men against fireThere are many, many books (of varying quality) on the theory and practice of counterinsurgency or the "small war." And very few people here, at least at any level visible to me, are reading them. One of my first memories of Camp Shelby, where I trained with my battalion, was of the platoon leader I saw slumped across his bunk reading a copy of Audie Murphy's autobiography. Other popular choices center on Gettysburg, Gettysburg, and Gettysburg. And sometimes the Nazis.
At his personal site, Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, the military historian Mark Grimsley has written repeatedly about the idea of war and the memory of war as a testing ground, or a proving ground, for the masculinity of soldiers: "For some years now, I have increasingly suspected that military history functions as one of the ways--perhaps a very important way--by which males in our society learn how to be men."
And so I wonder, watching the leaders of a counterinsurgency immerse themselves in the literature of Pickett's Charge, if one of the reasons the U.S. military has had such difficulty in finding the themes of this war -- the intent of the war, and the ways to win it, and the shape and meaning that such a victory would take -- is that the war doesn't serve the personal purposes of some of the men who are fighting it. We imagine ourselves on a battlefield, following the regimental colors, waving a sword in the air and urging our men forward against withering fire (in the, you know, misty morning light). And we mostly face hidden bombs on the roadside, driving around haplessly and trying to figure out who's on our side or not.
The character of this war fails so often to serve the need of soldiers for a personal drama of redemption and valor; it's just a long, dirty grind, with no battlefields or Big Moments. So we try not to fight it; we try to reshape it, to make it conventional, to take the fight to the enemy and see ourselves as doing so.
This dynamic can only be a part of the puzzle, but it does seem to me that soldiers fight the war that they believe themselves to be fighting, and that human beings engage in personal drama and wishful thinking.