In 431 B.C. the 27-year long Peloponnesian War erupted between Sparta and Athens. Sparta was the dominant land power; Athens was the intellectual and cultural center of Greece and the dominant sea power. The vicious conflict raged throughout Greece, and from western Asia Minor to Sicily. In the early years of the war, Athenians evacuated into the protective walls of the city rather than face the superior Spartan infantry in the field. Meanwhile, the Athenian navy attacked Sparta’s interests.
In a “War Like No Other,” historian Victor Davis Hanson described the collapse of civil order that attended a great plague that struck the crowded Athens early in the war. He observed “how close humans always are to savagery — and how precious is their salvation won through law, religion, science and custom. This thin veneer of civilization is a universal constant ... the pandemonium that followed the plague reminds us that civilization can be lost anywhere and at any time.”
The shocking genocide of the Holocaust and now the spreading atrocities of ISIS and al-Shabab reflect Hanson’s “universal constant”in the modern world. Not since the World War II have the risks to civilization been so great. Like the perverse morale that Nazi propaganda generated, ISIS’s slick Internet propaganda today attracts people to a perverted version of Islam that is at war with civilization. A U.S. citizen — a 28-year old mother — was recently arrested and accused of building a bomb to use in America in support of Jihad. She was inspired by violent ISIS videos and reportedly stated to an undercover officer, “It’s war.”
And indeed it is. A renowned military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, identified a nation’s “moral forces” as essential to success in war. Moral forces arise from a general belief in the righteousness of a war that fortifies the nation’s soldiers and populace against the accompanying death, lost treasure, risk and hardship. But as the success of Nazi and ISIS propaganda shows, moral forces may or may not reflect morality.
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A truly moral force exists in appreciating just how precious the rule of law, science, religious tolerance and custom are. The “moral force” of Jihad must be overcome with the moral force reflected in America’s and other civilized nations’ constitutional systems of law and religious freedom, and in the principles upon which America was founded.
In his first presidential inaugural address, George Washington observed another universal constant: “There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity ... .”
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote these words for Washington. They define the best of civilization and bear frequent repetition, but especially every May 1, established by Congress as Law Day to celebrate the Founders’ ideals of ordered liberty and equal justice under law.
Education in history and civics is essential for this superior moral force, but some 70% of applicants to our all-volunteer army fail minimum educational, fitness and moral requirements. Only one state requires that students pass the same U.S. citizenship test that applicants for U.S. citizenship must pass!
Common Core seeks to improve student reasoning but inexplicably leaves out history and civics. Meanwhile, ISIS propaganda flourishes amid chaotic, undisciplined tweets, yaks, and the indecorum of the Internet.
History may offer an example of what is needed to win the war with extremists. Napoleon could not suppress the “guerrillas” in the rest of Spain with conventional forces, but his Marshal Soult succeeded in Andalusia by organizing his troops into “flying columns” that constantly chased and killed the guerrillas wherever they were.
Whether it is now better to leave the necessary ground war against ISIS, al-Shabab and al-Qaida to those most directly affected is debated, but a Marshall Soult-type solution may for many appear needed to combat the extremists’ expanding war against what Americans should hold dear.
If the time comes for American troops, America’s moral force will fail if our leadership is too poorly educated to explain, and our citizenry too poorly educated to understand and cherish, what the fight is for.