'87 Sir

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

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.