Larry Schweikart: Interviewed about his new book ... America's Victories: Why the U.S. Wins Wars and Will Win the War on TerrorHistorians in the News
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Larry Schweikart, the co-author of A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror. He is a professor of history at the University of Dayton and has written more than 20 books on national defense, business, and financial history. He is the author of the new book, America's Victories: Why the U.S. Wins Wars and Will Win the War on Terror.
FP: Welcome back to Frontpage Interview Larry Schweikart.
Schweikart: Thanks, Jamie. It's good to talk to FPM again.
FP: So what made you write this book?
Schweikart: This book emerged from the research I have done over 15 years of teaching a class that I used to call"Stirrups to Star Wars." After the release of A Patriot's History of the United States, as I looked at my next project, it seemed obvious, what with the War on Terror and the ongoing fight in Iraq, to write a book about America's military past.
FP: You point to seven major characteristics that have combined to make American fighting forces the best in the world. What are they?
Schweikart: First, in most conflicts we have relied on citizen soldiers---volunteers---who have joined willingly. But even when we have had drafts, as in Vietnam and in the Civil War, the number of volunteers is staggering. Two-thirds of our troops in Vietnam were volunteers, for example. This has resulted in the military, with a couple of exceptions, almost perfectly reflecting the economic and regional profile of the United States as a whole. Those exceptions are Hollywood (virtually unrepresented in the modern military) and the northeast section of the U.S.---John Kerryland.
Second, we push autonomy down like no military in human history. One U.S. officer, working with some of our Middle Eastern allies, concluded that a U.S. sergeant had more operational autonomy than an Egyptian colonel. Because we rely on free troops, there is a certain respect for each man and woman's abilities and a general assumption that you can give an American almost any task and it will be accomplished. Likewise, we promote from within the ranks like few militaries ever have; move people into the officer corps regardless of caste or origins of birth; and willingly promote people on the battlefield, occasionally jumping them several ranks at once.
Third, we learn from loss. Now, to most westerners this seems commonsensical. But there are several cultures, including aspects of the Arab culture that we are now fighting, in which it is a shame to make an error, but a double shame to admit it. How can a military figure out what went wrong if it cannot ever admit it screwed up? We energetically study our battlefield losses (and successes), and analyze them seven ways from Sunday. The result is, we seldom make the same mistake twice. The Battle of Kasserine Pass was a great example of this, where we looked at poor leadership, inadequate training, and flawed weapons, and fixed them all by the next time we fought the Germans.
Fourth, we have unprecedented inter-unit and inter-service autonomy. Our people talk to each other, and work with each other, something that has been extremely difficult for other militaries or terrorist groups. We then use technology to link units together into an unprecedented degree, whereby in the next few years literally a tanker will be able to talk directly to a pilot overhead without going through his headquarters, then calling the pilot's headquarters, then the pilot.
Fifth, we embrace technology---largely due to private property rights---and willingly employ anything that gives us an edge. Yes, there were exceptions: the Thompson .45 caliber submachine gun took a long time to gain acceptance, and there was a reluctance to adopt the submarine. Often, though, this reflects less military myopia than it does some constraint in another area. For example, in the Civil War, the Spencer repeater eventually became a far superior weapon to the Springfield musket, but was not adopted early because preliminary tests showed a lot of jamming, and also (perhaps more important) because each cartridge for a Spencer cost $2 (2006 dollars), and at a rate of fire of seven shots per 10 seconds, well . . . you can go through some serious money very quickly. The War Department just didn't think it could afford that rate of fire. Still, Col. John Wilder, of the Indiana"Lightning Brigade," felt so strongly about the Spencers that he had his regiment's soldiers purchase the rifles for themselves, and if they couldn't afford it, Wilder personally loaned them the money because he believed in the potential of a higher rate of fire.
Sixth, we embrace life. Like most western armies, we subscribe to a concept of sanctity of life that means that we treat enemy prisoners well---Dick Durban not withstanding---and we even seek to rescue our own POWs when possible. I've never found any other nation or group do this----make a determined and regular attempt to rescue its own POWs. In fact, after I wrote the book, I found yet another example of an attempted (unsuccessful) POW rescue.
Last, we tolerate dissent. This will surprise a lot of people on both sides of the aisle, but anti-war protestors actually make our troops more lethal. It works like this: since the First World War, at least, anti-war protestors have found they could not make any headway in popular opinion by emphasizing" collateral damage" of American war efforts. The only tactic that ever worked was to emphasize U.S. casualties. Except this had its own unintended effect: the military, sensitive to"excessive" casualties, consistently studied doctrine, weapons, and so on, revising its policies so as to make U.S. soldiers even more deadly killers. It is absolutely true that such anti-war people damage the immediate war effort, but over the long run, they make the military better than ever because of relentless self examination by the military.
FP: What are some of the myths about Vietnam?
Schweikart: One of the most pernicious was that Vietnam was fought by the poor, uneducated, largely black draftees. In fact, nearly 2/3s of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers; only 12% were black---exactly proportional to the U.S. population at the time; and the education level of the average soldier was about what it was for a non-soldier.
Other myths are that the returning vets had higher levels of mental disease, drug addition, and/or suicide. (Not true at all). Yet another that, because of my background as a rock and roll drummer, I find most interesting, is that the music industry helped" change attitudes" against the war. In fact, no antiwar songs came out until public opinion had substantially shifted against the war, making anti-war music profitable. I found for this book that Jimi Hendrix, who was in the 101st Airbornea and who faked being a homsexual to get out, did so only because he wanted to play his guitar non-stop, and as late as 1968 he spoke very favorably of the U.S. military, once defending our position in Vietnam to European interviewers (to their horror).
A broader myth is that the military"lost" Vietnam. If you look at the 1965 statements of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as given to Pres. Johnson, on what it would take to win, in that year---1965---the military said it would take 1 million men, round the clock bombing of the north, cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and mining Haiphong Harbor. Yet by 1969, we had just over half that number, had never engaged in serious, sustained bombing of the North, and never even made an attempt to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
It's worth mentioning, as a final myth, that Ho Chi Minh ("the Enlightened One," or,"that little Ho," as I like to call him) was not a communist. He was a diehard communist, not a"nationalist."
FP: What do you think about Abu Ghraib?
Schweikart: Broadly, of course, we do not tolerate torture or genuine abuse. It's one of the reasons most of our enemies have no problems surrendering to us. One of the reasons the Japanese were so suicidal in the Pacific islands was that they were convinced by their own propaganda that we would torture and abuse POWS---in short, do to the Japanese exactly what they did in China and to our POWs, such as performing human vivisection experiments, beheadings, and herding prisoners into bunkers, throwing aviation fuel on them, and setting them on fire. Notice, however, that in the information age there was no such propaganda that convinced Iraqis not to give up in 1991, when they were surrendering to CNN news crews. ("Stop or I'll quote you!")
Now, specifically on some of the things that happened at Abu Ghraib, all I can say is, if putting women's underwear on someone's head is torture, then we have abandoned all legitimate use of the English language. However, there is an element about the Lyndie England pictures that no one on the left wants to seriously examine, and it is this: certain of our terrorist enemies---those who come from a Bedouin/Arab mindset---are obsessive about concepts of"shame" and"honor." This goes back to my point about"learning from loss"---for them, it is impossible, because it would be dishonorable to admit that you got"whupped." Moreover, these same groups think women are no better than dogs. So when these jihadists see big, strong terrorist men being held on a dog leash by a little American woman, don't tell me that didn't send shudders down the spines of these people. I read a great deal on the"Arab mind" and Arab culture for this book, including several psychological studies written by Arabs, and they all came to the same conclusions about shame and honor. The result is that while Americans see the Lyndie England pictures and think,"Gee, this is terrible, we shouldn't treat people that way," most Middle Eastern audiences see such pictures and say,"The Americans are really tough. Their women are superior to our men." I make this case at length in a chapter called"Gitmo, Gulags, and Great Raids."
It's too bad, but for reasons of military discipline we must punish Lyndie England and others involved in these shenanigans, but from the standpoint of actual impact on the situation, they helped far, far more than they hurt. If you look at the number and impact of attacks and incidents after the publication of the photos, they fell off a great deal for many months. I say,"FREE LYNDIE!"
FP: Americans may have won many wars, but isn’t the War on Terror different?
Schweikart: Absolutely not. In fact, it is extremely close in all respects to the Filipino Insurrection, of 1899-1902, and the subsequent"insurgency" and"Moro wars" that lasted until about 1910. First, the number of troops deployed in Iraq as a share of total U.S. Army/Marine strength is almost exactly proportional. Second, the objective of Emilio Aguinaldo, like that of Abu Musab al-Zarqari, was to force a change in U.S. policy politically by affecting U.S. elections. Aguinaldo hoped to unseat William McKinley, Zarqari, Bush. Third, almost all"insurrections" or"guerilla wars" of the 20th century have been won by the"government." In this case, that would be us---and this includes Vietnam. The record is that the government won 8/11, losing China and Vietnam. Fourth, despite what the Left thinks, there is a relentless mathematics about warfare: you can only lose so many men, then you run out of fighters and especially suicide bombers.
An interesting aspect of news coverage in Iraq/Afghanistan is the utter blackout on numbers of enemy forces killed, wounded, or captured. There is a good reason for this: we are kicking butt like you wouldn't believe. My estimates are highly flawed, because they are based only on reported numbers (which no one disputes), and the real numbers are likely far, far higher, but so far I estimate we have killed or imprisoned more than 20,000 terrorists and jihadis. I don't care how many kooks they have running in from Syria or Yemen, it's clear they are nearly out of bodies. We killed perhaps 1,000 just in Fallujah---one sniper alone accounted for 100 kills! Several months ago, either Time or Newsweek ran an article about the"women" of terror-dom, and noted that the terrorists had to start recruiting women. Why? Because we have killed all their male suicide bombers. As Victor Hanson shows about the battle of Okinawa, the Japanese ran out of kamikaze volunteers. Well, it's easier to force a"volunteer" to engage in a suicide charge if you have a formal army structure and bayonets at their backs, but in an asymmetric warfare situation, it's virtually impossible to force people to be suicide bombers. So they are running out of peeps. As the line goes in the movie"Major Payne," when Major Payne is being mustered out,"There's got to be some people that need killin'," his superior responds,"No, Major, you've killed them all."
Finally, some people argue that this is a"different kind of war" because we are fighting an"ideology," not an army. Exsqueeeeze me? What was World War II? Seems to me we defeated two ideologies, Japanese bushido-ism and Nazism, then, in the Cold War, defeated another, communism, largely without firing a shot.
FP: So let’s sum it up: why have we won wars and why will we win this one?
Schweikart: Several weeks ago, an exasperated Bill O'Reilly asked a guest,"Why is it we can turn kids into soldiers in six weeks [sic] and we can't turn the Iraqis into a fighting force after a year?" He's completely wrong. We do not turn boys and girls into soldiers in"six weeks" or even a more accurate"nineteen weeks" of training. Rather, what happens is that we take Americans who have absorbed more than 200 years of a specific fighting culture and we turn then into soldiers. This will turn some people off, but the fact is we are attempting to turn the Iraqis into Americans. We are trying to teach them self-governance, individual autonomy, free-market principles, the ability to ignore shame and to learn from loss in order to improve, the abilty to put aside tribal and sectarian differences to work together, and the need to push autonomy down. As they absorb those principles---as they already already are---their military will rapidly replace our forces in Iraq.
On the broader issue of the"War on Terror," we will win because we're Americans. We will win because to beat us, you have to be us. Those countries that have come the closest to defeating us have had to embrace large parts of our American way of war---but since they can never accept all of those principles, and this even applies to CHINA---they cannot beat us. They know it, and our military knows it. Only the American Left hasn't figure this out yet.
FP: Larry Schweikart, thank you for joining us again.
Schweikart: Always great to talk to you, Jamie.
comments powered by Disqus
- Timothy Thomas Fortune: A Great, Forgotten Black Radical
- Black History Trail Makes 200 Stops Across Massachusetts
- Emmett Till's Murder and How America Remembers Its Darkest Moments
- ‘Slavery is not a game’: Virginia school apologizes over Black History Month exercise
- How the Republican Response to the Mueller Investigation Breaks With History
- Every Sunday, These Historians Go to the Movies — All in the Name of Digital Community
- History has a massive gender bias. We’ll settle for fixing Wikipedia.
- Historians fight back as TV raids their research treasures for its shows
- "The North Star" Launches with Keisha N. Blain as Editor-in-Chief
- New Interactive Tool Maps the American War on Terror