Jaeger

12Jaeger: At War with Denmark’s Elite Special Forces, is a book by former special forces soldier Thomas Rathsack. Originally it was published in Denmark where it was a best seller and is said to have inspired many youngsters to volunteer for the military; since 2015 it has been available in English too.

The book starts with a brief autobiographical sketch of the author’s life before he enlisted in the Danish special forces. Next, it describes the truly grueling training he and his comrades received; including insane physical effort and culminating in parachute jumps from 30,000 feet. Next, it outlines some of the action the author saw in uncongenial places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It concludes with the half-hearted attempts, and ultimately futile, attempts of the Danish military to try the author for allegedly having revealed all kinds of secrets.

While no literary masterpiece, the book is very impressive. I was especially interested in what made a young man decide on such a career, perhaps the toughest and most dangerous on earth; and one, moreover, which leaves those who embark on it with no time for anything else. As Rathsack says, repeatedly, it was the desire to test himself that made him tick. To the utmost, again and again and again. No surprise here, really, since the same has been true since at least the time of Homer on.

But what really caught my eye, and my mind, was something else. Let me use the author’s own words, as far as possible, to describe it:

“American drones—MQ-1 Predators—had over the past week kept a watchful eye on the… regions in the mountainous provinces” along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Their drones had captured pictures of Taliban and al-Qaeda members crossing the border… However, the unstable weather conditions of the late winter had made the Predator less effective. Task Force K Bar was therefore assigned the task of observing activities in the area. Fortunately for us, this meant boots on the ground…”

“We would be inserted by helicopter at night flying over hills, mountains and valleys, through areas swarming with armed enemies… The operation was expected to span 10 days,” which meant that each of them would have to carry up to 180 pounds, including water. Preparations included gathering and compiling intelligence: “We needed information about wind, light, rainfall and temperature. We needed to know where the enemy was expected to be, whether they were armed and organized, and what their morale was. And finally we’d need information about whether the local population was friendly or hostile, and where the nearest town or settlement was located… Advanced computer programs provided us with information about the altitude and gradient of the mountains. We sought out the best places from which to observe the villages and the tracks we were interested in…”

“The landing zone couldn’t be too close to our observation base, since the enormous CH-47 helicopter taking us in was extraordinarily loud.” Communications, medical equipment, and plans for enabling the team to be extracted in case things went wrong had to be prepared. “We were privileged in that the pilots who flew us in were the best in the world.” In support would be jet fighters and “the awesome American flying fortress, the AC-130 Gunship, which carries a whole arsenal of weaponry systems.” All this, so just five men could be landed on a mountain 250 miles from base.

“I was in the best company possible—with some of the world’s top soldiers.” Once the team had been flown in and were on the ground, “we quickly secured our position for all angles. A deafening silence set in. Not a sound in the night… It was as if we had found ourselves in a vacuum… Getting away from the landing zone as fast as possible was crucial The Chinook had probably been heard in the villages a few miles away. That meant Al Qaeda and Taliban forces would be aware of special forces in the area.”

The men spent the rest of the night marching to their predesignated observation post. Given the altitude (9,000 feet), the terrain, and the loads they carried doing so required an almost superhuman effort. On one side were a handful of the world’s best soldiers, trained at great expense for years on end until they became perfect killing machines. Backing them up were entire forests of machines some of which, such as the F-16 fighter bombers AC-130 gunships (which, however, being slow and vulnerable, were only allowed to operate by night) cost tens of millions of dollars each. And what were they after? “The village beneath me consisted of 14-15 single family houses, all made of clay and enclosed behind the concrete walls that nearly all Afghan houses had… The only sign of life was a herd of goats, bound to a tree in the western part of the village… just after 9 A.M two men stepped out of one of the bigger buildings in the village. They were dressed in loose, brown robes, and walked slowly to the small grove of trees where the goats were tied up. They sat in the shade, leaning up against a tree and began conversing. I noted it in the logbook It was the only activity on this watch.”

A few nights later, payoff! “I froze at what I saw through the scope. A group of men were walking along a trail from one of the values south of the village. I counted 12, all armed with Kalashnikovs…. The group was clearly on its way across the border from Pakistan.”

Not long thereafter the commandos were discovered. Whether by accident or because the opponent, alerted by the helicopter’s noise, had noted their presence and was actively looking for them is not clear. Probably the latter, since the village appeared to be abnormally quiet. Thus another operation had to be prepared to get the commandos out before they were overrun and the survivors, if any, put to death in any number of interesting ways. This time, in addition to a Chinook and F-16s on standby, 30 soldiers from the American 10th Mountain Division (plus at least one helicopter to carry them) and an Advance Warning and Control System (AWACS) costing perhaps $ 200,000,000 were involved.

All this, I could not help but wonder, only to observe a handful of bearded men issuing from clay huts while armed with locally made assault rifles? And only to end up by failing to achieve anything?

PS: Those of you who have not seen the following link showing US male and female Marine on training, do yourself a favor and take a look. http://i.imgur.com/t3CF25z.gif.

The Idiots

islamic-terrorist-e1424196060104For the purpose at hand, it all started in Israel. Back in the early 1980s General (ret.) Ariel Sharon was minister of defense under Prime Minister Menahem Begin. Assisted by a Hebrew University Professor whose field was Islamic studies, he came up with the bright idea of forming a religious-conservative opposition to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The center of the movement was to be in Hebron, the principal city of the southern, and socio-economically less developed, part of the West Bank. In return for the right to rule over their people’s day-to-day affairs, the so-called “Rural Societies” were to oppose the PLO and tacitly accept Israeli rule. The outcome? Hamas, meaning Islamic Resistance Movement. In 2006 it took over control of the Gaza Strip. Having done so, for years on end it waged a terrorist campaign against Israel. Though apparently cowed by Operation Protective Edge in 2014, it is even now threatening to renew the rocket attacks at any time it feels like doing so.

Others, the Americans in particular, have committed similar errors. First, during the early 1980s, came their attempts to resist the Soviets in Afghanistan. This meant supporting the Mujahedeen, a movement that combined nationalism and religion in fighting the Red Army which had invaded the country. And, yes, it worked. After almost ten years of warfare the Soviets were forced to retreat. And what happened? Some Afghan “freedom fighters” spread all over the world, promoting terrorism wherever they went. Others joined the Taliban and, later, Al Qaeda. Enough said.

Next, in 2003, came the invasion of Iraq. In the name of democracy, women’s rights, and, some dared suggest, oil. To be sure, Saddam Hussein was not exactly a nice man. In 1990 he invaded and occupied Kuwait; defeated, he continued to tyrannize his own people. Earlier he had even used gas to asphyxiate his enemies. Yet he was neither a religious fanatic nor, it seems, more involved in terrorism than many other states are. Sitting in his “box,” constantly attacked from the air, and laboring under sanctions that severely hurt his economy he had long ceased to present a danger to any of his neighbors. The invasion of Iraq, followed by his own execution, destabilized the country. It also stoked the religious antagonisms that had been waiting just under the surface of his secular rule. The outcome: massive terrorism committed by Shi’ites against Sunnis and by Sunnis against Shi’ites. Not to mention the birth of Daesh which started in Iraq and has since spread to Syria as well.

One might think that the West, with the US at its head, should have learnt something from its disastrous attempts to support religious Islamic movements. But no, no way. The next war in which the West intervened was the one in Libya. Again it was done in the name of democracy, humanity, and women’s rights—the dictator and his collaborators, it was later claimed, had been raping their own female soldiers left and right. Again the opponent was a secular dictator. Muamar Gadhafi was as cruel as many and more quirky than most. But at any rate he was able to maintain order in his own country. During his last decade or so in power he even opposed terrorism. Following a civil war that lasted some six months, he was defeated and killed. With the result that his country fell apart and is now one of the happiest stamping grounds where Daesh is having a field day recruiting supporters and threatening Europe with terrorism.

Next, Syria. Like Iraq, Syria was ruled by a military dictator, Bashir Assad. As a ruler he was neither better nor worse than Hussein and Gadhafi had been. He supported Hezbollah against Israel and allied himself with Iran, in many ways acting as the latter’s long arm on the shore of the Mediterranean. However, like the other two, he ruled his country with an iron fist and does not seem to have engaged in international terrorism. Not perfect, one would have thought, but as good a regime as a country like Syria can have. In May 2011 civil war broke out. In this war the West, and less actively Israel, found themselves siding with Assad’s opponents. They even invented a “liberal” opposition which, as it turned out, hardly existed. Three years passed before Washington suddenly woke up to the existence of Daesh, a Sunni-led terrorist organization that had spread from Iraq. Again, enough said.

Yet another country, one in which a similar error was narrowly avoided, is Egypt. Coming to power, President Obama promised to reach out to the peoples of Islamic countries even if—partly because—it meant going over the heads of their loathsome despots. Feeble as it was, the attempt does seem to have played some role in the so-called Arab Spring. One country in which it did so was Egypt whose population rose against President Mubarak and toppled his regime. And what happened? In the only more or less free elections ever held in Egypt’s 5,000 years’ history, the Moslem Brotherhood won. The outcome for Israel, and therefore for the Middle East, in particular could have been catastrophic. Mounting a coup, General Assisi prevented the worst. But no thanks either to Obama or to the West as a whole.

Let’s finally cease kidding ourselves. Arab countries, all of them without exception, are backward. Most are still tribal. That means that they are organized on lines other, more developed countries, have left behind centuries ago. Very few have what one would call a civil society consisting of a solid middle class. None has ever known the meaning either of democracy, or of the rule of law, or of human rights, or of freedom as Westerners understand it. During the middle ages they set up a brilliant civilization, or so historians say. Next, however, they missed the Renaissance. And the Reformation; and the Scientific Revolution; and the Enlightenment; and democracy in the form of the American and French Revolutions; and finally the Industrial Revolution as well. Not to mention the great and glorious Feminist Revolution, of course. Apart from that, they are the most progressive people in the world. Especially when yelling Allahu Akbar before sticking a knife into someone, or shooting him, or blowing themselves up.

Such is the situation. That is why, when it comes to an Arab country, the choice is always between a dictator—either hereditary or other, either with a moustache or not—and anarchy. A dictator may mean war. But that is something which, as the Israeli-Arab wars and the two successful campaigns (1991 and the first few weeks of 2003) against Saddam Hussein have shown, can be handled if necessary. What the West, and indeed the world as a whole, cannot handle is anarchy and the terrorism it spouts indiscriminately in all directions.

Will the idiots, and I don’t mean the Arabs of whom nothing can be expected, ever, ever learn?

Ashley’s War

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, Sydney, HarperCollins, 2015.

Judging by the slightly misleading title, one might think the book is about a team of ferocious female fighters who, gun in hand, fought side by side with the U.S Rangers. It is not. It is about a very small group of military women who provided those units with something known as “cultural support” by questioning and searching Afghan women in an attempt to avoid offending “cultural sensibilities” in that country. To no avail, of course, in so far as the war was hopelessly lost long before the women arrived on the scene in 2011.

The story follows the careers of a few of these women, in some cases from the moment they came into the world. Many were born to military families. Ohers came from the kind of small towns so prevalent in the US where nothing ever happens and people have no future, only a present. Others still came from families that did not have the money to allow them to study, which explains their decision to go for ROTC and join the army. Asked why they volunteered for CST (Cultural Support Team) training, most answered that they wanted to “prove themselves” to themselves. And to advance their careers, of course. Even if, as happened in quite a few cases, doing so meant leaving their little children for months and months on end.

As the author admits, “the training program for the female enablers did not come anywhere close to the formal preparation of Special Forces or Ranger Regiment men” with whom they were supposed to work. Good: or presumably the outcome would have been lots of female cripples hobbling about on crutches and drawing pensions. And why, one female trainee asks, don’t male soldiers want to carry female ones or be carried by them during training? Because they worry about being falsely accused of “sexual harassment,” that’s why. To the point that some commanders in Afghanistan have tried to ban all non-duty communication between male and female soldiers. Or at least monitor it as closely as they could.

Having received lots and lots of PT and acquired a smattering of Afghan culture, the women found themselves in that Godforsaken country. And what did they actually do? Here is what. “A week or so in, one CST discovered an AK-47 buried in the ground just beneath a woman she was searching… Out one night with her Ranger platoon, Cassie was called up to the front of formation to help calm a young girl whose father was known to be part of a group planning attacks on Afghans and Americans.” The girl, however, told Cassie to go to hell and spat obscenities at her. Enter Nadia, an Afghan-American interpreter or “terp,”, as they are known. Nadia was not a CST and had not received the relevant training. Yet her linguistic skills made her more useful than all the other women combined. Even so, trying “to build bridges between the Afghan women and the American soldiers who led the missions… she found few takers.” Scant wonder, I should say.

At one point the Rangers engaged some Afghans in a firefight. Meanwhile Ashley White, the CST after whom the book is named, “was standing in the open air of the main compound’s courtyard questioning the women and children.” In fact the real heroines of this particular episode were not Ashley and her interpreter. They were the Afghan women. Torn out of their beds in the middle of the night and trying to protect their children, they surprised Ashley by taking the ransacking of their houses and the nearby gun battle with “relative composure.” It is they, not Ashley, who should have been awarded the Combat Action Badge.

I read the book from cover to cover. Easy, because so much of Ashley’s War consists of filler. It bristles with totally irrelevant stories about Japanese Americans in World War II, the history of dogs in the army, the history of a military hospital in Kandahar… The one thing it does not offer is serious analysis, either of CST or of anything else, from which anything can be learnt. It is not even a war novel (some war novels are very good indeed, presenting reality better than reality itself can). It is a fourth-rate sob story masquerading as reportage. Which, given that all names except that of Ashley and her immediate relatives have been changed, it may or may not be.

Much of the remaining material consists of rather infantile descriptions of the heroines’ background and their emotions. For example: “Rigby… had grown up with a hippie mom and a Navy veteran dad who taught her that nothing in life was either easy or handed to you, a reality that was reinforced by her dad’s job woes, her parents’ eventual divorce, and years of financial precariousness.” “Her eyes felt like glass that was being sandblasted.” “North Carolina has the brightest stars I’ve ever seen, Tristan thought.” “Six months into the job, Nadia realized that the shallow, label-conscious Afghan-American girl she once was had disappeared, and in her place was a steely professional.” While on the final, hardest of all, road march, Ashley “heard the flapping wings of birds flying above against the steady, in and out pattern of her own breath and the tap-tap-tap of her own heart.” Actually that is not at all what a human heart sounds like during strenuous exercise (as a former Marathon runner, I should know). One purple passage follows another. Or would have, had the author known how to write them properly.

A pity Freud did not have a chance to read the book. He would have found in it an almost inexhaustible treasure trove of penis envy from which to draw examples for his own works. We meet “ironman women” (why not simply “ironwomen”?) Women routinely address other women by calling them “guys.” “It [a grueling road march] will be a suckfest, Kate promised.” “Why wasn’t I born a boy, [Cassie] often thought to herself, so I can do what I really want to do?” Repeatedly, trainees who are not doing well enough are told, by their fellow trainees, to “man up.” Tracey, a lieutenant, “considered making herself more ‘masculine’ and harder-edged for the sake of fitting in.” The women “were undeniably proud to have a chance to wear the uniform worn by the Army’s hardest fighters.” Anything but do the one thing men cannot do as well as, or better than, women. Namely, have children and raise them as they deserve to be.

Towards the end of the book Ashley dies of injuries received when an improvised explosive device (IED) goes off near her. That finally entitles her to the greatest accolade of all: namely, to be called, after a 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man [my emphasis] in the Arena.” Had I been a military woman, and had anyone written about me the way Ms. Lemmon does, I would have died much earlier.

Of shame.

Geopolitics and Today’s Foreign- and Security Policy – a German View

by

Erich Vad*

vad2

We all know: 100 years ago the First World War and 75 years ago the Second World War started. The lessons of both wars show us the importance of an early reconciliation of interests, a balance of power, and ongoing communication between the strategic players. Another lesson is that appeasement has its limits. Against totalitarian world views, appeasement has never been successful.

But what do these lessons mean with regard to current security questions? What do they teach us as we are being challenged by the Islamic threat and fundamentalism and movements like the Hamas, the Hizbolla in the near east, Boko Haram in Africa, Al Qaeda worldwide, and the reckless actions of the so called “Islamic State” Movement?

And what do these lessons mean with regard to the current Russian attempt to change the European order by annexing the Crimea and destabilizing the eastern Ukraine?

The world wars brought fundamental changes. They ended the German desire to achieve a hegemonic position in and over Europe as well as the Japanese attempt to extend their power and gain predominance over East Asia. Wold War II also terminated the worldwide supremacy of the British Empire and the dominant geostrategic position of Europe as a whole. The European era, which had shaped and characterised the world since the beginning of the early modern age, was finally over. A new geopolitical reality, a new “Nomos of the Earth” – as Carl Schmitt once puts it – was established by the victors in the Second World War, i.e. the USA and the former Soviet Union.

During the Cold War these strategic players divided Europe into two spheres of influence. The United States saw Western Europe primarily as its strategic bridgehead to Eurasia. Its leaders built up NATO and established close economic ties across the Atlantic. This enabled Western Europe to enjoy freedom, democracy, wealth and the rule of law and human rights. By contrast, Eastern Europe suffered under the strong and brutal rule of Communism.

In the end, it was the policies of Ronald Reagan which broke the geostrategic supremacy of the Soviet Union in Europe. Coming to power, Mikhail Gorbachv quickly understood that the USSR could never win the arms race and that only cooperation wih the west and political freedom for the Soviet sattelites could help Russia overcome the disastrous economic situation.

As we know, his opponents held a very different view. So does Vladimir Putin. They see the world in geopolitical categories which we Europeans thought had been overcome. It is Putin’s geopolitical aim to create a great power capable of competing with the US, the EU and China. The Russians’ problem is that all they have is their military; they do not have so-called “soft power” comparable to that of the rest. A modern world-power cannot simply threaten and intimidate its neighbors. It must also be attractive and innovative for other nations to accept it as a leading nation.

Reminding the world that NATO has already taken over the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the Russians have made it clear that they will never accept a further extension of NATO (and the EU) eastwards. Also that, for specific economic, industrial and strategic reasons, they will only accept a neutral Ukraine. Accordingly the task is to weigh the justified desire and the right of sovereign states to freely select the alliances they wish to join on one hand and the preservation of geopolitical and strategic stability – in this case affirming the Russian sphere of interest in its neigbourhood – on the other.

It is not just Russia which understands the world primarily in geostrategic terms. The US, too, has long been aware of them. So far the emergence of the virtual world, important as it is, has made little difference in this respect. Ever since 1823, the basic Charter underlying US Foreign and Security Policy in Latin America has been the Monroe Doctrine. Both in the 19th and in the 20th century the Doctrine led to innumerable interventions, some of them involving the large-sale use of force, in many places around the world. Not only is geopolitical thought just as familiar to the US as to Russia, but its principles have remained unchanged. Neither developments in transport, nor in information processing, nor in money-flows, nor in military technology, have changed those principles one whit.

The violent reclamation of land, which Carl Schmitt once described as the “radical title,” seems to be back. With hindsight, one could argue that it has never gone away and that it was only the losers in the 20th-century’s geopolitical shifts who saw, or rather were forced to see, the world in more idealistic terms. Nowhere was this more true than in Germany. However, the victors continued to see the world in geopolitical terms. The same applied to other emerging countries such as China, Brazil and India which want to become global players.

Why should the Russian approach to their nearest neighbourhood and geostrategic sphere of interests differ from the US American one worldwide or the Chinese one in the South China Sea? How would the US act if, instead of an American fleet manoeuvring in the Black Sea, a Russian one did the same in the Caribbean? This does not mean that the Russian actions against Ukraine and the Crimea were right and legal. But considering that Russia is, and will continue to be, a world power with nuclear weapons, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a country with enormous resources, they are understandable.

Some hawks in Washington today, such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brezezinki, understand this very well. For them any powerful nation which intends to control Eurasia always presents a potential challenge to the US. In this respect little has changed from the first half of the 20th century when first Germany and then the Soviet Union represented the principal danger. Today their place has been taken by Russia and China; as to Western Europe, it is a strategic bridgehead and America’s closest ally.

But the European geopolitical perspective has to be different: for us Russia remains a powerful neighbour. A friendly relationship with it remains essential to our security and well-being. This does not mean that the Russians should be allowed to do whatever they want—their actions in the East Ukraine and in the Crimea are clearly unacceptable.

To deal with Russia we Europeans must do more than continue economic sanctions or show-the-flag operations. What we need is a double-track strategy. We must continue a straightforward dialogue with the Russians in order to convince them that they are not on the right track. On the other hand we must strenghten our defence posture and the deterrence capabilities of NATO, primarily in the east-European member states.

A successful defense of Eastern Europe against a conventional attack coming from the east is only feasable by using nuclear weapons, probably at a very early stage of the conflict. However, such an attack is unlikely. Most probably the Russians would not send tanks as they did in earlier their history. Instead they would use so-called hybrid methods of warfare: a combination of cyberattacks, destabilizing measures, secret service operations, and irregular fighters. A high probability exists that Russian aggression, if and when it comes, would strongly resemble the approach used in the Ukraine. The Russian minorities, for example in the Baltic States, could be very useful for them.

Ultimately we should not accept a division of the Ukraine. On the other hand, we should not kid ourselves that incorporating that country into the EU and NATO is still an option. One could even argue that Putin has deserved a NATO Order of Merit for strengthening the inner cohesion of the Alliance and motivating us to build up our deterrence, and spend more on defense.

The Russians have taught us Europeans a useful lesson concerning the true conditions and dangers of our international system. They taught us that peaceful dialogue, diplomatic interchange and permanent communications are not the only principles of international politics as many Germans believe.

The same applies to other critical hot spots of security worldwide. Take the South China Sea with its huge oil and gas resources and the straits where 80 % of world-wide oil deliveries have to pass. Here global players such as the US, as well as regional ones such as China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India wrestle with each other in an attempt to look after their geostrategic interests. In this dynamic economic region, the Indian and American interests are being challenged. The present situation shows very clearly that the political and economic sovereignty of the involved nations can only be sustained by military readiness and modern defense capabilities in the air, at sea, and on land.

The same is true in regard to the great challenge Islamic fundamentalism, especially the so-called Islamic State, poses to Western Civilization. In both Syria and northern Iraq, these warriors cannot be beaten by political or diplomatic measures alone. The delivery of weapons and airpower, on their own, are unlikely to do the job either. They don’t want to “engage” with us; that is why we have to respond to them in ways they can and will understand.  

Even in Europe we cannot survive without the political will and modern military capacities to defend ourselves. Not pacifism and antimilitarism and the typical German goodness, but the old Roman principle, “si vis pacem, para bellum,” continues to be valid.

Clausewitz wrote that it is not the aggressor who starts a war. Instead it is the defender. The former wants to occupy us without resorting to violence; the latter does not agree, resists, and by doing so the starts the war. Long after Clausewitz wrote, Lenin was deeply amused by this insight of the Prussian master.  

Geopolitics cannot be impartial or neutral. Instead they must be directed by interests. The latter in turn depend on each country’s perspective and are often embedded in a political ideology which, as in the case of the old colonial world, follows a historically-determined path. However, idealism and the way the adversaries of geopolitical thinking see the world, is also largely determined by historical experiences and ideology.

Today Germany, which in 1945 was defeated by a powerful worldwide coalition, has again turned into an influential economic and financial world power and is able to play a leading role in Europe. But this may no longer be the case in the future, because the German elites do not have the will and defense technologies and capabilities to prevail in the long-term and on a sustainable basis. Most of them have forgotten how to think in geopolitical terms such as strategic spheres of influence and national interests. That is why they cannot formulate a national strategy. This is the real challenge facing Germany, and indeed Europe, today: can they develop the political will and the necessesary means and capabilities to safeguard their freedom and way of life? We must define what keeps us together and which values and strategic interests guide and drive us. If we don`t, we will lose the future and our freedom.

 

* Dr. Brigadier General (ret.) Erich Vad is Angela Merkel’s former military adviser.

Pussycats II: Seek and You Shall Find

“Seek and you shall find,” says the Gospel. Never more so, one supposes, then in our own “post-modern” age when everything goes and countless things that were supposed to have an objective existence suddenly stand revealed as “constructed” in this way or that. Not only words, as Humpty Dumpty said, but things mean what we choose them to mean. If not completely so—here I differ with some of the most extreme followers of Michel Foucault—then at any rate to a considerable extent.

Take the case of war. In ancient Greece and Rome war was supposed to be associated with arête and virtus. Both are best understood as (manly, but in the present context that is beside the point) excellence and prowess respectively. Achilles preferred a short, heroic life to a long and dull one. Alexander, who studied Homer under the guidance of Aristotle, told his troops that “work, as long as it is noble, is an end in itself.” Virgil, by common consent the greatest Roman poet, celebrated virtus, the quality that had made had enabled his city to conquer first Italy and then the world, as follows:

Strong from the cradle, of a sturdy brood,

We bear our newborn infants to the flood;

There bath’d amid the stream, our boys we hold

With winter harden’d, and inur’d to cold.

They wake before the day to range the wood

Kill ere they eat, nor taste unconquer’d food.

No sports, but what belong to war, they know;

To break the stubborn colt, to bend the bow.

   Our youth, of labor patient, earn their bread;

   Hardly they work, with frugal diet fed.

   From plows and arrows sent to seek renown,

   They fight in fields, and storm the shaken town.

   No part of life from toils of war is free,

   No change in age, or difference in degree.

   We plow and till in arms; our oxen feel,

   Instead of goads, the spur and pointed steel;

   Ev’n time, that changes all, yet changes us in vain;

   The body, not the mind; nor can control

   Th’ immortal vigor, or abate the soul.

   Our helms defend the young, disguise the gray

   We live by plunder, and delight in prey.

At some point during the Middle Ages the idea of excellence was replaced by the related one of honor. The rules of honor dictated that fights should be fair. This was just the opposite from antiquity when stratagem was often seen as preferable to a head-on clash. In tournaments and other forms of mock warfare, the outcome was attempts to ensure that the opponents should be balanced as well as the use of umpires. Again this was just the opposite from the gladiatorial games where umpires were inconceivable. Honor meant that one should respect the enemy’s courage. One should not stab an opponent in the back. One should not violate truces. Oaths, even those made to the enemy and even those that result in negative consequences for oneself, are binding and should be kept.

Better death than disgrace. Roland, the hero of the poem by that name, prefers death to the likelihood that subsequent generations will sing of him as a coward. At the Battle of Maldon the defending Anglo-Saxons voluntarily surrendered the tactical advantage they held over the invading Vikings. As a result they were defeated, or so we are told.

Following his crushing defeat at Pavia in 1525 King Francis I of France is said to have exclaimed that “everything is lost, save honor.” The embodiment of this ideal was Francis’ contemporary Bayard, the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, Such was his reputation that, having been captured twice, each time he was released without having to pay the customary ransom. So conscious of honor were Spanish soldiers during the same period that they sometimes executed those of their comrades who proposed surrender.

As expressions such as “the field of honor” and an “honorable death” show, such ideas had a long future in front of them, They also underlie many royal mottos, including “Dieu et mon Droit” (the English Crown), “nemo me impune lascevit” (the ‘Scottish one), Ne Plus Ultra (Emperor Charles V), and “Je Maintiendrai” (the House of Orange). Louis XIV had “nec pluribus impar.” The Sun King opened his memoirs by explaining that, to earn honor, it behooved a young prince in particular to go to war. Frederick the Great once said that the only thing that could make men march into the muzzles of the cannon trained on them was honor. But he did not always have it his way. In a fit of pique, he once ordered one of his subordinates to demolish the property of an enemy commander. Only to have the officer in question invoke honor and refuse.

Nor was honor the final word. As my friend and former student Prof. Yuval Harari has shown in his book, The Ultimate Experience, towards the end of the eighteenth century it became outmoded in turn. Its place was taken by the idea of some kind of secret, or superior, knowledge only those who had been through war and battle could acquire. That notion went well with the waning of aristocratic rule and the dawning of the bourgeois age. Here is Siegfried Sassoon, English poet and a serving officer in World War I, writing to his family in 1916:

“Last year, before the Somme, I had not known what I was in for. I knew now; and the idea was giving me emotional satisfaction! I had often read those farewell letters from second-lieutenants to their relatives which the newspapers were so fond of printing. ‘Never has life brought me such an abundance of noble feelings,’ and so on. I had always found it difficult to believe that these young men had really felt happy with death staring the in the face and I resented any sentimentalizing of infantry attacks. But here I was, working myself up into a similar mental condition as though going over the top were a species of religious experience.”

Needless to say, the transition from one idea to the succeeding one was not a simple one. It proceeded in different ways, at a different pace, in different countries and among people belonging to different social classes. There were always those who adhered to old ideas even as others were already discarding them. As even the most superficial inquiry will show, to say that the ideas in question always made themselves felt would be a gross overstatement. Yet to say that they were merely a hypocritical cover for barbaric deeds and never had any influence at all would be an even greater one. They are perhaps best understood as forming the mental framework that formed the skeleton or chassis, of war; one that had a certain impact even when it was violated.

At the time Sassoon wrote war was still supposed to generate “an abundance of noble feelings” in the breasts of those who had experienced it. Shortly after, however, and with Sassoon himself very much in the lead, that idea in turn started waning away. The essential nature of war remained what it always had been. What changed was the way it was perceived and understood. From a revelatory experience akin to a religious one—Sassoon again—it was turned into a thoroughly rotten business. It was without either virtue or honor or knowledge; merely a process whereby obtuse generals sent millions to be mechanically slaughtered, often by men and weapons whom they never laid their eyes on. Excitement and heroism were out, unspeakable suffering was in. All “for an old bitch gone in the teeth, for a botched civilization” (the American poet Ezra Pound).

Throughout the interwar years famous writers such as John Dos Passos, Robert Graves, and Ernst Hemingway never stopped hammering away on this theme. So did the most famous anti-war writer of all, Erich Maria Remarque. From there it was but a short step to the idea that war, far from elevating the soul in some way as most past generations had believed, was harmful to it and that anybody who spent enough time fighting had to suffer psychological damage. This was almost entirely new. Some modern psychologists—but few historians—have done their best to project Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as distinct from the most intense fear and trembling experienced before and during battle, as far back as Achilles around 1200 B.C. In fact no period earlier than the American Civil War seems to have been familiar with it. Nor will anybody who has read his Iliad with its gory descriptions of brains being dashed in and blood spurting out in face-to-face combat—often conducted by men who knew one another—necessarily agree with those who claim that modern war is more terrible, hence more likely to give rise to PTSD, than any of its predecessors.

Instead, the rise to prominence during World War I of what the British knew as “shell shock” and the Germans as “war neurosis” both reflected the idea that war was not worth fighting and promoted it. It was from this point that PTSD began its march of conquest. During World War II, there were moments when the number of GIs discharged from the U.S Army exceeded that of recruits being drafted into it. Following Vietnam, the problem assumed such huge proportions that not only the military but public opinion at large became alarmed. Henceforth no war, however short and however easy (the First Gulf War is a good example) that did not produce an abundant crop of PTSD victims. Rising to the occasion, physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists leaped into the breach, using it to have the satisfaction of serving their country, help their fellow men, and make money, all at the same time.

Worst of all, to avoid subsequent lawsuits the U.S military started insisting that all personnel returning from war be screened for PTSD. Seek, and you shall find. Instead of being welcomed home as heroes, the troops are being treated as damaged goods. No wonder that, by 2014, the cost of treating veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, including also the pensions paid to many serious victims, was said to run into the billions each year. The consequences, both for them and for society’s readiness to go to war in order to protect its interests, its way of life, and yes, its honor, were predictable.

To conclude, two points. First, I think that the approach to the history of Western military history expounded in the present essay—periodizing it by the way war was understood rather than by organization, technology, strategy, tactics or whatever—is as good as any. Second, one cannot help but wonder whether PTSD has also affected those who, in recent years, have fought against the West—in Vietnam in 1965-73, in Afghanistan in 2002-14, and in Iraq in 2003-10. How about the Viet Cong? How about the Taliban? How about Daesh? Many of those troops committed worse atrocities, and suffered proportionally more casualties, than Western soldiers have done at any time since World War II. Did that cause them to come down with PTSD? If not, why? Did what, at first sight, looks like a unique Western weakness, play a role in the rise of pussycat-ism? If so, what can and should be done?

Given the present state of knowledge, my friends, the answer is blowing in the wind.