No battle 'buts' in American military

Posted: Mar 08, 2002 12:00 AM
American soldiers are training allied Afghan troops how to lie down. I don't mean anything figurative or metaphorical. I mean, literally, we're teaching battle-tested Afghan warriors how to lie flat on the ground, as in what you do when you fire your rifle in the prone position. At first I thought I was missing something. Learning how to shoot from the prone position is one of the first things you learn after basic gun safety. It also seems like common sense; in battle, one of the tricks to surviving is to make yourself as small a target as possible. Heck, even my little green toy soldiers came with a large contingent of GIs firing from the prone position. But, after asking some military folks, it turns out that despite decades of near constant fighting, the Afghans aren't the best soldiers in the world. The reluctance to get down on the ground to shoot and be shot at is just a small illustration of that fact. It turns out that some Afghans feel it is unmanly to shoot from the ground. Others explain that they have trained with antiquated weapons that make more sense to fire while standing. But all of them explain their reluctance by saying in their respective tongues, "This is the way we've always done it." That attitude reveals one of the central reasons American soldiers are more dangerous than their counterparts. It is a common assumption in certain corners of the globe that because America is free and open and prosperous, its military must also be undisciplined, uneducated and lazy. The reality is exactly the opposite. The American military, while couched in discipline and tradition, has been reinventing itself and readapting to new challenges since the first American patriots hid behind trees to shoot Redcoats. "But this is the way we've always done it" doesn't fly with us. As military historian Victor Davis Hanson argues in his wonderful book "Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power," Western civilization's, and most notably America's, military advantages were never genetic nor geographical, as some have argued. The advantage was, and remains, cultural. Western military success is directly the result, he writes, of "larger social, economic, political, and cultural practices that themselves seemingly have little to do with war." "It is almost a truism that the chief military worry of a Western army for the past 2,500 years was another Western army," Hanson concludes. More Greeks died in one battle of the Peloponnesian War, he notes, than in all of the battles with the Persians. The Boers killed more British soldiers in a week than the Zulus did in a year. Similarly, even when Americans lose battles against non-Western nations, the casualties are notoriously lopsided. In the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, the United States lost 18 brave men. The Somalis lost roughly 55 men for each American life lost. The newly released film "We Were Soldiers" tells the story of the first major (and victorious) battle between the United States and the North Vietnamese in the Ia Drang valley of the Central Highlands of Vietnam with similar casualty ratios. And, of course, 149 Americans were killed in action in Iraq while estimates of Iraqi dead range from 50,000 to 150,000. We don't know exactly how the battle in the mountains outside Gardez, Afghanistan, will end. But it's a safe bet that we will win and that for each American casualty there will be scores of Taliban or al-Qaida casualties. Already, the United States has lost eight men, while the enemy has lost hundreds. The Taliban's leaders were fond of telling the press - before we bombed them forward into the Stone Age - that the United States would meet with ruin once its forces set foot on Afghan soil. Superior technology, they asserted couldn't make up for the basic weakness of the American character. This sort of analysis always puts the cart before the horse. It is the ingenuity and creativity of the American character that made such technology possible in the first place.