30 October, 2015

Wanted: A Stupid-Proof Strategy For America

"Hadrian's wall at Greenhead Lough" by Velella,
Image Source: 
In a recent War on the Rocks piece Iskander Rehman argues that the United States should not favor a foreign policy of retrenchment because United States policy makers are simply too daft and out of touch with the world to play the part of a modern day Castlereigh:
An increasing number of U.S. thinkers and academics have argued in favor of a similar policy of masterly inactivity — alternatively labeled retrenchmentrestraint, or offshore balancing. Drawing attention to the United States’ privileged geographical position and rapid move toward energy independence, they have, to some extent, re-appropriated a distinctly American notion of “free security” that goes back to the early days of the Republic and corresponds to what the late political scientist Stanley Hoffman once referred to as America’s“quietist” tradition. According to these thinkers, the United States should extricate itself from the suppurating wound that is the Middle East, revise or abrogate most of its alliance commitments, and adopt a less forward-leaning military posture.

There are many problems with this approach. They range from the historically flawed notion of “free security,” to the operational challenges associated with attempting to project military force into a geographically distant area without the logistical benefits of local basing structures. Perhaps one of the most structural limitations to offshore balancing, however, is contained in its very designation. Indeed, the very notion that American bureaucrats, from their windowless offices in Washington, could act as modern-day Richelieus or Castlereaghs, predicting and fine-tuning regional configurations of power, while engaging in deft over-the-horizon balancing acts, seems both anachronistic and unrealistic. [1]
Rehman has outlined one of the central problems of  policy punditry in 21st century America. It doesn't pass the StupidProof (TM) test.

Strategists and analysts often wish American policies were grounded in a sophisticated strategic vision implemented by a cadre of disinterested statesmen who have a nuanced understanding of the world and its doings. This is a fantasy. America is a democracy. Its statesmen must justify their actions to the masses on a set electoral time table. Top level bureaucrats are mostly chosen for partisan reasons. Important foreign policy decisions usually have more to do with value signalling on the domestic stage than a sober assessment of American interests on the international one. Leaders in both the executive and the legislative branches surround themselves with aids and hanger-ons with no special expertise or experience in foreign affairs. For basic economic reasons (which I have explained before), few Americans learn foreign languages. The American media do not care very much about foreign affairs, and the issues they do care about are given attention disproportionate to their import. These journalists, like almost all Americans, are appallingly ignorant of the history, religious traditions, and cultural quirks of foreign peoples. Policy must be filtered through layers of unresponsive bureaucracy, and the various agencies that implement these policies are poorly coordinated. To top if off, senior policy officials do not read books.

To these enduring elements of American politics we must add the distinctive features of the present moment: a divided, hyper-partisan federal government so severely gridlocked that long term planning is not possible; falling budgets that sharply constrain American activity abroad; and a wild upsurge in populist fervor that focuses political attention inward and demands simplicity from all candidates who wish to win over the masses.

We may lament these realities, but they are realities. They will not change in the short-term. Some may never change at all. Any successful strategy for America must be a strategy that can be created, sustained, and implemented in this system. No foreign policy too nuanced to be shouted by Donald Trump on the campaign trail or too complex to survive intact as it is passed from one layer of bureaucracy to another can succeed here. Any strategy dependent upon wise and measured leadership at the top or a committee of genius forecasters and planners directing policy from the middle will fail. In short, American policy must be StupidProof. If it cannot be implemented by the inept and uninformed, then it will not be implemented at all.

However, after stating the problem so wonderfully Rehman suggests a curious solution. He argues that because we Americans are too isolated, uneducated, and myopic to successfully retrench, America must be "deeply engaged and invested in key regions" across the globe. He explains things this way:

The walls of Ancient Rome and Imperial China may seem alluring metaphors to those weary of U.S. involvement in a Middle East wracked with horrendous violence and sectarian conflict. These same thinkers may also find themselves nodding their heads in approval at the Raj-era articulation of masterly inactivity, wondering whether it might not be wiser for Washington to let China continue to alienate its Asian neighbors through its own obduracy without instructing U.S. forces to engage in risk-laden acts of forward presence, such as freedom of navigation patrols. However, the historical record shows that the reality of great power rule has always been more complex. The Roman frontier was never rigid and absolute. As classical historians have noted, Roman security was highly contingent on the shrewd management of tribal peoples well beyond regularly patrolled areas. The Teutoburg massacre was partially the result of a case of a “green on blue” incident with a local proxy ruler, Arminius, who decided to turn his weapons on his imperial patrons. In many other cases, however, deeply embedded Roman political agents proved remarkably adept at utilizing, or allying with, Gallic and Germanic tribes to further their own imperial ends and better shield territories under Roman rule. In Imperial China, dynasties proved most successful when they engaged with the peoples of the steppe, and used their vast walled structures as launching pads into Mongolia and Central Asia rather than as static fortifications....
In short, great power security has never been coterminous with retrenchment, and the preservation of primacy is closely linked to deep engagement, rapidly deployable military presence, and a profound knowledge of local conditions. Even if the United States did decide to adopt a less forward-leaning posture, it appears poorly equipped to offshore balance, or successfully micro-manage regional actors from afar. As my colleague Tom Wright has observed, we now live in a post-imperial era. The United States leads an order in which it enjoys a “privileged position, but it does so only because the vast majority of states want it to be that way.” Unlike the Colonial Empires in the 19th century, the United States “cannot just sit down with its competitors and rewrite the futures of independent countries and their populations.” And even if it could, it is debatable whether a freshly retrenched America would possess enough regional acumen to conduct well-qualified judgments, or to accurately predict regional convulsions and realignments. The recent track record in this regard is pretty poor, whether it comes to failing to predict system-shattering events such as the Arab Spring or misjudgingthe extent and pace of revisionist actors’ actions, whether in the South China Sea, Eastern Ukraine, or Syria. These prediction errors can be attributed to intelligence failures, but also point to a wider problem: the surprising inability of one of the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries to understand foreign motives and behavior. [2]
This misreads both the history of imperial Rome and that of imperial China.

The Romans had nothing close to the "area experts" of today. Indeed, they had precious few experts at all. During the Principate the empire's primary decision makers were the emperor and his personal entourage (the amici principis or "friends of the princeps"), the governors and their personal staff, and the commanders of legionary forces. Most often these commanders would be the governors themselves, though sometimes they would be men specially appointed for particular campaigns, like Germanicus and Corbulo, and in rare crises the commanders of individual legions (legati legioninis) would be forced to make important decisions of state. None of these men received any special training in foreign languages, cultures, diplomacy, or statecraft before attaining high rank. Men were more likely to be chosen for their social status than proven experience or familiarity with the region they were assigned to govern.  The education of these officials was in literature, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, and their ability to govern was often judged on their literary merits. The historian Susan Mattern discusses one example of this in her masterful study of Roman strategy, Rome and the Enemy. The key passage comes from Tacitus, who reports that the Emperor Nero was better placed to deal with Parthian shenanigans in Armenia than Cladius, for he was advised by Burrus and Seneca, "men known for their expertise in such matters" (Annals 13.6). Mattern writes:

The historian assumes that the decision about Armenia will be made personally by the emperor in close consultation with his advisers. The character and social position of these advisers is important to him: Claudius is reviled for consulting freedmen, and the idea that a woman, Nero's mother, might have some influence here is repellant. It is especially interesting to note that Seneca took part in this and presumably other important foreign affairs decisions, because a large body of his work survives and can be examined. It is also interesting that Tacitus describe Seneca and Burris as exceptionally qualified to advise me road in this case, though it is probable that neither have substantial military experience or specialized knowledge about Armenia or Parthia. [3]
Sextus Afrianus Burrus' military experience before his elevation to Praetorian Prefect was limited to one term as military tribune. He was born in the heartland of the empire, and there is little evidence to suggest he spent substantial time outside of it. Lucius Anneas Seneca was Nero's childhood tutor before he was his adviser. Then, as now, his reputation chiefly lay on the strength of his work as a dramatist and moral philosopher. These were entirely typical backgrounds for powerful Roman officials. As Mattern demonstrates with dozens of other examples, this was true both for those who governed from Rome and for those sent out to the provinces.  In her words, "Social rank, literary accomplishment, and loyalty emerged as three critical factors in a choice of Rome's most powerful officials." [4] Regional expertise and strategic acumen were not part of the job description.

We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, to find that the Romans had a terrible understanding of the geography, culture, and political structures of the foreign lands on their borders. Roman armies rarely knew anything about the geography they campaigned in until their soldiers tramped across it. Even border areas under the empire's control for centuries were described in grossly inaccurate terms by Roman geographers, and these gaps in knowledge occasionally had dire strategic consequences for Roman campaign forces. [5] Romans had trouble distinguishing cultural and linguistic groups from political units, and struggled to understand the cultural traditions of ethnic groups, like the Jews, who had long been a part of the empire. What Romans understood about the people on their frontiers had much more to do with rhetorical conventions and artistic stereotypes handed down to them from the classical literary tradition than from actual observation of barbarian ways. [6]

This had significant strategic implications. Between the conquest of Dalmatia in the early days of the Principate and the arrival of the Huns in the days of Late Antiquity, it is difficult to find an enemy on Rome's northern borders that was not created by Rome itself. Rehman has already noted that the greatest defeat of the Principate, that of Teutoburg Forest, was the work of man in Rome's employ. Teutoburg is but one point in a pattern that repeated for centuries. Most Germanic barbarian groups did not live in oppida, as the Celts did, and had little political hierarchy to speak of. When Romans selected local leaders to negotiate with, favor with trade or other boons, and use as auxiliary allies in war they were transforming petty chiefs into kings. Roman diplomatic norms, combined with unrelenting Roman military pressure, created the very military threats they were hoping to forestall. [7]

A very similar story can be told about Imperial China's forays onto the steppe. One of the frustrating things about the English-language historiography on Sino-steppe relations are the many attempts to pigeon hole Chinese strategy into narrow binaries: trade vs. war, engagement vs. retrenchment, and so forth. [8]  A close examination of the individual conflicts between Chinese dynasties and nomadic empires expose these descriptions as too narrow. Any given dynasty had half a dozen different responses to the nomadic threat it faced, and each statesmen added a unique flair to his own solution. Some dynasties opted for wars of extermination, others for strong defensive perimeters and buffer polities that allowed little contact between the world of steppe and sown, some tried to co-opt tribal leadership through subsidies and marriage alliance, while yet others tried to pacify the nomads by building strong networks of trade and tribute. One common response was to "use barbarians to fight barbarians" (yi yi zhi yi 以夷治夷) -- in essence, to subsidize and favor one group of nomads over other, stronger groups who posed a more direct threat to Chinese interests. Absent outright conquest, this was as "engaged" as the Chinese could get on the steppe. It was a risky strategy. Occasionally it went horribly awry, as when the Jurchens, initially supported by the Song Dynasty to place pressure on their enemies, the Liao, conquered not only the the Song's enemies, but half of the Song's territory as well! This "Humiliation of Jingkang" was one of the greatest military disasters of Chinese history. The story would repeat itself a century later when the Jurchen's own dynasty, the Jin, backed a young warlord named Temujin as their man on the steppe. After he defeated his enemies there Temujin would be crowned as Chinggis Khan. [9]

The lesson Rehman seeks is hard to find in these histories. The most obvious conclusion is the opposite of his: unipolar powers have never been able to deftly intervene in the affairs of others. When all roads lead to Rome, no Roman learns barbarian. Rome succeeded despite of its continual interventions in barbaricum, not because of them. The story in imperial China is quite similar, and success there--where military parity between the barbarians and the forces of civilization was usually much closer than in Rome--is much harder to find. Its notable that the only dynasty that managed to fully nullify the barbarian threat was a dynasty that began as a group of barbarians itself. Long before the Manchus conquered China they began to form marriages alliances with Mongolia's noble houses and incorporate Mongol units into its armed forces. Steppe politics was built into the Qing's DNA, and they played the game masterfully. [10] Ethnic Chinese dynasties had a much tougher job coming to terms with their enemies on the steppe.

But we don't need to turn to ancient geopolitics to see how poorly unipolar powers fail to manage the intricacies of the world around them.  Rehman wonders if  "a freshly retrenched America would possess enough regional acumen to conduct well-qualified judgments, or to accurately predict regional convulsions and realignments." But as Rehman has already chronicled, America does not possess these wonderful things already.  America doesn't need retrenchment to lack "regional acumen" and the ability to "accurately predict regional convulsions."  The United States has spent the last seven decades actively engaged in all corners of the earth, and it still lacks the kind of human capital Rehamn argues for. Whether America is retrenched or whether its influence is felt in every crisis to convulse the globe is immaterial.  Americans just don't do regional acumen. If Rehman's preferred foreign policy requires them to, then it will never be implemented.

Thus you can see the weakness inherit in Rehman's conclusion:

A regional competitor’s home court advantage does not only apply to the density of its localized military systems or to the advantages provided by its interior lines of communication. It also extends to less tangible aspects of great power competition such as knowledge of the socio-cultural terrain, networks of human contacts, and access to effective proxies that can advance the regional state’s interests. If the United States wishes to preserve its positional status as the world’s leading power, it needs to remain deeply engaged and invested in key regions such as Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East, however tempting it may sometimes seem to do otherwise. As the former Secretary of State George Schultz has noted, diplomacy, like gardening, requires sustained, patient efforts, in order to bear fruit. One might also add that effective statecraft, like good wine, requires a knowledge of what the French call “terroir”— a deep grasp of the region’s climate, terrain, and local conditions. That’s not something you can do from an office thousands of miles away. [11]
The United States of America has been more intimately involved in the far-flung regions of the Earth this century than it has in any other. But our record is dismal. Despite spending 14 years in Afghanistan, we still don't recognize who our real enemy in South Asia is. We have deeply involved ourselves in the politics of the Near East for the last decade but have been blindsided by the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and still cannot explain the success of ISIS. An entire generation of Kremlinologists graduated from American universities in the waning days of the Cold War, but we find ourselves unprepared and surprised by Russian moves in Ukraine and now the Middle East. Japan has been the bed rock of the U.S. alliance system in Europe for six decades, but we still don't understand it's strategic priorities. The list could go on. Like many things prized by the French, terroir is something Americans never will value. Rehman calls for a sensitive foreign policy of implemented by regional experts with proven acumen. What we need is a foreign policy that can be understood by any big-dollar donor--and if they pay enough, implemented by them too.

In short, we need a foreign policy that is StupidProof.


[1] Iskander Rehman, "Remote Control Statecraft: The Limits of Offshore Balancing," War on the Rocks (29 October 2015).

[2] Ibid

[3] Susan P. Mattern, Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate (Berkely: University of California Press, 1999), p. 7.

[4] Ibid, 21. For Roman ideas of education and generaliship, see Brian Campbell, "Teach Yourself How to Be a General," The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 77 (1987), pp. 13-29.

[5] For example, Trajan's campaigns in Dacia, which created the strategically vulnerable proruption of Dacia Triana, were likely founded on the common belief that the ocean was only 396 miles North of the Danube river. For Roman geographic generally, see Mattern, Rome and the Enemy, pp. 24-66;  for Dacia, ibid, 61.

[6] On stereotypes see Thomas Burns, Rome and the Barbarians: 100 BC-AD 400 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003), 22-24, 94, 137; Mattern, Rome and the Enemy, 67-80; on conflation of culture and political units, Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, passim; one particularly clear example of flawed Roman ethnography is Tacitus's account of the Jews in Histories 5.2-5, the flaws of which are easy to see as significant Jewish sources have survived to provide inside accounts of Jewish life and customs.

[7] Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, passim; Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 452-459

[8] For example, see Sechen Jachid and V. J. Symons War and Peace along the Great Wall (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989); Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC-1757 AD.

[9] The most accessible English language history of Humiliation of Jingkang is found in Frederick Mote, Imperial China 900-1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), ch. 11.

 On the Jin's support of Temujin, see Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, trans. Thomas Haining (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 49-54; Thomas Allsen, "The rise of the Mongolian empire and Mongolian rule in north China." in Cambridge History of China: Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 710–1368 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 344.

[10] Nicola Di Cosmo, "The Rise of Manchu Power in Northeast Asia," lecture at U.C. Berkeley (Berkely, California), 28 June 2013; "From Alliance to Tutelage: A Historical Analysis of Manchu-Mongol Relations before the Qing Conquest," Frontiers in Historical China, Vol 7, iss 2 (2012), 175–197; Peter Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005), pp. 109-127.

[1] Rehman, "Remote Control Statecraft"

27 October, 2015

A Few More Thoughts on the Terrors of Pre-Modern Battle

Image Source.

Yesterday's post, "Pre-Modern Battlefields Were Absolutely Terrifying," has proven immensely popular. The sheer number of responses to it on social media, web forums, and other websites has been a bit overwhelming. My favorite of these was written by Lynn Rees, co-blogger over at Zenpundit. In a personal message to me he describes how Philip Sabin's "pulse and terror" model of warfare fits well with what we know about the Battle of Hastings. He has allowed me to publish it here:
Accounts of Hastings make the plausibility of frequent pauses in combat more explicit.

The English held the hill crest. The Normans picked at the English line but were repeatedly repulsed. This went on for most of the day. If the Norman infantry had
been in continuous contact with the English shield wall all day, they would have been banging against the a thick shield wall while facing uphill while the English could pushing downhill with their spears and gravity on their side.


in line with the thesis proposed, the turning points at Hastings seem to have been overenthusiastic fyrdmen breaking line to chase down fleeing Bretons, Once in the open, they were chased down by Norman cavalry. Then, once Norman archers found their range, the huscarl core of the English army behind the shield wall was thinned from above. As the English line buckled, the route became so general that a significant percent of the English aristocracy died, leaving the English establishment to collapse almost as completely.

Even at Cannae, with 20,000 to 50,000 Romans supposedly trapped in a killbox, would have seen frequent pauses. The physical effort of killing that many armored men, even and especially if they were packed like sardines, would have tired out even men whose sole task was killing nearly defenseless men.

The task might have been easier if Hannibal left an escape route open so Roman soldiers would split into small isolated clumps of broken men, every man for himself, that his cavalry could run down. Something of the sort may have happened though there's little hint of it in the historical record.

Many others who read the post have questioned whether it is appropriate to use a video of one on one sparring competition to illustrate a point about the nature of  pre-modern group tactics. It wasn't my intention to argue that the type of close quarter combat shown in the footage mirrored the dynamics of a legionary formation at war (though looking back I can see that my language was ambiguous enough to allow this interpretation). I find video footage of modern sparring useful for two other reasons.

The first is that it immediately debunks the way battles are portrayed in most popular sources. In this "Hollywood style" of battle, once the two sides meet they tend to get mixed in with each other, devolving into a series of one-on-one exchanges. Fighting in this fashion the hero will then mow his way through dozens of opponents. As the sparring footage shows, this image of ancient warfare is nonsensical. Most close quarter combat exchanges last only a few seconds.  It is very easy to die in such an exchange. Survival turns on a few split second decisions, and if these decisions had to be continually made (as would be the case in the Hollywood style of battle) the warrior in question would die sooner than later, even if he was a far better fighter than average. Fighting this way is suicidal. No army could tolerate doing it.

Most of us live peaceful lives far removed from war and its horrors. One consequence of this that we sometimes forget how easy it is to die. Sparring footage reminds of us this reality in a very visceral way. This is the second reason I find it useful. It reminds us of things no soldier in the pre-modern world would have forgotten. They knew that close quarters combat was a terrifying experience. I would argue that the central purpose of fighting in formation was to make warfare tolerable. One-on-one combat does not tell us much about what group tactics looks like, but it tells us a great deal about why mass infantry tactics were necessary. The purpose of a unit like the maniple was to ensure that its members never had to face the terrible odds of the duel. And to this end it was largely successful. Sabin notes that the victors of Roman battles rarely lost more than 5% of its manpower during any given battle. When pre-modern infantry formations stood strong they were very effective at keeping the men fighting safe. It is only when discipline broke and the rout began that one side was able to inflict death on the other.

25 October, 2015

Pre-Modern Battlefields Were Absolutely Terrifying

Image Source.

"Man does not enter battle to fight, but for victory. He does everything that he can to avoid the first and obtain the second"

--Ardant du Picq, Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle, trans. John Greely and Robert Cotton (or. pub. Paris, 1870; trans. edition, New York, 1921), pg. 1.

Of the many books and articles published explaining the tactical mechanics of ancient and medieval warfare, none have influenced my views on the topic more than a short article by Philip Sabin titled "The Face of Roman Battle." In this article Sabin attempts to draw an accurate description of the way a Roman legion and its maniples actually worked on the battlefield. He is not the only one to attempt this feat. The clearest description of the pre-Marian armies is the account found in the eighteenth book of Polybius's Histories, and historians have been squabbling over just what Polybius's rather ambiguous report means for the better part of the last two centuries. I believe that Sabin's is the best of their efforts. What makes his description so convincing is the building blocks he uses to construct it. Sabin starts his reconstruction with a few general insights about the nature of ancient combat, especially the hand-to-hand sort. His most important insight is this: close combat is absolutely terrifying. When you realize just how terrifying it is much of what we find in the ancient and medieval source starts to make a lot more sense.

Sabin's case study is the Roman legion. In his essay's first section Sabin surveys common features of battle narratives preserved in the extant histories and concludes that any description of Roman battle mechanics must be able to explain a few odd features of these accounts to be considered legitimate:
Roman heavy infantry engagements possessed several clear characteristics which must be accounted for by any model of the combat mechanics involved. If not decided at the first clash, the contests often dragged on for an hour or more before one side finally broke and fled. The losers could suffer appalling casualties in the battle itself or in the ensuing pursuit, but the victors rarely suffered more than 5 per cent fatalities even in drawn-out engagements. The fighting lines could shift back and forth over hundreds of yards as one side withdrew or was pushed back by its opponents. Finally, the Romans had a practical system for the passage of lines, and preferred to reinforce or replace tired units with fresh ones rather than maximizing the depth of the initial fighting line. [1]
As Sabin read the ancient accounts he realized that parallels for many features of Roman combat could be found in descriptions of early modern Europe's bayonet charge:
We know from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century engagements that bayonets caused only a tiny proportion of battle casualties, but bayonet charges do seem to have been decisive in triggering routs. The explanation for this apparent paradox seems to be that cold steel held a unique terror for troops, over and above that caused by the more random and impersonal perils of shot and shell. The morale of opposed infantry formations appears to have been closely interlinked, such that if one side could nerve itself to launch a bayonet charge in the conviction that the enemy would not stand, the enemy did indeed break before contact. Conversely, if mutual deterrence was maintained, then the combat could bog down into a bloody close-range firefight between the opposing lines, often lasting for hours....

There are striking parallels between the psychological role of bayonet charges in modern warfare and the way in which many ancient combats were decided at or before the first shock, with a charge by one side prompting its enemies to take flight at once. Hoplite engagements seem to have been particularly susceptible to such an early resolution, sometimes even producing 'tearless battles' when one side fled so soon that it outdistanced any pursuit. Goldsworthy claims that late Republican and early Imperial legionaries exploited their professionalism and esprit de corps by winning similar swift victories against less resolute opponents through a coordinated volley of pila followed by a fierce charge. This chimes exactly with Paddy Griffith's argument that the disciplined British infantry of the Napoleonic Wars beat the French not through winning prolonged firefights but through a single devastating musket volley followed by a charge with the bayonet. [2]
Why was cold steel a "unique terror" for troops in combat? On the face of it a sword does not seem any more frightening than the cannon-ball. Pop culture portrayals of small imperialist forces putting hordes of backward natives to flight with nothing but gun and powder suggest the opposite conclusion. Images of countless thousands led to the slaughter on the banks of the Somme or hills of Verdun only strengthen the impression. But those men who actually withstood both the bullet and the bayonet overwhelmingly preferred to face the former. A similar preference for arrows and cross-bows shot from afar over spear thrusts and sword strokes closer to home pervades the ancient and medieval sources.

To understand why this was so you must discard Hollywood notions of close combat. This is hard to do, for the notions are much older than Hollywood. The classical Chinese novels Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms speak of warriors who exchange five, ten, twenty, and even fifty "rounds" or "clashes" on the battlefield. The long duels of ancient India's great war epic, the Mahabharata, are matched only by the extended contests of its Greek counterpart, the Iliad. All of it is poppycock. Ancient battles did not descend into a series of extended melees when the two front lines collided. The silliness of the Hollywood style of battle becomes immediately apparent when you watch sparring competitions that use pre-modern weapons:

As you can see, most close quarter engagements are decided within seconds. To engage in hand to hand combat is to hang your life on a the balance of a few split second decisions. This is terrifying. It is all the more terrifying if the enemy force is as committed and disciplined as your own.  If you survive the first encounter--that is, if you successfully kill the first man who attempts to kill you--there will be another, and then yet another to fill in his place. How long can you keep making instant life-or-death decisions before you make a mistake? The odds are not in your favor. The physical and mental strain of close quarters combat on those in the front lines is simply more than can be borne for any great stretch of time. 

Sabin explains why this is important:
What does all this mean for the many cases in Roman infantry battles where neither side broke at the outset, and the combat turned into a prolonged affair? I suggest that close-range sword dueling between steady bodies of infantry must have been a highly unstable state, and one that would require massive injections of physical and psychological energy either to initiate or to sustain for any length of time. It was clearly only the availability of protective armor and shields that made such duels endurable at all, given their apparent intolerability for the unprotected troops of more modern times. I would argue that there must also have been a more physically and psychologically sustainable 'default state' within protracted Roman infantry contests, into which the combatants would naturally relapse if the initial advances by either side failed to trigger an early rout.

We can see such 'default states' in a wide variety of other forms of human combat. Anthropological observations of primitive tribes confirm the image in heroic poetry of protracted stand-offs in which individual warriors would move forward to do battle and then retreat into the safety of the supporting mass. Even when lethal weapons are not involved, we can see similar stand-offs between rioting mobs and lines of police, or at an individual level between dueling boxers, who spend much more time circling each other warily and looking for an opening than they do in the actual flurries of blow and counter-blow. I suggest that the default state in protracted Roman infantry combats would have been similar to that between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century infantry, namely a small separation of the two lines so that they could exchange insults and missile fire but were not quite close enough for hand-to-hand dueling. If such a default state existed in Roman infantry clashes, this raises the question of the frequency and duration of actual sword fighting between the opposing lines. Could troops who had closed for such sword play disengage without routing, and re-establish the 'safety distance'? How long a period of sword fighting was physically and psychologically sustainable before the tension had to be broken either by a reversion to the default stand-off or by the flight of one side? What proportion of the overall length of infantry clashes was spent in sword dueling, and what proportion in sporadic missile exchanges from a short distance away? [3]
Sabin does not believe that "pure missile duel" style of battle, decided by one great final charge at its end, accords with the surviving narrative sources:
 Such a radical image seems to me incompatible with the many references in the literature to true hand-to-hand fighting, and it makes it difficult to explain how one side could 'push back' its adversaries during the course of the contest. Hence, unlike in the stalemated firefights of more recent times, I believe that in most Roman battles the lines did sporadically come into contact, as one side or the other surged forward for a brief and localized flurry of hand-to-hand combat. The flurry of combat would end when one side got the worst of the exchange, and its troops would step back to re-impose the 'safety distance' while brandishing their weapons to deter immediate enemy pursuit....

The model of Roman infantry combat as a dynamic balance of mutual dread fits the overall characteristics of the phenomenon far better than do the alternative images of a protracted othismos [i.e. a group of massed infantry pressing each forward, hopolite style] or continuous sword dueling. It helps to explain why some clashes were decided at the first onset while others dragged on for hours. It accounts for the relatively low casualties suffered by the victorious army, since periods of close range stand-off would be far less bloody than the equivalent firefights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, given the much lower numbers of missiles available and the fact that the great majority would be blocked by the large infantry shields (cf. Livy 28.2, 28.32-3; Caesar, BGI .26; Josephus, BJ 3. I I2-I4). The model also suggests how one side could gradually 'push' another back over distances of hundreds of yards, since if it was always the same side that gave way after the sporadic flurries of hand-to-hand dueling, the accumulation of such small withdrawals would have significant grand tactical impact over time. [4]
But if cold steel was so frightening, why would men engage in close quarters combat at all? Again, Sabin explains:
Why would parts of each line sporadically surge forward into contact? The key individuals would surely be the 'natural fighters' and junior leaders, who would encourage a concerted lunge forward to overcome the understandable reluctance among their comrades to be the first to advance into the wall of enemy blades. Roman sub- units such as centuries, maniples, and cohorts offered an ideal basis for such localized charges, whereas tribal warriors would mount less disciplined attacks led by the bolder spirits among them. The many accounts of Roman standard-bearers carrying or flinging their standards towards the enemy to embolden the onslaught of their comrades (as at Pydna and in Caesar's invasion of Britain) are of obvious relevance in this connection (Plutarch, Aem. 20; Caesar, BG 4.25). Across an overall infantry battlefront many hundreds of yards wide, the back and forth movement of individual sub-units or warrior bands just the crucial few yards to engage in or disengage from hand-to-hand combat would not prejudice the maintenance of the overall line. If such flurries of sword fighting were not quickly decisive, then sheer physical and nervous exhaustion, coupled with the killing or wounding of the key junior leaders who were inspiring their men to engage, would lead the two sides to separate back to the default stand-off. The fact that even phalangites could step back facing the enemy (as at Sellasia) indicates that there was usually sufficient 'give' within infantry formations to allow front-rankers to shy away from their adversaries without bumping immediately into the man behind. Indeed, when this flexibility was removed and troops became too closely packed together, thereby hindering their ability to use their weapons properly or to step back from clashes which were not going well, they risked exposing themselves to one-sided slaughter. Something like this clearly happened at Cannae, and it could well be that a key reason why flank and rear attacks were so devastating was not just the psychological shock they caused but the fact that they crowded the victims in on one another, removing their ability to re-establish the 'safety distance' and so to recover their cohesion and fighting effectiveness. [5]
Sabin goes on to describe how this model of legionary activity makes sense of the ambiguous descriptions of Rome's famous maniple system, and why the maniples would be so effective in this style of combat. I encourage those interested in Roman history to read the entire thing. But I hope readers can see how easily Sabin's insights transfer to the wars of men who lived far from Rome. Not every army in the pre-modern world had maniples, but many had large infantry contingents intended to destroy their enemies in close quarters. The tempo of their battles would have been decided by fear and terror, as it was with the Romans. Sabin's model of periodic surges of courage temporarily hurling front lines together should be the default image of every mass infantry battle waged in the pre-modern era. 

Other posts on The Scholar's Stage about pre-modern warfare:

"The Radical Sunzi"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage (2 January 2015).

"ISIS, the Mongols, and the "Return of Ancient Challenges"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage (18 December 2014).

"What Edward Luttwak Doesn't Know About Ancient China (Or a Short History of the Han-Xiongnu Wars)
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage (4 September 2014).

"Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage (9 April 2013).

EDIT (27/10/2015 11:00 AM): A reader has pointed out to me that Philip Sabin has recently published a book that fleshes out this model and uses it to analyze the narrative accounts of famous Roman and Greek battles. I have not read it yet, but it looks interesting: Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World.

EDIT (27/10/2015 4:00 PM): Also see my short follow up post to this one: "A Few More Thoughts on the Terrors of Pre-Modern Battle.


[1] Philip Sabin, "The Roman Face of Battle," Journal of Roman Studies 90 (2000), p. 5

[2] Ibid, 13

[3] Ibid, 14

[4] Ibid, 15

[5] Ibid, 16

23 October, 2015

Should America Give a Whit About the South China Sea?

The famous "nine-dash line" that marks China's territorial claims in the South China Sea

Source: "Q&A: South China Sea Disputes." BBC News (15 May 2013).
A worthwhile debate between Lyle Goldstein and Alexander Vuving has been playing out on the pages of the National Interest this month. It started with a short essay by Goldstein titled "The South China Showdown: 5 Dangerous Myths." This was met in rejoinder by Vuving's slightly longer piece, "Think Again: Myths and Myopia about the South China Sea.[1] As general rule, I try to ignore anything published on the internet in listicle format, but I am glad I made an exception for Goldstein's article. The merit of his essay lies less in the strength of its thesis than the mere fact his thesis was published at all. Goldstein, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, is an enemy to all established wisdom on the U.S.-Chinese relations. His essay is an attempt to subvert the assumptions that guide American thinking on the South China Sea. Vuving, for his part, defends the establishment view as essentially true, albeit lacking in nuance. Reading through both of their arguments is worth your time.

I'll focus here on their most important point of dispute: the nature of America's interests in the South China Sea. I am consistently amazed at how little this is discussed in American circles. The republic's interests in the territorial squabbles of the region are assumed, not argued over. How Chinese machinations in the sea should be stopped is often debated--why America should bother with the stopping never is. This is unconscionable. China's pressing interests in the South China Sea are natural and obvious. Those of the United States, a country an ocean away, are remarkably less so. The failure of American statesmen to articulate a convincing explanation for U.S. involvement in these disputes lies at the root of both Chinese mistrust of American intentions and the fears of American allies that Washington is not truly committed to their security. Above all else, American citizens and servicemen deserve an explanation for why they should care about a few god-forsaken atolls thousands of miles from their home.

I am thus quite grateful that Goldstein forces this conversation upon us. He does so by arguing that Americans really shouldn't care about the islands after all:
The notion persists that U.S. national interests amount simply to the aggregate of interests of all allies and partners. Thus, as Beijing has often complained, Washington’s eagerness to please and to allay all concerns has created perverse incentives for allies and partners to press for maximalist positions within various disputes with the hope that Uncle Sam will have their backs if push comes to shove. In a risk/reward matrix, some Philippine nationalists could come to the seemingly far-fetched conclusion that it is really worth it for Manila to risk World War III in order to secure drilling rights on Reed Bank. The Philippines would likely suffer enormously in such a conflict, of course, and very few Americans would try to make a similar case. Indeed, the example shows how Philippine and American interests could logically go in quite separate directions. One might even say that Manila enters a zone of serious moral hazard in hoping that Washington would take such risks for the sake of just another oil patch. It turns out the major diplomatic error has been to give The Philippines the wrong-headed idea that the U.S. would actually entertain such grave risks. Alternatively, the alliance could be much strengthened if it remained grounded within the scope of common sense.  That is to say that the U.S. defense commitment to the Philippines should be defensive in orientation and cover the main islands, including Palawan, Luzon, etc, but no ill-defined and unexplored “grey zone” claims. Why the U.S. should entertain any conflict, let alone major hostilities, with China over  maritime disputes with U.S. “partner” Vietnam is completely mystifying. [2]
He continues:
One of the most common, but silliest ideas floating about on the South China Sea is that the area’s economic dynamism implies that the U.S. must maintain unchallenged military supremacy in these waters. Taken to a bizarre extreme, this logic even claims that the entire global trading system (the “rule-based order”) is under grave threat from Chinese actions in the South China Sea.  In short, stand up to China or watch the global economy come crashing down. Good luck finding a credentialed economist or even a Wall Street analyst, who would agree with this assessment. What makes this line of argumentation so specious, of course, is that China has been the major driver for this region’s extraordinary economic dynamism. The argument that maritime trade (and with it the global economy) will crash if China gains additional strategic influence in the South China Sea is, at best, a 19th century anachronism in our collective discourse. At worst, it is simply foolish drivel that makes for fine-sounding political rhetoric. Washington would be better served taking a page from Beijing’s playbook and attempting to turn its own backyard into a dynamic force in the global economy. The U.S.-Cuba rapprochement is a hopeful start towards such a project. [3]

The bolded emphasis is my own. I've also taken the liberty to bold the best sections of Alexander Vuving's response:
...The risk of a direct conflict between Washington and Beijing exists even without U.S. support for its allies and partners in the region. The territorial dispute in the South China Sea represents just the tip of the iceberg; buried under the surface is a more strategic competition for supremacy in the Western Pacific. China and the United States are the two major contestants in this competition, though other nations including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India also have significant roles to play.
Having no permanent presence in the South China Sea and with a home base far away, the United States has to rely on Vietnam, the Philippines and to a lesser extent Malaysia to keep the regional balance of power from tilting too far in favor of China. In this regard, American and Southeast Asian interests are complementary rather than conflicting. Helping allies and partners is also an economic way to serve U.S. interests in the region. The real question here is not whether, but how America should support its allies and partners in the South China Sea. There are multiple options to consider in addressing this question, and a direct Sino-American conflict is a risk to prevent, not a logical consequence of U.S. support for allies and partners in conflict with China. 
But why must the United States compete for supremacy in the Western Pacific? The near-standard answer is that America has a national interest in freedom of navigation and U.S. military supremacy in these waters is the best guarantee for that. I think this answer has flaws, but not for the reasons offered by Goldstein. First, although the United States has an important interest in the South China Sea, freedom of navigation is not the best term for this interest. Second, there is another reason for the United States to compete for supremacy in the Western Pacific. Let me explain. 
The term “freedom of navigation” is a bad choice of words. Its meaning varies according to the legal position or the national perspective you take. What is at stake here is not so much freedom of navigation as an actual situation, but the right of free access to the waters and skies in this crowded area. There is a crucial difference between Chinese and U.S. commitments to “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. This difference stems from the fundamental fact that while the United States upholds the notion of the global commons, China cherishes the idea of the “nine-dash line.” With this idea, Beijing considers the domain indicated by the “nine-dash line” as something like a sovereign realm it has lost to others and it is entitled to get back. China and the United States may share the same view when it comes to nautical freedom in most maritime areas on earth, but the South China Sea is a special case because of the “nine-dash line.” While Washington acknowledges the right of everyone, even its enemies, to freely access the waters and skies in this region, Beijing reserves the right to itself. When China says it guarantees freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the tacit understanding is that as a benevolent power, it opens its gates to everybody, but others must respect its sovereignty. 
China is far from being able to control all the “gates” along the “nine-dash line,” and even if it can do so, it will not close these “gates.” After all, China has an enormous vested interest in keeping the flow of commerce through the South China Sea unimpeded. The threat posed by China to freedom of navigation and overflight in this area affects the normative basis of this freedom more than the practical situation. If the Chinese Navy becomes the custodian of nautical freedom in these waters, most vessels, most of the time, can still sail through them unhindered, but that is not because nations enjoy the objective right of free access, but because they enjoy China’s subjective benevolence, which at times can be selective and arbitrary. This subtle detail may not be important for insurance and shipping companies, but it will have far-reaching consequences for world politics. It means that in the regional order underwritten by China international law must yield to Chinese policy. 
Even if China will behave the same as the United States does, Chinese supremacy in the East and South China Seas will still pose a grave threat to U.S. leadership in the region. The concentration in this domain of Asia’s chief arteries means that, to paraphrase Harold Mackinder, he who controls the East and South China Seas, dominates Asia; and with the rise of Asia, he who dominates this region, commands the world. For seventy years since the last days of World War II, U.S. naval supremacy in the Western Pacific has enabled Washington to play a leadership role in Asia. For its part, China has increasingly exhibited the conviction that its road to Asian primacy also runs through supremacy in these waters. [4]
The debate is worth reading in full. Vuving's distinction between American and Chinese conceptions of "freedom of navigation," in particular, should be remembered in all of discussions of Chinese claims in both the South and the East China Seas. But in some ways the terms of this debate were painfully limited. Like most editorials and policy memos written on the South China Sea, the essays in this debate dissect American policy in the South China Sea without reference to the larger context in which American policy is made. 

The South China Sea is not the only crisis zone on Washington's radar. For every opinion piece urging Washington to take the South China Sea more seriously, there is one lamenting the failure of American resolve in Afghanistan, another exhorting the United States to show greater commitment to our allies in Eastern Europe, and two more pushing for a larger American role in the fight against ISIS. The United States needs to shore up its prestige just about everywhere.

This is not possible. We live in a sequester era. Americans are sick of foreign entanglements, Congress is a dysfunctional mess, and budget cuts are sweeping across the services. The United States simply cannot be everything to everyone. We have to choose what battles are most important to win--and by extension, what battles can be lost and forgotten. The question is not "are the territorial disputes in the South China Sea vital to American interests?" but "are the territorial disputes in the South China Sea more vital to American interests than what is happening in Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, and other crisis zones across the globe?" [5]

Americans are always uncomfortable when I state the problem this way, but this is a reality we have to face.  To strategize is to prioritize. To argue for active American involvement in the South China Sea is to argue that other regions, problems, and commitments should receive less attention from Washington. Those who want the United States to step up in the South China Sea must recognize that this means stepping down somewhere else. It is far past time for those who argue thus to justify why the South China Sea should take priority over America's other commitments.

Other posts from the Scholar's Stage about the South China Sea:

"The CNRP Won't Save the South China Sea"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage (3 July 2015).

"A Few Comments on China, Vietnam, and the HYSY981 Crisis"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage (22 May 2014).


[1] Lyle Goldstein "The South China Sea Showdown: 5 Dangerous Myths," National Interest (29 Septemeber 2015); Alexander Vuving, "Think Again: Myths and Myopia about the South China Sea,National Interest (16 Octoeber 2015).

[2] Goldstein, "South China Sea Showdown,"

[3] Ibid.

[4] Vuving, "Think Again,"

[5] Of course, this same question can--and should--be addressed to those who are arguing for an expanded role for U.S. forces in Eastern Europe, the Near East, Afghanistan, and so forth. I made this point explicitly in reference to the Near East in the post "Iran: The Debate We Should Be HavingScholar's Stage (24 July 2015).

15 October, 2015

Why do Humans Cooperate?

Many of the Stage's readers will be familiar with the work of "Pseudoerasmus," currently the internet's best blogger working on both economic development and macro-history. His most recent post is titled "Where do Pro-Social Institutions Comes From?"  I strongly urge you read it. In essence, Pseudoerasmus's post tries to answer two questions: 

  • Why do humans cooperate?
  • Why do some human communities cooperate better than others? 

These questions recognize that the prosperity of modern times has happened because humans were able to effectively coordinate the efforts of incredibly large groups of people.  The disparities in peace and in plenty that divide the developed from the developing reflect this. As Pseudoerasmus notes:
the real institutional difference between developed and developing countries is actually a “social capital” gap: there are just many more coordination failures in developing countries. Never mind countries torn by civil war. Never mind countries where the kleptocrat with a monopoly of violence does not even bother to hide his plundering. Even the political systems of minimally functioning democratic societies are still organised de facto according to segmentary lineages, with clan- and tribe-based political parties campaigning to distribute to their members the spoils of the public treasury. In societies without clans and tribes, the distributive conflict in politics is played out along ethnolinguistic or caste divisions. But even in some relatively homogeneous societies, political parties are often a system of N-party competitive distribution of public spoils, with only nominal ideological differences between the parties. Greece is an upper-middle-income country and it’s still like that. [1]
To understand where this "social capital gap" comes from one must range across institutional and development economics, human behavioral ecology (i.e., useful anthropology), sociology, game theory, political economy and public choice theory, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, cross cultural and social psychology, cultural evolution theory, and economic, institutional, and social history. To his credit, Pseudoerasmus does just that. The result is long (60+ citations) and tad dry (though not too technical for anyone who reads this blog to understand), but immensely important. It is certainly the most important blog post I have read this season, and is in the running for best essay of the year. If social scientists and historians working on these issues take this post seriously, they will have found an entire research program laid out before them. 

I have a few thoughts on some directions this program will take. They are posted in comments thread to the main essay. Thoughts on the question I raise (why do some human communities lose the ability to cooperate) or the essay's other contentions are welcome in the comments thread here or over at the original post. 


[1] Pseudoerasmus. "Where do Pro-Social Institutions Come From?" Pseudoerasmus (4 October 2015)

07 October, 2015

Awareness vs. Action: Two Modes of Protest in American History

A "Family Temperance Pledge" from 1887. Group pledges such as these were central to the success of the temperance movement.

Source: Library of Congress. "An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera." 2004.

In the comment thread of the post "Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: Three Centuries of American Political Culture" a reader writing under the tag "Bormington" questions whether or not the changes in culture I described in that post really happened. He (or she?) comments:
Interesting post, but have social movements really changed? Haven't many movements in the past aimed to "raise awareness" of their cause in order to strengthen their petition to the authorities? Wilberforce was an MP, and had a vote in Parliament, but the success of the anti-slavery movement in which he was a part relied on building awareness of slavery and increasing opposition to it. For example, the "Am I Not a Man and a Brother" logo was part of such campaigning.

Likewise, the temperance movement didn't just encourage its members to refrain from alcohol. It also petitioned the authorities to prevent other people from drinking alcohol. [1]
Of Wilberforce and his campaign to end slavery I must profess ignorance. I know only the basic outlines of social movements in 19th century Britain and cannot pretend to speak with any authority on the topic. I am far more familiar with 19th century America. Thus I admit that I am a little mystified to see the Temperance movement used against me. Usually it is the first case study I turn to when I want to distinguish between the awareness-based activism of today and the action-based activism of older eras. It is the quintessential example of a social movement of the old sort, and a striking example of how powerful such a movement can be.

Daniel Walker Howe devotes several pages to the origins of the movement in his excellent book  What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1814-1848. It is worth quoting from them at length:
Americans in the early nineteenth century quaffed alcohol in prodigious quantities. In 1825, the average American over fifteen years of age consumed seven gallons of alcohol a year, mostly in the form of whiskey and hard cider. (The corresponding figure at the start of the twenty-first century was less than two gallons, most of it from beer and wine.) Workers typically took a midmorning break and a mid-afternoon break, both accompanied by alcohol, as well as liquor with every meal. To entertain guests meant to ply them with several kinds of alcohol until some fell down. All social classes drank heavily; college students, journeyman printers, agricultural laborers, and canal-diggers were especially notorious. Schoolchildren might face an inebriated teacher in the classroom. Although socially tolerated, drunkenness frequently generated violence, especially domestic violence, and other illegal behavior. In such a society, intemperance represented a serious issue of public health, comparable to the problems of drug abuse experienced in later generations.

Making temperance a Christian cause constituted an innovation, for traditional Christianity had not discouraged drinking. Indeed, Beecher recalled, ministerial conferences during his youth had been occasions for heavy convivial drinking. Unlike a later generation of crusaders, Beecher never thought the legal prohibition of alcohol a practical solution; he relied purely on changing public attitudes. This was no mean feat. To take stand against the strong social pressures to drink took real courage, especially for young men. To help them, temperance workers paid reformed alcoholics to go on speaking tours, published temperance tracts, put on temperance plays, and drove the “water wagon" through towns encouraging converts to jump on. Publicists and organizers like Beecher struck a nerve with the public. The temperance cause resonated among people in all walks of life, rural and urban, white and black. Although it began in the Northeast, temperance reached the South and West and exerted powerful and lasting influence there." At first the temperance advocates restricted themselves to encouraging moderation (hence the name “temperance”); in this phase they condemned only distilled liquors, not beer and wine. At the grassroots level, however, it became apparent that total abstinence made a more effective appeal. Beecher endorsed this shift in Six Sermons on Intemperance (1825). Those who signed a temperance pledge were encouraged to put a T after their names if willing to take the extra step of pledging total abstinence; from this derives our word "teetotaler."

The campaign to alter age old habits and attitudes proved amazingly successful: consumption of alcohol, especially of hard liquor, declined steadily and dramatically after 1830, falling to 1.8 gallons per person over fifteen by the late 1840s. [2]

A few things to note about this account: temperance societies were organized and worked at the level of towns, congregations, families, and individuals, not entire states or nations. The information they passed along was not intended to make people aware of the danger of drinking, but to inspire or scare them into acting on this knowledge. They created communities who could help individuals who were struggling to do this. They were most successful when they secured individual commitments to action.

It was also incredibly successful. 

This became the standard template for American civic associations until the late 19th century:
As important as this success. however, was the example the reformers set of organizing voluntary societies to influence public opinion. Beecher conceived the societies as forming “a disciplined moral militia." The American Temperance Society, founded in 1826, served as a model for other movements. Through such issue-oriented organizations, reformers transcended geographical and denominational limitations to wage nationwide campaigns. The voluntary associations became a conspicuous feature of American society from that time forward. They distributed Bibles and tracts, supported missions foreign and domestic, and addressed such varied social problems as poverty, prostitution, and the abuse of women, children, animals, convicts, and the insane. Most momentous of all their activities would be their crusade against slavery. [3]

Things changed a bit during the 1880s. This was an age of consolidation. Businesses were transformed from small firms to national conglomerates, and new progressive ideology was calling for similar changes in government. Civic associations followed the general trend, becoming gigantic, country-spanning behemoths. But the scope for individual initiative and local decision making remained large. Theda Skocpol explains:
To understand the changes wrought by this sweeping civic reorganization, it is useful to consider the significant role these membership groups played in American life dating back at least a century. From the 1800s through the mid-1900s, countless churches and voluntary groups of all sizes needed volunteer leaders. Indeed, the country's largest nation-spanning voluntary federations could have as many as 15,000 to 17,000 local chapters, each of which might need at least a dozen officers and committee leaders each year. Looking at the nation's 20 largest voluntary federations alone in 1955, my colleagues and I estimate that some 3 percent to 5 percent of the adult population was serving in leadership roles -- and that additional recruits would be needed each year. 

Voluntary federations taught people how to run meetings, handle money, keep records, and participate in group discussions. Often, they exposed members to the inner workings of representative democracy -- from parliamentary procedures and elections to legislative, judicial, and executive functions. And, importantly, these traditional voluntary associations reinforced ideals of good citizenship. They stressed that members in good standing should understand and obey laws, volunteer for military service, engage in public discussions -- and, above all, vote. Political scientists Alan Gerber and Don Green show that people are more likely to turn out to vote in response to face-to-face appeals, and America's traditional popular associations routinely provided such appeals. 

This exposure to democracy in action wasn't reserved for the elite alone. Many such organizations mixed social classes. There were plenty of opportunities for men and women from blue-collar and lower-level white-collar occupations to participate. And within the world of volunteerism, upward mobility was possible, as local activists got on leadership ladders toward responsibilities at district, state, and national levels. 

Like citizens of other advanced-industrial democracies, Americans joined occupationally based groups. But they were more likely to belong to what I call fellowship associations -- with members from various occupations who saw themselves as joined together in shared moral undertakings. Rooted in dense networks of state and local chapters that gave them a presence in communities across the nation, major fraternal groups, religious groups, civic associations, and organizations of military veterans predominated. 

All sorts of large membership associations were involved in public affairs. This is obvious for what's now the AFL-CIO and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Beyond these, to give just a few examples, the PTA and the General Federation of Women's Clubs were active in a variety of legislative campaigns having to do with educational and family issues. The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars sought benefits for veterans and their families. And the Fraternal Order of Eagles championed Social Security and other federal social programs. [4]
Almost all the groups mentioned were created between 1870 and 1910. Even though these were national organizations, much of their work was done by local chapters at a local level. This partly reflected the limits of communications technology during the late 19th and early 20th century. It also reflected the broader distribution of political power in American society. More Americans lived in towns and farm communities in those days; school boards, city councils, and township assemblies were also more numerous than they are today, despite the smaller population of that era. City and county governments were responsible for many things now handled by the state and federal governments.  So civic organizations would agitate to transform their own communities before trying to enact national reforms. This was the pattern that Prohibition followed. By the time the 21st Amendment was passed, dozens of states and hundreds of smaller political units had already gone dry. It is doubtful that Prohibition would have been possible without the thousand small victories won by local chapters Women's Christian Temperance Movement before hand. In this environment the most important task of a civic group's national leaders was to make sure that all of its locations of operation had functioning chapters. Visiting these far flung locations and ensuring that the leaders of each chapter had been properly trained absorbed most of the leadership's time and attention.

During the 1960s things began to change. We return to Skopcol:
At the same time, new technologies and resources allowed the association-builders to operate from centralized offices in Washington and New York. Back in the 19th century, when Frances Willard was working to build the nationally influential Woman's Christian Temperance Union, she traveled across the country recruiting organizers to found and sustain a nationwide network of local chapters. By contrast, when Marian Wright Edelman was inspired to launch the Children's Defense Fund, she turned to private foundations for grants and then recruited an expert staff of researchers and lobbyists. And the founder of Common Cause, John Gardner, used a few big donations to set up a mailing-list operation.... in an associational universe dominated by business organizations and professionally managed groups, the mass participatory and educational functions of classic civic America are not reproduced. Because patron grants and computerized mass mailings generate money more readily than modest dues repeatedly collected from millions of members, and because paid experts are more highly valued than volunteer leaders for the public functions of today's public-interest groups, the leaders of these groups have little incentive to engage in mass mobilization and no need to share leadership and organizational control with state and local chapters.[5]
Skopcol wrote this before the rise of social media and hashtag activism, but the pattern is not too different from what she describes here. Professionally staffed, mail-list style activism seeks money so that it can more effectively lobby those at the top of American politics. Hashtag style activism seeks controversy, so that it can effectively gain the attention of those at the top of American politics.  To use the language of the last post: both "assume that meaningful change can only occur if the powers that be allow it." 21st century lobbying and 2st century protest alike "are best understood as petitions to the powers that be. " [6]

Other posts from the Scholar's Stage comparing America's 19th democracy and civic society to the present:

 "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 1 July 2014.

"Despots Near and Despots Far"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 16 February 2014.

"The Rule of Law and the Ruling Class in American History"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 14 March 2013.

"Shakespeare in American Politics"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 30 September 2015

"Ominous Parallels: What the Antebellum Can Teach Us About Our Modern Political Regime"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 26 February 2013.


[1] "Bormington," comment #5 (18 September 2015), on T. Greer, "Honor, Dignity, and Victhimhood: A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Culture" The Scholar's Stage (16 September 2015)

[2] Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 167-168).

[3] Ibid, 168.

[4] Theda Skocpol, "The Narrowing of Civic Life," American Prospect (17 May 2004).

[5] ibid.

[6]  T. Greer, "Honor, Dignity, Victimhood."