The wars of the ancient Israelites follow a distinct pattern, especially when the Israelites lose. After a defeat, there are inevitably claims that God had withheld His favor on account of impiety among His people; the solution, obviously, being to redouble their religious devotions. With their faith reinvigorated, the Israelites then march out again and overcome their adversaries.
To one skeptical of religion, this looks suspiciously like either superstition or propaganda. The hand of God did not actually give victory to the Israelites, but saying that it did certainly bolsters the case for believing in Him. Indeed, a god who does not promise victory (provided he has anything to do with war at all) is rather hard to find.
This is not by accident. Whether the gods exist or not, increased religious devotion could actually help in battle, making the difference between victory and defeat.
Picture an standard ancient battlefield: two armies facing each other on an open plain. At the sound of trumpets the troops advance, first at a brisk walk, then at a jog. When the two sides get close enough, they stop and form battle lines. The rank and file exchange poorly-aimed blows or missiles, while well-armed officers duel. Very few people die, and when a man does fall, the troops standing behind him step forward to fill the space he left. On the flanks, squadrons of mounted nobles throw javelins or shoot arrows or perhaps charge at each other and fight with swords and spears—at least until they get tired of it and take a break. The battle isn’t exactly a picnic, but for the most part the only people seriously risking their lives are the highly-trained and well-equipped aristocrats who declared the war in the first place.
There is no grand, Hollywood-style mêlée for fairly straightforward reasons. For one, in a mêlée you can’t tell friend from foe, whom you’re supposed to defend and whom you’re supposed to kill. It’s also much easier to defend yourself and your friends if you’re all in a close formation. People don’t want to die, and they don’t generally want to kill either, so they leave the deadly fighting to the professionals. Fatigue is also a major factor: even the officers and nobles can’t fight hand-to-hand in heavy armor for more than a few minutes at a time.
This happy equilibrium usually collapses quite suddenly. If one side’s cavalry drives their counterparts from the field and turns on the enemy infantry, the foot soldiers, threatened from the front and the rear, will run away. Alternatively, if an officer falls in a particularly spectacular fashion, the troops around him may give up hope and flee. Or the soldiers in the rear could simply decide to turn tail and run; lacking support, the men in the front ranks follow. At this point, the victorious army commences pursuit and kills a great many of the enemy soldiers, who are now more interested in getting away than in actively defending themselves.
Morale was the primary deciding factor in an ancient battle. Superior equipment or fighting skills certainly helped, as did effective use of terrain and combined arms, surprise and stratagem, and just pure dumb luck (the favor of the gods, indeed), but all of these were in practice simply more effective means of driving the enemy off the field, of convincing him that to continue resisting was pointless. As long as an army retained its formation, the casualties it suffered were dramatically lower than if it broke and ran. Bloody battles of attrition like Cannae were the rare exception, not the general rule.
Ancient armies had a variety of techniques for bolstering morale. One was to place older, more experienced troops in the rear, where they could keep the greener fighters from slinking off. Having aristocrats or even well-trained commoners serving as officers was another method: with their distinctive equipment they could serve as rallying points and would inspire confidence by their mere presence. On the flip side, an officer’s death could cause morale to plummet. With aristocratic officers, bonds of patronage also held soldiers in place: the noblemen supported them in peacetime, so they returned the favor in war.
Beloved generals could use their troops regard for them to great effect as well. At the battle of Orchomenos in 85 B.C., Sulla ran to where his soldiers were fleeing, climbed upon a rock, and shouted, “When they ask you where it was that you left you commander in the lurch, you may tell them it was at Orchomenos.” Sulla’s soldiers were ashamed to disappoint their general, so they resumed fighting and won the battle. Some commanders, such as Alexander the Great, actually did engage in combat, but the general’s presence was far more important than his prowess.
The core of morale, however, was assabiyah. A soldier fought for the men standing beside him, men who come from the same country, who speak the same language, who pray to the same gods. These were the same ties that bound a community together; indeed, an ancient army was a microcosm of the soldiers’ society.
So when a people met defeat in battle, a likely explanation was that their group feeling was weak; if assabiyah had been strong, they wouldn’t have run away and been beaten. At the very least, strengthening assabiyah couldn’t hurt anything. Thus, charges of impiety and renewal of religious devotion.
There were dangers, however. Specifically ginning up fervor could easily go too far: the Romans, for instance, loathed the Carthaginians for engaging in the barbarity of human sacrifices (gladiatorial shows didn’t count), but after repeated defeats by Hannibal, the Romans revived that ancient practice for that one special occasion.
Modern weaponry has substantially diminished the importance of morale in war. In times gone by, valor could at least be said to carry the day; now, fighting spirit is one of numerous factors a commander must consider. This does not mean that morale is unimportant, but merely that it does not even come close to deciding battles all by itself.
The old ways don’t die easily, however.
Democratic politics provides a venue for recurring conflict and runs a very grave risk for it. Though a democracy exists to ensure the supremacy of one faction over its rivals, those rivals are still allowed to participate in politics, in effect tricking them into accepting a subordinate role by holding out the vain hope that they might one day win power for themselves. This means that the submissive faction is supposed to keep losing over and over while still believing in the system that disempowers them. Eventually they’ll wise up.
Repeatedly trying to win elections and influence policy and failing results in the same response as marching out to battle and losing: mutual recriminations and holiness spirals. Newer, more ideologically extreme candidates emerge and win prominence. However, because winning elections often requires broad appeal, these extreme candidates aren’t much more successful at the ballot box, and when they do attain office, since governing effectively requires compromise, they don’t accomplish very much. And so the cycle continues.
Ideally, when a people or political faction keeps losing, it changes its approach to the conflict, as well, since mere team spirit is often insufficient. The Romans’ adoption of the Fabian strategy was probably more effective at defeating Hannibal than burying a poor, innocent Gaul alive. In a democracy, this means that the repeated losers will decide to stage a coup, a move which can win short-term success but doesn’t work as well in the long run.
The case of the oligarchs of Athens is instructive. The Alcmaeonidae established the democracy to assure their own supremacy in Athenian politics, and their rivals kept trying to seize power. Building alternative institutions failed when the democrats struck back and defanged them, and playing politics according to the democrats’ rules went nowhere. In 411 B.C., extreme oligarchs attempted to stage a coup but were quashed by the democrats and moderate oligarchs; the regime of the Thirty Tyrants was predicated on Spartan support which failed to materialize. After the civil war, the democrats had had enough of the oligarchic party and drove its up-and-coming leaders out of politics. These young ideologues were forced to express their views through only literature and philosophy.
Today, we have conservatives as the perpetual losers. Name a major conservative victory from the past fifty years, if you can, outside the venue of gun rights. The Republican Party establishment shrewdly encouraged and rode the wave of opposition to Obama but would much prefer that right-wing extremists just vote Republican and nothing else. Donald Trump is a threat to them simply because he rallies the crazies. When the Republicans lose their bid for the presidency again next year, there will be even more disenchantment with political affairs among those of us over on the Right. Anger and resentment won’t be the only emotion results; zeal will be another.
The trick will be in channeling this righteous fury in constructive directions and not into electoral politics.