The American Way of War

by Victor Davis Hanson

Defining Ideas

William Shawcross, the British journalist, historian, and human rights advocate — once a fierce critic of the Nixon-Kissinger years, now a defender of the West’s struggle against radical Islam — has written the best book yet on the dilemmas Western governments face in dealing with Islamic terrorists.1

Shawcross focuses on three general topics: the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols that emerged after 9/11 and their relationship with past Western efforts at punishing war criminals at Nuremberg; the poorly thought out and ultimately cancelled decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a federal civilian court in Manhattan; and the strange somersault of President Obama, who has now embraced or expanded almost every measure that Senator and candidate Obama alleged was either anti-constitutional, counter-productive, or near barbarous.

Shawcross reminds us that Nuremberg, while not perfect jurisprudence, was good enough to punish Nazi war criminals in a legal, sober, and judicious fashion — without resorting to summary executions or referring high officers of the Third Reich to civilian courts in Britain and the United States. His father, Attorney General Hartley Shawcross, was the leading British prosecutor at Nuremberg and later led the prosecutions of various Soviet spies — an experience that the younger Shawcross alludes to frequently to good effect in his book. We have, then, both ample precedent and confidence that military tribunals can be used to try war criminals and terrorists.

And what is the alternative? Shawcross walks us through the proposed trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — championed by a Democratic administration, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, which, at the time, enjoyed broad public support. Yet the immediate objections to the KSM trial from across the political spectrum — does the architect of 9/11 deserve Miranda rights and a state-supported legal team? — forced liberal Attorney General Eric Holder to back down, given the many contradictions in trying a terrorist as if he were an American felon.

In understated fashion, Shawcross finishes by systematically reviewing the strange about-face of President Obama on the anti-terrorism policies that he inherited. Candidate Obama, to much acclaim and with great effect in damaging public support for the Bush-Cheney protocols, proclaimed Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventative detention, wiretaps, and intercepts to be amoral and superfluous — only to embrace them all as president. Shawcross is not surprised: any executive responsible for the security of his citizens — as opposed to a rhetorician making campaign talking points — would appreciate that these protocols were useful and legal. In the present confusing times, we have reached an Orwellian point when waterboarding three confessed mass-murdering terrorists was between 2003-2008 deemed a war crime, while blowing apart over 2,000 suspected terrorists by drone assassination since 2009 is apparently not.

We have ample precedent that military tribunals can be used to try war criminals and terrorists.

Shawcross writes carefully, without bluster and exaggeration, and the effect is a damning indictment of much of the popular rhetoric of the decade after 9/11 that insisted we had no legal or moral right to deal with al Qaeda kingpins as we had in the past with other such terrorists and criminals.

Eliot Cohen — author of a valuable study of supreme command and an advisor in Condoleezza Rice’s state department in the latter months of the Bush administration — raises the question: where did the American way of war derive from?2

Most have argued for a larger Western heritage — dating to classical times — of combining decisive battle, superior technology that is the dividend of rationalism, group discipline, and notions of freedom, audit, and constitutional government. Of course, there was a particularly American variant of Western military practice that grew up on a vast frontier and was the result of the impatient nature of American popular culture and its familiarity with machines — manifested best in something like George’s Patton’s romp across central France in the summer of 1944, or the great 600-mile dash up from Kuwait to Northern Iraq in the spring of 2003.

Cohen, however, believes the US way of fighting is more complex, incorporating all sorts of non-conventional elements. To make that point, he reviews warfare of the eighteenth-century along the northeastern seaboard of the American continent—that rugged two-hundred-mile corridor of mountains, forests, and lakes from Albany to Montreal dubbed the “Great Warpath.” His investigations reveal two less appreciated sources for the way Americans currently fight.

One was the birth of a unique, and less remarked upon strain of raiding, ambushing, subversion, living off the land, ad hoc alliance building with indigenous peoples, long-range reconnaissance, and patrolling behind enemy lines. The other was a sort of military populism: non-traditional tactics, by which early colonialists survived against the superior numbers of the French, Indians, Canadians — and later their erstwhile British allies — were not strictly mandated from on high by officers steeped in formal strategy and tactics. Most of the ways of defeating savage enemies arose from the ground up among observant Vermont militiamen, New England farmers-turned-fighters, and local community defense forces. They formed the “middle” stratum of the military that not only was in the best position to adapt to new challenges, but was also able to convince both subordinates and superiors how to follow its new military paradigm. In short, it soon became very American for men in the field to draw new tactics up on the fly to fit an ever-changing war — and not to worry much about who had figured out what worked best.

How did so many Americans, with so few resources, fight so well against the better supplied French and British troops?

Whether one accepts his larger thesis, Cohen has offered a fine narrative of the little known French and Indian War, when pre-revolutionary Americans learned to fight in ways that would bring real dividends in the looming Revolutionary War, and then again during the Civil War, whether in the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest or William Tecumseh Sherman.

War, of course, is predicated on weapons. None have killed more human beings — not poison gas, not the atomic bomb, not incendiary napalm, not land mines — than the Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifle (Avtomat Kalashnikova—1947). Three recent books review how this lethal weapon emerged; why it became a signature weapon of third-world revolutionaries; and how the so-called Soviet bloc was able to produce an assault rifle often more reliable and easier to use than any contemporary European or American competitor.3

The most informative account is C. J. Chivers’s scholarly The Gun. Chivers is skeptical of many of the claims by Mikhail Kalashnikov surrounding the birth of AK-47, and offers a fair account of the acrimonious rivalry between the M16 and AK-47. The rivalry reflects the Soviet preferences for reliability, durability, simplicity, and economy versus the American insistence on accuracy and craftsmanship.

Chivers argues that few inventions of the twentieth-century have done so much to kill so many through “war, terror, atrocity, and crime.” AK-47s, he notes, are often the favored weapons of drug cartels, teenaged killers in Africa, terrorists, and insurgents. After offering a clear-headed analysis of the AK-47 — focusing on its simple design, easy fabrication, and near indestructability — he surprisingly offers the emotional hope that eventually the seasons, aging, and wear and tear will finally rid the world of this nearly indestructible menace — and with it, the bestowing into the hands of untrained near-children the world over the power to kill indiscriminately and en masse. To this hope, one might rejoin that the fault is not in our stars, but in our selves.

Larry Kahaner’s book AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War is an engaging story of the contemporary AK-47 as a cultural phenomenon. He too reminds us that many of the terrorist movements and insurgencies in Asia, Latin America, and especially Africa would have been impossible without the widespread dispersion of the AK-47, the ideal weapon for impoverished, poorly trained mercenaries. In the revolutionary mind, communism had produced a people’s gun that was every bit the match for capitalism’s more elite weapon, in the real conditions of contemporary war.

Kahaner points out that the acrimonious controversy between the AK-47 and the M16 resurfaced again forty years after the Vietnam War during the post-Saddam Hussein insurgency, when improved versions of both assault rifles collided in the streets of urban Iraq. And the verdict was again ambiguous at best. US troops who still used the M16 or its subsequent improved models, largely preferred their own weapons; but they developed a grudging respect for the insurgents’ “bullet hoses,” which shot streams of deadly large-caliber bullets at close ranges and seemed impervious to the sand and heat of the Iraqi landscape. The break-up of the Soviet Union, and the dumping of vast arsenals of AK-47s by post-Warsaw-Pact states, together with the near parity that such a simple, cheap AK-47 offered to far more expensive and intricate American weapons, ensured that millions would have access to deadly assault weapons in a way unknown even during the Cold War.

No weapon has killed more human beings than the Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifle.

Then there is the book by Mikhail Kalashnikov himself, the creator of the AK-47. Now a nonagenarian, Kalashnikov in 2009 won the title, Hero of the Russian Federation, the country’s highest honor. With the help of his daughter Elena Joly, Kalashnikov wrote an autobiography, first published in French in 2003 and now available in English. Kalashnikov fought during the worst months of the German invasion of Russia; in 1941, in a failed counter-offensive, he was almost killed when his Red Army tank regiment was cut off and overwhelmed.

During a long subsequent illness and recovery, Kalashnikov’s innate gun-making talents were noticed. And so, despite his lack of formal design training, he was soon promoted to work with a team of Soviet engineers, quickly emerged as a senior designer, and was mostly responsible for the creation of the AK-47. The most fascinating chapters in Kalashnikov’s story are about the nightmare of life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in which any achievement, commercial or intellectual, earned envy, which could translate into charges of being a counter-revolutionary, would-be elite — an accusation with often deadly repercussions.

As Chivers and Kahaner also point out, and as is discernible in Kalashnikov’s memoir, his relationship with his own deadly invention over the last two-thirds of a century has proved ambiguous. Kalashnikov is proud of his promotion to the rank of lieutenant general in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, and under Communist rule he was twice honored as a Hero of Socialist Labor. Yet even as Kalashnikov details the horrors of Stalinist Russia that resulted in his own family’s brutal exile, he concludes, “I consider Stalin as one of the great national leaders of the twentieth century, and as a great army leader.” He also seems both to deny culpability for the carnage that the AK-47 wrought, and yet laments that unlike the case of the M16’s creator Eugene Stoner, Kalashnikov did not receive commensurate multimillion-dollar royalties from his design.

One theme of these five diverse books is a sort of appreciation of the American way of war. Shawcross’s work is a paean to well-intentioned American officials, in the face of easy criticism, finding a good balance between security and justice, when both were thought to be impossible in our postmodern world of global terrorism. Cohen is impressed that so many Americans, with so few resources, fought well against better supplied French, and, later, British troops—and suggests that such a frontier-like, pragmatic spirit still infuses a diverse and innovative US military. The authors of the AK-47 books, whether intended or not, paint a rather dark picture of the Soviet state, the post-war Communist world, and the nature of how rogue states and arms dealers developed and dispersed arms often to deadly clients that were the enemies of civilization.

1William Shawcross, Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (Public Affairs, January 10, 2012).

2Eliot A. Cohen, Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War (Free Press, 2011). (Hanson wrote an essay-length review of this book for National Review.)

3 C. J. Chivers, The Gun (Simon & Schuster, 2010); Larry Kahaner, AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War (Wile, 2006); Mikhail Kalashnikov, with Elena Joy, The Gun that Changed the World (Polity, 2007). Hanson wrote a comparative review of these three books for the New Atlantis.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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