Why the Military is the Wrong Tool for Defending Western Society

Sometimes social events occur that change the character of interstate conflict in ways no new military technology or improved doctrine can address. The last time this happened was during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). The French Revolution created the first large-scale republic to exist on the Continent since the Roman Empire. With that regime came the power to utilize the entire nation—Levée en masse.[1] Napoleon’s new citizen-military overwhelmed the other countries of Europe who had been using small, professional, armies made up largely of mercenaries. It is possible that a similar sociopolitical change has occurred in the West over the last century that has provided a similar advantage.

Napoleon’s advantage was created by a change in the sociopolitical environment. It could be argued a similar change in the nature of society and politics has been occurring in the West in the period since World War I. The more recent sociopolitical change occurred among the Western industrial nations over the last century and involved a shift towards individualism. It allowed liberal democracy to become the standard form of Western government. It created a New World Order that allowed for organizations like the EU that would have been unheard of in nineteenth-century Europe.[2] Built on an ideology of universal human rights and individual freedoms, it is underwritten by a value system that allowed countries to form alliances built on a level of trust that was not possible in the era of nationalistic great power competition. The result of this common value structure is a unity of purpose that no single nationalistic adversary could hope to defeat in direct military conflict.

“Departure of the Conscripts of 1807” painted by Louis-Léopold Boilly (Wikimedia)

The first sociopolitical change forced Napoleon’s adversaries to emulate France by changing their social, legal, and political structures. The second, more recent sociopolitical change has forced one of the West’ proximate adversaries to attack the liberal order itself. Russia does not wish to become a liberal democracy that embraces human rights. It wishes to return to a glorious past at the center of an empire. To realize these desires, Russia has moved conflict left of bang, in a common phrase, into the space before actual military engagement begins and the realm of Russian Active Measures.[3] These are direct attacks on the foundational ideals and values that underwrite the liberal order. Their purpose is to weaken its alliances and return the world to one in which Russia can rebuild its empire without risk of interference from the liberal states.[4] Russian interference in American and Ukrainian elections, Brexit, and others events have proved effective at sowing divisions and destroy trust. Russia seeks to break the West’s unity and return us to a world order they are comfortable with: a world of individual national competition.

States use war, or the threat of war, as a last resort to solve political disputes. For every state, the ability to make war is an indispensable tool to ensure its security. However, war cannot rebuild trust. War cannot separate truth from lies. War cannot defeat attacks on the social structures currently seen in the West. We must look elsewhere.

This article will look at the last time a sociopolitical change altered the character of war; the similarities between then and the West’s current situation; how our adversaries, and in particular Russia, are responding to defeat our sociopolitical advantage; and why the military is ill equipped to deal with this threat. 

What Napoleon Wrought

In Europe prior to the French Revolution, war was the province of the government and its army. The government made the decision to go to war, and a relatively small professional army along with untrained conscripts carried out that decision. Often mercenaries with no connection to the government other than payment for services rendered, directed by nobility that may or may not have any military acumen, conducted these wars. War was a tool used to acquire territory to enrich the leadership. The common people who occupied that territory were merely the spoils of war.

For liberty, fraternity, and equality, the people of France would muster an army the size of which could roll over every other professional army on the continent. They would fight for the cause of liberty as a free-citizen army. With common cause its command structure could be allowed independent action. Its officer corps was made of the best soldiers, not just those with hereditary claims and the funds to buy a commission. This type of army was revolutionary in more ways than one. In geometric terms, war was no longer a duality involving only the government and the army. War was now a trinity involving the government, the army, and the people.[5]

This new geometry required a different type of society than existed in most European countries at the time. It required a society capable of independent thought and action; with access to education to support, supply, and participate in a modern army; and practical meritocracy rather than hereditary nepotism. This was wildly different from the social structure of nineteenth-century Europe. In most countries, those persons not of the aristocracy were rabble; mere serfs and peasants. There were some artisans and clergy, but mostly the people of the rest of Europe were not educated and certainly could be trusted with arms. With arms and an education they would turn on their masters as they had in France (and America).[6] The aristocracy could not allow this—until they had no other choice.

"Battle of Jena " by Antoine Charles Horace Vernet and Jacques François Swebach (Wikimedia)

The Prussians were the first to find a solution. After their defeat at Auerstadt and Jena in 1806, the Prussians knew they must change to address this new way of war.[7] There were changes to the military structure, particularly in the selection of officers. But more important were the social, political, and legal changes that made a new kind of army possible. These reforms included abolishing hereditary serfdom and allowing peasants to become landowners and take up arms.[8] The intent was to build a society that had an interest in protecting not only its territory, but also its government. The reforms worked, and by 1813 the Prussians were able to contribute to the defeat of Napoleon’s armies.

Military reforms were certainly part of the reasons for these victories, but the sociopolitical changes Prussia made influenced others to do the same. A population of serfs had no interest in fighting for their masters.[9] But a population of free citizens who had property rights and a say in government did. They did not need to be driven by the lash to fight. For that reason, it is said, “the Napoleonic Wars separated the wars of kings from the wars of people.”[10]

The Age of Trust

The French Revolution created a view that the population shared a social contract with their government and were not simply subjects of it. They were not mere serfs or peasants, but instead citizens bound together as a nation. The more recent change is also the result of a shift in how free people see themselves in relation to others. This time the shift occurred not with a revolutionary event but accumulated slowly, almost imperceptibly, over time.[11] Over the last hundred years the people of the West—Western European, North American, and other wealthy, industrial, democratic states—shifted their social attitudes.[12] A social revolution took place as the generation born after World War II came of age.[13] The younger generation embraced a level of trust not just among members of their own nation but with members of other nations. Built around the value for individual freedom rather than nationalistic submission, this change in attitude allowed for the people of the West to see themselves as one group with a common belief structure and a common purpose.

This was particularly true with respect to their common defense. NATO was created to provide a defense against Soviet communism, but it survived that conflict and found purpose in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan. It became a bulwark against the threat posed by any state that threatened the new liberal order created after World War II. NATO is now an alliance with a common vision of what the world should look like rather than merely a group of nations taking only what they can get and willing to change allegiances as it suits their purpose. From a military perspective, NATO is now the most visible and formidable manifestation of this sociopolitical change.

NATO Membership (Wikimedia)

Recognition and Response

It is the West’s very social structure that provides the most formidable military advantage. Russia has recognized this. It has therefore become their aim to break the bonds of trust  within each Western state and jointly between them. For Russia, this is old hat. During the Cold War it was their aim to pull Western attitudes away from capitalism. Now, it must weaken a common value system. The aim is to destroy the liberal world order Russia sees as a threat and return the Western world to where it was before World War I, an era of transactional great power conflicts and a world where Russia’s military capability provides significant advantage in its near abroad.

To accomplish this feat, Russia uses many of the same methods it used when it was the USSR. Now, however, it is easier for two reasons. First, the Internet and social media allow direct access to the citizens of western states. Generally, foreign ownership in media organizations is restricted in order to limit foreign influence.[14] Now Russia can bypass the traditional media outlets and directly access Western populations through Facebook and Twitter. Second, Russia’s job is infinitely easier because, unlike the USSR, they don’t have to convince anyone that communism is an improvement over capitalism. All Russia must do is stoke fear of “the other” and drive wedges between the people of their target population. This goal is relatively simple, since people are tribal in nature.[15] Even in the West, where relative wealth and security helped to create the New World Order, base fears can be used to divide us. Too many are programed to see the world in shades of “us versus them.” All Russia must do is activate those existing psychological impulses.

This plays out in both big ways and small. The larger operations are the American elections and the Brexit campaign.[16] More minor operations are seen in the gun rights and anti-vaccination debates.[17] Sowing any division is useful. The goal is to return the world to a place of weakened individual nations who no longer join alliances built on trust but instead favor treaties built on self-interest.[18] Such a world is one in which Russia could bring the Baltics back into their control without fear of a unified Western response. 

Right Diagnosis, Wrong Cure

The U.S. national security community has recognize this change.[19] Dubbing the new era an age of persistent conflict, commentators correctly see the threat tied to information, or, more correctly, disinformation operations. What the military fails to realize is that this change in adversary tactics is not the result of a change in the nature of war. War between states remains the application of lethal violence against an enemy to compel it to do one’s will. War has not changed, but the sociopolitical environment has. Western liberal democracy allows for a sense of shared identity and common purpose rarely seen outside of religious conflicts.

Purely military solutions cannot address a threat to the Western social fabric or value system. Creating a Cyber Force, Space Force, or Innovation Command won’t help defend against a threat to combined sovereignties and shared values. It does not matter what new tactics one devises  or how many domains one decides to dominate through force of arms. The current problem requires a set of defenses built into the social institutions of each of the Western powers. Defenses must combat disinformation with real information and lies with logic.

It is now up to military leaders to advise that they cannot supply the weapons for this fight. Lethal force will not stop the flow of misinformation in a free society. Lethal force cannot rebuild trust. While the West will not survive without the ability to apply lethal violence when and where it is required, the current problem does not require it—yet. To keep from reaching that point, military leaders must not only admit they cannot provide the weapons for the fight to preserve sociopolitical advantage, they must also convince political leaders act to preserve their advantage.


The West now finds itself in the position of Napoleon, able to muster a force more powerful that anything its enemies could hope to command with their nationalistic sociopolitical systems. It took changes in the legal and social structures of European states, as well as a willingness to band together, to muster a military force comparable to Napoleon’s. Unlike Prussia, Russia is not seeking to emulate Western advantages. Instead, Russia seeking to undermine and ultimately destroy the West’s advantage. Russia is trying to destroy it by means no Western military can address. The answer must come from other quarters. In a twist of fate, the West must now assume the role of Prussia and implement changes to its social and educational systems to ensure the ability to defeat an old enemy and while not succumbing to divisive base instincts.

There are those who believe enlightened liberalism can never defeat nationalism.[20] But the truth is that alliances made possible by a common value system create a leviathan so great no single state can hope to defeat it. There are also many that do not feel it is the military’s duty to decide when to say, “It’s not our job.” But civilians expect military leaders to be the experts on what can be accomplished through lethal violence. Military leaders must be honest with civilian leadership about what lethal violence cannot accomplish. There are times when it may be appropriate for armies to step aside because they have little or nothing to offer beyond false hope.

Whether the Western powers can rise to the occasion and defeat this attack on its own terms is yet unclear. What is clear is that if it is to succeed, it will need to employ non-military means. The military alone cannot save the West this time. The West must recognize this fight is taking place among its people. They must now arm their people with the tools to fight back.

Stanley Wiechnik is a U.S. Army officer with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A U.S. soldier takes cover near a patrol base south of Baghdad, Iraq, on Aug. 29, 2007. (David Furst/AFP/Getty Images)


[1] Paret, Peter. Napoleon and the Revolution in War. In The Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. ed by Peter Paret. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1986),123-42.

[2] Hathaway, Dona A; Shapiro, Scott J. The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. (Simon & Schuster. NY, NY, 2017).

[3] Seth Jones and Heather Conley. “Russian Active Measures: Past, Present, and Future.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. (12 June 2018). https://www.csis.org/analysis/russian-active-measures-past-present-and-future

[4] The New World Order or Liberal World Order has produced a number of legal theories built on individual human rights that Russia sees as an attack on their sovereignty. For example, Russia considers the Right to Protect (R2P) as a direct threat to their extraterritorial ambitions. See Anna Kotyashko, Laura Cristina Ferreira-Pereira, Alena Vysotskaya Guedes Vieira. “Normative resistance to responsibility to protect in times of emerging multipolarity: the cases of Brazil and Russia.” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 61:1.(2018).

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

[6] England makes an interesting co-argument. They had largely settled many of their social issues during the Glorious Revolution a century earlier, yet the military officer corps and organization were largely still based on aristocratic tendencies and purchasing commissions even after they lost the American Revolution. They would not reorganize their system of selecting and educating officers until the 1870’s. See Avant below.

[7] Deborah Avant “From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War” International Organization. Vol. 54, No. 1 (Winter, 2000), 41-72

[8] Deborah Avant “From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War”

[9] Paret, Peter. Napoleon and the Revolution in War. In The Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age.

[10] Deborah Avant “From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War”, 43

[11] This is not totally true. The ideas of the Enlightenment had been around in Europe for centuries, and some military reforms in Prussia prior to the Napoleonic Wars owe their genesis to these ideas.

[12] Ronald Inglehart, “The Silent Revolution in Europe: Intergenerational Change in Post-Industrial Societies,” The American Political Science Review 65, no. 4 (1971): 991-1017.

[13] R. Inglehart & C. Welzel, C. Modernization, Culture Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. New York: Cambridge University Press. (2005)

[14] Brogi, Elda & Parcu, Pier & Viola de Azevedo Cunha, Mario.. “Media ownership rules in Europe : a focus on EU Member States' legislation on foreign ownership.” 2017 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328138371_Media_ownership_rules_in_Europe_a_focus_on_EU_Member_States'_legislation_on_foreign_ownership

[15] Amy Chua. “Tribal World: Group Identity is All.” Foreign Affairs. (July/August 2018). https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-06-14/tribal-world; Peter Corning. “’Us’ Versus ‘Them’: The Tribalism Trap.” Institute for the Study of Complex Systems. (7 September 2018). https://complexsystems.org/335/us-versus-them-the-tribalism-trap/

[16] Patrick Wintour. “Russian bid to influence Brexit vote detailed in new US Senate report.” The Guardian. (10 January 2018). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/10/russian-influence-brexit-vote-detailed-us-senate-report; https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf

[17] Laura Ellyn Smith. “Why Russia sees the NRA as key to manipulating American politics.” The Washington Post. (19 December 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/19/why-russia-sees-nra-key-manipulating-american-politics/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5e22279e559c; “Russia trolls 'spreading vaccination misinformation' to create discord.” (24 August 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45294192

[18] There are many other aspects of the New World Order that have had a hand in limiting the utility of direct military conflict. International law generally prohibits nations from keeping the spoils of war as they once had. Also, new tools are available, like economic sanctions, that could be considered acts of war under the Old World Order. See Hathaway, Dona A; Shapiro, Scott J. The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. (Simon & Schuster: NY, 2017).

[19] Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States. https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf

[20] Stanley Wiehnik.. “Nationalism, Liberalism and Human Nature: What Mearsheimer Gets Wrong.” World Values Research 11 (2). (2019). 34-53. http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSPublicationsPapers.jsp