P.W. Singer: At the Crossroads
“Of arms and the man I sing,” famously penned Virgil in his epic poem the Aeneid
(c. 30-19 BC), and for centuries since (and, to be sure, even before) poets, novelists, historians, scholars, politicians, and ordinary citizens have contemplated that crossroads of human existence and armed conflict that so intrigued and entranced the Roman poet. What exactly is (or should be) the proper relationship between humanity and warfare? How do the two affect each other? Can the two be divorced from each other and, if not, why not? To what extent does warfare have a positive or negative impact on humankind? These are but a few of the questions encountered at that crossroads.
Since January 2013 marks the beginning of the third year of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, our nation’s bloodiest armed conflict, and another time for reflection on the crossroads of humanity and warfare, it is altogether fitting and proper (to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address language) that P.W. Singer should be the Baltimore Speakers Series speaker for this month. Dr. Singer is Senior Fellow and Director of the Twenty-first Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution and is widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on changes in twenty-first century warfare. In both his first book (Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry) and his latest work (Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century), Dr. Singer has thoughtfully and provocatively wrestled with many of the most important issues found at the intersection of humanity and its bloody conflicts.
In April of 1861, Americans bungled their way into war with very little thought given to the crossroads of humanity and combat. They regarded the impending conflict as one that would be brief and glorious. True to the old adage that at the beginning of any new war the generals fight in accordance with the lessons learned from the last war, American military commanders (North and South) anticipated an armed conflict that would be fought by rules governed by Napoleonic principles and technology. The result was carnage and slaughter on a scale unmatched until World War I. The relatively new rifled muskets with an effective fighting range measured in hundreds of yards were deployed at ranges of tens of yards. Cavalry and infantry charged en masse into massed artillery loaded with single and double canister that converted the field pieces into gigantic shotguns. Regiments regularly experienced combat casualty rates of 60, 70, or even 80 percent or more. And the resulting bloodbaths did not happen for just the first month or year of the Civil War, they continued right up to the bitter end in April of 1865.
The question that immediately arises is Why was this so? Where were the P.W. Singers of Civil War America who stood at the crossroads of men and weapons to point the way to a new paradigm to govern thinking about armed struggle? To be sure, they were there, but to a great extent they were marginalized or demeaned for their innovative thinking.
Confederate general James Longstreet was often scorned for his advocacy of defensive rather than offensive tactics. His successful advocacy of entrenched Confederate infantry and artillery massed on the high ground of Marye’s Heights led to the Union killing fields of Fredericksburg in December of 1862. Yet students of the battle of Gettysburg will always wonder what might have been the outcome of that battle if Confederate commanding general Robert E. Lee, less than a year after Fredericksburg, had followed “Old Pete” Longstreet’s advice to maneuver the Army of Northern Virginia into a defensive position that forced the Union Army of the Potomac to attack it rather than ordering the Rebel army to offensively engage the Federal forces on July 2 and 3 at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and (most devastating of all) in Pickett’s Charge across almost a mile of up-hill open ground into the face of massed Union artillery and Springfield rifled muskets. The innovative designers, builders, and crew of the Confederate boat H.L. Hunley, the world’s first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship, were long dismissed by Napoleonic Southerners as, at best, dreamers and, at worst, cowards. One wonders how the war might have gone differently if Southern military strategists had embraced the new technology and launched more boats to break the blockade of Southern ports. Even the most successful of all Union generals, Ulysses S. Grant, came under attack when he used the less than glorious tactic of siege to win two of his greatest victories at Vicksburg and Petersburg, the latter setting the stage for Appomattox and the ultimate Union victory in the Civil War.
With few exceptions, the ancient combat paradigm rooted in glory trumped the new hard-headed paradigm of Longstreet and Grant. This infatuation with warfare as a character-building exercise powerfully dominated Civil War military strategy and tactics. In his address at the dedication of the Maine monuments at Gettysburg in October of 1888, former Union general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain remarked on the glory associated with combat engaged in on battlefields such as Gettysburg: “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” Firing rifled muskets hundreds of yards away from your enemy where it was impossible to look your foe directly in the eyes, hiding behind fieldworks, lurking beneath the waves, or laying siege offered no hope for great deeds to abide. Grand charges across hundreds of yards of open field, regardless of how wasteful and just plain stupid they were, into the face of a fortified enemy occupying high ground, guaranteed that such would be long remembered and abide on that field as great deeds. Robert E. Lee witnessed such charges at Fredericksburg and in response remarked to, of all people, James Longstreet: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” It is hard to imagine Longstreet sharing in Lee’s fond reaction to that carnage.
As the twenty-first century marches on, we find ourselves again at the crossroads of “arms and the man.” Though we may not feel inclined to sing of the two as Virgil did so long ago, we would do well to think deeply and innovatively about them as P. W. Singer has done. Let us just hope that Dr. Singer’s words are heeded and that the strategic and tactical decisions (and bargains) that are made at the crossroads of humanity and warfare are wise and good ones and not like the deal so famously made with the devil by the great Southern bluesman Robert Johnson.
Joseph McGraw, J.D., Esq., is Chairperson of the Humanities and Public History Department of Stevenson University and a member of the Maryland bar. In his fifteen years on the faculty of Stevenson, he has taught a variety of American and world history and law courses. Prior to Stevenson, he spent 12 years as a real estate and fair housing lobbyist and in private law practice. His love for American Civil War history began as a pre-adolescent boy growing up in the Deep South during the centennial of the Civil War where his favorite books to check out of his school library were guidebooks to National Park Service Civil War battlefields.