Geography, Culture, Technology and Conflict through the Ages: Part IV

John M. Lane

 Original Conclusion -2009

                           The world has come full circle since East and West first faced each other on the plains of Marathon. The “Western Way of War,” in the 21st century, is a fading memory of a by-gone era. The world has changed, and so has the way war is conducted. Since 1973, the West, particularly the United States, has been in a crisis over military service and the conduct of war. World War II was and will remain the quintessential American war for the foreseeable: clear goals, decisive battles, and undisputed victory. Wars since 1945 has been anything but that for Americans. The concept of limited war to achieve narrow political and geostrategic objectives has been a problematic concept, indeed, for most Americans to grasp and accept. Vietnam was the tipping point. An army made up of forty percent draftees, with the average age being nineteen, was demoralized in a manner already described. The Vietnam draft was grotesquely unfair. College students were given deferments, which had far-reaching socio-economic implications that reverberate to this day.  The Reserves and National Guard were not activated and were not sent to Vietnam. Coveted spots in those units became a matter of class privilege and political manipulation. It is, small wonder, as mentioned earlier, that Vietnam is constantly being re-fought. 

                        Military service is optional in the United States, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and is seen as a career choice. It is sold to the public as a job and a place to get to a great start in life. Combat, sacrifice, and hardship are rarely, if ever mentioned. It is an odd circumstance because that is what militaries do, and that is what war is. War in the West is now characterized by a deep aversion to casualties, which means, if possible, the use of air forces only and having an “exit strategy” before the battle even begins. Somalia, 1993 is a prime example of casualty aversion. In the “Black Hawk Down” battle, eighteen American rangers were killed in a day-long firefight (the deadliest the Army had fought since Vietnam, dwarfing anything from the Persian Gulf), and over 1,000 Somalis died. The Rangers wanted to go back in and finish the battle the next day. They were not ordered to return to the fight. Pictures on CNN and Fox of two dead American soldiers being mutilated stunned the country. The mission in Somalia, no matter how ill-conceived, was over. Westerners now prefer their combat vicariously through shockingly realistic video games and World War II movies.

                        Western militaries are now made up of those who choose to serve and have a calling to do so and those who must serve as a means of having a chance to better themselves. This, however, is one more indication of the dangerous gulf that is growing within western societies in almost every facet of life. The privileged and the upper classes have no connection to the military. Constant military deployments are easier to accept and to ignore when your family is not affected.

                              History is a continuum. It is ongoing. In the conduct of war, the world’s cultures eventually adapted to and have learned to cope with and even defeat the “Western Way of War” while remaining true to their own cultural beliefs and adopting Western technology. The West is currently rebuilding its militaries to fight asymmetrically. If history is any indication, the success of that effort is in doubt because change is difficult. 

New Afterword- 2021 and Beyond

                  On September 11, 2001, four hijacked aircraft were used to attack the United States. Two were crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. Another crashed into the Pentagon in Northern Virginia. The fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers resisted and fought the hijackers. The loss of life was the heaviest the United States had suffered since Pearl Harbor. The attack was planned and carried out by the Jihadist terrorist group, Al Qaeda, led by the Saudi Arabian terrorist Osama Bin Liden. The United States responded by allying itself with anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and intervening in that country. The Taliban “government” in Afghanistan was overthrown, and Al Qaeda was crippled. Most of the Taliban leadership escaped to Pakistan; that country’s military and intelligence service had helped create them. Bin Laden also escaped and became virtually powerless to control Al Qaeda while hiding in Pakistan. After a relentless search, American intelligence found his hiding place, a compound, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. American special forces raided the compound in May 2011 and killed Bin Laden.

                             Afghanistan could never be stabilized. All attempts to establish an accountable, honest central government failed. The societal and governmental structure of Afghanistan had never been based on centralized authority. It was based on families, tribes, and clans. For twenty years, the Americans could not accept that ultimate reality. The American military could not defeat the Taliban, no matter how many engagements it won. “Nation-building” failed after hundreds of billions of dollars had been invested. The decision to withdraw was made in 2020 and carried out in 2021. Afghanistan was another lesson in the limitations of power.

Afghanistan, 2006 – Carefully notice the terrain

                           So was Iraq, the United States, and Britain invaded the country in March 2003 (while the fighting in Afghanistan continued) to remove Saddam Hussein from power and destroy his “weapons of mass destruction” (which no longer existed). Crushing the depleted Iraqi Army took a matter of weeks. However, the invasion force was not big enough to secure the country, and no plans were made as to what to do with Iraq after it was conquered. As in Afghanistan, a government was created, and as in Afghanistan, guerrilla war and insurgency began, killing Allied troops in an ambush after ambush. Surges went into an area, cleared it, left, and inevitably. Allied forces would have to return to repeat the process.

                          The Americans were now in two unwinnable wars, with no apparent way out that would not look like a defeat. The withdrawals took place. Both US administrations that decided to withdraw were blamed for abandoning our friends and not staying the course. Some of this criticism came from many of the same people who initiated the wars in the first place. Their only real solution was to stay, continue fighting and hope for the best.


                   How does the West, particularly the United States, proceed militarily into the 21st century? Since the end of the First Gulf War, China has geared its military efforts to confront who they believe is their number one military threat: the United States. That includes not just advances in cyber warfare but the development of advanced weapons systems, such as anti-ship missiles designed to sink American aircraft carriers and advanced surface to air missiles to use against American aircraft. In the area of nuclear weapons, the Chinese are experimenting with “hypersonic missiles” that could overwhelm American missile defenses. The Chinese hope to force the Americans out of the Western Pacific, if possible, peacefully through “soft” power and diplomacy. However, they intend to be ready if they must fight the Americans, probably in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea. The “wild card” in Asia is, of course, North Korea. If North Koreans decide to attack South Korea by some descent into insanity, the Pyongyang regime can expect a withering American and South Korean response. The question, as it was in 1950, will the Chinese intervene?

                          In Europe, Russia will continue to develop closer ties with China in an open effort to challenge and isolate the Americans. Russia will continue its efforts to destabilize Western European democracies through cyber warfare and support for right-wing authoritarian parties (with backing from similar elements in the United States). Despite its apparent flaws, especially the post-Cold War move eastward, the United States must continue its membership in and support of NATO. The reason should be apparent. Without having a clear defense strategy, while looking through the rearview at their previous glory, the Americans continue to build what the experts call “legacy” weapon systems because members of Congress want them built in their state or district. In the 21st century, the American military requires the latest, cutting-edge, high-tech weapons systems to face current and future threats, not unnecessary or redundant weapons systems.


                       The United States spent trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Money readily appropriated with little debate or argument in Congress in twenty years of war. While the Americans were trapped in the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires, The Chinese, as mentioned above, were moving ahead with their military (and economic) development. The Russians developed their plans to undermine and weaken the West; these plans (with a lot of inside help) have been successful.

                     It is now 2021. The current American defense budget is approximately $750 billion annually. As mentioned, defense budgets pass Congress with little or no debate. Meanwhile, there is a fierce and vitriolic debate on whether to allocate $4 trillion, spent over ten years, to invest in the United States and its people. Something that has not been done in any meaningful, public way for over 45 years. The evidence of this lack of investment is obvious. You just must look. Maybe it’s time to try “nation-building” at home. National power has four measurements. One is military; the others are economic development, social stability, and political stability. Continuing to ignore the latter three measurements while mismanaging the first one is entirely irresponsible, and what potential adversaries want the United States to continue to do.

                      The “Third Industrial Revolution” (1991-????) Computers/Chips, Artificial Intelligence, Electric Cars, Renewable Energy/Fuel, Fiberoptics, Hydrogen-Powered Planes, and more) is well underway. We are now in year 30 of the third industrial revolution. As of now, it is uncertain which nation or groups of nations will reach the “commanding heights” first and dominate the economy of the third industrial revolution. If history is any measurement, we will have a good indication around the years 2040-2045. In the second revolution, by 1880 (year 30), the United States was steadily advancing in oil and steel production. In 1941 (year 91 of the second revolution), the United States was the world’s leading oil exporter. (History Lesson: in mid-1941, the US placed an oil embargo on Japan, over their actions in China. The result was war with the US in December.)  By year 91 of the third revolution who will dominate solar panel production and hydrogen power?

Photo by Los Muertos Crew on

                      By 1901 (year 51- second revolution), the Americans had surpassed the British as the world’s leading manufacturing nation. In 1901, the British had slipped to third in steel production behind the United States and Germany. Germany had only become a unified nation-state in 1871. Historical decline is relative and is hardly noticed at the time it is happening. With their empire intact and fresh from their victory in the Boer War (1899-1902), the British elite were confident that the 20th century would be a “British Century”, just as the 19th century had been. There would be no need to change, reform, or modernize anything. We are at the top of the “pyramid.” Our way is the right way because it works.

                     The newly unified Germans (1871) took a completely different approach from the British and Americans. Led by their “arch-conservative”, anti-communist/socialist chancellor (1871-1890), Otto von Bismarck, Germany instituted measures incredibly far-reaching and “liberal”: national health insurance, workers compensation, a living wage, “kindergarten,” free public education, free university, affordable housing, expansion of the ballot (by 1912, the largest political party in Germany was the left-leaning Social Democrats) and more. German corporate taxes were increased, however, except for wages, corporations had no financial obligations in the other areas mentioned above, unless they chose to contribute (Many did).

Otto Von Bismarck – architect of German Unification and first Chancellor of Germany (1871-1890)

                       Bismarck did not make these reforms out of the goodness of his heart. He and Germany’s major corporations (unfortunately, many of the leaders of those corporations supported the Nazi takeover of 1931-1933 under the delusion that Hitler could be controlled) realized that for Germany to be strong, it needed (see above) political, economic, and social stability, as well as military power. In one shape or form, these reforms are still in effect in Germany today in the 21st century, as Germany remains Europe’s biggest, most robust economy. The British made gradual reforms in the 1920s and substantial changes after the Second World War. The Americans made changes in the first decade of the 20th century, during the 1930s, and 1960s. (These changes were always done in the shadow of how much these benefits should go to African Americans) The Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, have been locked in a political/ideological struggle over the meaning of reform and change.  For many Americans, and their leaders, remaining in 1960 is a good idea. In a shocking, but not surprising, recent development; one American senator has probably stopped an ambitious clean energy program, which could cripple the American effort in the race to the “commanding heights” of economic development during the ongoing third industrial revolution.


                     Pointing out the deficiencies in American defense policy regarding potential adversaries should not be taken as a call for a new “Cold War.” Far from it. The United States, after over four decades of neglect, needs to get its domestic house in order if it is to retain any ability to influence the rest of the world in a positive manner. 

                        Hopefully, one lesson has been learned: No matter how powerful a country believes itself to be, a military solution is not always the best solution. Use your power wisely. “Speak softly and carry a big stick”, modernize and update that “stick” for the future not the past, let your potential adversaries know that you have it, and use it only when absolutely needed.

                        We have reached full circle in our discussion. No matter how modern weapons are, in the end war is about occupying territory and defeating the enemy force, on the ground. Someone must pick up their infantry weapon and go forward… whether it is an Athenian/Spartan “hoplite” or a 21st century infantry soldier. Nothing has changed, while everything has. 

             Works Cited

Anderson, Duncan. The Falklands War 1982. Oxford, England: Osprey Books, 2002.

Archer, Christon I., John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig, and Timothy H.E. Travers. World History of Warfare. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Black, Jeremy. War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 1450-2000. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Black, Jeremy. * Rethinking Military History. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 

Dunnigan, James F. How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the 21st century. New York: Quill, 2003.

“Gates Approves Cyber Command.” Cincinnati Enquirer 23 June 2009: 2

Hanson, Victor Davis. * The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Krepinevich Jr., Andrew F., “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets: The Eroding Foundations of American Power”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.88, No. 4 (July/August 2009) 18-33. 

Liddell Hart, B. H. History of the Second World War. New York: Putnam’s, 1970.

McPherson, James M. Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.

Shanker, Thom and David E. Sanger. “Privacy May Be a Victim in Cyber Defense Plan.” New York Times 14 June 2009: 1-3

Singer, P. W. “Robots at War: The New Battlefield”, The Wilson Quarterly, Vol.33, No. 1 (Winter 2009) 30-48.

Thornton, Rod. Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st century. Cambridge, England: Polity, 2007.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. 

%d bloggers like this: