“War, not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love, eradicating in the crucible of necessity all which is base and ignoble.”
- Steven Pressfield
He had no idea at the time, but as he walked towards the Washington D.C. Munitions Building on a typically gritty October morning in 1943, Jack Singlaub was on his way to forever change the way modern militaries engage in warfare. Singlaub was volunteering for duty. For what duty exactly he wasn’t at all sure. All he knew was that some outfit called the Office of Strategic Services had put out a call asking for volunteers from the armed forces with some proficiency in foreign languages. As Singlaub spoke some French, he decided to have a go at it.
After all, the opportunity seemed to offer something out of the ordinary Army experience, an experience imposed by the Second World War on boys who “had grown up, many of them, without enough to eat, with holes in the soles of their shoes, with ragged sweaters and no car and often not a radio.” Singlaub probably decided that there was “a better way of getting through the Army than hanging around with the sad excuses for soldiers [he] met in the recruiting depots of basic training.”1 So Singlaub sought to join what he figured was an elite unit of some kind.
At that point all Singlaub knew about this particular Office, the OSS, was that it was involved in secretive intelligence and sabotage missions, and was led by the now legendary “Wild Bill” Donovan, a charismatic Wall Street lawyer “with the kind of blue-blood, Ivy League connections” that were common to intelligence work back during its heyday.2
Because of these privileged connections, the setting the OSS’s main training camp – the immaculate and expansive flora of the Congressional Country Club – wasn’t horribly unnerving for most of the OSS’s General Staff. But for Singlaub, at that point a blue-collar airborne lieutenant who’d grown up hunting fishing and camping and who was making his way through the ROTC program at college before the war cut his collegiate education short, the creamy leather chairs and the neck-craning crystal chandeliers of the Congressional Country Club were as unnerving as the unknown secrecy of whatever duty he’d volunteered blind for.
He was soon able to relax on both accounts. Although the highest leadership of the OSS may have drawn heavily upon America’s well-connected upper-crust and many of its officers did come from these rich strata, gathered around him were many men who looked as if they shared the same backwoods country upbringing as himself.
Around him were arrayed a group of men as blue-collar as they were diverse: lumberjacks, cattle-ranchers, whiskey tasters, foundry workers, coaches, even the odd Hollywood stuntman, a tennis pro, and a taxi driver. And the mission Singlaub was presented with couldn’t have appealed to him more.
“You’ve been brought here,” the imposing Colonel welcoming Singlaub and his fellow volunteers began, “to evaluate your suitability for combat duty with resistance groups in enemy-occupied areas… I’m talking about guerrilla warfare, espionage, and sabotage. Obviously, no one doubts your courage, but we have to make certain you possess the qualities needed for a type of operation never before attempted on the scale we envision.”
“Guerrillas,” the anonymous Colonel continued, “move fast, operating mainly at night, then disperse into the countryside and reassemble miles away. The skills required of a guerrilla leader will be the same as those shown by the best backwoods fighters and Indian scouts.”3 This evocation of Indians, the very first forces Americans ever battled against, during a speech meant to open a new chapter of the American military story was probably much more apt than the colonel realized, and spoke much louder of an essential American historical truth than he perhaps intended.
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Whatever the nooks and crannies in the debate over today’s modern American imperialism, America as we know her today was raised and nurtured by the concept of empire. It was “as both a dream and a fact the American Empire was born before the United States4 in the outward push made by an “embryonic nation that hugged the eastern seaboard of North America [that] had found it intolerable that the guns of European powers should be at its rear.” And so it was “small groups of frontiersmen, separated from each other by great distances, making alliances with some Indian tribes and buying the neutrality of others” who consolidated the western territories which had to that point been “nothing less than the imperial possessions of Washington, D.C.”5
These frontiersmen and the Indians they co-opted or confronted “provided just enough weight to turn and keep the balance American” in an unsettled imperialist drama with “delicate equipoises,” which were “constantly oscillating.”6
Imperialism, it has been said, “is but a form of isolationism, in which the demand for absolute, undefiled security at home leads one to conquer the world, and in the process to become subject to all the world’s anxieties.”7 This theory, the events following 9/11 are bearing out, may be as applicable to America’s place in eighteenth-century North America as it is to her place in today’s unsteadily globalizing world. A similarity which creates a parallel that causes the twenty-first century to look strikingly like the middle and latter half of the nineteenth, “when volunteer cavalry and dragoons subdued a panoply of mobile guerrilla forces, composed of different North American Indian tribes, operating throughout the new American empire west of the Mississippi River.” It’s just that today the tribes are no longer Indian, but Afghan and Iraqi. Before the States were United, or even founded, the spirit of what we now know as the American military had a defining moment: Fighting the Indians.8