You must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachIn There Will Be War Volume II, Jerry Pournelle introduces an essay from This Kind of War:

Ted Fehrenbach is one of the best military theorists of the Twentieth Century. I can say this with no reservations. His book, This Kind of War, is not only the finest study of the Korean War ever done, but more importantly, is the only book I have ever seen that correctly draws the lessons of that war. I have several times used it as a text; which is to do it injustice. The book is very readable.


“Proud Legions” is one chapter from This Kind Of War. It is required reading for every officer nominated for promotion to general. It ought to be read more widely than that.

Here’s how “Proud Legions” starts:

During the first months of American intervention in Korea, reports from the front burst upon an America and world stunned beyond belief. Day after day, the forces of the admitted first power of the earth reeled backward under the blows of the army of a nation of nine million largely illiterate peasants, the product of the kind of culture advanced nations once overawed with gunboats. Then, after fleeting victory, Americans fell back once more before an army of equally illiterate, lightly armed Chinese.

The people of Asia had changed, true. The day of the gunboat and a few Marines would never return. But that was not the whole story. The people of the West had changed, too. They forgot that the West had dominated not only by arms, but by superior force of will.

During the summer of 1950, and later, Asians would watch. Some, friends of the West, would even smile. And none of them would ever forget.

News reports in 1950 talked of vast numbers, overwhelming hordes of fanatic North Koreans, hundreds of monstrous tanks, against which the thin United States forces could not stand. In these reports there was truth, but not the whole truth.

The American units were outnumbered. They were outgunned. They were given an impossible task at the outset.

But they were also outfought.

In July 1950, one news commentator rather plaintively remarked that warfare had not changed so much, after all. For some reason, ground troops still seemed to be necessary, in spite of the atom bomb. And oddly and unfortunately, to this gentleman, man still seemed to be an important ingredient in battle. Troops were getting killed, in pain and fury and dust and filth. What had happened to the widely heralded pushbutton warfare where skilled, immaculate technicians who had never suffered the misery and ignominy of basic training blew each other to kingdom come like gentlemen?

In this unconsciously plaintive cry lies buried a great deal of the truth why the United States was almost defeated.

Nothing had happened to pushbutton warfare; its emergence was at hand. Horrible weapons that could destroy every city on earth were at hand—at too many hands. But pushbutton warfare meant Armageddon, and Armageddon, hopefully, will never be an end of national policy.

Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.

The object of warfare is to dominate a portion of the earth, with its peoples, for causes either just or unjust. It is not to destroy the land and people, unless you have gone wholly mad.

Pushbutton war has its place. There is another kind of conflict—crusade, jihad, holy war, call it what you choose. It has been loosed before, with attendant horror but indecisive results. In the past, there were never means enough to exterminate all the unholy, whether Christian, Moslem, Protestant, Papist, or Communist. If jihad is preached again, undoubtedly the modern age will do much better.

Americans, denying from moral grounds that war can ever be a part of politics, inevitably tend to think in terms of holy war—against militarism, against fascism, against bolshevism. In the postwar age, uneasy, disliking and fearing the unholiness of Communism, they have prepared for jihad. If their leaders blow the trumpet, or if their homeland is attacked, their millions are agreed to be better dead than Red.

Any kind of war short of jihad was, is, and will be unpopular with the people. Because such wars are fought with legions, and Americans, even when they are proud of them, do not like their legions. They do not like to serve in them, nor even to allow them to be what they must.

For legions have no ideological or spiritual home in the liberal society. The liberal society has no use or need for legions—as its prophets have long proclaimed.

Except that in this world are tigers.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    I think this is why so much escapist fiction features intrepid heroes in a quest against a simplistic Big Bad that just wants to destroy Neverland.

    It’s not entirely wrong: such evils do in fact exist, and weak minds refuse to admit this much. You can’t negotiate a treaty with your neighborhood axe murderer.

    But the really smart villains embrace politics and the culture war. It won’t do to concede these fields without a fight. That’s how you get outflanked.

    That’s the real ground war.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    Those North Korean and Chinese troops in Korea at that exact moment [1950] probably the best light infantry in the world.

    North Koreans many of them actually Soviet citizens that had fought at Stalingrad and also as interventionists during the Chinese Civil

  3. Kirk says:

    Fehrenbach should be coupled with Fussell’s equal little gem, Wartime, and the connection between them should be made that the fantasists of the post-WWII American defense establishment did not. They believed that atomic weapons made the common infantryman obsolete and irrelevant, which led to the abandonment of common sense and an awful lot of wishful thinking. Army budgets were chopped, lessons from WWII were willfully ignored, and we got what we got.

    Fussell’s essay about the way we went from “light to heavy duty” should be read, and the juxtaposition made between the opening phases of Korea. We imagined that conditions had changed, such that big conventional ground wars would never be fought again. We were wrong, and admitting that fact took decades. The massive number of “little things” which bit us in the ass in Korea, like the failure to move to effective AT weapons for the infantry, or to develop better, more effective small arms for them to carry into battle.

    Much of the US military is delusional, hell-bent on denying reality. WWII torpedo issues were there to be observed, long before we were forced to finally admit that ours didn’t work. What made that happen? Delusion. Same with the small arms–We left WWI having clear evidence that the future was in intermediate caliber individual weapons. It took us until we encountered the AK47 in the jungles of Vietnam to finally have the recognition forced that the Camp Perry games we played had no relation to modern infantry combat requirements. Why was that? Again, delusion on the part of nearly everyone involved. In the M14, they built the perfect weapon for the Camp Perry matches, an entirely artificial set of conditions that bore no relation whatsoever to the needs of the combat soldier. The nearest equivalent I can come up with would be to imagine that instead of the Kar 98k, the Germans fielded a weapon designed to excel at their Schützenfest. They very obviously did not, so we can credit them with a modicum of that most rare quality, common sense.

  4. Dave says:

    Virginia Democrats know how to win a ground war. First you pass a law requiring the enemy to register all their guns. Then you pass another law telling them to hand ‘em in.

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