In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I discuss how and why the U.S. military has a sustained record of turning victory (however fleeting) into defeat. What follows is an excerpt from my article.
A Sustained Record of Losing
During World War II, British civilians called the “Yanks” who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender less than a year later) “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” What can be said of today’s Yanks? Perhaps that they’re overfunded, overhyped, and always over there — “there” being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let’s start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global “footprint.” At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America’s Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country’s military “cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that “we are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Yet Trump’s inconsistent calls to downsize Washington’s foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington’s bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president’s tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban — clearly winning and having nothing but time — off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it’s perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a “generational struggle” in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America’s ongoing commitment to South Korea — that is, almost 70 years.
Turning to overfunded, the unofficial motto of the Pentagon budgetary process might be “aim high” and in this they have succeeded admirably. For example, President Trump denounced a proposed Pentagon budget of $733 billion for fiscal year 2020 as “crazy” high. Then he demonstrated his art-of-the-deal skills by suggesting a modest cut to $700 billion, only to compromise with his national security chiefs on a new figure: $750 billion. That eternal flood of money into the Pentagon’s coffers — no matter the political party in power — ensures one thing: that no one in that five-sided building needs to think hard about the disastrous direction of U.S. strategy or the grim results of its wars. The only hard thinking is devoted to how to spend the gigabucks pouring in (and keep more coming).
Instead of getting the most bang for the buck, the Pentagon now gets the most bucks for the least bang. To justify them, America’s defense experts are placing their bets not only on their failing generational war on terror, but also on a revived cold war (now uncapitalized) with China and Russia. Such rivals are no longer simply to be “deterred,” to use a commonplace word from the old (capitalized) Cold War; they must now be “overmatched,” a new Pentagon buzzword that translates into unquestionable military superiority (including newly “usable” nuclear weapons) that may well bring the world closer to annihilation.
Finally, there’s overhyped. Washington leaders of all stripes love to boast of a military that’s “second to none,” of a fighting force that’s the “finest” in history. Recently, Vice President Mike Pence reminded the troops that they are “the best of us.” Indeed you could argue that “support our troops” has become a new American mantra, a national motto as ubiquitous as (and synonymous with) “In God we trust.” But if America’s military truly is the finest fighting force since forever, someone should explain just why it’s failed to produce clear and enduring victories of any significance since World War II.
Despite endless deployments, bottomless funding, and breathless hype, the U.S. military loses — it’s politely called a “stalemate” — with remarkable consistency. America’s privates and lieutenants, the grunts at the bottom, are hardly to blame. The fish, as they say, rots from the head, which in this case means America’s most senior officers. Yet, according to them, often in testimony before Congress, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that military is always making progress. Victory, so they claim, is invariably around the next corner, which they’re constantly turning or getting ready to turn.
Indeed, when three of them were still in Donald Trump’s administration, the pro-war mainstream media unabashedly saluted them as the “adults in the room,” allegedly curbing the worst of the president’s mad impulses. Yet consider the withering critique of veteran reporter William Arkin who recently resigned from NBC News to protest the media’s reflexive support of America’s wars and the warriors who have overseen them. “I find it disheartening,” he wrote, “that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.” NBC News, he concluded in his letter of resignation, has been “emulating the national security state itself — busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.”
Arkin couldn’t be more on target. Moreover, self-styled triumphalist warriors and a cheeringly complicit media are hardly the ideal tools with which to fix a tottering republic, one allegedly founded on the principle of rule by informed citizens, not the national security state.
Last week while getting new tires, I came across the latest Air Force recruiting brochure. Its first line: “The Air Force dominates the sky with speed, precision and air power.”
It’s fascinating to me this emphasis on global domination. During the Cold War, the goal was not to dominate but to deter the Soviet Union, China, and similar rivals. Deterrence suggests rough equality — and some reasonable cap to defense spending. Domination, however, suggests something far different. As Michael Klare has noted, it suggests we must “overmatch” potential rivals; we must be capable of obliterating them, not just deterring and defeating them.
Domination makes perfect sense, of course, if your goal is to maximize “defense” spending. If the U.S. only intended to deter a (much weaker) Russia and (a mainly economic power) China, we could probably do that at half the cost we’re paying now. Imagine saving $350 billion a year and applying it to education, health care, infrastructure, and similar places of need in the USA.
But when the operative word is dominate, your budget is almost open-ended. You can always find (or imagine) a weakness somewhere, a place where we must boost spending. A Space Force, perhaps? Not even the sky is a limit to “dominant” defense spending.
This linguistic turn, from deterrence to dominance, doesn’t get enough attention in our media and culture. Those seeking dominance, no matter what they claim, are much more likely to breed war than to find peace.
Of course, the Air Force recruiting brochure I picked up at the auto shop showed no scenes of war: no bombs being dropped, no missiles being launched, no cities turned to rubble, and of course no casualties. Somehow America’s airmen are supposed to dominate the sky in a bloodless manner, or so our slick recruiting brochures suggest.
Not surprisingly, recruiting brochures don’t show the horrific realities of war. But what they do proudly announce is the U.S. military’s goal of total dominance. Never mind the cost, whether to ourselves or others.
Perhaps the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom at the Pentagon came from retired General David Petraeus in an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in June of 2017. Petraeus spoke of a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan and the need for a “generational struggle” with Islamic terrorists who are located there. Comparing Afghanistan to the U.S. commitment to South Korea, he hinted U.S. troops might be there for 60 or more years (though he backtracked on the 60-year figure when challenged by Woodruff).
Here’s a telling excerpt from his interview:
We need to recognize that we went there [Afghanistan] for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.
That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.
But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.
These statements are so wrongheaded it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them:
The U.S. military went into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban after 9/11. Punishment was administered and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, after which the U.S. military should have left. The decision to stay was foolish and disastrous. Extending a disastrous occupation is only aggravating the folly.
“Transnational extremists”: According to the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region has exploded with terrorist elements, and indeed Petraeus and his fellow generals count twenty or more factions in Afghanistan. In sum, rather than weakening Islamic extremism in the area, U.S. military action has served to strengthen it.
“A very useful platform”: The U.S. has spent roughly a trillion dollars on its eighteen-year-old war in the Af-Pak region. The results? The Taliban has increased its hold over Afghan territory and Islamic extremism has flourished. How is this “very useful” to the United States?
A “long haul” that’s “sustainable”: What exactly is “sustainable” about a war you’ve been fighting — and losing — for nearly two decades? Leaving aside the dead and maimed troops, how is a trillion dollars a “sustainable” price for a lost war?
No “victory parade.” At least Petraeus is right here, though I wouldn’t put it past Trump to have a military parade to celebrate some sort of “victory” somewhere.
It appears President Trump is finally fed up, suggesting a withdrawal of troops from Syria as well as a force drawdown in Afghanistan. But it appears Trump is already caving to pressure from the Pentagon and the usual neo-con suspects, e.g. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests U.S. troops won’t withdraw from Syria without a guarantee from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies, which, according to the New York Times, may extend America’s troop commitment by “months or years.”
Trump needs to realize that, if it were up to the Pentagon, America today would still be fighting the Vietnam War, rather than working closely with Vietnam as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China.
The Pentagon’s conventional wisdom is that U.S. troops, once committed, must never leave a region. Victory or defeat doesn’t matter. What matters is “sustaining” a “sustainable” commitment. Hence troops are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Syria, still in 800+ bases around the world, because any withdrawal is couched as surrender, a display of weakness, so says America’s military “experts.”
The U.S. doesn’t need a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to the Middle East or Central Asia or anywhere else for that matter, other than right here in the USA. We need a sustainable, sustained commitment to a better health care system. To better roads, bridges, airports. To affordable education. To tax cuts that actually help the middle class.
When it comes to “generational struggles,” David Petraeus, let’s fight for a better America, not for sustaining troops in lost causes around the world.
It’s a new year! And as we adjust to 2019, I thought I’d share a few random observations (hopefully of some import).
“Retirement”: Many Americans fear the concept of retirement. Part of the challenge is coming to grips with the word. In America, your identity often hinges on your title, your job, and your paycheck. Since retiring from teaching (after retiring from the military), I’m still mentally adjusting to not having a fixed schedule, to not having expectations on the job that have to be met. I’ve never been an especially driven person but I’ve always sought to do well. Now I have to do well on terms defined by me. It’s a mental adjustment.
One thing is certain: society is always trying to pigeonhole us. When I tell people I’m “retired,” the immediate response is “You’re too young” or “But what do you do?” said in an incredulous voice. To avoid this problem, sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a historian, both true, though I currently have no salaried position as such. To state the obvious, American culture is job-centered. Look at our health care: lose your job, lose your health insurance. So much of our identity, as well as our ability to navigate American society, is based on our jobs.
People find meaning in work. But inspiration can be found elsewhere. Find something of value to you that’s inspiring and I don’t think you’ll ever be “retired.”
“A man’s home is his castle”: Is it good that men are encouraged to think of their homes as their castles? For what are castles but fortresses? And fortresses need defending, with guns and security alarms and fences and all the rest. And if a man is Lord of his Castle, then everyone else is his subject, including his wife and children. Perhaps especially his wife and children. We need to think of home as home, not as a castle, not as a fortress in which a man fortifies and actuates his own fears and aggression. (This observation was inspired by an article on male violence in the home.)
On Mourning America’s War Dead: A subject worthy of discussion is how we mourn our troops. When flag-draped caskets return to American soil, our troops are honored. But they are mourned mainly within family settings, or among neighbors in close-knit communities. Rarely are they mourned within wider communal settings. And I sense that some families are torn: there is little serenity for them, not only because they lost a loved one, but because there is a sense, a suspicion, that loved ones died for lesser causes, causes unrelated to ideals held sacred.
Of course, a soldier never dies in vain when he dies for his fellow troops. But that can be said of all soldiers on all sides in all wars. In a republic like the USA, or a polis as in ancient Greece, soldiers are supposed to die for something greater than the unit. That larger purpose is a communal ideal. Call it truth, justice, and the American way. Or call it something else, a sense of rightness if not righteousness.
But where is the rightness in America’s wars today?
On America’s Standing Military and Congressional Authority: The nation’s founders knew there’d be national emergencies that would require a larger “standing” military (i.e., not just state militias of “minutemen”), but they wanted to prevent a state of permanent war, which they attempted to do with the two-year appropriation clause. They were well familiar with history and all those hundred years’, thirty years’, and seven years’, wars. By giving the people (Congress) the power of the purse, they hoped to prevent those long wars by cutting off open-ended funding.
Of course, today that doesn’t apply. The AUMF (authorization for the use of military force) that dates from 2001 is used to justify a state of perpetual war and the funding of the same. Congress has abnegated its responsibility to check overweening Executive power for war-making, but actually it’s worse than that: Congress has joined the Executive branch in pursuing perpetual war. We no longer even bother with formal Congressional declarations; permanent war is considered to be the new normal in America: business as usual.
Not only have we created a permanent standing military — we devote the lion’s share of federal resources to it and brag about how great it is. That reality is antithetical to our national ideals as imagined and articulated by this nation’s founders.
Sports, Movies, and the Military in America: There’s a tendency for people to dismiss sports as “just sports” or movies as “just movies.” Yet astute people recognize the power of both. The classic case is Nazi Germany and the 1936 Olympics, and of course Leni Riefenstahl and spectacles like “The Triumph of the Will.” These, of course, were blatant, in-your-face, rallies. Today, U.S. sports/military celebrations may not be as blatant, but sports connects powerfully to feel-good patriotism as fanatical boosterism, which is precisely why the military is so eager to appropriate sports imagery (and to infiltrate sporting events). The corporate sponsors see it as a win-win: a win for profits, and a win for their image as “patriots.”
Hollywood is the dream factory. Sports too has a strong fantasy element. Speaking as an American male, who hasn’t dreamed of hitting the big home run like Big Papi or pitching a no-hitter like Matt Scherzer?
Man does not live by bread alone; to a certain extent, we live by dreams. Through our aspirations. And our dreams and aspirations are being channeled along certain lines: along more military lines, both at and by sporting events as well as at the movie theater.
It’s not just crass commercialism. It’s about shaping dreams, defining what’s appropriate (and what isn’t).
Thank you for indulging me as I cram into this article a few observations I’ve been kicking around. I’d also like as ever to thank all my readers and especially my faithful commenters and correspondents. Fire away in the comments section, readers!
A reader reminded me yesterday of an article I wrote a decade ago about U.S. presidents donning military flight jackets. And he sent along this image of President Trump dressed up for his recent visit to the troops in Iraq:
Here’s my article from 2010 on this subject. You can see how much U.S. presidents listen to me.
This past weekend, President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan, during which he doffed his civilian coat and tie and donned a “Commander-in-chief” leather flight jacket provided to him by the Air Force. I suppose the president believed he could better connect with the troops by wearing “less formal” garb; I suppose as well he thought he was honoring the military by wearing the flight jacket associated with Air Force One. But as snazzy as the president may have looked in his flight jacket (and I liked my jacket when I was in the Air Force), his decision to don it was a blunder.
No, I’m not saying the president is a military wannabe; I’m not saying the president is a poseur. What I’m saying is that the president, whether he knows it or not, is blurring the vitally important distinction between a democratically-elected, thoroughly civilian, commander-in-chief and the military members the president commands in our — the people’s — name.
Though the president commands our military, he is not, strictly speaking, a member of it. Rather, as our highest ranking public servant, he stands above it, exercising the authority granted to him by the Constitution to command the military in the people’s name.
Whenever the president addresses our troops, he should, indeed he must, appear in civilian clothing, because that’s precisely what he is: a civilian, a very special one, to be sure, but that’s what he is — and what he always must be.
We must wean ourselves from Hollywood illusions that our president should parade around like the ultimate fighter pilot (even if, once upon a time, he flew fighters, like George W. Bush did). This is not the set of “Independence Day.” Neither is it a photo op.
President Obama admires Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln visited General George McClellan during our Civil War, he didn’t don a military greatcoat; instead, with army tents and uniformed men all around him, Lincoln dared to look incongruous in his dress civilian clothes, complete with top hat.
Incongruous? Perhaps. But look closely at the photo: Never was Lincoln’s authority clearer.
And that’s the point: Lincoln knew he was a civilian commander-in-chief. Precisely by not donning military clothing, he asserted his ultimate civilian authority over McClellan and the army.
Please, President Obama (and all future presidents): Put away the flight jackets and other militaria when you address our troops. Appear as the civilian commander-in-chief that you are. By doing so, you remind our troops that they are citizens first, and soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen second.
As our wars grow ever longer, that’s a reminder that should loom ever larger.
Addendum (12/18): Besides taking multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War, it appears Donald Trump had the help of two podiatrists who rented space from his father. Those doctors appear to have done Young Trump a favor by diagnosing him with heel spurs, which disqualified him from being drafted. And yet Trump the draft dodger is now proud to wear military clothing and to boast that “nobody does military better than me.” What a country we live in!
Good news: President Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan. While the President’s stated reason for the Syrian withdrawal — that Isis is totally defeated in the region — is dubious, it’s hard to tell how the presence of a couple of thousand U.S. troops is either needed or desirable for counter-terror operations there. In Afghanistan, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of seven thousand U.S. troops, or roughly half the force there. One can only hope he’ll withdraw the remaining troops by the end of 2019.
Trump’s moves are consistent with his campaign promises about ending costly troop deployments and wasteful overseas wars. Despite this, he’s being castigated by Republicans and Democrats for putting America at risk by leaving Syria and preparing to leave Afghanistan. Ostensibly, the U.S. has two major political parties, but they often act together as a single war party. Trump knows this and is unafraid (so far) to confront them.
Indeed, it’s possible Trump won in 2016 because he outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Evidence suggests that pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique: by people who’d either served in these wars or whose sons/daughters had served.
Compare this to the Clintons and mainstream Democrats (and Republicans), who’ve worked hard to suppress anti-war forces, the McGovernite wing of the party, so to speak. Recall that it was Hillary the Hawk who warmly and proudly embraced Henry Kissinger in 2016, and look where that got her.
Adding further intrigue and disruption is Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s announcement of his resignation, effective in February 2019. I never thought Mattis was the right candidate to serve as America’s civilian Secretary of Defense; Trump apparently sees him as too conventional in outlook (almost a Democrat, Trump has said). Mattis has disagreed with Trump’s boorish treatment of America’s allies, especially of NATO, and there’s no doubt that Trump has been crude, rude, and socially unacceptable, as we used to say as teenagers. But that is Trump’s prerogative. The Americans who elected him, after all, knew they weren’t getting a glad-handing soft-talking diplomat.
Finally, Trump is still fighting for five billion dollars to extend the wall along the southern border with Mexico. He’s threatening to shutdown the government for a very long time and (at least partially) to own the blame. It’s a waste of money, of course, though $5 billion is a drop in the bucket when you consider the Pentagon’s budget of roughly $716 billion.
I’m a huge Trump critic (I was very critical of Obama as well), but I give him credit for taking unpopular stances even as he tries to honor campaign promises. Pulling ground troops out of Syria and Afghanistan is the right thing to do. The wall is a ridiculous boondoggle, but even here, Trump is willing to fight for it. Would that Democratic leadership show similar resolve over issues like affordable health care, a living wage, and climate change.
Bring the troops home, Mister President. End the wars and reinvest in America. If you do these things, it’s likely you’ll be reelected in 2020. It pains me to write that, because I’m no fan of Trump’s mendacity and greed, among his many other faults, but I think it’s true.
About fifteen years ago, I wrote a short history of World War II for an encyclopedia on military history. I was supposed to be paid for it, but apparently the money ran out, though my article and the encyclopedia did appear in 2006. Having not been paid, I still own the rights to my article, so I’m posting it today, hoping it may serve as a brief introduction for a wider audience to a very complex subject. A short bibliography is included at the end.
Dr. William J. Astore
World War II (1939-1945): Calamitous global war that resulted in the death of sixty million people. The war’s onset and course cannot be understood without reference to World War I. While combat in the European theater of operations (ETO) lasted six years, in Asia and the Pacific combat lasted fourteen years, starting with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Unprecedented in scale, World War II witnessed deliberate and systematic killing of innocents. Especially horrific was Germany’s genocidal Endlösung (Final Solution), during which the Nazis attempted to murder all Jewish, Sinti, and Roma peoples, in what later became known as the Holocaust.
Rapid campaigns, such as Germany’s stunning seven-week Blitzkrieg (lightning war) against France, characterized the war’s early years. Ultimately, quick victories gave way to lengthy and punishing campaigns from mid-1942 to 1945. Early and rapid German and Japanese advances proved reversible, although at tremendous cost, as the Soviet Union and the United States geared their economies fully for war. The chief Axis powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy) were ultimately defeated as much by their own strategic blunders and poorly coordinated efforts as by the weight of men and matériel fielded by the “Big Three” Allies (Soviet Union, United States, and Great Britain).
Militant fascist regimes in Italy and Germany and an expansionist military regime in Japan exploited inherent flaws in the Versailles settlement, together with economic and social turmoil made worse by the Great Depression. In Germany, Adolf Hitler dedicated himself to reversing what he termed the Diktat of Versailles through rearmament, remilitarization of the Rhineland, and territorial expansion ostensibly justified by national representation.
Concealing his megalomaniac intent within a cloak of reasoned rhetoric, Hitler persuaded Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier that his territorial demands could be appeased. But there was no appeasing Hitler, who sought to subjugate Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, re-establish an African empire, and ultimately settle accounts with the United States. For Hitler, only a ruthless rooting out of a worldwide “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy” would gain the Lebensraum (living space) a supposedly superior Aryan race needed to survive and thrive.
Less ambitious, if equally vainglorious, was Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Italian limitations forced Il Duce to follow Germany. Disparities in timing made the “Pact of Steel,” forged by these countries in 1936, fundamentally flawed. The Wehrmacht marched to war in 1939, four years before the Italian military was ready (it was still recovering from fighting in Ethiopia and Spain). Yet Mussolini persevered with schemes to dominate the Mediterranean.
Japan considered its war plans to be defensive and preemptive, although in their scope they nearly equaled Hitler’s expansionist ambitions. The Japanese perceived the alignment of the ABCD powers (America, Britain, China, and Dutch East Indies) as targeted directly against them. The ABCD powers, in contrast, saw themselves as deterring an increasingly bellicose and aggressive Japan. As the ABCD powers tightened the economic noose to compel Japan to withdraw from China, Japan concluded it had one of two alternatives: humiliating capitulation or honorable war. Each side saw itself as resisting the unreasonable demands of the other; neither side proved willing to compromise.
Nevertheless, Japan looked for more than a restoration of the status quo. Cloaked in the rhetoric of liberating Asia from Western imperialism, Japanese plans envisioned a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” in which Japan would obtain autarky and Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos would be colonial subjects of the Japanese master race. In their racial component and genocidal logic, made manifest in the Rape of Nanking (1937), Japanese war plans resembled their Nazi equivalents.
European Theater of Operations (ETO), 1939-1941
1939-1941 witnessed astonishing successes by the Wehrmacht. With its eastern border secured by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. As French forces demonstrated feebly along Germany’s western border, Panzer spearheads supported by Luftwaffe dive-bombers sliced through Poland. Attacked from the east by Soviet forces on 17 September, the Poles had no choice but to surrender.
Turning west, Hitler then attacked and subdued Denmark and Norway in April 1940. By gaining Norway, Germany safeguarded its supply of iron ore from neutral Sweden and acquired ports for the Kriegsmarine and bases for the Luftwaffe to interdict shipping in the North Sea, Arctic, and North Atlantic. Throughout this period, Germany and France engaged in Sitzkrieg or Phony War.
Phony War gave way on 10 May 1940 to a massive German invasion of the Low Countries and France. A feint on the extreme right by Germany’s Army Group B in Belgium drew French and British forces forward, while the main German thrust cut through the hilly and forested Ardennes region between Dinant and Sedan. The German plan worked to perfection since the French strategy was to engage German forces as far as possible from France’s border. The Wehrmacht’s crossing of the Meuse River outpaced France’s ability to react. Their best divisions outflanked, the Franco-British army retreated to Dunkirk, where the Allies evacuated 335,000 men in Operation Dynamo. The fall of Paris fatally sapped France’s will to resist. The eighty-four-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain oversaw France’s ignominious surrender, although the French preserved nominal control over their colonies and the rump state of Vichy.
Surprise, a flexible command structure that encouraged boldness and initiative, high morale and strong ideological commitment based on a shared racial and national identity (Volksgemeinschaft), and speed were key ingredients to the Wehrmacht’s success. Intoxicated by victory, the Wehrmacht’s rank-and-file looked on the Führer as the reincarnation of Friedrich Barbarossa. Higher-ranking officers who disagreed were bribed or otherwise silenced.
Hitler next turned to Britain, which under Winston Churchill refused to surrender. During the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe sought air superiority to facilitate a cross-channel invasion (Operation Sea Lion). This goal was beyond the Luftwaffe’s means, however, especially after Hitler redirected the bombing from airfields to London. By October the Luftwaffe had lost 1887 aircraft and 2662 pilots as opposed to RAF losses of 1023 aircraft and 537 pilots. Temporarily stymied, Hitler ordered plans drawn up for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s defeat, Hitler hoped, would compel Churchill to sue for peace.
Hitler’s victories stimulated Japan to conclude, on 27 September 1940, the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Japan also expanded its war against China while looking avariciously towards U.S., British, Dutch, and French possessions in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile, Mussolini, envious of Hitler’s run of victories, invaded Greece in October. The resulting Italo-Greek conflict ran until April 1941 and exposed the Italian military’s lack of preparedness, unreliable equipment, and incompetent leadership. Italian blunders in North Africa also led in Libya to Britain’s first victory on land. The arrival of German reinforcements under General Erwin Rommel reversed the tide, however. Rommel’s Afrika Korps drove British and Dominion forces eastwards to Egypt even faster than the latter had driven Italian forces westwards. Yet Rommel lacked sufficient forces to press his advantage. Meanwhile, German paratroopers assaulted Crete in May 1941, incurring heavy losses before taking the island. Events in the Mediterranean and North Africa soon took a backseat to the titanic struggle brewing between Hitler and Stalin.
The Eastern Front, 1941
After rescuing the Italians in Greece and seizing the Balkans to secure his southern flank, Hitler turned to Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Deluded by his previous victories and a racial ideology that viewed Slavs as Untermenschen (sub-humans), Hitler predicted a Soviet collapse within three months. Previous Soviet incompetence in the Russo-Finnish War (1939-40) seemed to support this prediction. The monumental struggle began when Germany and its allies, including Hungary, Slovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Italy, and Finland, together with volunteer units from all over Europe, invaded the USSR along a 1300-mile front on 22 June 1941. The resulting death struggle pit fascist and anti-Bolshevik Europe against Stalin’s Red Army. For Hitler the crusade against Bolshevism was a Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation). Under the notorious Commissar Order, the Wehrmacht shot Red Army commissars (political officers) outright. Mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) rampaged behind the lines, murdering Jews and other racial and ethnic undesirables.
The first weeks of combat brought elation for the Germans. Nearly 170 Soviet divisions ceased to exist as the Germans encircled vast Soviet armies. Leningrad was surrounded and endured a 900-day siege. But by diverting forces towards the vast breadbasket of the Ukraine and the heavy manufacturing and coal of the Donets Basin, Hitler delayed the march on Moscow for 78 days. By December, sub-zero temperatures, snow, and fresh Soviet divisions halted exhausted German soldiers on the outskirts of Moscow. A Soviet counteroffensive (Operation Typhoon) threw Hitler’s legions back 200 miles, leading him to relieve two field marshals and 35 corps and division commanders. Hitler also dismissed the commander-in-chief of the army, Walter von Brauchitsch, and assumed command himself. His subsequent “stand fast” order saved the Wehrmacht the fate of Napoleon’s army of 1812, but this temporary respite came at the price of half a million casualties from sickness and frostbite.
A crucial Soviet accomplishment was the wholesale evacuation of its military-industrial complex. By November the Soviets disassembled 1500 industrial plants and 1300 military enterprises and shipped them east, along with ten million workers, to prepared sites along the Volga, in the Urals, and in western Siberia. Out of the range of the Luftwaffe, Soviet factories churned out an arsenal of increasingly effective weapons, including 50,000 T-34s, arguably the best tank of the war. Hitler now faced a two-front war of exhaustion, the same strategic dilemma that in World War I had led to the Second Reich’s demise.
Hitler arguably lost the war in December 1941, especially after declaring war on the United States on 11 December, which soon became the “arsenal of democracy” whose Lend-Lease policy shored up a reeling Red Army. Operation Barbarossa, moreover, highlighted a failure of intelligence of colossal proportions as the Wehrmacht fatally underestimated the reserves Stalin could call on. As Franz Halder, chief of the army general staff noted in his diary, “We reckoned with 200 [Soviet] divisions, but now [in August 1941] we have already identified 360.” As German forces plunged deeper into Soviet territory, they had to defend a wider frontage. A front of 1300 miles nearly doubled to 2500 miles. The vastness, harshness, and primitiveness of Mother Russia attenuated the force of the Panzer spearheads, giving Soviet forces space and time to recover from the initial blows of the German juggernaut. When the Red Army refused to die, Germany was at a loss at what to do next. Well might the Wehrmacht have heeded the words of the famed military strategist, Antoine Jomini: “Russia is a country which it is easy to get into, but very difficult to get out of.”
The Eastern Front, 1942-1945
Soviet strategy was to draw Germany into vast, equipment-draining confrontations. Germany, meanwhile, launched another Blitzkrieg, hoping to precipitate a Soviet collapse. Due to the previous year’s losses, the Wehrmacht in 1942 could attack along only a portion of the front. Hitler chose the southern half, seeking to secure the Volga River and oil fields in the Caucasus. Initial success soon became calamity when Hitler diverted forces to take Stalingrad.
The battle of Stalingrad lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 as the city’s blasted terrain negated German advantages in speed and operational art. As more German units were fed into the grinding street fighting, the Soviets prepared a counteroffensive (Operation Uranus) that targeted the weaker Hungarian, Italian, and Rumanian armies guarding the German flanks. Launched on 19 November, Uranus took the Germans completely by surprise. Encircled by 60 Red Army divisions, the 20 divisions of Germany’s Sixth Army lacked adequate strength to break out. The failure of Erich von Manstein’s relief force to reach Sixth Army condemned it to death. Although Hitler forbade it, the remnants of Sixth Army capitulated on 2 February 1943.
Stalingrad was a monumental moral victory for the Soviets and the first major land defeat for the Wehrmacht. After losing the equivalent of six months’ production at Stalingrad, Hitler belatedly placed the German economy on a wartime footing, but by then it was too late to close an ever-widening production gap. The Wehrmacht bounced back at Kharkov in March 1943, but it was to be their last significant victory. In July Hitler launched Operation Citadel at Kursk, which resulted in a colossal battle involving 1.5 million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Remaining on the defensive, the Red Army allowed the Wehrmacht to expend its offensive power in costly attacks. After fighting the Wehrmacht to a standstill, the Red Army drove it back to the Dnieper.
The dénouement was devastating for Germany. Preceded by a skilful deception campaign, Operation Bagration in Byelorussia in June 1944 led to the collapse of Germany’s Army Group Center. When Hitler ordered German forces to stand fast, 28 German divisions ceased to exist. By 1945, the Wehrmacht could only sacrifice itself in futile attempts to slow the Soviet steamroller. Soviet second-line forces used terror, rape, and wanton pillaging and destruction to avenge Nazi atrocities. Soviet forces had prevailed in the “Great Patriotic War” but at the staggering price of ten million soldiers killed, another 18 million wounded. Soviet civilian deaths exceeded 17 million. The Germans and their allies lost six million killed and another six million wounded. Hitler’s overweening ambition and fatal underestimation of Soviet resources and will led directly to Germany’s destruction.
The Anglo-American Alliance and the ETO, 1942-1945
In 1942 two-thirds of Americans wanted to defeat Japan first, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Churchill agreed instead on a “Germany first” policy. Their decision reflected concerns that Germany might defeat the Soviet Union in 1942. That year U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall argued for a cross-channel assault, but the British preferred to bomb Germany, invade North Africa, and advance through Italy and the Balkans. This indirect approach reflected British memories of the Western Front in World War I and a desire to secure lines of communication in the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and ultimately to India. British ideas prevailed because of superior staff preparation and the reality that the Allies had to win the Battle of the Atlantic before assaulting Germany’s Atlantic Wall in France.
Operation Torch in November 1942 saw Anglo-American landings in North Africa, in part to assure Stalin that the United States and Britain remained committed to a second front. Superior numbers were telling as Allied forces drove their Axis counterparts towards Tunisia, although the U.S. setback at Kasserine Pass in February 1943 reflected the learning curve for mass citizen armies. Fortunately for the Allies, Hitler sent additional German units in a foolhardy attempt to hold the remaining territory. With the fall of Tunisia in May 1943 the Axis lost 250,000 troops.
The Allies next invaded Sicily in July but failed to prevent the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal across the Straits of Messina. Nevertheless, the Sicilian Campaign precipitated Mussolini’s fall from power and Italy’s unconditional surrender on 8 September. Forced to occupy Italy, Hitler also rushed 17 divisions to the Balkans and Greece to replace Italian occupation forces. Churchillian rhetoric of a “soft underbelly” in the Italian peninsula soon proved misleading. The Allied advance became a slogging match in terrain that favored German defenders. At Salerno in September, Allied amphibious landings were nearly thrown back into the sea. At Anzio in January 1944, an overly cautious advance forfeited surprise and allowed German forces time to recover. Allied forces finally entered Rome on 4 June 1944 but failed to reach the Po River valley in northern Italy until April 1945.
The Italian campaign became a sideshow as the Allies gathered forces for a concerted cross-channel thrust (Operation Overlord) in 1944. It came in a five-division assault on 6 June at Normandy. Despite heavy casualties at Omaha Beach, the Allies gained a strong foothold in France. Success was due to brilliant Allied deception (Operation Fortitude) in which the Allies convinced Hitler that the main attack was still to come at Pas de Calais and that they had 79 divisions in Britain (they had 52). Germany’s best chance was to drive the Allies into the sea on the first day, but Hitler refused to release reserves. Once ashore in force, and with artificial harbors (Mulberries), Allied numbers and air supremacy took hold. In 80 days the Allies moved two million men, half a million vehicles, and three million tons of equipment and supplies to France. Once the Allies broke out into open country, there was little to slow them except their own shortages of fuel and supplies. After destroying Germany’s Army Group B at Falaise, the Allies liberated Paris on 25 August. Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s attempt in September at vertical envelopment (Operation Market Garden) failed miserably, however, as paratroopers dropped into the midst of Panzer divisions. High hopes that the war might be over in 1944 faded as German resistance stiffened and Allied momentum weakened.
Hitler chose December 1944 to commit his strategic reserve in a high-stakes offensive near the Ardennes. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, initial Allied disorder and panic gave way to determined defense at St. Vith and Bastogne. Once the weather cleared, Allied airpower and armor administered the coup de grâce. The following year the Allies pursued a broad front offensive against Germany proper, with George S. Patton’s Third Army crossing the Rhine River at Remagen in March. Anglo-American forces met the Red Army on the Elbe River in April, with Soviet forces being awarded the honor of taking Berlin.
The second front in France was vital to Germany’s defeat. Yet even after D-Day German forces fighting the Red Army exceeded those in France by 210 percent. Indeed, 88 percent of the Wehrmacht’s casualties in World War II came on the Eastern Front. That the U.S. Army got by with just 90 combat divisions was testimony to the fact that the bulk of German and Japanese land forces were tied down fighting Soviet and Chinese armies, respectively. Helping the Allies to husband resources in the ETO was a synergistic Anglo-American alliance, manifested by joint staffs, sharing of intelligence, and (mostly) common goals.
The Air War in Europe
The air forces of all the major combatants, the USAAF and RAF excepted, primarily supported ground operations. U.S. and British air power theory, however, called for concerted strategic bombing campaigns against enemy industry and will. Thus these countries orchestrated a combined bomber offensive (CBO) as a surrogate second front in the air. While the USAAF attempted precision bombing in daylight, RAF Bomber Command employed area bombing by night. The CBO devastated Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), and Dresden (1945), but Germany’s will remained unbroken. The CBO succeeded, however, in breaking the back of the Luftwaffe during “Big Week” (February 1944) in a deadly battle of attrition. Eighty-one thousand Allied airmen died in the ETO, with the death rate in RAF Bomber Command alone reaching a mind-numbing 47.5 percent. Hard fought and hard-won, air supremacy proved vital to the success of Allied armies on D-Day and after.
Battle of the Atlantic
Nothing worried Churchill more than the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats (submarines). Surface raiders like the Bismarck or Graf Spree posed a challenge the Royal Navy both understood and embraced with relish. Combating U-boats, however, presented severe difficulties, including weeks of tedious escort duty in horrendous weather. Despite Allied convoys and fast merchantmen, U-boats sank an average of 450,000 tons of shipping each month from March 1941 to December 1942. In March 1943 the Allies lost 627,000 tons, which exceeded the rate of replacement.
Yet only two months later, the tide turned against Germany. Allied successes in reading the Kriegsmarine’s Enigma codes proved vital both in steering convoys away from U-boat “wolf packs” and in directing naval and air units to attack them. Decimetric radar and high-frequency directional finding helped the Allies detect U-boats; B-24 Liberators armed with depth charges closed a dangerous gap in air coverage; and escort groups (including carriers) made it perilous for U-boats to attack, especially in daylight. These elements combined in May 1943 to account for the loss of 41 U-boats, 23 of which were destroyed by air action. Faced with devastating losses of experienced crews, Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz withdrew his U-boats from the North Atlantic. They never regained the initiative. Germany ultimately lost 510 U-boats while sinking 94 Allied warships and 1900 merchant ships. Because the Kriegsmarine pursued lofty ambitions of building a blue-water navy, however, Germany never could produce enough U-boats to cut Britain’s economic lifeline. Poor resource allocation and strategic mirror imaging ultimately doomed the Kriegsmarine to defeat.
The Rising Sun Ascendant, 1937-1942
By 1938 the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had 700,000 soldiers in China. In 1939 the IJA attempted to punish the Soviets for supplying China only to be defeated at the battle of Khalkin Gol. After this defeat, and spurred on by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), Japanese leaders increasingly looked southward, especially as British, Dutch, and French possessions became vulnerable when Germany ran rampant in the ETO. Bogged down in an expensive war with China, and facing economic blockade, Japan decided to seize outright the oil, rubber, tin, bauxite and extensive food resources of the Malay Peninsula, the Dutch East Indies, and Southeast Asia.
After concluding a non-aggression pact with Stalin in April 1941, Japan viewed Britain’s Royal Navy and the U.S. Pacific Fleet as its chief obstacles. To destroy the latter, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, followed by attacks on British and Dutch naval units and invasions of Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, and other island groups using quick-moving, light infantry. Employing islands as unsinkable aircraft carriers, the Japanese hoped to establish a strong defensive perimeter as a shield, with the IJN acting as a mobile strike force or javelin. When the Allies confronted this “shield and javelin” strategy, Japan hoped their losses would prove prohibitive, thereby encouraging them to seek an accommodation that would preserve Japan’s acquisitions.
Japan’s key strategic blunder was that of underestimating the will of the United States, partly due to faulty intelligence that mistakenly stressed American isolationism. Pearl Harbor became for Americans a “date that shall live in infamy,” which permitted neither negotiation nor compromise. Japanese leaders knew they could not compete with U.S. industry (U.S. industrial capacity was nine times that of Japan’s), but they failed to develop feasible plans for ending the war quickly.
Nevertheless, until April 1942 the Japanese enjoyed a string of successes. Pearl Harbor was followed by attacks against the Philippines, where the United States lost half its aircraft on the ground. British attempts to reinforce Singapore led to the sinking of the battlecruiser Repulse and battleship Prince of Wales. At the Battle of Java Sea in February 1942 the IJN destroyed the Dutch navy. For the Allies, disaster followed disaster. At minimal cost, Japan seized Hong Kong, Malaya, most of Burma, and Singapore. Singapore’s surrender on 15 February was psychologically catastrophic to the British since they had failed at what they believed they did best: mounting a staunch defense. From this shattering blow the British Empire never fully recovered. By May 1942 remnants of the U.S. Army at Bataan and Corregidor surrendered, and the Japanese were in New Guinea. To this point not one of the IJN’s eleven battleships, ten carriers, or cruisers had been sunk or even badly damaged.
Eclipse of the Rising Sun, 1942-1945
The IJN suffered its first setback in May 1942 at the Battle of Coral Sea, where the USN stopped Japanese preparatory moves to invade Australia. The IJN next moved against Midway Island, hoping to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet and destroy it. The Japanese plan, however, was overcomplicated. It included coordination of eight separate forces and a diversionary assault on the Aleutians. Planned as a battleship fight by Admiral Isoroku Yamamato, the USN was forced instead to rely on carrier strike forces. Japanese indecision and American boldness, enhanced by effective code-breaking (known as MAGIC in the Pacific), led to the loss of four Japanese carriers. Midway was the major turning point in the Pacific theater. After this battle, the USN and IJN were equal in carrier strength, but the United States could build at a much faster rate. From 1942 to 1945 the USN launched 17 fleet carriers and 42 escort carriers, whereas the Japanese launched only four, two of which were sunk on their maiden voyage. Japan also lost its best admiral when U.S. code-breaking led, in April 1943, to the shooting down of Yamamoto’s plane.
The Japanese compounded defeat at Midway by failing to build an adequate merchant marine or to pursue anti-submarine warfare to defend what they had. Constituting less than two percent of USN manpower, American submariners accounted for 55 percent of Japanese losses at sea, virtually cutting off Japan’s supply of oil and reducing imports by 40 percent. By the end of 1944 U.S. submarines had sunk half of Japan’s merchant fleet and two-thirds of its tankers.
Much difficult fighting on land and sea remained. The United States adopted a Twin-Axis strategy designed to give the army and navy equal roles. While General Douglas MacArthur advanced through New Guinea in the southwest Pacific, neutralizing the major Japanese base at Rabaul to prepare for the invasion of the Philippines, Admiral Chester Nimitz island-hopped through the central Pacific. Guadalcanal (Operation Watchtower) in the Solomons turned into a bloody battle of attrition from August 1942 to February 1943 that ultimately favored U.S. forces. Tarawa in the Gilberts (Operation Galvanic) was the first test of the Fleet Marine Concept (FMC) that shortened the logistical tail of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. U.S. landings nearly proved disastrous, however, when Japanese defenders inflicted 42 percent casualties on the invading force. But the USN and Marines learned from their mistakes, and subsequent island operations had high yet sustainable casualty rates.
Battles such as Tarawa highlighted the astonishing viciousness and racism of both sides in the Pacific, with Americans depicting Japanese as “monkeys” or “rats” to be exterminated. Reinforcing the fight-to-the-death nature of warfare was the Japanese warrior code of Bushido that considered surrender as dishonorable. Jungle warfare on isolated islands left little room for maneuver or retreat and bred claustrophobia and desperate last stands. Ruthlessness extended to the U.S. air campaign against Japan that included the firebombing of major cities such as Tokyo, where firestorms killed at least 83,000 Japanese and consumed 270,000 dwellings.
The U.S. invasion of Saipan in June 1944 led to the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” in which U.S. pilots shot down 243 of 373 attacking Japanese aircraft while losing only 29 aircraft. Most devastating to Japan was the irreplaceable loss of experienced pilots. To pierce American defenses, Japan employed suicide pilots or Kamikazes at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October and in subsequent battles. Leyte Gulf in the Philippines was a decisive if close-run victory for the USN, since the IJN missed a golden opportunity to crush Allied landing forces. Costly U.S. campaigns in 1945 led to the capture of Iwo Jima in March and Okinawa in June before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. Together with Soviet entry into the war against Japan, these atomic attacks convinced the Japanese Emperor to surrender, with formal ceremonies being held on the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.
Japan’s unconditional surrender highlighted what had been a fundamental, and ultimately fatal, schism between the IJA and IJN. Whereas the IJA had focused on the Asian continent to neutralize China and the Soviet Union, the IJN had identified the United States and Britain as its principal enemies. The IJA had been more influential in Japanese politics and dominated Imperial general headquarters. Interservice rivalry led to haphazard coordination and bureaucratic infighting that degraded the Japanese war effort. Like their nominal allies the Germans, Japan had essentially engaged in a two-front war of exhaustion against foes possessing superior resources. IJA gains in the China-Burma-India theater had not been sustainable, especially as British, Chinese, and Indian forces learned to counter Japanese infantry tactics under the determined tutelage of William Slim, Orde Wingate, and “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell.
Technology and Medicine
World War II is known as the “physicist’s war” due to the success of the U.S./British/Canadian Manhattan Project that developed atomic bombs, as well as the invention and use of radar. Germany was especially innovative, developing the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 ballistic missile as “vengeance” weapons. While a remarkable technical achievement, the V-2 was ultimately a waste of precious resources. Its circular error probable (CEP) of 20 kilometers and small one-ton warhead made it little more than a deadly nuisance. Germany also developed the Me-262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, but its late deployment in small numbers had little impact on the air war. Less spectacular, but more telling, was the Allied emphasis on fielding large numbers of proven weapons, such as Soviet T-34 and U.S. M-4 Sherman tanks; aircraft such as P-51 long-range escort fighters and Lancaster four-engine bombers; and Higgins boats for amphibious operations.
Penicillin and DDT, both developed by the Allies, were the leading medical developments. Penicillin saved the lives of untold tens of thousands of wounded Allied troops, and DDT vastly reduced casualties due to mosquito-borne diseases in the Pacific. The Germans developed nerve gas but decided against employing it, apparently because they (wrongly) believed the Allies also had it. Unlike the previous world war, chemical weapons were rarely used. Finally, Allied code-breaking efforts such as ULTRA saw the development of primitive computers.
Legacies of the War
World War II saw the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as superpowers. The resulting Cold War between them created a bi-polar world until the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s. With the end of the myth of Western superiority came the decline of colonial empires and the independence of countries such as India (1947). The war also resulted in the division of Germany (reunited in 1989) and the occupation and democratization of Japan; the creation of the United Nations and the state of Israel; and the rise of leaders formed in the crucible of war, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle. A vastly destructive war with tragic consequences, World War II nevertheless saw the demise of Hitler’s Third Reich, a regime based on mass slavery of “inferiors” and the categorical extermination of “undesirables” (Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped and mentally ill, etc.), as well as the overthrow of a Japanese regime that glorified militarism and justified slavery and racial discrimination on a massive scale.
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