'87 Sir

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

Friday, April 27, 2012

Brain Break

Yes, it's time for another brain break from your Grouchy Historian, but don't worry, more Clausewitz, Federalist Papers, and serious book reviews coming...I just got Prof Carol Reardon's new book and it's going to be very interesting...

But on to our brain break...yes, my guilty pleasure, the newest JD Robb (aka Nora Roberts) book Celebrity in Death.  As you well know, I have a few guilty pleasures when it comes to my fiction, and JD Robb is probably the guiltiest.  HOWEVER, her new book continues to provide the usual mixture of character, story and witty banter that keeps this series fresh into its 30th or so volume.  Oyyy, it would be nice to have a complete list of the novels, short stories, and audio only books in this series....humph. 

This novel centers around a mystery during the filming of a movie about the Icove case from Origin in Death, which is a very cool tie in if you think about it.  The mystery is pretty well done, although I have to admit, the resolution of the case was not as surprising as it might have been.
Now, I know some people may wonder how an author can keep going after 30 volumes, and I will admit that there are some formulaic aspects to this book.  But, like finely crisp bacon cooked just right, the power of her characters and their interaction keeps you wanting more.  Not to mention the continuity of the story line provides an excellent thread to weave among the individuals mysteries and really makes this series irresistible.  The complex emotional make-up of Eve and Roarke offers nearly endless possibilities, and  Nora R. does an excellent job of diving into their lives in a supremely realistic and sympathetic manner. 

Most importantly, as mentioned in previous posts on these books, Nora R. remains probably the very best writer, in my humble opinion, when it comes to developing secondary characters into heavy players, and having multiple volumes to do so just adds more dimension to their personality.  In particular, I LOVE the interaction  between Peabody and McNab almost as much as the really top notch dialogue between Eve and Roarke.

So, kudos to JD Robb ;) another well done book to help ease the Clausewitz tension and knowing how much JD/Nora is a writing machine...seriously who can write 200 books???  NORA CAN!!  I look forward to many more volumes in the future. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

And now...some Clausewtiz

Clausewitz, like bacon, is something that never ceases to amaze me.  How can I compare salty strips of pork to one of history's greatest military minds you say?  Okay, the comparison is a stretch, but to this Grouchy Historian, there is nothing better than READING Clausewitz while EATING bacon....hmmmmm.

More importantly, Clausewitz continues to fascinate not merely yours truly, but anyone who wants to grapple with the philosophical issues of war, statecraft and the relationship between the "trinity" of Clausewitz:  reason, emotion and chance.

So, how does one read Clausewitz?  Much like one explores a deep cave...carefully, slowly, and hopefully with a flashlight.  SO, on to some really great flash lights, as it were.

In order to understand Clausewitz, one must read On War, his magnum opus.  And then, read it again.  And then, read it again with a highlighter.  Yes, that is repetitious, and yes, I did it on purpose.  I had to read On War three times before I really began to see what Clausewitz was trying to impart in his sometimes laborious 19th century writing style.  Is this a cookbook on warfare?  Hardly.  Much of the book does read like a primer for 19th century dynastic warfare and I don't think anyone needs to figure out how to move cavalry across a river these days...although there was that whole Afghanistan horseback Special Forces thing, but the early chapters offer timeless food for thought for someone trying to understand WAR as opposed to fighting WARS.

I vigorously recommend this translation of On War by Peter Paret.  Paret is one of the leading Clausewitz scholars today and his volume is not only acknowledged as the best translation available, it has excellent supplementary essays and other material as well.

Another volume I highly recommend as a companion is On Clausewitz, a small volume that dissects the major points of On War and provides a sort of Cliffs Notes for the major themes of the work.  And, of course, it uses the Paret volume as the basis for its footnotes, so they go together well.  Between these two volumes, the novice reader can begin to dive into the richness of Clausewitz' theories and begin to digest the timeless themes of On War.

What's fascinating to yours truly is the continued debate within the American military of the themes and issues raised by Clausewitz nearly 200 years ago.  In spite of dramatic changes in technology, tactics and even world politics, the ideas and theories put forth by our Prussian have never been supplanted or replaced, only debated, refined and improved.  A significant debate continues among strategists and military officers about the continuing validity of Clausewitz’ theories regarding warfare, a problem that is amplified not only by the very esoteric and philosophical style of On War, but thoughts and discussions within the book in which Clausewitz seems to contradict himself.  The evolving nature of warfare, terrorism, and state-less conflict would seem to make the volume written about dynastic warfare obsolete....and yet....not so fast.  Although there are indeed some criticisms that can be made, they are not complete or focused.

These criticisms are focused on four of Clausewitz’ major themes:  the notion of limited versus unlimited warfare; the strategic trinity; the center of gravity concept; and the discussion of the ‘People’s War’.  As each of these themes is synthesized and examined, examples will be used from current American military operations in Iraq to demonstrate that although war has changed its ways and means significantly from the Napoleonic era of On War, the enduring nature of war as a political and very human activity remains the same. 

Nearly all of Clausewitz’ modern critics misunderstand the basic purpose of his work, which was not to write a drill manual for combat, but a sophisticated work for thinking about warfare at the strategic level- “This point of view will admit the feasibility of a satisfactory theory of war—one that will be of real service and will never conflict with reality.  It only needs intelligent treatment to make it conform to action, and to end the absurd difference between theory and practice that unreasonable theories has so often evoked.”1

Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 142.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why doesn't the study of military history have a prominent place in the professional development of military and civilian leaders in America today?

     The study of history, particularly military history has languished for three primary reasons:  the general disdain for military history in academic circles; the trend of viewing warfare through the panacea of technology where military history becomes an anachronism; and the difficulty in adequately and logically understanding and using military history as a civilian and military leader.  Although the concerted study and use of military history hit a nadir after Vietnam which continued through the 1990s, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a renewed understanding of the importance of military history, particularly among military officers and civilian policy makers.   Complementing this renewed interest is a broadening of military studies to include not only societal and cultural influences on waging war, but how wars affect people, and how technology, doctrine and training combine to change how wars are waged.  

            After the Vietnam War, many in the academic community viewed military history with a great deal of hostility.  The study of war was considered to somehow “glorify” conflict and killing and was not seen as a topic worthy of study.  Many historians, particularly military historians, attempted to argue that conflict has always been part of the human experience and to neglect the study of war would in fact not serve the public interest.  The rise of ethnic and gender studies caused many academic historians to consider not only military history, but also diplomatic and political history as anachronistic and chauvinistic. [1]

Compounding this issue is the fact that military history has been affected by the unfortunate watering down of history as an overall academic subject.  As Luvass points out in his article, not only is history being mashed into a political correct “social studies” mush, but many students are eschewing history for more “practical” subjects like engineering and finance.  [2]   

 John Lynn takes this observation a step further in essay, stating that the study of military history in an academic setting where future civilian leaders are educated is particularly under siege as universities replace retiring military history professors with practitioners of gender and ethnic studies.  Even when universities have endowed Chairs of military history, they have remained vacant as faculty leadership debates whether they should be filled.  [3]  

            The second trend has been the illusion in many military circles that warfare has changed so much due to nuclear weapons or the development of sophisticated technology that historians and great thinkers like Thucydides, Clausewitz, or Sun Tzu have nothing to offer.  Adding to this illusion is a bureaucracy more attuned to daily training and operations without a great deal of time set aside for officers to contemplate war outside of a command and staff college.  LTG Van Riper noted this trend in the late 1950s and early 1960s when not only the influence of nuclear weapons, but the introduction of systems analysis and operations research into the American officer corps diminished the use of military history in understanding warfare.   Dr. Williamson Murray offered additional insights by noting how military bureaucracies are often loath to critically examine failures and shortfalls in doctrine and tactics.  This is exactly what happened to the American military after Vietnam when the Army and Marine Corps suffered self-induced amnesia on waging counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, returning to the more familiar and straight-forward challenge of stopping a Soviet invasion through the Fulda Gap.  When the American military again found itself conducting COIN operations 30 years later in Iraq and Afghanistan, bitter lessons had to be relearned as well as additional insights gained from other conflicts in recent memory.
The discussion of technology and warfare has been one of the most controversial aspects of military history, particularly in the overarching discussion among historians of the so called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) currently in vogue with many Western military and strategic analysts.  The desire to properly understand the integration of technology and warfare has often led to simplistic and often misleading analyses of how significant a role that technology plays on the battlefield.  The simple assumption that the side with the best weapons wins has been picked apart by many authors, most recently Max Boot, who thoroughly analyzes his self-styled model for four major periods of military technologies shifts, showing that technology itself has little influence on armies or warfare until a doctrinal and cultural epiphany occurs within the military bureaucracy to change the country’s entire mode of warfare to maximize the impact of the technology, rather than attempting to fit the technology into accepted methods of combat.  [4]

            Finally, the study of military history itself presents significant challenges to both civilians and military officers.  Through this chaotic era of the 1960s and 1970s, not only did military historiography change in response to political and military developments, it was also influenced by the forces changing the wider field of historicism and historiography.  The field of history began to change from the study of military battles and leaders to military institutions and the interaction between the military, political leaders and society as a whole.  Consequently, during this period after Vietnam, military historians not only looked at what happened on the battlefield, but why wars occurred, how they affected people and events beyond the battlefield and the influences of culture, ideology, economics and even technology on warfare.  This trend, although it had a positive effect of meeting Sir Michael Howard’s maxim of studying military history in depth, breadth and context, offered significant intellectual challenges to professional students of military history. [5]
     However, all is not lost and this trend appears to be slowly reversing itself.  Military history remains enormously popular among the public and two Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to military histories in 2003 and 2005, with several more volumes being nominated.  In his review essay examining recent trends in both academic and popular history, Dr. Robert Citino critically examines the state of the profession and posits that-“military historians today are doing enough good work, based on exciting and innovative approaches, to re-engage the attention of historians in any number of areas.”[6]

Clearly the fact that schools like American Military University have vibrant programs in military history and military studies show that the personal and professional interest in the subject is alive and well.  Anecdotally, the high percentage of active duty and government personnel taking these courses is proof that the need for a better historical understanding of warfare is certainly understood.  Does the study of military history occupy the place of prominence it should?  Maybe not, but the most significant long-term trend for the study and use of military history by military and civilian leaders may be the preeminence of “national security history.”  The study of warfare can no longer be confined to military matters alone, but will almost always be integrated with political, economic, societal and cultural viewpoints.  Although historians will continue to debate the level of influence of these factors on soldiers and strategy, the fact that warfare is too important to be left to the generals is no longer really in dispute.  Warfare in the 21st century will involve all spectrums of a nation’s power- military, political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural; therefore military history must adapt to remain relevant.

[1] Allan Millett, "American Military History: Clio and Mars as ‘Pards’," in Military History and the Military Profession, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992), 3-22 .
[2] Jay Luvaas, "Military History: Is It Still Practicable?," Parameters (U.S. Army War College), Summer 1995: 82-97.
[3] John Lynn, "The Embattled Future of Academic Military History," The Journal of Military History 61, no. 4 (Oct 1997): 777-789.
[4] Max Boot, War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History 1500 to Today (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2006), 212-240; Jeffrey Clarke, "On the Once and Future RMA," in Recent Themes in Military History: Historians in Conversation, ed. Donald Yerxa, 30-36 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).
[5] Peter Paret, "The Annales School and the History of War," Journal of Military History 73, no. 4 (Oct 2009): 1289-1294;
 [6] Robert Citino, "Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction," The American Historical Review, Oct 2007, http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/112.4/citino.html (accessed Dec 2009).

Monday, April 2, 2012

Fighting a Losing War

The Wehrmact Retreats:  Fighting a Lost War, 1943.  Robert Citino.  Lawrence, KS:  University of Kansas Press, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-7006-1826-2.  Illustrations.  Notes & References.  Bibliography.  Maps.  Index.  Pp. 410.  $34.95.

Let's face it, 1943 is not the most exciting or written about year of World War II in Europe.  Sandwiched between the desperate campaigns of 1942 in Russia that culminated in Stalingrad, and the great desert battles of Rommel's Afrika Korps that led to El Alamein; followed by the momentous invasion of Normandy and the destruction the Germans in Russia during Operation Bagration, 1943 is the poor middle child.  Robert Citino changes all that with his new book.

Using the format and style of his truly groundbreaking work on the Wehrmacht in 1942, this volume is also not written as an operational history, but an operational, cultural, social, and historical analysis of the German army, its officer corps, and their decision making process as they faced the aftermath of the truly disastrous campaigns of 1942.

Two themes really stand out in this book:

1)  The Germans were operationally brilliant, arguably the best operational and tactical army of World War II.  BUT, the Germans had no successful war terminating strategy, that is, no achievable political goal that their military capability could meet.  Given Clausewitz' maxim about the relationship between war and politics, this pretty much left the Germans with NO hope of winning the war after 1942.  Of course, there was also no hope of concluding a successful negotiated peace either, especially after the "Unconditional Surrender" policy of 1943 and the savagery of the war in Russia.  Therefore, brilliant German soldiers such as Manstein, Rommel, and Kesselring could never really accomplish much besides dealing death and destruction.  As Citino points out in no uncertain terms, the German officer corps hitched their wagon to Hitler and now they were stuck with him..to the bitter, bitter end.

2)  Moreover, for all their operational brilliance, the qualitative edge of the Wehrmacht was also beginning to erode.  Although the Wehrmacht whipped the fledgling American Army at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia and even restored the southern Russian front in early 1943, by the end of the year, the Germans were clearly on the defensive and would never mount a strategic offensive again, the whole Ardennes Offensive notwithstanding.  In addition, the clear material advantage of both the American and Russian industrial way of war was beginning to render the elegance of German operational art obsolete.  Waves of Russian infantry and tanks and tons of American firepower pretty much over-matched German ability at maneuver.

What really makes this book stand out is that Citino does an excellent job of bridging 1942 and 1944 and really gives the action of 1943 its due.  The Mediterranean Campaign did become a strategic sideshow on June 6, 1944 and it is sometimes forgotten how difficult that campaign was and the political machinations the Allies went through to try and get Italy to surrender.  Not to mention the ferocious German assault on their former ally as they seized control of the country and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of their former comrades-in-arms.   In addition, Citino continues the reassessment of the Battle of Kursk and its true strategic relevance as not really the greatest tank battle of all time and the turning point of the Eastern Front (Stalingrad really seems the logical turning point to me.)

Moreover, Citino really makes an excellent analysis of how the Mediterranean and Eastern Fronts INTERACTED in 1943, at least from the German point of view.  His chronology comparing events in Sicily, Italy and Russian shows the enormous pressure the Germans were under as they tried to shuffle their dwindling military resources around a truly continental battlespace to try and hold their adversaries at bay.

And of course, I had to think about an interesting speculation of what might have happened had the Germans truly thrown the Allies back into the sea at Salerno, which Citino seems to think could have happened if the Germans had been able to assemble a little more combat power behind the beaches to counterattack.  Although the full weight of Allied naval guns would likely have stopped any attack, even an Anzio like situation could have been very embarrassing to the Allies and had serious down-stream effects on the Allied plans for the amphibious landing in Normandy, something the British were never very enthusiastic about conducting.

This is another truly wonderful operational critique of German military operations, and Dr. Citino's truly encyclopedic knowledge of German military history and culture really go a long way in explaining why the German officer corps continued to serve Hitler and continued to fight what was a clearly losing proposition.

Combine this with the volume on 1942 and you have an excellent grasp of why and how the Wehrmacht conducted combat operations during two of the most critical years of World War II.