“Some truths are so obvious that to mention them in polite company seems either pointless or rude. What is left unstated, however, can with time be forgotten. Both of these observations apply today to the American way of war. It is obvious that a military can only fight well on behalf of a society in which it believes, and that a society which believes little is worth fighting for cannot, in the end, field an effective military. Obvious as this is, we seem to have forgotten it.

“Remembering will help us in several ways. First, it will show us that the greatest asymmetry in our struggle with radical Islam is not one of arms or organization or even of ideology in any simple sense, but one of morale in the deepest sense.”

That is how a distressing piece by Robert Kaplan begins. Kaplan has spent a lot of time with soldiers in the last few years, and doing so made him understand Clausewitz and Sun-Tzu, the world’s most famous theoreticians of war, much better:

“If a glimpse of the future is possible, it must come from an intimacy with the present clarified by the great works of the past. For over four years now I have been traveling much of the world in the company of U.S. soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen. Upon a halt in my travels, I re-read both The Art of War by the 6th-century BCE Chinese court minister Sun-Tzu and On War by the early 19th-century Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz. What struck me straight away, thanks to my recent travels-in-arms, was not what either author said, but what both assumed. Both Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz believe-in their states, their sovereigns, their homelands. Because they believe, they are willing to fight. This is so clear that they never need to state it, and they never do.

“What is obvious, however, is left unstated not because it is insignificant, but because it is too significant: War is a fact of the human social condition neither man wishes were so. Sun-Tzu, concerned with war on the highest strategic level, affirms that the greatest warrior is one who calculates so well that he never needs to fight. Clausewitz, interested more in the operational level, allows that war takes precedence only after other forms of politics have failed. Both oppose militarism, but accept the reality of war, and from that acceptance reason that any policy lacking martial vigor-any policy that fails to communicate a warrior spirit-only makes war more likely. That is why Sun-Tzu only respects a leader who plans and calculates like a hungry man’, who sanctions every manner of deceit provided it is necessary to gain strategic advantage, who is never swayed by public opinion, and ‘who advances without any thought of winning personal fame and withdraws in spite of certain punishment’ if he judges it to be in the interest of his army and his state.”

Our enemies, whose actions are reported by a largely belief-less media, do, in fact believe in something:

“The suicide bomber is the distilled essence of jihad, the result of an age when the electronic media provides an unprecedented platform for exhibitionism. Clausewitz’s rules of war do not apply here, for he could not have conceived of the modern media, whose members tend to be as avowedly secular as suicide bombers are devout. Without any evident stabilizing belief system, the global media’s spiritual void has been partially filled by a resentment against the United States-the embodiment of unruly modernization and raw political and military power that the global citizens of the media detest. And so it is that the video camera-‘that insatiable accomplice of the terrorist’, in Peters’ words-becomes the ‘cheap negation’ of American military technology.”

Kaplan includes this quote from Clausewitz:

“In affairs so dangerous as war, false ideas proceeding from kindness of heart are precisely the worst. . . . The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.”

I can glean some questions for the long presidential debate before us from Kaplan’s article.