One of the most disturbing ideological views of today’s conservatives and the Republican Party is their acceptance of the idea that politics is literally a form of warfare and that liberals and Democrats can literally be viewed as “enemies.” On many occasions The Democratic Strategist has forcefully argued that this view is actually the distinguishing mark of modern political extremism.
But it is simply impossible to understand the “enthusiasm gap” and the frequent low enthusiasm of Democrats without understanding the military concept of morale. The critical fact that needs to be faced is that Democrats have a deeply engrained “culture of de-moralization” rather than of morale-building. Particularly after Democrats suffer setbacks or defeats, this culture of demoralization plays a critical and deeply destructive role.
In the military world, the term “morale” denotes a powerful mixture of passion, commitment, élan, fighting spirit, camaraderie and group cohesion. At the most basic level, it is what, throughout military history, separates a disciplined military unit from an untrained mass of peasants rounded up and dragged to the front by force who then panic and flee in disarray at the first burst of fire.
At first glance, the term “morale” seems essentially a synonym for bravery – the willingness to charge fearlessly into the face of enemy fire. For many whose only knowledge of war is literature, the civil war charges in Stephen Crain’s “The Red Badge of Courage” are the clearest image they can bring to mind.
This conception seems to fit reasonably well with the picture of war that is presented in a standard history book. In a history text, military campaigns generally appear rather straightforward – one side advances and the other retreats. On a typical map showing the German invasion of Russia in 1941, for example, the German drive for Moscow looks like one long and continuous series of forward thrusts. In 1944, in contrast, the map appears to show the Germans in one continuous retreat.
But when one studies military campaigns more closely, it becomes clear that this is not really what is going on. Throughout military history — from the battles of Roman legions to the panzers at the gates of Moscow — most military campaigns follow a more complex pattern.
• A military offensive pushes against a wide defensive line. In some places the advance stalls and cannot move forward, in others, the attack breaks through.
• In the areas of breakthrough, the offensive drives as far as it can but sooner or later encounters much stronger defenses – often a second prepared defensive line – and is forced to come to a stop.
• At this point the attacking army must dig in and prepare for a counterattack because the defender now knows where penetrations have occurred and can redirect its reserves to attack them. The fact that a counterattack is coming does not come as a surprise nor is it considered a setback: it is understood as a normal and expected part of warfare (during Roman military campaigns, for example, a legion would always build an elaborate defensive stockade every single evening to protect itself from attack, even after marching all day long.)
• In some places the new line created by the offensive holds against the counterattack; in others it breaks and is driven back. Once the line stabilizes along the front, the stronger side begins preparing a new offensive all over again.
Thus, seen in detail, a military campaign like the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 does not appear as a single continuous offensive but rather a vast series of small pushes and shoves – often fighting back and forth, over and over, for same town or few yards of terrain. The advances that look as if they were quick and straightforward on a map actually represent months of nightmarish days and nights of agony.
It is, in fact, hard to read the detailed accounts of individual units like platoons and companies in WWII without feeling a overwhelming sense of awe at the morale and dedication that was shown on all sides – the willingness to fight again and again, day after day, without any hope of a near-term victory.
This is the morale of a professional army- it is a deep and unswerving commitment to eventual victory, a willingness to suffer reverses, privation and death and to keep on going as months pass and seasons change with no sight of an end ever on the horizon.
In the particular circumstance of the aftermath of a setback or defeat, there are three basic ideas that military leaders make every effort to impress on their troops because they know these ideas are vital for maintaining a high level of morale:
• That setbacks and retreats are a normal part of warfare – they are a natural and inescapable part of the standard pattern of battle.
• That the failure of a particular attack or an order to retreat are not necessarily proof that the strategy employed was wrong. Taking calculated risks is an inherent and necessary part of warfare, and not all gambles can be successful.
• That casting blame or sinking into demoralization is not the proper response of a soldier to setbacks – in the military world these are considered reflections of weakness and defeatism, not justifiable frustration and anger.
Seen from this perspective, the idea that Democrats have a deeply engrained and profoundly destructive culture of demoralization now starts to come into clearer focus. Consider the beliefs that are implicitly reflected in the typical Democratic response to setbacks:
• The belief that the natural and reasonable response to setbacks is to assign blame – the famous “circular firing squad”. It assumes that any failure can be treated as proof that the basic strategy was wrong and that the leaders behind it were either stupid, cowardly or venal.
• The belief that flamboyant expressions of anger and recrimination are honorable demonstrations of one’s deep dedication and militancy. Many of the articles that appear after a setback are competitions in hyperbolic outrage designed to demonstrate the intense degree of anger the author feels at the cowardice, venality and stupidity of his leaders and other forces within the coalition. The underlying assumption appears to be that intense expressions of vituperation and fury somehow serve to motivate others and drive productive change.
• The belief that threatening to quit is a reasonable response to a defeat. How many hundreds of blog comments, angry e-mails and web commentaries express sentiments like: “I’ve had it, I’ll never vote for the cowardly and corrupt democrats again.” “The Dems don’t deserve my support” or “I’ve busted my ass for those people for the last time” as if these assertions demonstrated militancy and resolve rather than demoralization.
So long as Democrats continue to treat these responses to setbacks as acceptable, they will never have the morale of the tea party supporters or conservatives in general. In the military culture, these three beliefs are invariably considered forms of defeatism and demoralization rather than acceptable responses to setbacks or defeats. They are no less so in the political world.
In fact, while politics is emphatically not the same as warfare and political opponents are emphatically not literal enemies, the lessons that can be learned from the study of morale apply equally to armies at war and to non-violent social movements for progressive reform. They apply to Washington’s troops at Valley Forge and the sit-down strikers in the great Flint, Michigan auto strike of 1937, to the “Band of Brothers” at the Battle of the Bulge and to Martin Luther King and the civil right movement in Birmingham, Alabama.
The central lesson is simple and has been expressed countless times: “when you get knocked down, you don’t spend your time cursing your fate or assigning blame. You get back up, you dust yourself off, and you start marching again.” It is that kind of spirit – that “morale” – that Dems will need both now and throughout the coming years.