Fighting Identity: Why We Are Losing Our Wars

The place: the River Frigidus, in a country we now call Bosnia. The time: autumn, 394. Two Roman emperors are at war, with the world in the balance. A deciding factor: Alaric's Gothic tribal militia. His shock troops storm the Laager, helping defeat the Western armies and reuniting the empire. But reveling in their strength the Goths soon take on the imperial state itself. Rome contains them only when the great emperor's sister Galla Placidia is wed to the Gothic leader: and Visigoths are made Roman in Aquitaine.

Nine centuries later. A wholly extravagant man, Roger de Flor, seals the deal with Andronicus II, Basileus of a much shrunken Romaioi. Roger's soldier-company -- 7000 Catalans, women and children too -- set out against the Turks. Nothing can stop this skirmishing, ferocious light infantry. Nor is there enough gold in the Byzantine treasury. Catalan anger against an empty-pocket state (that betrays them!) starts an empire-wide, seven-year rampage that comes close to bringing down Constantinople itself.

Two snapshots in history: two "non-state actors" seizing the greatest states of their day by the throat -- and taking what they wanted. For all of its unpalatable irony, this is our world today.

We Americans, 21st century Rome, find ourselves ineffective against barbarians we call non-state actors. The non-state fighters heap us: they task us. Yet we can achieve nothing against them.

Something is happening here, and we need to take it onboard. But doing so means throwing off our narcissism and certainty of entitlement. It is a heavy burden to shrug off. But shrug it we must.

The "American Way of War" enshrines triumph through military "transformations." They are divine tokens of our superiority. Even better, "like us" challenges from others are met by all-out US out-performance. German combined arms' innovation between the world wars led to "Patton beats Rommel." Ditto Japanese carrier aviation. Ditto Soviet atomic rockets. Ditto too their vaunted "military-technical revolution." How we outdid them! But our paradigm of military "revolution" is steadfastly both technology-driven and self-focused. The American way of war is all about "like us" -- or "kin-enemies" -- also doing like us. We always win out in the end, and win big.

But today's transformation has nothing to do with us, except perhaps in how the new innovators take on our technologies -- and target our vulnerabilities. The innovators here are emerging societies and alternative communities -- not "kin-enemies" but alien, "stranger-enemies." They drive this transformation of war.

History's legacy

Since classical antiquity there have been two eras where non-state actors dominated war. One was the time of Antiquity's end, from the 5th to the 7th centuries. The second was at the end of the "Middle Ages" and the very beginning of Modernity, in the 13th and 14th centuries. These were tumultuous times, of course, but also periods in which identity was shifting and migrating. Specifically these eras track the morphing identity of the Greco-Roman world, and the late-medieval transformation of the Mediterranean world (the emergence of the Ottomans as successors to both the Byzantine and Sunni Arab commonwealths).

These were transition periods, between-times, bridging old establishments to new. What was shifting?

* International relationships -- marked by migrations of peoples, economic big changes, and "outside" shocks like grand pandemics and abrupt climate change
* Societies too were shaken by new ideas and new movements, leading to new collective consciousness and thus new identities
* The very nature of ruling authority was shifting in peoples' minds, moving rapidly from established forms to new claims

If we look at Late Antiquity and Early Modernity we see two very different, but also two very change-oriented times. Big change was not simply material. Essential social and cultural relationships too were being upended and thrust into creative turmoil.

In Late Antiquity the Empire was formally divided, but more practically it was becoming fissiparous -- splitting constantly into local governance that took the form of rebellion and civil war. But this was less about imperial insurgencies than it was about rising non-imperial identities. New identity was also taking an international, ecumenical shape as well. Thus Christianity was effectively a new Roman "nation" operating within and then taking over the institutional forms and ruling authority of the empire itself.

Two critical functions of state power were also declining: tax revenue and military effectiveness. Increasingly Roman order was dependent on a tiny and expensive elite of mobile shock forces -- their high-tech expeditionary forces. The empire had a single, perfect and magnificent, but small army with which to tamp down an unruly world.

In Early Modernity the "imperial" ventures of a grand crusading era were dissolving. The grand states that dreamed such imperial pretension -- France, the Holy Roman Empire, Naples/Sicily, and the Byzantine state, were in recess. Defiant new governance was rising. Civic associations had muscled into city-states, and stubborn principalities were defying unwieldy kingship and imperial systems. But this was also a time of exuberant economic growth and innovation. New "global networks" of commerce and banking were creating tiny but vital nodes of power that could defy an atrophying feudal order.

And this transformation also applied to war. The serf-empowered chevalier with his scythe-armed levies were suddenly no match for highly trained and well-paid soldier-companies, armed and accoutered in the super-tech of the day, from trebuchet to arbalest to high-castled cog.

Simply, older state structures and their authority were under stress and in decline. Moreover local identities were rising, including many unconnected to any notion of "state" -- but tied rather to their communities. Finally there was a functional "equalization" of military capabilities both in technology and in operational art. This permitted non-state groups to challenge "old state" military institutions.

The basis of non-state military authority

We have entered another such world environment. The key features of non-state ascendance in war are: 1-ineffectiveness of the nation state order in deploying and using military force, 2-more powerful energy and battle focus among non-state actors than nation states, 3-selective technology equalizations that, combined with tactical creativity, make non-state fighters our equal on the battlefield.

Nation-state ineffectiveness

I. Narrative Bound
We are at the mercy of our own, rigid (nation-state) "rule sets"
The "fit" between us and the enemy works to their advantage
America paradoxically comes to embrace the role of enabler
American denial -- the threat of our identity defeated -- immobilizes us

In war we focus on the enemy and how to defeat him. We pay little attention to how our needs and expectations shape war, and almost none to how our relationship with the enemy shapes war's outcome.

Our needs and expectations in war take the form of "rule-sets" that not only define how we do military operations but also how we understand our enterprise as a success. We assume them to be rule-sets because we believe we make the rules when it comes to war. The very height of our pride came at the turn of the new millennium. We were so sure we owned the very the laws of war that we declared, like Ovid's Olympians, that we could "transform" war at will.

But we forget one thing. What we do in war will always mesh with what the enemy does. Our "fit" with the enemy is never wholly in our control. Thus success is all about how our rule-sets mesh with the enemy -- a fit most sure when the enemy tries to match our rule-sets. In fact enemy buy-in to our war-frame has always been the critical and unacknowledged factor in American battle success. Here we have been lucky. Enemies who shared our way of fighting ensured our biggest war successes.

In our minds and imaginations, we made the wars we fought. They were our wars: our rules, our vision of victory. But with Confederates and Germans and Japanese and Russians, victory was also very much their gift to us.

Now our hallowed rule-sets have been overturned. The enemy makes us fight to their rule-sets -- to our loss.

The way we do things in war now works against us. This is because how we do things now "fits" enemy practice in ways that make non-state resistance more productive. Our battle "fit" with the enemy actually advances their goals. But we cannot admit this because we are committed to the belief that what we do is the only possible recipe for "victory." We are stuck working against ourselves.

Thus our "fit" with the enemy fills us with uncertainty and hesitation. We not only cannot control the outcome of military intervention, we cannot describe practically how to achieve "victory" or even military effectiveness. For example we are told -- years after we were promised a military victory in Iraq -- that "success" now is not really military but rather political. Does this mean we "win" (after tens of thousands of casualties) when the insurgents we were fighting finally take political power?

The "American Way of War" is locked into a sacred dramatic narrative culminating in "victory." This is because American wars are at root celebrations of identity. Victory is the fulfillment of war's liturgy, where sacrificing the purest among us somehow renews and strengthens us.

Therefore if victory is redefined as the equivalent of giving the enemy what he wants -- even if that is clearly the best and most realistic outcome for the national interest -- then even Orwell's NewSpeak will fold and collapse in the act of spinning black into white. If our wars are rituals of American religious nationalism, then liturgy's sacrifice simply cannot be in vain.

Thus however we spin our non-state wars we feel we have lost, because in terms of our expectations and mythos, we have. Perceived battle and campaign failure in turn creates even higher levels of anxiety and loss of confidence. This is pure strategic opportunity for all-or-nothing non-state fighters.

Non-state energy and battle focus

II. Transcendence vs. Management
They are overflowing with identity-power -- ours is in short supply
War for them is a celebration of identity -- battle is a transcendence
The American Way of War has transformed into a management ethos
Identity challenge as hook to their "fit" -- where our identity is weaker

The wars of our non-state "between-times" are above all, wars of identity. Because we put our faith in controlling rule-sets where technology is the talisman of victory, we cannot see how identity-power instead is the decisive factor in war today.

Identity-power has come into full play. It is not simply that Western -- or U.S. -- military units are forced to fight the enemy's war, in the enemy's battle environment. Far more significantly we fight as world managers against mythic heroes sacrificing themselves for "the river" of their particular humanity. Entering into their "fit" means also entering into a world where we cannot escape the role they create for us in their grand drama --

-- Their drama of identity. The role we play -- evil, weak, even inhuman -- is central to a cultural ritual that is almost primitive in its emotional intensity and passionate symbolism. We come (on the surface at least) bearing "policy" and "administration" into a world -- as described in classic ethnographies -- of primitive warfare.

But it is primitive only in the sense that its connection to the sacred ties today's fighters to the earliest human societies. In terms of how such warfare affects us however -- it is highly sophisticated. To an extent undreamed of in classical war, where we "fit" an enemy mirror of ourselves, in the stranger-milieu we are at their mercy. Furthermore our weapons' sophistication is less a factor today than it has been in two centuries -- due in part to a surprising leveling of technology. In the warrior face-to-face, their meaning can trump our meaning. Their passion and piety overrules our dispassion and reason.

Above all they make us their enablers. In the new "fit" we become agents of their story. Moreover, our world authority legitimates and anoints them among those they seek to convert. We become their secret weapon.

Why can we not see this? Here the enemy creates another paradox: by challenging our own identity they pull us into an emotional co-dependency. We may have gone in thinking clinical experience, clinical outcome. But their riposte is a manhood challenge. Their very resistance inflames our nation's spiritual need to prove its battle-worthiness and warrior ethos. We cannot resist their challenge. They hook us into their "fit" ... and we are finished.

We are finished because our angry lash-out makes us even better helpmates. Practically this means that we sustain what motivates them -- the evil other, the American dark enemy. Yet we also ratify their necessary story: that they are the frontline struggle against the evil invaders of Islam.

The passion of it all obscures our essential opportunity: building relationships with the enemy. This is surely a daunting challenge. Non-state community is perfectly suited to fight as a people, where all take up the stress of the effort in some way. This convergence of willingness and availability permits the non-state community to shape its battle environment organically. We could change that picture. We could engage them in ways that begin to deconstruct their "all against the stranger" existential reality.

But our military culture is simply incapable of this. We deploy a culturally ignorant battle element into their environment. Moreover more than half of this battle element is not about battle at all about a support-umbilical. It is umbilical because it seeks to sustain an American-sanctuary where fighting troops inevitably seek relief not only from the battle but also from the alien-ness of the evil stranger society. Engaging the enemy thus becomes a daily foray-dynamic that our own logistical structures work daily to reinforce. Out there: the Red Zone. Back here, Burger King.

Our energy is all in the sortie, followed by the flight back to sanctuary. Theirs in contrast is in the battle inhabitation. Their sanctuary is the very ground they fight on.

Technology equalizations

III. Technology
Western technology becomes their identity-enhancer, their mobilization
Western technology is worked selectively to shape their "fit"
A looser and less rigid culture of war means more adaptable, more creative
The U.S. response as "technical solution" is a waste that works against us

Technology is our talisman. It is both our fetish of victory and the very bringer of victory. How then can we see that we have given our sworn enemy the very tools with which he savages us daily? When the Mahdi annihilated Col. Hicks' Egyptian army, the righteous captured 10,000 Martini rifles and millions of rounds, plus a nice tranche of field artillery. But it all counted for exactly nothing at Omdurman.

Not so now. For all of our talk about "network centric operations" it is the enemy that is delivering. Moreover they console themselves that this was exactly how it happened in the age of Ur-victories against the original 7th century superpowers: Persia and Rome. "First Muslims" too took what they needed from superior but spiritually degraded civilizations as they proceeded to defeat them.

Furthermore these tools are the lifeblood of new consciousness -- they are a touchstone to identity-mobilization. The Ummah today has never been stronger, without reference to Takfiri influence. Everywhere our cherished hi-tech is their cathartic enabler. Enemy operational art infused by our technology is a constant boost to their renewed identity.

We also give our enemy tools their prayers could only have cried out for. It is almost casually common to assume Muslim backwardness -- as in Bernhard Lewis' What Went Wrong? In fact Muslims show us every day that where it counts, nothing went wrong. They are beating us with our technology.

A quick sketch shows how this goes. Cell phones are the essential C4ISR network. The Internet nurtures fighter communities and Ummah consciousness alike. The IED and suicide bomber equal American precision ordnance or even surpasses it -- with a human not just "in the loop" but there at target-closure.

The enemy has taken our technology and used it to better effect than we, its creators, have in our war against him. But like ancients deserted by the Gods we return again and again to the fetish-temple of technology to seek succor.

Myth tells us how cracking Enigma turned the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic -- and there are scores of similarly cherished (if not holy) stories replayed 24/7 on Cable's History and Military Channels. So as the IED grew into the greatest killer of our soldiers we turned again to divinely inspired engineering solutions: the true deus ex machina of our war liturgy. Hence billions pour into the IED-Defeat crusade. Yet the god has not emerged, not this time, from the machine.

What our IED response really shows is how we continue to fit ourselves, however unconsciously, into the enemy battle space and their rule-sets. Thus they incorporate our technology to enhance the battle of their people. Their rule-sets seek to create an entire experience of identity realization moment-to-moment. They understand that it is in the living of war's mythic passage that identity will be truly realized.

We in contrast use technology as tools to tame the phenomena of war: i.e., to better kill enemy fighters. But this ignores the larger nature of the war. That it is a war of the whole people; that it is a war of identity.

War as Phenomenology

We misunderstand war because -- for us -- thinking about war is an exercise in phenomenology. War is thus all activity and effects, and all about observed energies and material outcomes. War is the sum of its phenomena.

Hence we classify wars on heavy material scales, like "limited war" vs. "total war," or by litmus tests, like "just war" vs. "terrorism," or by how well others play by our rules, like "conventional war" vs. "irregular war."

We lack a holistic approach to human conflict. We have no access to the religious dimension of war, and so no way to assess the inner dynamics of wars of identity. Moreover because we are chained to the mental construct of war-as-phenomenology, we can only adapt to today's transformation of war by superficially adapting to its changing phenomena.

Thus we have after years of denial re-anointed counterinsurgency doctrine. Yet we do not really know why COIN only works in a very small situation-set. Instead we believe that COIN works when it effectively addresses the phenomena of insurgency. Thus COIN doctrine today -- no less than in the 1960s -- operates as a sort of secret recipe. Do this and then this and at the right moment add this ingredient and ... you win.

The smart line among the cognoscenti a couple years ago -- as new-kindled ardor for COIN ramped-up -- was that Malaya was the "Gold Standard" for COIN. But here is why Malaya worked:

* It was a tiny outside movement removed from the people
* The British had tight relationships with local rulers
* The people were politically passive

Malaya looks like a classic colonial campaign. But saying that we can only win in well-greased, low-key, neo-colonial situations is not the full and necessary takeaway. The magic key to Malaya-like insurgencies was the identity-power of the colonial masters.

The British had a century-long, club-cozy relationship with its Malayan sultans. The princes even sprang for a brand new Brit super-dreadnought in 1912: hardly the stuff of anti-colonial angst. Malay people moreover were not a political issue. There were no rising peoples' movements, no new visions of identity.

The big identity was the one sold by Mr. Kipling. Marginal merchant princes clinging to the edges of the Victorian Indian Empire happily embraced Britain's generous protection racket. They did, and they still do. The cultural counterparts of the Malayan sultans are our clients today: Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, the "Trucial Coast" (or UAE), and they have been under Anglo-American protection now for over a century.

We take our phenomenology of COIN from a long-lost Western zeitgeist flush with dominant identity, easily and everywhere able to lay down terms for patron-client relationships. Ultimately counterinsurgency's "gold standard" in Malaya should not be confused with a lost "golden age" that we might hope to recapture.

Many officers today might argue that COIN thinking has really advanced in the last couple years. Citing FM 3-24, they maintain that each insurgency is unique, that COIN can only be a guide and a start point for the particular culture, enemy and environment of the conflict." But the essence of the recipe is not in its ingredients or in the brio of the cookbook. The problem with COIN is the concept itself. It whispers to our unshakeable faith in powers that no longer exist. Hence COIN is a window into our deepest beliefs about ruling identity, and a pledge to sustain its magical realism at all costs.

Not only is there no secret recipe: the very possibility of counterinsurgency in itself is bankrupt and corrupt. Certainly we can continue -- with select effectiveness -- to prop up littoral princes, perhaps forever. But we cannot hope to help authoritarian allies hold down peoples
 in the central societies of Islam -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt -- forever. In these societies, as we surely know, any insurgency that trumps the tender mercies of a tyrant's police apparat will be like Roman Italy with Spartacus on-the-loose. We cannot stage-manage the big societies of a civilization: witness Iraq.

Many will say that recent developments in Anbar contradict this. But is this triumphant COIN or simply expedient cooptation, desperately embraced after years of casual American denial? It is all very well to say that "the Marines' version of COIN here stresses the desire of locals to control their own identities and fates," but what it really means is making Marines helpmates in the Sunni struggle against the Shi'a other. This may be the only practical thing to do, but it is no longer COIN, because it no longer lives within the ruling concept of control: that at some irresistible, string-pulling level, we are in charge. Rather, improvisation in Anbar may be the first glimmer of a new strategic path: toward a doctrine of cooptation over counterinsurgency. It is also a sign that the era of control is over.

Kipling's time -- the time when Europeans and Americans could do as they willed -- was the high tide of Western identity, the time of European religious nationalism unbound. That was when globalization's first wave -- pure creative destruction -- washed over traditional societies. They did not stand up well. Old identities lacked technology and the insight to use it against a West on identity-steroids.

Today it is the nation-state that is on the defensive. Emerging societies are responding to modernity's second wave of globalization. But non-state resistance did not simply emerge out of the wreckage of wave one. Resistance is also a response to the failure of "Western" successor models to take root. Thus whole swathes of humanity -- without the backstop of traditional meaning but also without a working Western reality to take its place -- are inevitably forging new models of identity.

Emerging societies and alternative communities almost always represent a high demand for identity in human places where it has been stripped or degraded. What makes these new models powerful is their promise of collective realization and transcendence -- and the popular energy this unleashes.

What makes non-state identity difficult for nation states is that it does not look anything like colonial-era tribalism or sectarianism. Back then Ashanti or Zulu could be locally defeated and co-opted. Even hot revivalist movements like the Sudanese Mahdi could be slaughtered and contained before they spread.

What phenomenology cannot encompass is how dramatically all this has changed. What we see as battles against "bad guys" in Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq are also now templates for community resistance everywhere. Armed resistance in today's world is a renewed path to realization and transcendence. And not just for Muslims anymore.

This message tramples the West's old declaration: that globalization is unstoppable and that you should make your peace with it. We need to focus on the new message and not just on the downstream phenomena of battle.

The new message tells us that identity-power has changed hands. What do we do when the force is no longer with us?

The Significance of This Historical Period

New identities flourished too in Late Antiquity and Early Modernity. Late Antiquity was a time of recession -- economically and culturally -- so new communities carved out their spaces within the grand-but-worn edifice of old civilization. Early modernity in contrast opened up new possibilities through economic growth and an absence of regulatory authority.

What history shows is what happens in a world environment where alternative communities and non-state societies can take root and grow. This is how our world today is like times unimaginably long ago.

Today alternative communities are trans-national and even virtual, rooting and spreading identity through the world network. Thus there are quintessentially local communities -- like the Tamil in Sri Lanka -- but there are also global societies in the making. The most challenging are communities that are locally rooted but also plugged into a world community. This describes the challenging paradox of the Islamic revival perfectly.

It would be convenient to say that people are seeking out new identity because of a "failure" of nation state ideology, or because of globalization's inability to meet "basic human needs." But this presupposes that other peoples want to join us, and that -- given a sufficiently robust consumer culture and Western electoral norms -- they would enthusiastically embrace America's world vision.

But we are helpless to address their "meaning-identity" problem. The warning for us is that for many of the world's peoples, we now represent the evil against which their hopes for identity must contend.

The truth: peoples stripped of meaning necessarily seek out new meaning. It is the urgent task of their lives. We are not even in contention when it comes to offering new meaning. As they see it -- born out by global opinion research these past six years -- all we have done with globalization is to strip them of their old meaning. Thus we set ourselves up as the evil-other, the stranger, that so helps make us the enabler. We also rob ourselves of alternative -- and potentially far more productive -- relationships.

There is symmetry of irony too, for as globalization strips them of old narrative, it also transforms our own. They become the evil-other for us as we do for them: "The world's left behind morph from our moral responsibility into dark forces we must subdue. Rather than an American story of global deliverance and redemption, this war substitutes its own story of good against evil, of civilization against the night."

Instead we are stuck in a rhetorical, self-defeating counter-argument as the conventional wisdom -- and that is our terminal narrative of modernity. Thus globalization, the story goes, is unstoppable. Non-state societies merely represent the chaotic margins that always accompany great historical change.

But the wisdom of this story is limited to the people it serves -- and globalization serves at most half of humanity. In twenty years it may be only a third. Globalization serves our world -- the realm of robust nation states and market capitalism. What of the billions left behind by formal labor markets and uncaring national identities?

Thus three billion people -- in a world of personal disorder -- are searching for new meaning. This represents an iron demand for new identity. It is inevitable in today's chaotic schema of human need that new offers will be made. It is also inevitable that people will passionately embrace these offers.

Islamism is simply a single world data-point for new identity. The surge of Pentecostalism, for example, is equally compelling. Many other emerging identities also look criminal and deviant, like the riotous proliferation of drug principalities and urban gangs worldwide. But we should see the authenticity of their identity-offer for what it portends. Because in a world of the stripped and left-behind -- one-half about to become two-thirds of humanity -- we do not have a counter-offer.

We offer only lordly altruism, while denying our own identity problem. Western identities too are shifting. New societies and their identities are emerging within us. This is no simple problem of the nation state getting weaker and non-state competitors getting stronger. Nation states declare airtight tighter regulatory control -- on the surface. Certainly their military power far outstrips any non-state actor.

But the identity-foundation of today's nation states is arguably far weaker than it was even a generation ago. Western states rely on tiny enforcement agencies to protect their societies, rather than on the citizenry as a whole. What are we to make of this? A mobilized citizenry is no longer needed by a militarily supreme Western world.

Yet our modern identity at root is based on collective, even sacred, civic commitment. Thus an armed citizenry itself is not so much the sinew of national defense as it is the ratifying expression of collective identity -- our national religion. Any pre-Vietnam American battle monument will celebrate this. And that tie has been severed, perhaps forever.

This single lost tradition suggests a weakening of Western civic "self" at the very moment emerging societies are making civic commitment and sacrifice the basis of theirs.

This is not an academic issue. Identity-politics in Western modernity are relatively weaker than those of emerging non-state societies. In this situation our ability to morally and physically assert Western ideas and practice is similarly eroded.

Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq show us the harsh touch of a new era. The wretched of the earth have found their battle squeeze. Historical periods where non-state actors have battle leverage tend to be transition periods or bridges between "worlds" -- because world identities and their power relationships are changing. In these transition times non-state societies are often stronger and more empowered than established states.

But should we worry that our identity is weaker in the sense that it is less bloody-minded? Like Romans in Late Antiquity, or 14th century Byzantines, we inhabit a universe of civilization. We are no longer blood-simple: we are in the fraternity of civilization. Ironically perhaps, we may feel a bit more like late Romans or Byzantine Romaioi than we might care to admit.

We feel superior to what we see as primitive non-state fighters, but we are also more than a little afraid that we cannot stand up to them. Perhaps this is why America's most bloodthirsty political commentators continually exalt the killing of large numbers of the enemy. How often they admiringly point to the Romans at their muscular, martial peak.

Forgetting for a moment that these same Romans not only exterminated barbarian tribes, but literally wiped Israel too "off the map," and forgetting too that Roman policy at its best preferred cooptation as much as risky battle, we should confront our Roman rhetoric for what it is: a chilling open window into our own fears.

We fear that that we are too weak to prevail. In battle we urgently seek affirmation that we have what it takes to win. Hence battle serves the same deep needs as any church liturgy.

What we really see in this war is the abandonment of strategy for the sake of liturgy. We long ago gave up on making our original war rule-sets work, while at the same time we have not seriously tried to adapt to the enemy's battle space either. The war remorselessly morphed into a political testament tied to a desperate vision of triumphant American religious nationalism.

The need for a national-emotional positive -- a shred of collective transcendence -- came at last to cancel out any sort of effective response. Thus in Iraq, rather than withdrawing and regrouping we redoubled our effort by exalting the necessity of our good works, the purity of our ideals, and the sacrifice of our "next greatest generation."

We came at last to stay there because we were caught in our own trap. We cannot leave until we seize victory, but victory by any non-Orwellian definition is beyond our grasp. This is why we fight the enemy's war and continue to serve as the enemy's enabler.

But here is where our great nation faces a deadly vulnerability. As we fight identity we are not merely weakening our own. We should also be mindful of how few of our own -- like late Rome and late Byzantium -- are willing to fight for us.

We have assigned the entirety of our security to a narrow demographic slice, giving us a society of soldiers: a noble warrior-class that defends us. It is superbly equipped and lavishly accoutered. Yet notwithstanding and above all, it is so small. And it is also all we have.

What Romans discovered in the later 4th century is that risking such an army is existentially dangerous. The emperor Julian took Rome's most superb army ever into the place of the two rivers, the place we call Iraq. There he lost that army. Fourteen years later a scratch-built force and a bad leader lost whatever was left at Adrianople -- the beginning of the end.

The mind-numbingly huge world of global humanity -- outside the state -- can suck us dry as surely as fourth-century Iraq did Rome: with equally prefigured consequences. We in contrast are no longer prepared to do battle, collectively as a people, like our ancestors in prehistory. Some of us are, and we know this, because they fight daily for us.

This is the lesson, is it not? Fighting our enemies' fight means fighting their identity, and helping them on the path to realization. But it may also be our road to ruin. We must conserve our strength and so preserve our way of life.

This war has been a warning. We should take it.

The views expressed here are entirely the author's own.

Originally posted in the Military Review [pdf].