The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
THE Chinese proudly call themselves pacifists and assert this title as a proof of the superiority of their civilization. Their long spells of civil warfare do not daunt their assertion, and indeed this has nothing incongruous in it.
The Chinese are actually more pacifist than many so-called pacifists in the west, most of whom would in extremis defend peace by force, no matter how inconsistent such conduct appeared. In general the Chinese will not resort to violence in defense of any principle, let alone the principle of peace. Nevertheless they are not so pacifist that they will not fight courageously when they are involved in a vital personal or material interest. Even then, unlike western peoples, they will seek to impress their will by indirect methods, ceaselessly persistent and infinitely patient. A favorable decision promptly and abruptly reached is less pleasing to the Chinese than a decision obtained after circumlocution. I would therefore call the Chinese practical pacifists.
A glance at Chinese history is proof of the characteristic flavor of Chinese pacifism. The early wars of China were practically all defensive, and passively defensive at that. The few aggressive wars filled in political vacuums created in neighboring countries by internal dissension. These aggressions followed intrigues started by the Chinese and the military feature of the conquest consisted only of an expedition of occupation. Such wars required no great military skill, and developed none. Thus the Chinese have no military history worthy of scientific study. They tend to discontinue all military preparation during the intervals between enforced combat. The only military traditions which have grown up are those which surround legendary characters whose glory lay in miraculous performance rather than human martial accomplishment.
In recent years the idea has been sedulously cultivated in the west that China has suddenly emerged from military helplessness into a westernized nation of trained soldiers in arms. Nothing could be further from the truth.
No marked progress is to be noted either in the manufacture or tactical use of materiel. Few lessons of the World War have as yet found practical application in China. The most notable improvement lies in the increased employment of machine guns. In quality and quantity, however, these do not compare with like weapons in western armies. Extensive use has been made of the trench mortar because it is cheap and easy to manufacture. A serious attempt at Mukden to add to its range and accuracy, with a view to its replacing the light gun and the howitzer, has had the inevitable result of destroying its virtues without filling the need for accurate field pieces. The artillery arm has stood still, both as to material and tactical knowledge, since 1925, when the Manchurian armies manifested considerable interest in it. Furthermore, gas is a weapon only vaguely understood by the leaders and a worn-out bugaboo to the soldiers. A few gas shells were fired under Russian direction during a picturesque siege in 1927, but they were quite innocuous, and excited only the cynical amusement of orthodox artillerymen. Finally, in spite of the publicity about aviation development in China, military aviation equipment is still in the period of transition from military stage property to a moral auxiliary. It has not generally been accepted as a necessary arm, and the soldiers, judging from the inferior aviation performances they have observed, consider it an overrated scarecrow.
Quality of personnel has changed even less than that of materiel. The Chinese soldier is the most docile material from which to build a disciplined unit. He will stand an indefinite amount of hardship and discomfort without grumbling. He can march tremendous distances on footgear that would ruin a western soldier in the first mile. Whereas our own soldiers wear themselves out nervously during rests and while engaged in duties which to them seem useless, the Chinese soldier recuperates as soon as physical exertion ceases. He cares little where he is or how long he stays, provided he has the bare necessities of food and clothing. He does not worry, as does the American soldier, about the difficulties or shortcomings of the hierarchy of command, from the squad leader to the President.
By the same token, however, the Chinese soldier is too content with his just-sufficient rice bowl. He is as willing to be a well-fed straggler as a well-fed victor. He is seldom desirous of ending his own job by contributing generously to an ultimate decision. This attitude has probably grown strong through years of civil strife in which the enemy is just another man like himself earning a precarious living. In fact his leaders are usually concerned with the same struggle for livelihood, though on a different scale. He remembers few instances when the enemy whom he faced represented a menace to his livelihood. Therefore, why despatch him? Even bandits are victims of ever-recurring hunger, like himself, and hence are not men to be eradicated unless -- and this is important -- the soldier is fighting in his own neighborhood, in defense of his own people. In this case he is an admirable and desperate fighter and the bandit receives no quarter. This same spirit pervades all ranks.
Where the vital, personal interest exists, or can be made to appear to exist, remarkable demonstrations of fighting spirit have temporarily been developed, even by unscrupulous leaders for unscrupulous ends. Ideal causes are not sufficient to stir such spirit. The appeal must be made on the score that a menace exists which affects the material livelihood of the individuals concerned.
This was the case with the Nationalist Revolution of 1926-27 which led to the establishment of the present government at Nanking. It is from this example that some of the current misconceptions arise about the Chinese as a fighting man. Militarily the movement was directed by Soviet Russians with a genius for politico-military organization. Under their guidance the Nationalists scored a series of military victories in the western manner. The question therefore arises: What fired the Chinese into these seemingly un-Chinese ebullitions?
The slogans of nationalism, internationalism, anti-imperialism, and other abstract principles were designed only for foreign consumption. What inspired the Nationalist soldiery with a crusade-like enthusiasm was the conviction imposed on them by Russian-trained army agitators that the northern militarists against whom they were opposed were directly and personally responsible for the prevailing hunger and economic pinch. This conviction was later imposed in regard to foreigners. In such a belief the Nationalist troops shed their apathy and pacifism and fought with fervor. Even civilians lent them aid and comfort -- truly a strange happening in China. In the face of this unfamiliar phenomenon, the northern soldiers, though by nature more determined fighters, generally walked away, because they had no corresponding incitement to depart from their traditional attitude toward civil strife. They furnished no test of the combat efficiency of the Nationalists.
The martial spirit quickly subsided, as it always does subside in China when victories cease to be assumed and have to be fought for. When the Russians withdrew, the series of military victories soon turned, under purely Chinese direction, into a dull process of military absorption. Today these swollen, once-revolutionary armies are in the painful throes of digesting all previously existing units. The martial spirit of today is only a labored imitation of that of 1926-27. There are no convincing signs that the present Chinese military establishment has dug its roots deeper than the familiar subsoil in Chinese nature which contains only those pacifist elements that ultimately destroy military vitality.
This basic truth of the reality of Chinese pacifism thus applies no less to present-day China than to traditional China. Of never-ending pride among the people is the status of the soldier at the bottom of the traditional social scale. Scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants range above him in that order. This contempt for the military caste remains in marked contrast with Japanese reverence for the fighting man. Though of recent years there has been a gradual shifting of power from civil to military officials, the ingrained distaste for the profession of arms persists. And although the unification of the country is still not thoroughly effected, there is a well-defined struggle in Nationalist government circles at Nanking to reassert the Chinese ideal of debasing the soldier.
It is true that many sons of prominent families are undergoing the modicum of training necessary to enter the army. They do so with hesitancy and ill-disguised contempt for the calling. Their object is to use the military establishment as the base from which to ascend to their real goal: an honorable civil and administrative post. Very seldom, if ever, do sons of influential families accept minor commands with a view to learning the military profession. They inevitably gravitate to semi-political staff positions in order to avoid the rough atmosphere of troops and to be closer to the administrative milieu in which they are really at home.
The absence of any relish for combat among the Chinese is evidenced by their general antipathy for vigorous games and sports. Chinese children dislike rough forms of play. They engage in games requiring physical exertion only when urged to do so. In modern schools I have seen a large circle of children stand throughout a whole recess while a football was knocked about. The ball never reached certain children, but, instead of dashing after it, they stood by patiently, showing the discipline and docility which in later years manifests itself in place of initiative and physical aggressiveness.
Neither youths nor adults hunt or fish for pleasure. Chinese men avoid any unnecessary exertion and enjoy only such tests of skill as are not combined with the exercise of physical vigor. Horseback riding for pleasure is engaged in only by the Mohammedans in the west, who generally have strains of alien blood. Save for the crudest forms of transport, horses receive no training at all. Cavalry is only mounted infantry. I have never heard of or seen riding instruction which aimed at anything more than overcoming the hazards of sticking on.
The character of military training, when not directly influenced by foreigners, is an index to the absence of martial spirit. Chinese armies are merely the stage property of political leaders. The training of Chinese troops follows more nearly the principles of stage direction of chorus men and "supers" than of the creation of fighting men. The form's the thing. Day after day, for long hours, one can observe Chinese troops repeating elementary drills as a ritual. Six hours of meaningless drill-ground exercises is not an infrequent schedule. Endless repetition can be ordered and done only by persons whose minds are engrossed with non-essentials.
Some units do set pieces of extended order manœuvres, but these are executed with an eye to the precision of textbook diagrams rather than to the spirit of the assumed situation. Field exercises and manœuvres simulating war situations are practically never held. Target practice as we know it is non-existent. Even if the lack of ammunition supplies did not bar small arms practice, there would be few officers competent to supervise it. In the majority of units the rifling of the weapons becomes so worn by dry-cleaning with sand and grit that dispersion would render practice uninstructive.
The native Chinese development of calisthenics is superior to anything known in the west from the point of view of gymnastics. The art of boxing is to miss the opponent by a hair rather than to place a blow. The same principle applies to military exercises. Bayonet drill, when not influenced by the vigorous Japanese methods, grows to resemble a dance of fairies, interspersed with good-natured clashing of wands. A Chinese company in any of the good divisions could furnish a vaudeville team which would gain enthusiastic applause anywhere. I once saw a company end its drill with each man doing three giant swings on a horizontal bar. At my school a cadet who could do the giant swing was a hero. Shadow fighting with ancient weapons by individuals and teams is both intricate and beautiful. Highly conventionalized sparring with various combinations of swords, spears, battle axes, and jointed spars is a magnificent exhibition and demands infinite training. Full of clashing action and noise, it is thrilling to observe. Oddly enough, however, such training is "sound and fury, signifying nothing." The aim seems to be deliberately to expunge the spirit of the fighter despatching his opponent in the refinement of action with which the stage falls of heroines are executed.
Soldiers who in military exercises put grace, attitude, rhythm, and precision in the place of ferocious lunges with intent to kill are artists and actors rather than soldiers. Intelligent Chinese would proudly assert the truth of this observation and offer it as another proof of their superior culture.
There is no purely native method of modern training. Methods in use today are either Japanese or Japanese with slight modifications. These were so well established before the Russian period of influence (1922-27) that they were readopted after the Russian officers withdrew. Practically all drill and training manuals are translations from the Japanese. The unofficial German mission which came to China in 1928 under the late Colonel Bauer, chief of staff to General Ludendorff in the World War, promised to have great effect upon the spirit and methods of training in Chiang Kai-shek's group of Nationalist armies, owing to the dynamic influence of Bauer himself. With Bauer gone (he died of smallpox about eighteen months ago), German influence will probably be limited and localized.
The confusion which arises in foreign minds in following the unexpected and unintelligible turns taken by Chinese wars is due to the fact that they are military operations only superficially. Basically they are economic struggles conducted by men who are not soldiers, in behalf of causes which are ultimately based on pressing material interest, personal or group, which force the Chinese out of their normal pacific course. It is lack of understanding of the purpose of Chinese armies and the object of their wars which gives rise to certain stereotyped humor by passing travellers concerning Chinese soldiers. In so far as this humor expresses the essentially non-martial character of the soldiers, it is an accurate reflection of the facts. When the suggestion of lack of physical courage is added, the observations are superficial. I refer to such remarks as that the fleeting loyalty of Chinese soldiers represents baseness of character. Soldiering in China is an occupation; Chinese fight ever so unwisely but with most admirable fearlessness when that occupation, or any other vital, personal interest, is imperilled. The Chinese soldier cannot be charged with disloyalty when he shifts sides, any more than a speculator can be so charged when he changes from a bull into a bear. Livelihood is involved, but no discernible principle.
I have attempted to show some of the reasons for my belief that by nature the Chinese have never been and are not now a warlike people; that they have developed no scientific military traditions; and that what seems today to be a very impressive military development is merely a recurring phenomenon, deplorable to the Chinese themselves, in which ill-adjusted economic conditions have given rise to struggles which superficially express themselves in military rather than political and commercial competition.
At heart the Chinese believe that the continuance of their race, that sacred and instinctive urge which grips them so strangely, will not be accomplished by the exercise of military qualities. Their confident faith in their destiny seems to lie in their one-mindedness, patience, and persistence. It is expressed in a locust-like mass momentum and propagation.
The very qualities which make cohesive and continuous military effort impossible to the Chinese appear to render them impregnable in passive resistance. Through the centuries the potential force of the Chinese has remained intact while the directionless resort to arms by more martial and virile peoples has destroyed or weakened them in rapid succession. This is why Chinese statesmen and youthful unprofessional Chinese generals smile contemptuously at the perfection of western militarism. Their lack of emulation is due to their feeling that it cannot improve upon the superiority of Chinese racial persistency. It may be pardoned China's leaders if they pretend to imitate and even to better western military spirit and practice. A useful purpose is sometimes served because the west is apt to accept make-believe as reality. This was demonstrated during the operations against Soviet Russia along the Chinese Eastern Railway. But Moscow and Tokyo knew better.
Will Chinese biological evolution tend backward toward more primitive forms? In other words, will China witness the growth of a martial spirit? This is speculation, but if martial spirit does grow, the development will be a slow process. It will not necessarily be a concomitant of the present rapid social and political change. It will be the result of a fundamental change in national character. Given money, equipment and training there is no doubt that a first class fighting machine can be made of, say, 20,000 Bulgars or Turks. The same cannot be said of 20,000 Chinese, without numerous qualifications. The difference has nothing to do with physical stamina, courage, or intelligence. It is spiritual, or possibly intellectual, and may be loosely summed up in those racial qualities which create a natural antipathy for joining battle with an enemy instead of a relish for combat. Eagles grow in time from the puniest eaglets, but in spite of the fondest hopes and the most patient training, doves snap ineffectually at hawks, and never find pleasure in it. I have never heard of a Chinese militarist, even of the feudalist type, who did not prefer philosophic conversation to "soldier talk," who at heart was not a man of peace.