The asymmetry of morale

What should we be fighting for?

Robert Kaplan’s argument for strengthening the old-fashioned value of patriotism is at once passionate and well-reasoned, and worth reading in full.

It is obvious that a military can only fight well on behalf of a society in which it believes, and that a society which believes little is worth fighting for cannot, in the end, field an effective military. Obvious as this is, we seem to have forgotten it.

Remembering will help us in several ways. First, it will show us that the greatest asymmetry in our struggle with radical Islam is not one of arms or organization or even of ideology in any simple sense, but one of morale in the deepest sense. [The American Interest]

It’s in the context of America and the war in Iraq in specific, but the message has broader relevance. At the bleeding edge of the ongoing war against al Qaeda, its offshoots and its copycats, is a combat between an daredevil individual inspired by religion and an armed, salaried employee of a state. Some states might well be able to afford the best equipment, wages and facilities for their soldiers. But even this is insufficient to fully correct the asymmetry of morale that exists between the combatants. Something more is needed.

Kaplan’s essay supports this blog’s contention that the wars of the future, not to mention the current ones, will be clashes of convictions. Nationalism was given a nasty connotation decades ago, and going by its general portrayal in the international media, even patriotism is somehow suspect (except, that is, if you are in America). Yet without a sense of patriotism, a sense of shared values worth defending, it is hard to see how plural democratic societies can prevail over totalitarian ideologies.

Public support for the cause and morale during the war itself were always important. What is new is that the outcome of the war itself is increasingly decided by public opinion—with all its uncertainties, vagaries, whims and susceptibility to manipulation. Of course, this has been true in authoritarian states and closed societies for a long time, where the outcome is unquestionably what the regime says it is. In democratic societies with a free (and freewheeling media) the outcome of wars is becoming what public opinion says it is.

What this means, in effect, is that citizens have become combatants in the war of convictions. The side that believes that it has won wins. The side that believes it has lost loses.

The war of the future may go back a full circle—pitting entire populations, combatants and non-combatants alike in a complex clash of convictions. [The Clash of Convictions]

So in India’s case, beyond merely defending people and territory, what else is there to defend and to fight for? Or as Ajay Shah asks:

First, how can India continue to chip away at making progress towards becoming a modern, liberal society characterised by ever-expanding freedoms for individuals in terms of both society and economy? Second, what would the consequences of this founding `idea of India’ be, for the conduct of foreign policy?

20 thoughts on “The asymmetry of morale”

  1. Nitin,

    considering community (linguistic, or caste) allegiances are far stronger (and much more actively encouraged) than national ones, the implications of this are actually scary. India needs to confront not just a denigration of nationalism, but an absence of it.

  2. Amit

    If a war is just, then public will support the military

    Sure. But much depends on what we mean by “just”. Defending territory and lives of citizens against external aggression is usually accepted as “just”, by most people (but even here, there are exceptions). It’s when we go beyond this narrowest of definitions that it gets iffy all of a sudden.

  3. From Tarun Vijay’s article in the Times of India
    Why has being an Indian become a matter of less significance than being a Muslim, Christian, Yadav, or a backward? This fragmentation of polity is a result of a fragmented society and weakening of a pan-national outlook. The thread that binds Indians and India together was never a political one but cultural and civilisational. That is being abused by political expediency so much that it has been strained to the limit of breaking up.

    So far, a strong sense of nationalism, a pride in being an Indian, and equally in our Hindu identity – i.e. a majority that has woven the nation’s extreme corners into a oneness of cultural flow — from Parashuram Kund and Rukmini’s Bhishmak Nagar in Arunachal to Hanuman’s Andamans, Sindhu’s (Indus) Ladakh and Krishna’s Dwarka to Rama’s bridge of victory over the wicked in Rameshwaram — held us together. It’s our grandmother’s concept of unity in diversity that has survived the vicissitudes of millenniums, and the same is now under threat from those who do not have any feeling for the past, no vision for the future but try to earn their daily bread of governance walking present times with their sullied footmark.

  4. That’s right Amit, taking down a dictator who brutalized his people for decades is “unjust”. I am sure Bush and his buddies are filling up those oil tanks in the strait of Hormuz somewhere (selling it justly with the help of Kofi’s son and our own Natwar!). And it’s time to go because the war was a deception and so let those SOBs kill themselves – who cares. So much for human rights – we’ll tell you where to go, whom to rescue, and what is just.

    Nitin, Tarun Vijay’s rather lengthy article (that Varun gave link to) is pretty amazing and very apt for this post (and not just with regards to foreign policy).

  5. Robert D. Kaplan is a dangerous writer. A roving reporter, he writes with erudition and makes the big connections but he usually comes down on the side of enlightened imperialism and “justified”, pro-active or not, war. Very easy to turn that argument around, to say why is any, so called, enlightened militarism justified and in preventing some loosely defined “great” harm, is the harm caused by the militarism represented in trying to stop the great harm not only senseless and immoral but also, strategically, ruinous?

  6. Amit,

    Actually the post was about Kaplan not Iraq. I am sure there are other venues to indulge in BDS. Kindly proceed in that direction.

  7. Kaplan writes:

    … it will show us that the greatest asymmetry in our struggle with radical Islam is not one of arms or organization or even of ideology in any simple sense, but one of morale in the deepest sense …

    The war with radical Islam has little or nothing to do with Iraq, which had been ruled by the Baathists, until the US intervened. Baathists are secular, socialist, and Pan-Arabic, not Pan-Islamic. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan harbor the mind springs of radical Islam; and to a lesser extent, Iran today. The war with Iraq was a dumb decision, poorly planned, and poorly executed. It would make both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, not turn, but twitch in agony in their graves.

    Kaplan writes:

    … we have forgotten Dostoyevsky, who wrote in The Brothers Karamazov that the signal flaw of the upper classes is that they “want to base justice on reason alone”, not on any deeper belief system absent which everything can be rationalized, so that the will of a society to fight and survive withers away.

    Kaplan is on the verge of being pompous and vacuous here. Witness, the fatwas issued by the Ayatollahs in Iran – justice based on “a deeper belief system”, my left foot!

    Kaplan writes:

    In such a world, the real threat to our national security may be our own lack of faith in ourselves, meaning not just faith in a God who has a special care for America, but faith in the American national enterprise itself, in whatever form. [emphasis mine]

    Such clever confounding of ideals is precisely what got us into this mess – to use Amit’s word, a war “based on lies and deception”!

    Kaplan writes:

    “Decadence” is the essential condition of “a society which believes it has evolved to the point where it will never have to go to war.” By eliminating war as a possibility, “it has nothing left to fight and sacrifice for, and thus no longer wants to make a difference.” …It is in precisely such a situation that historical memory becomes lost, and forgetfulness obscures the obvious. When pleasure and convenience become values in and of themselves, false ends displace necessary means.

    Counting the number of times that Kaplan has used the words faith and decadence, I wonder if he is deliberately confusing patriotism with loyalty to God, a Christian God, “who has a special care for America”! Does Kaplan wants us to swear to bear arms to protect the Bible? I am a proud American citizen, and I am sworn to bear arms to protect the Constitution, and I will!

  8. Ooops, the last paragraph in my comment is mine, and not a quote. But, of course, it is quotable 🙂

    Spooo, again. Unquoted, but still quotable. – Ed

  9. Rational Fool, Amit,

    That’s what surprised me too. I’m not completely sure, but I suspect it is Spam Karma at work and picked up a false positive. Surprisingly, I couldn’t trace it in the spam folder too.

    Apologies to Amit and other readers.

  10. Hi all,

    I retrieved Amit’s comment from the FeedReader cache.
    Posted by Amit at 26/07/2007 17:33 PM

    “… public opinion—with all its uncertainties, vagaries, whims and susceptibility to manipulation.”

    Is this referring to US public and the Iraq war? If yes, then it’s strange to see them describe the current state as “manipulation” when actually the public is in the process of coming out of the manipulation. Even during Vietnam war, it was public disapproval that eventually caused US to pull the plug (and rightly so). The big question to ask is why did Bush remove troops from Afghanistan and start this stupid war in Iraq? The recent news of Taliban/AQ resurgence just proves they were wrong to pull out of Afghanistan where the focus should have remained there. The people actually do support their Army – they just don’t want them to die for a bumbling and incompetent President’s oil buddies and their reckless lies. If a war is just, then public will support the military.

    And India needs to be strong when tackling the terrorism threat. Though there are definitely challenges as shown by this.


  11. Anonymous Coward,

    We can’t expect Arundhati Roy to bat for Capt Kalia. The problem is worse—that the rest of the country remains apathetic.

    The way India treats its war veterans in general is apalling. I suppose the colonial British government constructed more monuments in the memory of its fallen soldiers than the government of independent India.

  12. Posted on behalf of Amit (Spam Karma is still blocking him)

    Thanks Nitin.

    My other response was to Chandra. I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic, but I don’t think USA should be in the business of supporting or overthrowing dictators in this world. Period. Though it’s another can-of-worms that it has been doing just that for many years now. America definitely owes the Iraqi people an apology and much more. It’s a tough choice – damned if they stay, damned if they don’t – but I think public opinion will decide that. Chandra, what do you suggest? That USA continues to stay in Iraq … till when? Mary Shelley’s famous book “Frankenstein” probably sums it up best.

    Gaurav, you wrote: Actually the post was about Kaplan not Iraq. I am sure there are other venues to indulge in BDS. Kindly proceed in that direction.

    And what exactly is Kaplan talking about, if not the Iraq war and public support for it? As for BDS, criticism of someone does not mean I hate Bush. Here’s an article that probably sums it up and reflects my thoughts. I can be against Islamic fundamentalism and Bush’s Iraq war at the same time – those two positions are not mutually exclusive.

    Note that I didn’t criticize Bush for going into Afghanistan (which if I was suffering from BDS would’ve been a given) – only for pulling out troops from there. And, to repeat myself, latest reports say that Taliban/AQ is back in business. Seems like you didn’t read my message. And, thanks for showing so much love through your words!!! I’m overwhelmed and feel so welcomed! 😉


  13. >> I am a proud American citizen, and I am sworn to bear arms to protect the Constitution, and I will! >>

    I admire that attitude in any American citizen of Indian origin (I assume you are Indian born or first generation American).

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