The Dangers of Military Essentialism: Past and Present

The Dangers of Military Essentialism: Past and Present

The myths of authoritarian or democratic military supremacy continue to fog the public understanding of warfare. 


War produces emotions unlike any other. Even for those observing conflicts from a safe distance, it is easy to identify with one side or another. In the 1750s, Venetian monks and gondoliers traded barbs over the Seven Years’ War far to the north in Germany. These Venetians, each having chosen a foreign patron (either Empress Maria Theresa of Austria or King Frederick the Great of Prussia), literally came to blows in the tight quarters of the Venetian canals.

In our world today, scenes like this are not difficult to imagine. The supporters of Ukraine and Russia each have their devotees on the internet as well as on the battlefield. “Vatniks” and “NAFOs” trade digital insults and memes, the twenty-first-century successors of the brawling Venetians. As a historian of conflict, I am used to finding these emotions in the wars I study. However, these emotions can create problems. They are one of many factors that can produce essentialist thinking in military affairs.


War is one of the most complex tasks that humans engage in. This fact leads some to reduce its complexity and contingency to simplistic cliches. This is essentialism. By focusing on one aspect of a society at war, we hope to save ourselves the trouble of dealing with the messy task of grappling with the facts of war in detail. Essentialism can appear in many ways, but in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, two strands of essentialism are especially prevalent. 

First, and perhaps most dangerous, is the idea that authoritarian or militaristic societies produce superior armies. Cursory examinations of the history of Sparta, Prussia, Imperial and Nazi Germany, or Russia can appear to confirm this view. Nonetheless, it is spectacularly wrong. The armies produced by these societies had human foibles and vulnerabilities, much like their less-martial opponents. Second, volunteer soldiers from liberal democratic nations are not a magic bullet for military effectiveness either. Idolizing the performance of soldiers from militaristic societies or liberal democracies, rather than the complex logistical and operational roots of military success, can obscure our understanding of conflict.

Both of these tropes rely on essentialism. The “ultimate soldier” raised in a brutal militaristic society is supposedly tougher than his soft democratic or liberal counterparts. The heroic and free citizen-soldier will always triumph over the robotic and mercenary slave-soldiers who oppose him. Neither trope moves us closer to understanding the reality of war; both promise false pathways to “knowledge” about the nature of military history.

The authoritarian-militarist myth can be traced back to tales of Ancient Sparta. In Early Modern Europe, the trope was best exemplified by Sweden, Prussia, and other soldierly German states. Both Sweden and Prussia, in particular, were militarily capable of punching well above their weight in terms of population size relative to other great powers. Hesse-Kassel, a small German state that provided “mercenaries” for the British to fight against the American Revolution, was actually more militarized, having a higher proportion of soldiers to civilians than any other European state. All three of these states also pioneered conscription and developed novel battle tactics.

Yet, these militarized states ran into trouble once they found themselves engaged in lengthy wars against larger powers. Although they might meet with spectacular short-term success, they could eventually be dragged down in wars of attrition. Thus, despite leadership by charismatic battle-commander King Charles XII, Sweden was ultimately defeated by Russia in the Great Northern War (1700–1721). Prussia managed to barely hold on under the leadership of Frederick II, “the Great,” in the Seven Years War (1756–1763), but only until the alliance system opposing him collapsed. This was a near-run thing, not a triumph. 

Harsh Prussian discipline was legendary and supposedly created robotic soldiers. Scholars such as Katrin and Sascha Möbius, and to a lesser extent, myself, have demonstrated that this was far from the case. Eighteenth-century Prussian soldiers were highly motivated by religious loyalties and community ties, not just draconian punishments. They fought on, not only because they were more afraid of their officers than the enemy (as King Frederick claimed) but because they held a Pietistic Lutheran faith that God would protect them. The lore of Prussian “robotics,” however, directly fed into the second example of military essentialism: the alleged superiority of democratic soldiers over authoritarian opponents.

The idea that the volunteer citizen soldiers from a free and democratic nation will triumph over the automatons that oppose them is a pervasive one, especially in popular culture. In the American version of this story, the free citizen-soldier (likely a rifleman from the frontier bearing a passing resemblance to Mel Gibson) overcame his robotic and despotic British and Hessian opponents in the Revolutionary War through sheer determination. In this essentialist view, the freeborn citizen-soldier is a killer battlefield app, better than any other commodity on the battlefield, by virtue of their citizen identity. But in the American War of Independence, the opposite was true. British forces were usually outnumbered on the battlefield and tactically triumphed over the Americans more often than not.

The smaller number of British troops used highly mobile and aggressive tactics to chase the Americans off the battlefield time and again at Long Island, Brandywine, and Camden. Matthew H. Spring has demonstrated that the British employed swift-moving attacks, delivered at the run, rather than a robotic slow-march. Eventually, the United States won important victories like Saratoga or tactically memorable ones like King’s Mountain or Cowpens.

However, American success in the Revolutionary War resulted from a professional force imitating European models. It was the regular forces, not the citizen militias, that held the line at Cowpens. Without them, the result of the battle would likely have been different as aggressive British infantry and cavalry units pursued fleeing militia forces. Ironically enough, the Continental Army was trained using a drill manual devised by a Prussian officer: Friedrich Wilhelm, Freiherr de Steuben. We remember him in America as “Baron von Steuben,” but he preferred the French honorific “de” over the German “von,” another fact obscured by essentialism. The success of these professionals, partly due to a francophile Prussian, was equally crucial in battles lost in the telling of the Revolution, such as Springfield, Connecticut Farms, and Eutaw Springs. The triumph of the regulars would not have been possible without conscription to fill out the Continental Army, a fact ignored by the long-rifleman mythology.

The Wars of the French Revolution supposedly rank as another great triumph of the national volunteer over the slave soldier. Surely this was the case? If we control for the presence of the extremely talented Napoleon Bonaparte, perhaps not as much as we might think. At Limburg and Kircheib in 1796, Austrian forces defeated French volunteer armies despite being heavily outnumbered. At Diersheim in 1797, the French volunteers won but possessed a two-to-one advantage in numbers. In 1799, under the command of Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov, Russian and Austrian forces triumphed over the French again and again. There is no doubt that Bonaparte quashed the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians repeatedly throughout his many campaigns. By that point, his army looked more like a professional army of a European imperial state and less like the volunteers of a virtuous citizen republic.

In the twentieth century before 1945, there was little room to discuss a volunteer force of citizen soldiers. Around 60 percent of the U.S. Army was drafted in both World War I and World War II. Both the German Wehrmacht and the Red Army of the Soviet Union heavily relied on conscription. The authoritarian-militarist Wehrmacht defeated the army of the French Third Republic. The Wehrmacht was, in turn, defeated by the Red Army of the Soviet Union, with considerable assistance from the United States, United Kingdom, and other allied powers. During the Korean War, the armies of communist China and North Korea fought the liberal-democratic world to a standstill. 

In Vietnam, the Vietnamese nationalists, aligned with the communist world, defeated both the Republican French and, eventually, the Americans. This prompted the now-famous transition to the all-volunteer force (AVF) in the United States. Israeli conscripts performed exceptionally well against the larger armies of the various Arab dictatorships and monarchies. Neither the Soviet-imparted professionalism of the Iraqi army nor the religious fervor of the revolutionary Iranians managed to give either nation a definite victory in the brutal Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. all-volunteer force defeated the same Iraqi army in 1991 in a relatively short and decisive war.

With the return of large-scale combat operations (LSCO) to Europe during the Russo-Ukrainian War, many believed that the scale and equipment of militarized authoritarian Russia would spell a quick disaster for Ukraine. When that mirage faded, many observers jumped to the opposite conclusion. Simply as a result of their apparent identity as virtuous volunteers defending liberal democracy, the Ukrainian force would triumph over the laughable and despotic Russian slave soldiers. Mykola Melnyk, an officer in the Forty-Seventh Mechanized Brigade, asserted that before Ukraine’s (now halted) summer offensive: ”The whole plan of our big counter-offensive was based on a simple thing—Russians see Bradleys, Leopards and they run away. They didn’t, they were well-prepared for us.” At least in part, the essentialist thinking that cowardly Russians would flee before Western vehicles has resulted in a significant setback for Ukraine.