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It is not often that I am afforded the privilege, or indulgence, of reading a book that is precisely in alignment with my own views and experience. Such a title is Martin van Creveld’s Pussycats: Why The Rest Keeps Beating The West–And What Can Be Done About It. Dr. van Creveld is a distinguished military historian and theorist, whose frank and exhaustively documented works carry the weight of authority that comes from years of patient labor and application.
His 1991 treatise The Transformation of War was one of the first works to warn that the growth of technology was producing a decline in the traditional notion of statism, and that modern societies must overhaul completely their military training and cultural constructs to meet this new reality.
The thesis of the present book is relatively simple: the modern West’s dangerous neglect of the martial virtues is producing generation after generation of effeminized “soldiers.” This corruption of the warrior ethic has reached the point where it now undeniably imperils the very foundation of Western societies. Of course, this type of thesis not the kind of thing that modern politicians or generals will want to hear.
Yet they must hear it; and more importantly, they must listen attentively. Only a fool would ignore the study of organized warfare. The historians tell us that, of the past 3400 years of recorded history, only about 260 have been without war. War is an inseparable part of the human condition; and despite its shifting context and locale, its essence remains the same now as it was one hundred thousand years ago, when one sentient collection of primates on the East African savannah sought to impose its will on another.
In his introduction (“The Record of Failure”), Dr. van Creveld notes that the West reached an apex of power just before 1914. Since that time, it has proven itself increasingly incapable of meeting the military challenges posed by insurgencies, small wars, hybrid conflicts, and irregular warfare. Why is this? To answer this question, van Creveld does not take the path that many others have taken. He does not lecture us about the need for better technology, for more “inclusiveness” in the military ranks, or for the need to show more sensitivity towards other cultures. In explaining the victories of America’s Third World enemies, he correctly notes:
Good or bad, all these explanations miss the essential point: namely that, in practically all cases, the Gooks, Hajjis, or whatever other derogatory names their opponents used to call them by, won because they were better. Often they lived and operated under conditions so hard that most people in developed countries cannot even imagine them. But this did not prevent them from out-propagandizing, out-mobilizing, out-organizing, out-planning, out-motivating, out-leading, out-maneuvering, out-fighting, out-lasting, out-suffering, and, yes, out-dying their opponents.
Van Creveld sees the problem as a moral one, and in this he is absolutely correct. He differs from his contemporaries in daring to confront the problem at its source: the nature of the West itself. The moral fiber of the West has been rotted out, as it were, by the excesses of wealth and privilege. An enervating weakness–the inevitable consequence of wealth and ease–has replaced the stern, martial spirit of our ancestors.
In point after point, van Creveld hammers home his thesis. The debilitating weakness of the West begins with the raising and nurturing of the youth. He makes a chilling observation regarding the youth of his own country. The compelling quote is worth reproducing in full:
I live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Mevasseret Zion, a few miles west of Jerusalem. Right across the street is an “absorption center.” It consists of a neighborhood made up of small, rather dilapidated houses that have seen generations of immigrants from many countries pass through. Currently this is where hundreds of Ethiopian families spend their first months in the country before they learn Hebrew, find work, and move elsewhere. For some twenty years now I have been watching their countless young children.
Clearly they are much less supervised and monitored than non-Ethiopian Israeli kids of the same age are. Part of the reason is no doubt cultural. Another factor is the fact that the offspring of immigrants adjust to their new surroundings faster than their parents can. Consequently, they learn to be independent regardless of whether those parents want them to or not.
This lack of supervision—aka greater independence, greater freedom to make decisions, more responsibility—may entail some cost in the form of a relatively greater number of accidents taking place both inside the home and outside it. Perhaps because anyone who tried to compile them would quickly be labelled “racist,” I have never seen any statistics on the matter. One can see the kids running about in the streets, largely left to their own devices. They climb trees and buildings.
Not having safety helmets, they nevertheless ride bicycles (old and rusty ones, to be sure). They collect other people’s throwaway objects and sometimes put them to unorthodox uses. They play all sorts of improvised games, some of them fairly rough. At times they fight, though I never saw a fight so serious as to make me think I should intervene and separate the parties. Briefly speaking, they do all the things kids have always enjoyed doing.
Particularly striking is the fact that older kids lead younger ones and younger kids follow older ones with few, if any, adults present to tell them what and not to do. Girls of six or seven regularly take care of toddlers, carrying them in their arms or teaching them to walk. Toddlers as young as two sometimes roam the pavements on their own—a situation which, in any developed country as well as in any other Israeli settlement, would have caused the parents to be sued and their children taken away from them.
Yet this freedom does seem to make the children enterprising and adventurous. And though it may be beside the point I wish to make, it also seems to make them happy. They do not feel vulnerable at every step, and they know how to look after themselves.
Otherwise, they would hardly have survived. The contrast with mainstream Israeli children—my own grandchildren included—who are watched and guarded and chaperoned and admonished at every step, could hardly be greater. Should the two groups get involved in a fight, there can be little doubt as to who would emerge on top. In fact, something like this happened a few years ago when two boys, new immigrants from Russia, beat up some Technion students—while dozens of the latter, both male and female, stood by, not daring to interfere.
In short, our risk-averse and molly-coddling culture is producing more than its fair share of weakness and degeneracy:
With little room left for what the Germans call Jugendsuende, “the sins of youth,” young people can no longer be what they should be and have always been, i.e., the source of daring, change, and innovation. Too much is at stake. Instead they are forced to step carefully, all the while watching every single step lest it turn into a misstep. The outcome, to use the title of one 2014 bestseller, is “excellent sheep.”
Youngsters of both sexes, each for their own reasons, timidly follow the paths their elders have prescribed for them. Asked to give their reasons, they say that their actions are controlled by outside forces rather than by themselves. Typically, their response to whatever adults say is “whatever.” So much so that, in both the US and Britain, there now exist a whole series of educational programs with the word “whatever” in their titles.
This disease is not just limited to the raising of children, but extends all the way up to the top leadership of Western societies. In Chapter 3, he notes that “Prohibit and Censor” has now become the reflex reaction to anything that the modern Western leadership cannot handle.
Van Creveld goes on to describe the whole litany of sins against modern masculinity and martial virtue, sins that readers of my own books Thirty-Seven (2014) and Pantheon (2015) will be all-too familiar with: the neglect of struggle as a formative virtue, the glorification of “girl-power” absurdities, the decline of the traditional educational system, and the rotting out of the military with political correctness campaigns. There is even a chapter here called “The War On Men”: and the title alone tells us all we need to know.
Because the current system of ethics and anti-masculine values is fundamentally contrary to historical fact, the leadership of the West can only resort to censorship and Orwellian doublespeak keep everyone in line:
The situation in real life is less comforting. To avoid trouble men, military men more than most, are expected to believe—or at least to conceal their disbelief in—two contradictory things. The first is that military women can serve and fight just as well as men can and that they therefore deserve the kind of equality they and their supporters are demanding. The second is that, being equal, they do not enjoy privileges of any sort. Precisely the kind of thing George Orwell in 1984 called “doublethink,” involving the ability “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”
As in 1984, the most important device the military and their political masters use to enforce doublethink is censorship. Censorship may be active, in the sense that discussion is prohibited. Or else it is passive, in that data is not gathered or not made available to the public. As a result, except for anecdotes on the Internet—many of them posted by servicemen, or ex-servicemen, or people claiming to be such—information that might cast doubt on servicewomen’s actual performance is hard, often impossible, to obtain.
Inevitably, he arrives at the penultimate question, discussed so often here at Fortress of the Mind:
Other things equal, the more feminized the forces the more serious the problems. This includes the loss of prestige which, as quite some female scholars have noted, any field, profession, or organization with too many women in it will suffer in the eyes of men and, perhaps even more so, women. With the loss of prestige comes reduced financial rewards and a diminished ability to attract first-class personnel. The outcome is to bring into being a vicious cycle such as is known in many civilian fields as well.
Some hope that the day will come when all armed forces are so feminized as to make fighting and war themselves impossible. The emphasis would have to be on “all.” Or else surely, predominantly male armies will pass through predominantly female ones as red-hot pokers pass through pastry. That day, however, is still very far off if it will ever come at all. Meanwhile, can anybody say why men should be willing to put their lives on the line on behalf of societies that insist on humiliating them in this way? [emphasis mine]
Perhaps the bravest–and surely the most controversial–part of the book is the discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among military men. In fact, I would say that these sections of the book are its greatest achievement. The mythologizing of PTSD has gone on far too long, and it was refreshing to see someone finally slay this dragon. Van Creveld does not deny its existence, of course. But he does (quite rightly) object to its elevation to the status of virtue. This is a distinction that his detractors will surely miss, but which I want to make very clear.
Like Dr. van Creveld, I have long suspected that many, if not most, of the modern PTSD cases are examples of “confirmation bias”: we expect to see it, so we see it everywhere. The popular culture enshrines complaining, emoting, and distaste for struggle, and this ethic ties in very well with the glorification of PTSD.
All in all, it is a dark picture that emerges, but one that is not unfamiliar. What, then, is to be done? Is the decline irreversible? Dr. van Creveld does not abandon us to despair, thankfully. He notes that (1) we must stop coddling the young; (2) traditional, rough masculinity will need to be appreciated; (3) the complete integration of women in the military must be reconsidered; (4) the current views on PTSD must be reevaluated; and (5) there must be less emphasis on privilege and rights, and more emphasis on duty.
What are we to make of this dark prognosis? Is it accurate? The short answer is yes, it is entirely accurate. But we must also be mindful of some qualifications. Weakness and degeneracy has thrived in every age. The Roman historian Tacitus praised the barbarism of the Germans as a way of indirectly criticizing the depravity of his own effete comrades.
Sin has flourished in every time and place. What were once virtues have often become vices, and vice-versa, since moral codes have had to adapt themselves to changing historical circumstances. The traits that made for success in man’s pre-agricultural stage (selfishness, hoarding, greed, violence) were not those that made for success when man came to settle in permanent habitations, where cooperation and civility were of greater utility.
As historian Will Durant has said (writing in the early 1970s), “So we cannot be sure that the moral laxity of our times is a herald of decay rather than a painful or delightful transition between a moral code that has lost is agricultural basis and another that our industrial civilization has yet to forge into social order and normality.” (I am not sure I agree with Durant on this point entirely: the short-term matters too, and when morals rot, societies suffer grievous reverses.)
And it is also true that, even if the West is mired in weakness, we must remember that with the onset of war, things can change very quickly. Good men rise up from the ranks to meet the challenges of the hour. In peacetime, they are invisible, as was Ulysses S. Grant in the 1850s, eking out a miserable living selling firewood in the American Midwest. With the onset of civil war in America, he became a changed man.
Dr. van Creveld’s book is a great one, and one that deserves to be discussed widely. It will no doubt be condemned by many. Prophets are rarely popular in peacetime. I remember in the early 1990s, Marine Corps Commandant Carl Mundy proposed to make the US Marine Corps an organization of entirely single men. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anything like that happening today. He was forced to backtrack on the idea immediately, but the idea actually is a sound one.
We should also recall the fate of William “Billy” Mitchell, who prophesied the obsolescence of the battleship with the advent of modern air power. To prove his point, he showed how quickly a coordinated air attack could sink a flotilla of battleships in the 1930s. As thanks for his contributions, he was ridiculed, court-martialed for insubordination, and run out of the service.
And going back even further, we may recall the legend of Laocoön from the Trojan War. He tried to warn his countrymen of the danger of importing the Greeks’ wooden horse into Troy. We may recall the brilliant lines of Virgil (Aen. II.48):
Equo ne credite, Teucri,
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes,
Which means, “Don’t trust the horse, Trojans; whatever it is, I fear Greeks bearing gifts.” For his trouble in trying to warn his people, the angry gods sent terrible venomous snakes to dispose of Laocoön and his sons. Such is the allegorical fate of prophets.
We may expect Dr. van Creveld’s book to be attacked by the usual combination of vested political interests, narrow-minded fools, and those without any sense of historical perspective. And yet it should be studied and pondered by anyone who cares about the origins of the West’s moral malaise. I have long subscribed to the thesis of the book, and have done everything I can, through my books and writings, to restore the old virtues to modern men, and to exalt the glories of ages past.
Individual action on our part can stem the tide, but time may be running short. Weakness invites conquest: there is no surer lesson in history. And history also suggests that societies rarely reform themselves without the incentive of a major catastrophe to force the issue.