[March 27, 2021] In a Military History course mandated by Army ROTC, I asked a question of our college professor he could not answer. I asked, Why do democracies win wars? This idea was an observation I’d made while reading about war during my college days.
I was unaware at the time that historians, philosophers, religious leaders, and politicians have been asking this question for centuries. And yet, nothing I read addressed this most fundamental question. Indeed, there was much written on why wars are won and lost, how nations are better positioned to win or lose (geography and culture), and whether we can definitively predict who will win or lose.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson offers some answers in his book, The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day (2001). He examines “the ethical nature of democracies at war” as he discusses what he describes as the “spirit of warfare” waged by free peoples.1
In wars, both ancient and modern, democracies produce troops and commanders who are oddities, well educated, stoical, and possess a “radical moral fervor.” Those armies can rapidly mobilize, train, and deploy into the enemy’s heartland, conquering and then disbanding.
In doing so, armies of democratic nations have destroyed evil on vast scales, not because of superior numbers or material, but because they believed in themselves to be more moral than their enemies. According to Hanson, democratic societies are distinctive because they “produce the most murderous armies from the most unlikely of men” and because they fight “in the pursuit of something spiritual rather than the mere material.”
Such thinking explains why democrat armies exert greater effort in taking care of their troops and insist on strict adherence to the rules of law warfare (epitomized in rules of engagement).
Answering my question in my military history course, I noted that armies from despotic regimes only cared about the survival of the “state” and had little concern about the individual soldier. We saw this in the way North Vietnam deployed its men in battle, often throwing them pell-mell into combat, disregarding common safeguards.
War is a fixture of human nature. The spiritual core of successful warfighting boils down to choosing between good and evil. In other words, the militaries of democratic nations are infused with the moral authority to win.