Endurance and War: The National Sources of Military Cohesion

  • Published
Endurance and War: The National Sources of Military Cohesion by Jasen J. Castillo. Stanford University Press, 2014, 328 pp.

Scholars and practitioners alike have long attempted to capture the elements that make a fighting force unconquerable regardless of the objective situation. Why do some forces fight on, using every tool in the box and some improvised on the spot, while others collapse at the first hint of adversity? The answer is important if not vital to battlefield success in an unstable world. Endurance and War is among the latest political science / security studies monographs to attempt to answer the question.

Jasen J. Castillo is an assistant professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Rejecting earlier theories, he proposes a new theory to explain why some armies perform better than others. According to Castillo, what he calls cohesion theory better accounts for success than do the currently popular explanations. He selects various episodes in a variety of conflicts with reasonably wide geographic representation to illustrate why some armies persist while others fold their tents and steal quietly away.

According to cohesion theory, two elements determine armies' staying power--the regime's control over the army and the degree of autonomy the forces have in training. Regime control promotes loyalty in civilian and military sectors, and inevitably a hard core of true believers will serve in the military as exemplars or enforcers. Force autonomy allows the military to develop its own norms, methods, and tools.

Within the context of the two elements--regime control and force autonomy--are four types of military, each having a different degree of cohesion. The types are messianic, authoritarian, professional, and apathetic. Messianic armies are zealots, a prime example being the Vietnamese nationalists. Authoritarian forces are represented by the Soviet Union. Americans are professional, and the French in World War II were apathetic after being professional in World War I. Germans went from professional to messianic from one world war to the next.

Castillo argues against straw men, including small-unit bonding, democracy, nationalism, and defense of home territory, all among the current theories of force cohesion and stamina. As he provides example after example of cohesion or lack of it, he reiterates how one or all of these theories falls short in comparison with his cohesion theory. The author finds the best armies to be messianic with strong support from and belief in the regime and a great deal of latitude in developing themselves as autonomous fighting forces. Messianic armies are determined, creative, and capable of fighting regardless of loss of leadership or changing circumstances.

Case studies include Germany in the final months of World War II, France in the early stages of that war, the Soviet Union after the German invasion, North Vietnam from 1965 to 1973, and the United States from 1968 to 1972. Where appropriate, Castillo looks backward to explain the character of each force--for instance, tracking French history back to the determined stands of World War I and the postwar disarray and disillusionment that led to a superiorly armed force with inferior and distrusted leadership and poor enlisted motivation. The demoralized force was slow to react, halfhearted when it did, and easily routed by an inferior force with superior leadership, motivation, and flexibility, leading to a crushing defeat in 1940. Furthermore, a professional force in Vietnam fell despite its competence as belief in the cause faded over time. Simultaneously, a messianic force unable to win much of anything prevailed because of its absolute belief in its cause and its ability to adjust to any circumstance.

In summation Castillo discusses the implications of cohesion theory for the contemporary way of war, the asymmetrical and nebulous battlefield, and messianic forces that confront American professional forces. According to his theory, Americans should lose heart or interest well before the war ends. Professionals fade against messianic forces, he contends. Although the author offers several instances of transformation of an army from one type to another, for good or ill, he does not give a prescription for creating one from another.

Structurally the book is solid. Castillo includes an abundance of maps and tables as well as the customary scholarly trappings--notes, bibliography, and index. Because he eschews jargon, thus maintaining readability for the interested nonacademic professional warrior, he has little need for a glossary and does not provide one.

As with all new theories building on a sample rather than a full range of instances (something that time and length preclude), cohesion theory is vulnerable to criticism from those who claim that the author has cherry-picked his examples or that he has oversimplified them. But this work is an introduction to a new theory, not a synthesis of previous research, and Castillo does lay out flaws of the earlier interpretations systematically, case by case, and almost mechanically as he works his way from one army to the next in his small collection.

A greater concern than the validity and completeness of the sample is that Castillo offers no insights into how one of the deficient armies can overcome its shortcomings against a more determined force. No mechanism exists for changing an army even though some armies in his sample change over time, switching from one type to another due to politics, social conditions, and other factors. He is short on means to instill the messianic impulse, by implication a desirable development if American and Western forces are to stay the course in the long and perpetually inconclusive war against a collection of enemies even less structured than the North Vietnamese. Because the future will probably confront the American professional force with a variety of messianic foes, someone should take Castillo's thesis to the next level down, from theory to technique for overcoming a built-in weakness of professionalism and weakening instead the die-hard foe. Probably the author would have a stronger case had he been able to more directly address the factors that, for instance, changed the French and German armies from one war to the next. Perhaps that sort of exploration would offer at least a hint of guidance for American forces increasingly facing inferior opponents with superior determination and willingness to stay the course regardless of the time or cost.

John H. Barnhill, PhD
Houston, Texas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."