all it can get.”

When the U.S. Army had to fight the Germans without support from masses of fighter-bombers and artillery fires, the results were not edifying. The disaster of the Hürtgen Forest, waged between September and December 1944, on the German border with Belgium, remains the longest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army, yet has been forgotten by the American public and is unlikely to feature in a Spielberg movie anytime soon.

This offensive never made much strategic sense; worse, it pushed American infantry into dense woods, where advantages in airpower and artillery mattered little. As a result, third-rate German units comprised of teenagers and old men made mincemeat of American rifle battalions, with whole units evaporating, even running away in the forested slaughter. “Passchendaele with tree-bursts” was Hemingway’s epitaph for the debacle, which cost the U.S. Army tens of thousands of casualties really for nothing.

Fortunately, the U.S. Army of today — all-volunteer, highly trained and motivated — resembles the Rangers and Airborne of 1944 more than the mediocre line infantry that even Patton often couldn’t do much with. But fanatics they are not. In a democracy this is undoubtedly a good thing, since the last thing we need is a praetorian class of politically motivated killers.

Yet fanatics still exist and some of them are our implacable enemies. Salafi jihadists who have officially been at war with the West since 1998 (it took most Americans until September 2001 to notice) are undeniably fanatics who embrace war for its own sake, citing theological justifications for their violent conduct. Many seem happy to “martyr” themselves for the cause and in battle they can resemble Japanese soldiers of WWII, committed to die in place.

Throughout the last Iraq War, even such fanaticism could not last against American firepower. During the Second Battle of Fallujah in late 2004, a rare stand-up fight against jihadists, American force and firepower killed off the resistance, professionally and slowly, and many of the foreign fighters fought to the bitter end and died without thought of surrender, as if they held Iwo Jima. But the outcome was never in doubt.

Al-Qa’ida has always valued fanaticism over tactical finesse. While the mujahidin fear American technology, which they cannot hope to counter — especially the “hand of Allah” as they term U.S. drones, which rain sudden death on them, seemingly out of nowhere — their views of U.S. troops are less awestruck. As a captured foreign fighter, a veteran of multiple Al-Qa’ida expeditions including Chechnya, explained, directly echoing Wehrmacht comments, the Americans have amazing equipment but were often timid about closing in for the kill — unlike the Russians who, although evil in the way they kill Muslim civilians indiscriminately, “get in the cave with us.” Some things never change.

The Islamic State, which I’ve repeatedly explained how to defeat, continues to prosper in Syria and especially Iraq. Their dream of a Salafi caliphate encompassing big chunks of the Middle East no longer seems like a madcap fantasy. Worse, they increasingly appear to be a different sort of threat than Al-Qa’ida has been.

It’s no secret that much of Da’ish’s success in Iraq stems from the reality that many of its founders and leaders are former Iraqi officers from the Saddam era. Such veterans of the Ba’thist military and intelligence services have made Da’ish a serious threat to the Iraqi state that was cobbled together after the American invasion of 2003. Many Da’ish commanders and staffers are professionals who know their ground and know how to fight.

When these skills are matched up with Da’ish’s strong combat motivation, which is grounded in a heady brew of religious fervor and Sunni sectarian resentments, something terrifying results. This is not to say that Da’ish cannot be defeated by American forces — they would meet the same end that the Japanese did on Okinawa in the spring of 1945 — yet it would not necessarily be any sort of walkover. Moreover, the longer that the Obama administration continues to not know what to do in Iraq, lazily ad-hoccing its way to strategic defeat, the better Da’ish will get at conquering and waging war.

Allowing Da’ish to become a serious threat to order in the Middle East was foolish. Permitting them to grow into a serious fighting force whose combination of fanaticism and tactical ability can test the skills and resolve of Western militaries is a tragedy, because it’s needless. Let’s hope we will find the strength to crush Da’ish before the cost of that victory becomes prohibitive in life and treasure.