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"The ultimate determinate in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas - a trial of spiritual resolve; the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish and the ideas to which we are dedicated."― Ronald Reagan

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Strategy or tactics? Which one wins wars?

The argument over "who had the best army" in World War 2, seems to be as eternal as the ol' "Tastes Great!" "Less Filling!" beer commercials of old.   As I recently described in my last review on a book defending the British Army in Northwest Europe, seventy years of scholarship do not seem to have settled this issue.

Which brings me to this little volume, written in the early-80s by Martin van Creveld, and still a popular volume with those continuing this debate. Dr. van Creveld makes no bones about his viewpoint that the Wehrmacht was tactically superior to its opponents during World War II, but---I---frankly---am not convinced.

He does a thorough comparison of various aspects of the American and German armies, from doctrine, to officer training to the rewards and promotion system. In all aspects, he considers the German Army, long a pillar of first Prussian and then German society to be far superior to the American Army, which languished in peacetime and was forced to experience a painful process of rapid expansion and equipping to fight both World Wars.

At the company, battalion, and even up to the division level, his argument is hard to refute...for most of the war...probably until late 1943 or early 1944, the German Wehrmacht was the better tactical army. However, the lack of a comprehensive and winnable strategy...outlined in excellent books on the Germany army in 1942 and 1943 by another of my favorite authors, Dr. Robert Citino, tore the guts out of the German army and by 1944, the Allied armies were in many was more operationally and tactically superior.

Using a well developed statistical methodology, Dr. van Crevald, shows that German forces inflicted more casualties on their Allied opponents. However, as the ol' saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, and there are some significant shortfalls in the logic and methodology he uses:

1) Wars are not one by companies, battalions, or even divisions, but by corps, armies and ultimately army groups. In addition, modern wars are won using airpower, seapower, and landpower in a coalition environment. Here the Allies clearly outshone their Axis opponents, although not without some significant and painful lessons learned.

2) Campaigns are not won by single engagements but across the entire battlespace. Allied superiority in air power, naval power, and artillery was often enough to turn the tide in critical situations such as Salerno, Cassino, and Normandy.  In addition, the old saying that amateurs talk tactics while professional talk logistics seems to be very much overlooked or minimized by Dr. van Creveld in his analysis.  The Germans were tactically brilliant, but often began offensives with no clear idea how to sustain them...thereby quickly reaching what Clausewitz termed the "culmination" point where the offensive simply ran out of steam and could no longer be maintained...think Operation Blue in Southern Russia in 1942 or the Ardennes Offensive of 1944 where the German army simply wished or assumed that vital fuel, food, and ammunition would appear to maintain the panzers.

Dr van Crevald, in my opinion, minimizes or denigrates the role of logistics and firepower in modern warfare...as the story goes, maybe the Germans were better fighters, but they were often buried under bombs, artillery, and naval shells that often stopped German efforts in their tracks. By 1944, the argument can be made that Allied divisions measured up quite well against their German counterparts, especially when you consider the fact that the statistical analysis used in this book used a lot of fighting from the Italian theater, where, quite frankly, the best Allied divisions were not deployed.

No offense to those brave veterans, but there really is no comparison of the divisions assigned to Normandy with those assigned to Italy, especially after the more veteran units were siphoned off from the Mediterranean to England for Operation Overlord.

There seems to be a lot of cheery picking comparing Allied infantry divisions with German Panzer or Panzer Grenadier divisions. NOT exactly an apples to apples comparison. I wonder what a comparison of American versus German divisions in the Battle of the Bulge might have shown, hmmm? Or a comparison of German divisions with the 82nd or 101st Airborne?

Ultimately wars are won by strategy and the gathering of all the elements of statecraft to provide a winning war machine. Again, here the Allies clearly were significantly better than their opponents.

This book is often quoted to show the shortcoming in the American Army and the operational dominance of the Wehrmacht, but in the end, the Germans did lose, so the argument seems a moot point...however, as I have learned in my extensive study of military history, the German Army's reputation was built up after the war and much of their doctrine, particularly defensive fighting against the Russians was adopted by the Cold War U.S. Army.  Therefore, the assumption of German tactical superiority has remained for nearly 50 years and is only now being challenged.

I think there is a lot more to be said on the subject.  This is a good volume to start the debate, but in my opinion, is not the definitive answer.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A somewhat defensive view of Monty and his men.

World War 2 history is one of my favorite things...right up with Bacon, John Wayne movies, and eating bacon while watching John Wayne movies.

Recently I have tried to broaden my research to some of those roads less traveled in my library, so to speak, and finally got around to reading this Christmas present...yes, it has been that kind of year.

Mr. Buckley, a true and loyal subject of the Queen, tries to disprove the generally, but not universally, held view among military pundits that the British army was not up to tactical snuff, as it were, when compared to their Wehrmacht counterparts in World War II.  Numerous critiques have been written by highly regarded military historians such as Max Hastings and Carlos D'Este that postulate that the British army was rigid, plodding, and not suited to the high speed mechanized warfare characteristic of World War II.

Mr. Buckley takes strong exception to this, noting quite correctly that the British (and Americans, and Russians) did win the war after all, so they must have been doing a lot right.  However, he seems very defensive in his thesis and quite frankly, has a difficult time making his case.

He makes two interesting observations from the top British leadership that, in his opinion, drove ALL British operational and tactical thinking leading up to June 6, 1944 and beyond...which as he rightly notes, caused a bit of schizophrenia in conducting military operations.  First, Britain had to make a contribution to the Allied victory be engaging and defeating the German military...however, it had to do so with minimal casualties so Britain had an army left after the fighting to keep a seat at the peace table.

By 1944, the American ascendancy in the Western Alliance was pretty much complete, with Ike at the top and the ratio of American to British divisions getting more pronounced every month.  The British, after nearly 5 years of war, were literally running out to troops and needed to preserve as much military power as possible to not only get a seat at the peace table, but ensure the maintenance of the Empire.  This led to an emphasis on firepower over manpower, the dominance of logistics, and the aversion to risky battles that would remind senior leaders of their time at Passchendaele and Ypres in World War One.

AND, of course, there was the influence of Field Marshal Montgomery,  Britain's most influential and notable soldier since Wellington.  Interestingly the author doesn't seem to be enamored with ol' Monty and shows many times how his ego and quest for glory clashed with this American counterparts and put severe strains on the alliance.

Mr. Buckley defends British actions in an interesting manner.  While the British seemed to get bogged down opposite Caen in the weeks following D-Day...launching several futile offensives that usual ended in a bloody slog, he states that the British caused many German casualties (and British ones too) and paved the way for the eventual American breakout and the defeat of the German army in Normandy and subsequent dash across France.  His points about the almost, sorta kinda, successes of attacks such as Operations Goodwood and Epsom seem a little weird, frankly...clearly Monty intended them to be fully successful, not half successful and trying to defend them as anything other than failures seems disingenuous.

Mr. Buckley does offer a blistering critique of Market-Garden which is pithy and well deserved.  The Allies got victory fever in the fall of 1944, and Monty's desire to out-do his American counterparts and march the British into Berlin seems as nuts now as it should have then.  Monty's ego and Ike's wishy-washiness combined to wreck three good airborne divisions and restore German confidence in the fall of 1944.  As Mr. Buckley does correctly point out, logistics alone would have prevented the war from ending in 1944, even before the short-sighted decision to launch Market-Garden instead of clearing the approaches to Antwerp.

Finally, Mr. Buckley tries to offer a balanced assessment of how well the British mastered the modern art of combined arms warfare, with mixed results.  Very often it seems, at least from my reading between the lines, that the British still loved their World War I doctrine of using artillery to clear a path through the enemy for the infantry to follow with their support tanks.  Clearly American generals like Patton understood the cavalry aspects of armored formations as did the Germans, while the British just seemed uncomfortable from departing from their artillery security blanket...so to speak.

As Mr. Buckley points out...Monty could fight a set piece battle better than anyone, and his crossing of the Rhine was probably his magnum opus of the war....yet the Americans hurled themselves headlong over the bridge at Remagen and got over the Rhine with much less fuss.

I actually liked this book, understanding the bi-polar needs of the British army from a political need to minimize casualties versus the military need to win the war makes a lot of decisions more understandable.  I am NOT convinced that the British Army become some tactically adept force, rather I think, as does Mr. Buckley, that the British won through superior firepower and logistics to try and play to their strengths will minimizing their opponents.  While not always elegant or dashing, their army did win and contributed mightily to the final Allied victory.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A book that tries too hard....

This book was highly recommended on Amazon and since I take a keen interest in all things dealing with strategy, thinking about strategy, and thinking about how to think about strategy, I picked it up.

It was good but not great, offered some interesting insights, but no huge revelations, and overall didn't really wow me as much as I thought it would.

In the end, I would say I think the author tries too hard to take a good 100 page doctoral thesis and stretch it out to a 200 page book.

So, what insights does the book offer?  Well, the one that really caught my "hmmmm" was the critique on Clausewitz (cuz you know how I love me some Clausewitz) and how the binary model of Clausewitzian warfare is no longer really applicable.  Fortunately for this author he pays due homage to the masterpiece that is On War...unlike some other poltroons that I have critiqued, but he does raise some very fine points about how warfare is waged today within the overall context of waging war.  AND no, the two are not synonymous.

Mr. Simpson's primary point is that in a world of global media and interconnectedness, two parties waging war are not merely waging combat on each other, they are creating two different narratives of the conflict and then trying to sell them, as it were, to many different audiences, whether it's domestic populations, international organizations, or other countries.  This may seem intuitive on the surface, however, it is a subtle distinction lost on many Western militaries designed to smash the opponent and win military victories.  While this is indeed the job of military forces, in today's world, it's not enough. 

Witness the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel.  Hamas, a terrorist organization, labeled even by THIS administration as a terrorist organization, launches waves of rockets and missiles at Israel.  Israel uses its superior technology to shoot down these weapons, sparing their civilian population and launches a punitive expedition (my term, which I really like!) to wipe out these missile launchers, kill Hamas fighters and leaders, and send a political message to stop launching missiles into Israel. 

From a military point of view, this is a magnificent victory, the Israel Defense Forces protect their people and counter-attack against their enemies.  Sounds logical right?  BUT, in the weird world of leftist, socialist, terrorist loving politics of the UN and far too many useful idiots in America---ISRAEL is the aggressor bombing the poor, helpless Palestinian people.

Why is this so?  Messaging...and the West better wake the hell up because we are doing a horrible job defending Western Civilization and pointing out loud and clear what an evil Islamo-fascist groups like Hamas and ISIS murdering thugs are...but I digress.

Mr. Simpson makes some other interesting points that all orbit around this main thesis, but the book becomes somewhat repetitive and redundant and even the case study he uses seems somewhat contrived.

It was a good book, not as good as the recent work by Hew Strachan, but it has some valid points...fortunately I am good at skimming!