Why Do Democracies Win Wars?

By | March 27, 2021

[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.

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  1. https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/special-series/dusty-shelves/soul-of-battle/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “Why Do Democracies Win Wars?

  1. Colleen Ramirez

    I never thought of it this way. Thanks Gen. Satterfield for the insights.

    Reply
  2. Army Captain

    Great observation, Gen. Satterfield. Something that I never saw.

    Reply
    1. Mikka Solarno

      Yep, soon the good ole’ USA will be just like any other despotic regime. We will no longer be the beacon of freedom in the world but just like China and Russia. Biden is demented, period, full stop.

      Reply
  3. Max Foster

    Study the history of all the major wars of the 20th century would be interesting. Looks like Victor Davis Hanson (referenced by Gen. Satterfield) has done that and I know that Hanson has a good grip on history. I recommend his book. It got some great reviews.

    Reply
    1. Kenny Foster

      Yes, order the book and read it. Some great points. I ordered mine from Goodreads. I no longer shop on Amazon. They have been one of those places that bans books they don’t like that threaten their PC “woke” narrative. But they will allow the Mao Little Red Book and Hitler’s Mein Kompf. Sorry, but just had to tell the truth. I know that many leftists are immune to the facts but that is the case and impossible to ignore the big elephant in the room.

      Reply
      1. Darwin Lippe

        I ordered the book just a few minutes ago. Kenny, you are correct about the fact that PC ideology is taking over. Read Gen. Satterfield’s articles he recommends in the section on Daily Favorites today.

        Reply
  4. Mr. T.J. Asper

    “War is a fixture of human nature. ” Main point not to be overlooked. HOW we conduct ourselves during those wars is what we should be looking at and what happens AFTER the war is over, treating those who have lost.

    Reply
  5. JT Patterson

    Thanks, Gen. Satterfield for another spot-on article. But, the application to today? I’m not so sure. The big rivalries in the world today no longer involves Russia (an autocratic government) but between China (also autocratic) versus the US (democratic). Let’s not however mix up or conflate their capabilities. China could still crush Taiwan (democratic) like a bug.

    Reply
    1. Crazy Dude

      Good point, I think that when powers are about equal, then the democratic ones would win out. But that is not always the case. Remember Sparta versus the Persians?

      Reply
  6. Rev. Michael Cain

    Great question. I’m not so shocked that no one had an immediate answer. The observation you made is not so obvious.

    Reply
    1. Audrey

      Right, in the distant past, wars were fought between rigidly controlled nations, by kings and pharaohs. There systems worked but the wars were among like-kind governments. This was, IMHO, necessary to ensure survival of the nation or city state.

      Reply
      1. Yusaf from Texas

        Good thinking here. It would be nice to get some links to the internet where this is discussed more at length. Anyone got some historian that is not a crazy woke liberal?

        Reply
      2. Tom Bushmaster

        Yes, those systems of govt did work but we have evolved, a little bit anyway.

        Reply
    2. Jeff Blackwater

      Excellent observation, Rev. Cain. Gen. Satterfield has indeed saw in history what many of us would have overlooked. From what I can see, his observations are from the last 200 years or so. If you look there, you will see a mixed bag of wins and losses but he still has a point.

      Reply

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