Credit where credit is due: Make America Great Again was a brilliant slogan, precisely because nobody knew what it meant. Was it about bringing back jobs in manufacturing? Was it about restoring straight, white, Christian men to what some of them thought was their natural position of social dominance? MAGA became all-purpose code for reversing whatever was bugging you about 21st-century America.
And one important strain of MAGAism was and is the belief that wokeness is making America militarily weak. Back in 2021 Senator Ted Cruz famously shared a video comparing Russian military ads, which feature manly men doing manly things, with a U.S. ad telling the story of a female recruit raised by two mothers. “Perhaps a weak, emasculated military is not the best idea,” Cruz declared.
Remarkably, the idea that wokeness makes us weak has persisted despite the failures of the decidedly un-woke Russian military in Ukraine. Senator Tom Cotton, who has published a book titled “Only the Strong: Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power,” recently declared that “soldiers join the army to kill the bad guys — not to learn to speak like they’re in a faculty lounge.”
OK, there are so many things wrong with this worldview that it’s hard to know where to begin. National power in the modern world has far more to do with economic strength than it does with military might and also reflects “soft power” — the influence of a country’s values and culture. Even when it comes to military prowess, modern wars don’t involve much hand-to-hand combat among guys with bulging muscles. What they involve, mainly, are strategic duels using long-range weapons, aided by a lot of technology. And winning such duels surely depends in part on having leadership that is smart and well informed — that is, an officer corps that has indeed learned to speak as if it’s in a faculty lounge.
I’m not saying that modern war is like a video game. If you need evidence both of that and of the importance of a smart, dedicated military, I’d recommend a recent depiction by Illia Ponomarenko of The Kyiv Independent of the brutal, terrifying fighting currently underway for Bakhmut. Courage and stamina are as important as they ever were. But bicep-flexing and bombast, not so much.
In that case, however, what does determine military power? Obviously, I’m not a defense expert. But I do know something about applied math — and contemporary wars are, to a large extent, about arithmetic.
Even before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine I was a fan of the military historian Phillips O’Brien, whose 2015 book about World War II, “