Of Military Parades and Super Bowls

2015-07-14T115355Z_01_SAA67_RTRIDSP_3_FRANCE-BASTILLEDAY
Trump, inspired by the French, wants his own military parade

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump favors a military parade in Washington D.C., perhaps to coincide with Veterans Day in November, has drawn criticism, and rightly so.  The president has a juvenile fascination with parades and other forms of pomp and circumstance, but more than anything I’m guessing he relishes the thought of posing as “The Leader,” reviewing and saluting “his” troops and generals as they pass in review.  If only “Cadet Bone Spurs,” the telling nickname that Tammy Duckworth has pegged him with, could don a military uniform for the occasion — his fantasy would be complete.

The idea of a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, complete with tanks and jets (and maybe some big missiles and bombs too?), sounds radical.  But is it really that different from other militarized celebrations that America has been witnessing and applauding since 9/11?

Consider this year’s Super Bowl.  It was played in a domed stadium, yet there was the obligatory military flyover (featuring A-10 attack planes, which the Air Force ironically wants to get rid of).  Fifteen Medal of Honor recipients were celebrated on the field, with one (a Marine) performing the coin toss for the game.  A video link showed U.S. troops watching from overseas.  In past years, troops featured were usually in combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.  This year the troops were in South Korea, perhaps because NBC wanted a link to the forthcoming Olympic games, hopefully not because the Trump administration is foreshadowing a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea that would turn that region into a combat zone.

Such patriotic (read: militarized) hoopla has become standard, not just at the Super Bowl and other NFL events, but at many other sporting events.  At last year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, prior to the men’s final played on 9/10, there was a ceremony to mark the 9/11 attacks, complete with the usual jumbo-sized U.S. flag, with uniformed troops joined by officer cadets from West Point, climaxed by a military flyover.  The ceremony was timed for maximum TV exposure.

As a retired military officer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve saluted the colors and sung the National Anthem.  I have no objection to military color guards and proud renditions of our anthem.  It’s all the other hoopla — the flyovers, the video links, the gigantic flags, the increasing size of military contingents on playing fields and tennis courts and elsewhere — that I find so exaggerated.  It’s as if I sat down to watch a football game or a tennis match and a military parade broke out instead.

Give President Trump his due: he knows his audience.  His supporters will revel in a military parade in Washington.  So too will Trump.  The rest of us?  Why should we complain: we’ve been watching over-the-top military celebrations for nearly two decades.  A big parade down Pennsylvania Avenue is the logical culmination of all this, especially with Trump in charge.

Like many other aspects of American culture, Trump is just bringing our love of the military into higher relief.  Don’t blame him (or only him) if you don’t like what you see.

“On Leave”: The Costs of War

on leave

W.J. Astore

Recently, a good friend gave me a copy of Daniel Anselme’s “On Leave,” a book published in 1957 in the early stages of France’s war in Algeria, which ultimately ended in France’s defeat and Algerian independence in 1962.  A novel, it follows three French soldiers on furlough in and around Paris and their desperate (and mostly failed) efforts to reconnect to home prior to returning to a brutal war.

The main themes are disaffection and disorientation.  The gulf in understanding between the soldier-conscripts and their families and the wider public is simply too wide to be bridged.  Instead, the soldiers find comfort in drink, women, and especially in each other. Having relied on each other in war, they come to rely on each other again in the short downtime they have from its brutalities.

What struck me forcibly was the indifference of France to the soldiers.  We see a similar indifference today in the U.S., despite all of the “support our troops” rhetoric. This “support” often is, as the saying goes, a mile wide but only an inch deep.  Another similarity between then and now is the gulf in understanding between what the soldiers know about war and what the people think they know. The soldiers know the horrors; the people only know a few talking points.  Back then it was about upholding the honor of France; nowadays in the USA it’s about fighting them (the terrorists) over there so we don’t have to fight them here.

For the troops, it’s always the same cause: preservation.  Survival.  Saving oneself and one’s buddies.

One soldier gives an electric speech about “when will it end.” How many men is France willing to lose in its attempt to hold onto some smidgen of colonial glory? How long will the wars in Africa go on?  His speech made me think of our own, seemingly endless, wars.

All three men in this story — a sergeant, a corporal, and a private — are unwounded physically from war.  Yet all three are psychological casualties.  War and atrocity has already inflicted a serious toll, as all three suffer some of the less obvious costs of war and extended military service (broken marriages, family arguments and estrangement and resentment, guilt at not being able to conform to family expectations, a growing sense of fatalism).

Recognizing a lost cause, French President Charles de Gaulle eventually smartened up and pulled out of Algeria.  But the U.S. today doesn’t have leaders of de Gaulle’s grit and smarts to recognize a losing hand. So America’s wars just grind on and on.

“On Leave” is a fine book.  Would that it were on President Obama’s summer reading list, or on Hillary’s or Trump’s.  They could all use a heavy dose of reality about war’s futility.

Terrorism in Paris: A Few Thoughts

The French showed great resolve in 1915. A century later, that resolve yet lives
The French showed great resolve in 1915. A century later, that resolve yet lives

W.J. Astore

The world is still trying to digest the horrifying news from Paris of terrorist attacks by ISIS.  We sympathize with all the victims of terrorism and other forms of violence, and we stand with France and its desire to bring the perpetrators and their accomplices to justice.

Yet we also must be careful not to overreact — not to play into the hands of ISIS and similar terrorist organizations.

French President François Hollande is already on the record as vowing, “We are going to lead a war [against ISIS] which will be pitiless.” But the answer to terrorism is not “pitiless” war.  That’s exactly what terrorists want: they thrive on war and endless cycles of horrifying violence.

I understand Hollande’s rhetorical purpose.  He’s saying: We’re united, we’re tough, we’ll avenge the murder of innocents.  But pitiless war has been tried again and again in history — and it begets more atrocities and more war.

Terrorism is nothing new.  What’s new is the way the West is elevating it into a generational war — another crusade.  We must be very careful not to let the rhetoric of “generational” and “merciless” war become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We must also be careful not to overreact to the threat of terrorism.  In spite of the latest horrifying attacks in Paris, the threat of terrorism remains remote for the vast majority of us.  The answer to the terrorist threat is not more state surveillance, not more military reprisals, not more curtailments of individual freedoms in the false name of security.

What is the answer?  Resolve.  Patience.  Cooperation (e.g. international police work, intelligence sharing, and so forth). And action.  Anger and cries for revenge in the form of “pitiless” war are natural after a profound shock, but they are not smart policy. Injustices committed in the name of “pitiless” war will not bring justice to the victims of the Paris attacks.

Resolve — yes.  Justice — yes.  Courage — yes.  Action — yes.  Pitiless war — no.

World War I: The Paradox of Semi-Modern War

British Machine Gun Team in World War I
British Machine Gun Team, 1916

Dennis Showalter.  Introduction by William Astore.

Over the next four years, historians around the world will grapple with the meaning and legacies of the “Great War” fought one hundred years ago (1914-1918).  An epochal event in world history, World War I has as many meanings as it has had historians.  Among those historians, Dennis Showalter is one of the very best.  In this article, Showalter argues that the war was, in many ways, not “modern” at all.  The enormity of the war, to include its enormous wastage, generated primitivism as much as it stimulated innovation.  On the Western Front, site of industrialized mass destruction, troops fought with modern machine guns and chemical weapons even as they revived maces and mail armor of medieval vintage.

Most remarkable, as Showalter notes, was the resilience of home front support.  As dreams of quick, decisive battles turned into long, murderous slogs of nightmarish proportions, control of events was ceded to military men who saw only one way to victory — exhaustion through attrition and economic warfare.  When Germany finally collapsed near the end of 1918, few people were as surprised as the victors or as shocked as the losers.  As the victors exulted, the losers licked wounds — and vowed vengeance.

So it was that the “war to end all wars” became just one major act in a never-ending tragedy in a century dominated by war.  Even today, warfare in places like the Middle East reflects the poor choices and conflicting promises made during the Great War by the major powers.  In fact, what was perhaps most “modern” about World War I was the blowback that plagued its putative victors.  Consider, for example, France’s decision to ignore requests in 1919 by a young Ho Chi Minh for greater autonomy to be granted to Vietnamese in French Indochina.  France had leaned on Vietnamese labor during the Great War (with as many as 140,000 Vietnamese doing grunt work such as digging trenches), and the Vietnamese expected something in return.  They got nothing, a decision that set the stage for Vietnam’s revolt and France’s eventual defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  W.J. Astore

Dennis Showalter on the Paradox of World War I: A Semi-Modern War

The looming centennial of the Great War has inspired a predicable abundance of conferences, books, articles, and blog posts. Most are built on a familiar meme: the war as a symbol of futility. Soldiers and societies alike are presented as victims of flawed intentions and defective methods, which in turn reflected inability or unwillingness to adapt to the spectrum of innovations (material, intellectual, and emotional) that made the Great War the first modern conflict. That perspective is reinforced by the war’s rechristening, backlit by a later and greater struggle, as World War I—which confers a preliminary, test-bed status.

Homeward bound troops pose on the ship's deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card ("AZO") stock. Public Domain
Homeward bound troops pose on the ship’s deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card (“AZO”) stock. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In point of fact, the defining aspect of World War I is its semi-modern character. The “classic” Great War, the war of myth, memory, and image, could be waged only in a limited area: a narrow belt in Western Europe, extending vertically five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, and horizontally about a hundred miles in either direction. War waged outside of the northwest European quadrilateral tended quite rapidly to follow a pattern of de-modernization. Peacetime armies and their cadres melted away in combat, were submerged by repeated infusions of unprepared conscripts, and saw their support systems, equine and material, melt irretrievably away.

Russia and the Balkans, the Middle East, and East Africa offer a plethora of case studies, ranging from combatants left without rifles in Russia, to the breakdown of British medical services in Mesopotamia, to the dismounting of entire regiments in East Africa by the tsetse fly. Nor was de-modernization confined to combat zones. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and arguably Italy, strained themselves to the breaking point and beyond in coping with the demands of an enduring total war. Infrastructures from railways to hospitals to bureaucracies that had functioned reasonably, if not optimally, saw their levels of performance and their levels of competence tested to destruction. Stress combined with famine and plague to nurture catastrophic levels of disorder, from the Armenian genocide to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Semi-modernity posed a corresponding and fundamental challenge to the wartime relationship of armed forces to governments. In 1914, for practical purposes, the warring states turned over control to the generals and admirals. This in part reflected the general belief in a short, decisive war—one that would end before the combatants’ social and political matrices had been permanently reconfigured. It also reflected civil authorities’ lack of faith in their ability to manage war-making’s arcana—and a corresponding willingness to accept the military as “competent by definition.”

Western Battle Front 1916. From J. Reynolds, Allen L. Churchill, Francis Trevelyan Miller (eds.): The Story of the Great War, Volume V. New York. Specified year 1916, actual year more likely 1917 or 1918. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The extended stalemate that actually developed had two consequences. A major, unacknowledged subtext of thinking about and planning for war prior to 1914 was that future conflict would be so horrible that the home fronts would collapse under the stress. Instead, by 1915 the generals and the politicians were able to count on unprecedented –and unexpected–commitment from their populations. The precise mix of patriotism, conformity, and passivity underpinning that phenomenon remains debatable. But it provided a massive hammer. The second question was how that hammer could best be wielded. In Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, neither soldiers nor politicians were up to the task. In Germany the military’s control metastasized after 1916 into a de facto dictatorship. But that dictatorship was contingent on a victory the armed forces could not deliver. In France and Britain, civil and military authorities beginning in 1915 came to more or less sustainable modi vivendi that endured to the armistice. Their durability over a longer run was considered best untested.

Even in the war’s final stages, on the Western Front that was its defining theater, innovations in methods and technology could not significantly reduce casualties. They could only improve the ratio of gains. The Germans and the Allies both suffered over three-quarters of a million men during the war’s final months. French general Charles Mangin put it bluntly and accurately: “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.” In contemplating future wars—a process well antedating 11 November 1918—soldiers and politicians faced a disconcerting fact. The war’s true turning point for any state came when its people hated their government more than they feared their enemies. From there it was a matter of time: whose clock would run out first. Changing that paradigm became—and arguably remains—a fundamental challenge confronting a state contemplating war.

Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College, where he has been on the faculty since 1969. He is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Military History, wrote “World War I Origins,” and blogged about “The Wehrmacht Invades Norway.” He is Past President of the Society for Military History, joint editor of War in History, and a widely-published scholar of military affairs. His recent books include Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk (2013), Frederick the Great: A Military History (2012), Hitler’s Panzers (2009), and Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century (2005).

Article used by permission of the author. See more at http://blog.oup.com/2014/06/first-world-war-paradox-of-semi-modern-war/#sthash.opNivppW.dpuf

The Great War: Why the Germans Lost World War I

trench

W.J. Astore

To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, which began in the summer of 1914, I’m posting this essay, which I wrote as a graduate student in 1992.  I’ve decided not to edit it since I believe my general conclusions remain sound.  Germany may have had the best military during World War I, but that wasn’t enough for the Kaiser and crew to win the war.

Today, the U.S. should learn from Germany’s mistakes, especially since we are as fond in 2014 of boasting about having the world’s greatest military as the Kaiser was of boasting about his a century ago in 1914.

Strategy is the relationship between national means, ends, and will.  Given the results of the Great War, one might question whether any country followed a sound strategy.  As J.F.C. Fuller observed, at war’s end “Britain was bankrupted and France bled white; Russia and Germany were in the throes of revolution; the Austro-Hungarian Empire had vanished; the Ottoman Empire had been dismembered; Italy was distraught; and every other country in Europe was scorched by the fiery blast – an epoch had gone up in flames.”  However, there were – at least in the short term – winners and losers.  The winners prevailed because their strategies were sounder in balancing means and will with ends than those of their opponents.

Strategies at Sea During the Great War

Britain’s strategic ends in 1914 were to maintain the balance of power in Europe and her hold over her Empire.  Her chief means were the ships of the Royal Navy.  A German victory on the continent threatened these ends and means.  A victorious Germany would dominate Europe, and she might build an even larger navy, one which would threaten the Empire or even Britain itself.  With her will fortified by news of Germany’s violation of neutral Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany on 5 August 1914.

At the outset of the war, the Royal Navy gained command of the sea and never lost it.  Enforcing a loose or distant blockade against German merchant shipping, the Royal Navy slowly constricted the economies (the means) of the Central Powers.  Meanwhile, Britain’s command of the sea ensured that supplies, and eventually troops, came safely from her Empire and America.

As elaborated by Admiral Jellicoe, the navy’s strategy was: 1) neutralize any hostile action of the German High Seas Fleet; 2) protect Entente trade, while blockading German trade; 3) protect Great Britain from invasion.  In brief, the navy’s strategic ends were to prevent the German fleet from affecting the war’s course, and through blockade, to erode Germany’s means and will to fight.

The Royal Navy has been criticized for not doing more with its command of the sea, but Jellicoe and Beatty were understandably cautious.  They had the German fleet encircled, and they controlled the choke points to the Atlantic and Mediterranean.  With excellent intelligence of German fleet movements, they stymied German attempts to break-out.  While the Royal Navy might have preferred to fight another Trafalgar, a battle of annihilation between dreadnoughts, they never took risks that threatened naval supremacy in the home waters.  They triumphed by putting political ends first, and by using their means – the superior fleets of the Royal Navy – to erode the economic means of Germany and the will of her people.  Their “indirect approach” contributed significantly to the collapse of the German homefront in October 1918.

In contrast to the British, who balanced naval means with national ends, the Germans wasted their High Seas Fleet.  The wisdom of building such a fleet was questionable to begin with.  Despite Mahan’s warning that it was probably impossible for a land power to divert enough human and material resources to challenge the Royal Navy’s command of the sea, Tirpitz and Kaiser Wilhelm II persisted.  For them, a navy was a way to gain influence and win friends.  They saw their imitation of the Royal Navy as the sincerest form of flattery, but the British were not appreciative.  Germany was living in a fool’s paradise, believing she could have a fleet that rivaled Britain’s without making Britain a rival.

The resulting rivalry polluted German naval strategy.  Expecting the Royal Navy to mount a close blockade or launch a preemptive strike against her bases, the High Seas Fleet sat put and lost the initiative.  Forced to fight with an inferior fleet at Jutland, Scheer tried to steer Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts onto a series of submarine-laid minefields, hoping thereby to destroy the Grand Fleet’s cohesiveness and defeat it in detail.  He failed, and the Germans never broke the blockade which eventually sapped their will.  Surprised that war had been declared, left without a role to play in the Schlieffen Plan due to poor interservice cooperation with the army, the High Seas Fleet was a means whose main end became self-preservation, its only goal being to intimidate Britain during peace negotiations (to be held after the German army won the war on land).

German naval strategy reflected the defects of strategic mirror-imaging.  To challenge the Royal Navy, the German navy believed it had to be just like it. Billions were spent from 1895-1914 on a surface fleet, devouring funding for innovations like the submarine (only 25 seagoing subs were ready for service in August 1914).  In the end, the Germans only drove the British to improve; even worse, by allocating a large percentage of her industrial resources towards naval production, Germany fatally weakened herself on land.  She tried to be a great land and sea power simultaneously, but the only country in history able to afford the exorbitant costs has been the United States during, and perhaps after, World War II.

Another country whose strategic mirror-imaging absorbed scarce resources to little end was the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.  The Soviet naval push only spurred the US Navy to improve, which surged to 600 ships under John Lehman.  A bankrupt strategic policy led to a bankrupt Soviet economy.  Today, the Soviet aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov sits in drydock, a second big carrier is up for sale, apparently to China or Iran, and a third was scrapped before completion.  According to the London Times (Oct 1992), there are no Russian naval ships presently in the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean.  Strategy is the art of the possible, not the striving for the impossible.  Before one embarks on an end, one must be able to afford the resources or means to achieve it.  Germany in the 1900s and 1910s, and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, embarked on an end they did not need and could not afford.

The bankruptcy of German naval strategy was best shown in 1917 with the decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.  The Germans gambled they could wear down the will of Britain before American troops reached the continent.  What they apparently failed to realize, however, was that the very entry of the US into the war would reinforce the will of the Entente Powers.  Meanwhile, Britain muddled through the U-boat crisis and reformed her naval strategy, learning that the defensive was a more effective means of destroying submarines than the offensive, and that destroyers were better used guarding convoys than the Grand Fleet.  The Germans had expected a short war in which navies would scarcely matter.  Caught in the stalemate of the Western Front, she found she couldn’t improvise an effective maritime strategy.

Strategies on Land on the Western Front

Turning to land warfare on the Western Front, and keeping in mind the definition of strategy as relating means, ends, and will, one must first recognize the changing nature of warfare.  The American Civil War marked a revolution in warfare.  Militaries no longer fought solely against other militaries but also waged war against an enemy’s economy and will.  In hindsight, the stalemate on the Western Front owed everything to modern industrialism.  Ironically, in 1914 most Europeans had believed a long war of attrition was impossible because of modern industry.  In Schlieffen’s words:

A nation’s existence depends upon the uninterrupted continuation of trade and industry, and a quick decision is necessary to start the wheels of industry turning again.  A strategy of attrition is impossible when the maintenance of armies of millions requires the expenditure of billions.

What people failed to foresee was, once hundreds of thousands of men were killed in 1914, nations were willing to pay billions and gear their economies for war rather than negotiate from a weak position.  Since the war was one of economic mobilization, those countries with underdeveloped economies, e.g.  Austria-Hungary, had the most trouble fighting it.  Here the alliance system was crucial.  As Paul Kennedy has observed, Britain kept France fighting, France and Britain kept Italy fighting after Caporetto, and Germany kept Austria-Hungary fighting.  Ivan Bloch, the self-made Warsaw banker, turned out to be right: the ultimate decision was in the hands of starvation of home populations.  The Central Powers starved first.

This fate was by no means obvious, however.  Until the middle of 1918, the Central Powers appeared to be winning the war.  Despite fundamental strategic flaws, Germany, with Austria-Hungary marching reluctantly behind, broke Russia, threw the French army into mutiny, and sowed despair in England.  Germany’s tactical and operational brilliance, however, could not conceal, and in fact contributed to, an underlying strategic rot.

This rot was revealed in the words of the Kaiser.  “The soldiers and the army, not parliamentary majorities and decisions, have welded the German Empire together,” Wilhelm declared. “I put my trust in the army.” But the army, beginning with von Moltke the Elder, had subordinated grand strategy to operational art.  Reinforced by Schlieffen, this trend reached the height of military absurdity under Ludendorff in 1918, when victory on the battlefield became the means and end of Germany’s strategy, as well as the balm which would restore the flagging will of Germany, Austria-Hungary, even Turkey!  In the Great War, Germany experienced a fundamental breakdown in civil-military relationships.  With the military determining policy, Clausewitz’s dictum that war as a form of politics became tragically twisted to war as the only form of politics.

This debasement of politics was not complete until 1917.  By Christmas 1914, Germany realized her strategic nightmare had come true: a two-front war of attrition loomed.  Adopting a defensive stance in the West, Falkenhayn sought victory in the East, nearly achieving a knockout blow against Russia at Gorlice-Tarnow in May 1915.  With Bethmann-Hollweg, Falkenhayn hoped to translate a limited military victory in the East into a political settlement with Russia.  Frederick the Great had institutionalized this concept of fighting limited wars for definite political ends.  However, despite her losses on the battlefield, Russia failed to see the wisdom of negotiations.  Despite criticism by Hindenburg and Ludendorff that he had failed to grasp the total military victory in the East that was still within reach, Falkenhayn turned to the West and Verdun in 1916.

Falkenhayn’s strategic concept for Verdun was simple: by attacking French national pride at Verdun, he would force them to bleed themselves dry in counterattacks.  Britain would then be compelled, before her new armies were ready, to come to the aid of France, exposing herself to decisive German counterattacks.  Falkenhayn made two errors here.  First, and most importantly, he did not coordinate his strategy with Hotzendorff’s in Austria-Hungary.  As a result, the Central Powers lost their advantage of interior lines and their chance to defeat Russia in 1916.  Second, Falkenhayn failed to explain his strategy to his subordinates.  His desire to avoid casualties and unnecessary sacrifice was subverted once Germany’s national pride was inflamed.  Expecting a loss ratio of 2.5:1 in his favor, the actual ratio was a grim 1.075:1.

Verdun was the Great War’s equivalent to Kursk in World War II.  While the Germans gave better than they got, it was they who could least afford the price.  Like the Soviets in 1943, the French had learned.  Petain refused to waste his troops in poorly planned attacks, preferring to rely on artillery and firepower rather than elan to retake ground.  In the end, Falkenhayn failed to enforce his will on the Entente.  He did not force Britain to launch an offensive prematurely, and Russia surprised him by launching the Brusilov offensive in Galicia.  For his failure, Falkenhayn was sacked and Ludendorff effectively assumed command of the German war effort.

1917 was a banner year for the German war effort.  In the West, the Germans wisely retreated to the Siegfried Line, shortening their front and creating a defensive barrier which withstood Nivelle’s disastrous offensives and Haig’s bullheaded assaults at Third Ypres.  With Russia in chaos, Ludendorff could finally concentrate all his resources on the Western Front for the “Victory Offensive” in 1918.

Here again, however, German strategy failed to relate means to ends.  Ludendorff simply didn’t have the means in 1918 to conduct a decisive offensive in the West, and his end was unclear even to himself.  All will be solved once we pierce a hole, he stated.  Attacking along the seam separating the British and French armies, the Germans failed to exploit their initial successes due to Ludendorff’s vague and shifting strategic aims and shortages of manpower and transport.  Like Napoleon in 1815, Ludendorff desperately committed his superbly trained troops one last time.   But like Napoleon, the coalition arrayed against him was too powerful.  Primacy in operational art was not enough to overcome economic blockade and the bigger battalions of fresh troops arriving daily from the Empire and the US.  Shattered by the Entente’s counteroffensive at Amiens on 8 August 1918, and faced with national starvation, the German homefront collapsed.

Why the Entente Won — And Germany Lost

The Entente had won.  But was this due to superior strategy?  Clearly, the Entente suffered some of the same strategic shortcomings as the Central Powers: a breakdown in military-civil relations, with the military reigning supreme; a cult of the offensive as the ultimate arbiter of war; and a lack of contingency planning.  Moreover, the Entente achieved a level of tactical proficiency approaching Germany’s only in mid-1918, if then.  But while it’s been fashionable to attack the “donkeys” and “British butchers and bunglers of World War One,” on the whole Britain and France properly balanced means and ends with will.

Developing a strategy wasn’t easy, though.  Kitchener caught the confusion of his colleagues when he exclaimed: “I don’t know what is to be done – this isn’t war!”.  He came to realize, as Michael Howard has pointed out, that Britain had to “make war as we must; not as we should like.” Like Sherman during the American Civil War, Kitchener knew it would be a long war, and he oversaw the expansion of the British Army from Haldane’s six divisions in 1914 to seventy divisions in 1918.  Pursuing a strategy remarkably similar to the Union’s in the Civil War, the Entente wore down the tactically superior German army on the battlefield as Grant had worn down Lee’s army in 1864.  Through economic blockade, the Entente strangled the German economy as Scott’s Anaconda Plan had suffocated the Confederacy.

The Entente strategy was hardly this clear-cut, however.  Many in Britain preferred an indirect approach, but this seemed to fail at Salonika and Gallipoli.  And while Kitchener may have seen the need for waging a costly war of attrition, most Entente leaders still placed their faith in the offensive.  The Somme, Third Ypres, the Nivelle Offensives: these and other offensives forced the Germans to use up men and materiel, but their primary end was not attrition but breakthrough and decisive victory.  Haig for one pursued offensives long after they were feasible, and wore down his own army in the effort.  Nivelle did the same.  That their costly offensives bore fruit was more by accident than design.  The strain they put on Germany forced her to take desperate measures, the deadliest being her decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917.

Besides blundering into the bloody, tedious, but effective combination of attrition warfare on land, economic warfare at sea, the Entente demonstrated other strategic edges versus their opponents.  With the rise of Lloyd George and Clemenceau, the Entente gradually reasserted civilian control over policy and the war’s course, obeying Clausewitz far better than their German counterparts.  The Entente also waged coalition warfare more effectively than the Central Powers.  While distrust and stubbornness existed within the Entente, France and Britain tended to work towards the same end, unlike Germany and Austria-Hungary, who were usually fighting uncoordinated battles on different fronts against different enemies.

Finally, the Entente used a wider array of strategic means in pursuit of their ends.  The British were especially clever in their use of propaganda to strengthen public will at home and to convince the US to enter the war.  In short, the Entente recognized more clearly than the Central Powers the widening dimensions of strategy.  Battles were only one means to victory, and not always the most important when compared with political, economic, intellectual, and psychological means.  The “genius” of the German military was evident but restricted to operations; the Entente bumbled about on the battlefield but used a wider array of means, under firmer political control, to wear down the will of Germany.

Yet despite her defeats in the First and Second World Wars, too much has been made, at least in the American military, of German battle skill.  In Vietnam, one might argue that like Germany, American grand strategy was irredeemably flawed no matter how many victories we won on the battlefield.  And while the operational brilliance of our victory in Desert Storm is clear, we must not let it blind us to our need to balance needs, ends and will in strategy.