The Magazine

Americans Under Fire

Three accounts of fighting the war on terror.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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All of these books illustrate the critical importance of unit cohesion in combat. During the "happy times" of the 1990s, academic experts assured us that cohesion was overrated, that technology had changed the nature of war by eliminating friction and the "fog of uncertainty," and that henceforth conflicts would be fought from 15,000 feet with precision weapons. Accordingly, they told us, cohesion should never be used as an excuse to prevent social engineering--such as the integration of women in combat. We haven't heard much about that in a while, and these books explain why.

Moment of Truth in Iraq, House to House, and Hard Corps confirm the research on men in battle that has shown unit cohesion to be a necessary element of battlefield success. Cohesion in combat is far more than mere teamwork: Cohesion arises from the bond among disparate individuals who have nothing in common but facing death and misery together. This bond is akin to what the Greeks called philia--friendship, comradeship, brotherly love. Philia has been well described by J. Glenn Gray in his discussion of unit cohesion in The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle:

Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale. The commander who can preserve and strengthen it knows that all other physical and psychological factors are little in comparison. The feeling of loyalty, it is clear, is the result not the cause of comradeship. Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons.

By describing the horror and carnage of real war, House to House and Hard Corps drive these observations home in a powerful way. And in light of the New York Times's story about homicidal vets, it is interesting to note that had Marco Martinez not become a Marine, it is very likely that he would be in prison now, possibly for homicide. But since he wouldn't have been a veteran, he would not have qualified for the Times's narrative.

Some will find the detailed descriptions in these books troubling. All describe men at war killing other men. But as George Orwell once observed, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." These books also remind us that a liberal democracy faces a dilemma when it comes to the relationship between the military and society at large: The military cannot govern itself in accordance with the liberal principles that it ultimately defends. It must be governed by virtues that many civilians see as brutal, and even barbaric, because the military is one of the few jobs where you may have to tell someone: "Go die." If we cannot count on members of the military to prepare for such an eventuality, the military will fail, and if it does fail, the liberal society it protects may not survive.

We should be thankful for David Bellavia and Marco Martinez and countless others who have been willing to lay a "costly .  .  . sacrifice upon the altar of freedom." And we should thank Michael Yon for helping to tell their story.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military
relations.