How Westerners Fight
What separates Western militaries from the rest?
There is a strain of historical analysis which views the Western military tradition as fundamentally different than those traditions found outside of Europe (and modern America). Scholars like Victor Davis Hanson, in his book Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, trace the development of European superiority in war to traits developed by the ancient Greeks. Hoplites, he argues, were individual-minded farmers fighting by choice for democratic polities they had a real stake in.
The legions of peasant soldiers who served at the whim of the mighty Persian emperors, in contrast, were conscripts who owned no land and had no say in how their government was run. Civilizational features like these (which many, particularly left-leaning, historians gloss over) produce characteristic decisions in battle that nevertheless have huge repercussions: emphasizing infantry vs. cavalry; training heavily armored vs. unarmored soldiers; and encouraging tight formations of men vs. the heroic prowess of individuals on the battlefield.
The effects of ancient Greek doctrines on the West echo through the ages. But the post-Hellenistic West also rests its tradition of war on another ancient source: the Old Testament.
The American Civil War is replete with examples of men who would agree. Famed Virginian General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a hero of the Confederacy and devout Presbyterian, thought of himself as a reincarnated Joshua -- the biblical successor to Moses who led the Israelites to conquer the city of Jericho and the promised land, Canaan. Joshua, with the promise of God (“And the Lord said unto Joshua, See, I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valour” Joshua 6:2, KJV), confronts his foe head-on in a decisive blow. The battle was, for Joshua, the natural solution to a political problem. War would solve what diplomacy could not.
In book one of his 1958 series The Civil War: A Narrative, historian Shelby Foote describes the inseparability of Jackson’s religion and warcraft:
“Old Blue Light, his soldiers called him; they had seen the fire of battle in his eyes. He read the New Testament in his off-hours, but did his military thinking in accordance with the Old, which advised smiting the enemy, hip and thigh, and assured the assistance of Providence in the infliction of terrible wounds.”
It was the simple dignity of informal Presbyterianism, as well as the stern but just God of the Reformed tradition, that apparently attracted the young career officer. His zealous desire to conform himself to the will of the Maker against his enemies mirrors that of Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s.
“Old Ironsides” Cromwell, leader of the parliamentarian New Model Army during the English Civil War, was an ardent Anglican puritan whose brilliance in battle was matched only by his verve for Protestantism. To the stern Cromwell, faith was as inseparable from battle as biblical history is from war. Before battles he’d encourage his soldiers to sing from the Book of Psalms. He even issued The Souldiers Pocket Bible to his men in 1643 -- a 16-page pamphlet containing 150 verses, all related to war. Only four were drawn from the New Testament. The rest were pulled from the Old Testament, such as Deuteronomy 20:4 (“For the Lord your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” KJV).
Western success on the battlefield certainly predates Western Christianity. Alexander’s Macedonians and Scipio Africanus’s Roman legionaries did not draw from the Jewish Pentateuch when taking the field of battle. Yet it should strike observers that the sudden conversion of the West to Christianity did not lead to an era of subjugation by foreign empires. Neither did it sever Christian Europeans from their Greek and Roman antecedents. Why?
Christianity encouraged the Western military tradition of settling political disputes with set piece battles. Unlike the so-called “flower wars” fought by the Aztecs -- brief, ritualized skirmishes designed to capture enemies for sacrifices and settle affairs of tribal honor -- Western armies go for the jugular.
But Christianity also brought a sense of determinism to its armies hardly found outside of the Abrahamic religions. Unlike the gods of the pagans Europeans fought in the New World and Africa, the Christian God is unchanging. Neither are His ways our ways, relates scripture, but constant and determined from before the foundation of the Earth.
Translated to battle terms, this is an extraordinary message to men in combat, whose swords or muskets are guided by the unshakeable will of an all-powerful Maker -- not the gods whose favor is bought with sacrifices.
It’s a message that Western soldiers have carried victory to victory, continent after continent, for two millennia. It gave the world the United States of America. Let us pray our soldiers keep it with them in all the wars to come.