'87 Sir

Thirty years of service ----USNA Class of 1987 '87 Sir

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The German Wehrmacht and fighting a losing war

Why does an army keep fighting a war that is clearly lost?

Can an army escape its history and culture?

How can an army that is nearly always tactically and operationally superior to its opponents still lose a war?

These are all questions that Robert Citino, senior historian at the World War II museum, attempts to answer in the concluding volume of his magnificent trilogy on the German Wehrmacht from 1942-1945.

 The 1942 volume highlights the Wehrmacht really at the height of its prowess and tactical ability.  After 3 years of uninterrupted victories, marred only by the failure to capture Moscow in the winter of 1941, the 1942 summer campaigns in North Africa and Russia show the dazzling brilliance of the German war machine at its height. 

However the disaster at Stalingrad, combined with the British victory at El Alamein turns back the high tide of the Wehrmacht and Germany never again regains the strategic initiative.  1943 brings further disasters at Kursk and the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy and the German Army begins to see a marked decrease in fighting quality as it attempts to hold back a rising Allied tide.

Finally, in this new volume, we see the final demise of the once invincible German military machine as the Allies launch crushing attacks on both fronts, with the Russians destroying an entire German Army Group and the Allies driving the Germans out of Western Europe.  The horrendous losses incurred in the summer of 1944 bleed what little strength remains from the German army and even though a final operational offensive in the West is attempted in December 1944, the historic "Battle of the Bulge", the Panzerwaffe is stalled almost as soon as it rolls west, crippled by logistics, terrain, and eventually, overwhelming Allied airpower.  The outcome of the Ardennes Offensive was never really in doubt, it was just a question of how many German and American soldiers would die.

What makes these books so remarkable is that Citino pulls from his extensive expertise on the German military and way of war, going back to the days of Prussia and Frederick  the Great to provide a narrative of a German officer corps and their military culture which almost worships a cult of Bewegungskrieg or maneuver warfare that ignores the strategic level of war by over optimizing the tactical and operational aspects of war.

Tracing this style of warfare back to the early days of Prussia, Citino outlines how the Prussia/German militaries always planned for a quick decisive war, keenly aware that their country was neither as populous as Russia nor as rich as Britain and was surrounded on all sides by hostile countries.  

Ironically, although traditionally the Germans constantly feared fighting a two-front war against stronger opponents, in both World Wars, but especially World War 2, the Germans waged war on the three countries having the most latent military and economic power.

Interestingly, Citino shows how the Germans never mastered or even tried to master the intricacies of coalition warfare, treating their allies almost as vassal states and not as contributors to an overall plan for victory, especially against the Russians where German allies Hungary and Romania made significant military contributions before seeing the writing on the wall and attempting to change sides in 1944.

Citino pulls no punches and takes a harsh view of the German General Staff and German officer corps for the continuing loyalty to Hitler, which he skewers as he takes apart the various "I told Hitler" memoirs they penned to try and minimize their role in the deaths of millions of German soldiers and civilians as well as millions of Allied soldiers and civilians. 

In the end, the Germans simply did not have the economic power to defeat the combined might of the US, Britain, and Russia.  Hitler's hubris and inability to accept cold hard facts, combined with the Allied policy of unconditional surrender condemned Europe to the long and bloody conflicts of 1944-1945 long after it was apparent that Germany could not win the war.

The operational brilliance of the Wehrmacht, like all innovations in warfare, was not enduring, and by 1944, as these books point out, the Allies had mastered and in many cases surpassed the Wehrmacht's skill for maneuver warfare, and this new capability was multiplied by the economic and logistical power of the Allies, something the German military constantly neglected as an adjunct, instead of the basis of military power.  

The old saying, "amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics" was never more true than in World War 2, where throughout the war the German military often found it's maneuverability limited by a lack of fuel and ammunition.

As a trilogy, these are really Citino's magnum opus on the German Wehrmacht in World War 2.  Well researched and written with a brisk style, they provide a comprehensive and readable account of the German Army from 1942-1945.  

Monday, December 18, 2017

Grouchy Historian's Favorite Books-2017

So this year was a particularly good year for books.  In fact, my best year ever, with 45 books completed.  As usual non-fiction lead the way, but there were several excellent novels this year from my favorite authors.
My good friends at the New York Journal of Books provided many wonderful volumes to read and I am very much looking forward to the books I have already selected for next year.
I provided formal reviews of many of these volumes, they are on my personal page at NYJB.

SO, here we go.   First, non-Fiction

This was by far the winner.  There were some excellent military history books this year, but this one was really firing on all cylinders, as you can tell from my review.

As I noted in my review, the ultimate outcome of World War 2 was very much in doubt, even after the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945.  By that summer, nearly all the combatants were exhausted and war weary, including the United States, and the decision to use the atomic bomb, as this volume shows (AGAIN) was correct not only militarily to reduce American casualties, but in the long run, the atomic bombs and surrender of Japan very likely prevented the annihilation of the Japanese people and culture. 

2nd place was much tougher.  I really, really like all of Citino's work on the Germany Army, armies, and art of war, but this book was surprisingly good for a one volume history.  

This was the only extended campaign of the entire Pacific War and taught the US some very hard earned lessons in combined arms warfare and joint operations.  It does an excellent job of covering the land, air, and sea campaigns, and well as describing the larger issues of leadership and strategy.  If you only read one book on Guadalcanal, this should probably be it.

 Yea, I'm a sucker for Vince Flynn, a really nice guy and great author taken from us too soon.  Fortunately, Kyle Mills has stepped into his BIG shoes and done very, very well at carrying on the story.   This book was particularly good as it appears Mr. Mills is tying up several LONG story arcs while writing a definite page turning thriller.  Mitch Rapp is no robo-hero in this book, but someone who is feeling his age and mortality as well as his sense of duty and honor.  I hope Mr. Mills has something good in store for us next year.

So my runner up just sort of fell into my lap.  I REALLY, REALLY enjoyed Ms. Nagata's The Red Series, which if you haven't read you totally should, it is some of the finest military sci-fi ever.
She made a blanket offer to send an e-book to review and I did.  Every day I read some news article that shows just how prescient she is in this book.  It is a little slow to start, but once the action gets going and the overarching mystery starts to unfold you will find yourself saying "Holy Sh*t" or maybe that's just me.  It is definitely a quick and worthwhile read.  I hope she's also got something in the works for next year.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

75 Years of Greatness

This weekend marks the 75th Anniversary of the U.S. Navy's greatest triumph, the Battle of Midway.

It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most decisive battles in naval history, turning the entire tide of the Pacific War and changing the role of the American Navy from the strategic defense to the strategic offense.  

There has been a great deal of analysis on the importance of this this battle, and I have to agree with the most extreme consensus that without an American victory here, the entire "Germany First" strategy, so crucial to the eventual Allied victory, would have likely died a quick death had the Japanese won and invaded and occupied Midway.

The bravery shown by the American Navy, especially the torpedo squadrons that were almost wiped out to a man, stands as a testament to both the Greatest Generation, and the courage of American Naval Aviators.

So, no Grouchy Historian post would be complete without books, right?

These are three of the standard, yet still some of the best works available.

I highly recommend  the middle volume by my old professor, Dr. Craig Symonds.  He does a great job of revisiting old myths and skewering those naval officers that need skewered, both Japanese and American.  

He basically concludes the battle on June 4, the most critical day of the battle, when American dive bombers sank three Japanese Fleet Carriers in a single attack wave, and when additional air raids are conducted, leading to the loss of a 4th Japanese carrier and the eventual sinking of the USS Yorktown, the battle is essentially decided in a 10 hour period on that day.

All of these are great books, and all Americans should remember the sacrifice of these true American heroes.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Revisionist History..or complete history?

So Memorial Day, which is all about history for me, has caused me to reconsider some long held assumptions about our most important national event, the American Revolution.As anyone who has read this blog knows, I normally despise what I consider revisionist history, i.e., the typical modern claptrap of ethano-gender hash that tries to postulate that women wrote the Declaration of Independence or that the Constitution was appropriated from the Iroquois. However, if one is to be intellectually honest, most history is biased one way or the other, and the trick, as I tell my tutoring students, is to understand as much as possible the bias of the author. Good historians, of course, recognize and acknowledge their own biases and inform their readers.

SO, with that in mind, I have been reading two really outstanding books on the American Revolutionary period.

Now both of these books would be considered revisionist in nature, as they offer a very different perspective on the traditional understanding of the American Revolution.

Although some would consider their views that our Founding Fathers were a bunch of racist, greedy, misogynists to be validated by these books, I would strongly disagree.

Unfortunately, our history has turned our Founders into some sort of mythical figures, without acknowledging that they were men, with all the flaws and vices that men have. While many of them were certainly slaveholders, and most of them had a somewhat condescending view of common farmers and and laborers, they nonetheless tried to establish an enduring form of government that was certainly not only more egalitarian than anything then in existence, but more importantly, able to change in a non-violent (mostly) and methodical way to suit the mores and needs of the people.

The first of the these books by Alan Taylor  looks at the American Revolution across a more sweeping time period, from right before the French and Indian War to the re-election of Thomas Jefferson.

The author examines a number of under-studied themes, including women, slavery, Indians, and, well greed, as contributors and factors in the forming of America.

He does so without too much polemic and with a generally balanced view of not only the sometimes less than honorable motives of our Patriotic Founders, but the blunders of the British that could have, with only a few small reversals, changed the entire course of the Revolution.

The other interesting narrative is the not well understood history of the Revolution as a global conflict when the French, Dutch, and Spanish enter the war on the colonists side, requiring the British to divert significant resources that could have been brought to bear during the critical last couple years of the war.

Finally, the author shows that even after peace was concluded with Britain, the survival of the democratic experiment called the United States was far from certain. Broke, angry, and bloodied, the colonies nearly split apart and it may not be too far to call it a miracle that they held together long enough for our Constitution to become the law of the land.

The second book by Holger Houck is far darker, but nonetheless a story that needs to be told and understood. Now even I was brought up on stories of the American Revolution as primarily a military affair of brave colonials holding out against the might of the British Empire. Well, clearly that is not the entire story. The American Revolution was a strange amalgam of an insurgency in the classic sense of the word. In fact, it would be a fascinating case study to analyze the Revolution as a successful insurgency, or, from the British perspective, of a COIN operation gone wrong.

Moreover, the American Revolution was in fact, our first civil war, pitting Patriots against Loyalists in often bloody, nasty conflicts that saw widespread terror and atrocities across the colonies, from the practice of tarring and feathering, to throwing Loyalists into prison without trial, to brutalities against women on both sides, and other things that traditional histories chose not to cover.

This author wonders down the typical liberal polemic in his introduction, but not too far, as he has to acknowledge that America had no guillotine, but it was not a clean war to be sure.

I might not start a comprehensive study of this time with these two books, I think John Ferling has some far better books for new students to this topic, but for the more experienced reader, these are very thought-provoking books that are very worthwhile.

They will definitely make you think and re-consider what you thought you knew---and that, after all is not revisionist history, but good history that goes deeper and challenges conventional wisdom.

That is history that I like.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Real books, not Facebook

Greetings everyone,

So I took a Lenten sabbatical from social media and (gasp) survived. Yup, no Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for 40 days. AND, in addition, I gave up watching TV during the week. OK, mostly during the week, my wife loves watching The Voice, and it became our little guilty pleasure, but for the MOST part I gave up TV except for the weekends. I decided to test the theory of this article about cutting down on social media and picking up on your reading. During this time I tried to make it through my pile of selected books, which I was remarkably successful.

Well, what did this experience teach me?

· Clausewitz was definitely right when he said-“Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain.” The never ending news cycle about Russians, wiretapping, and other malfeasance was fascinating to watch from a distance as Democrats desperately tried to turn Donald Trump into the Manchurian Candidate and ended up highlighting the shady surveillance practices of the Obamabots. Here’s a newsflash—there ain’t nothing on Trump. Believe me, if there was, it would have been leaked by now. Guaranteed. There will continue to be accusations, innuendo, and rumbling by Democrats desperate to deflect attention from a horrible candidate that ran a lackluster campaign. But in the end, it will fizzle out. It appears to be already happening.

· TV and movies have, for the most part, become almost recycled drivel. Yes, there are some very good television shows, I would almost agree with the assessment that there is FAR more creativity in the TV industry than movies. However, Hollywood seems to be stuck in a rut of remakes, superhero movies, and other schlock that certainly does not make me want to part with my $15 to see.

· Even social media is, well, just not that interesting anymore. Yes, it’s good to keep up with people, and I do enjoy a good puppy video as much as the next guy, but ALL the vitriol and drama in the wake of the election was just exhausting. I mean people came unglued and lost their freakin’ minds…all on the left, of course. It was like the Visogoths were at the gates. Yet life went on, people went to work, babies were born, and...yes...the wheels of government continued to turn.  Needless to say, I think I will be avoiding the drama of prolonged political discussions on Facebook. Too much time and energy to waste yelling past each other. In the end, people will vote and think the way they do and I certainly do not entertain any illusion of changing a hard-core lefty’s worldview with my incisive wit and sarcasm.  And, well, at some point, I just get tired of being called a patriarchal, privileged white guy who only gets up in the morning to oppress women, minorities, and puppies, while polluting the environment with my carbon footprint and not understanding the genius of Lena Dunham and Ashley Judd. 

· MOST IMPORTANTLY, There are SO many good books to read. Dang, my reading list never seems to end. Which is good. I have already had some fantastic books to review from my friends at the New York Journal of Books, and look forward to several more. In addition, I am hoping, since it is the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into the “War to End All Wars” (yea, that worked out well) that there will be many good books about the last two years of World War I and the American experience and contribution.  I've made it about halfway through my stack above and hope to finish these off before summer.  I have already put more in the queue.  

So take it from me, put down the Facebook and pick up a real book...you'll thank me.