Work Mania

W.J. Astore

A good friend sent me Miya Tokumitsu’s recent article, “The United States of Work: Employers exercise vast control over our lives, even when we’re not on the job. How did our bosses gain power that the government itself doesn’t hold?” One answer: Americans have been sold on the idea of work as fulfilling and even ennobling, and indeed the more work the better.  Yet if work is so wonderful, why do we pay some people only $7.25 an hour (the minimum wage)?  That’s less than $15K a year if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks.  Try living on that.  Work is so “great” in America that some people work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time for leisure or for family.

I remember when the “future” (which is now) was sold as a time when mechanization and robots and efficiency would grant us much more leisure time.  The idea was that new machinery and methods would curtail work.  That most people would work 25-30 hours a week at better jobs involving less drudgery, leaving them lots of time to raise families and otherwise to enjoy life away from the tedium and regimentation of the workplace.

work
It’s not so easy keeping up with our machine-driven mania for work

But the future isn’t what it used to be.  There are many reasons for this.  Americans often consume too much, i.e. they keep working to keep up with the Joneses.  Companies want higher and higher profits, driving them to squeeze more and more out of fewer and fewer workers.  And work in the USA isn’t just about work.  It’s often directly connected to health care, life insurance, and other benefits.  If you choose (or are told) to work part-time, you may lose your employer-provided health insurance.  If you’re fired, you lose your health benefits along with your salary and perhaps as well your sense of worth.

So much of our lives, especially in the USA, is tied to work.  After “What’s your name,” the next question most commonly asked of new acquaintances is, “What do you do?  Where do you work?” People’s sense of identity, their sense of worth, is often tied to their job, another big reason why losing one’s job is among the most stressful events in a person’s life.

And now work in America is often 24/7/365 since nearly everyone has electronic leashes, the Smart phones and so on, meaning the boss can always contact you.  And if you choose to unplug, maybe the boss will find someone else to take your place.  France recently passed a law to protect employees who choose to “unplug” after work and on weekends.  No such law in the USA, of course.

From my days in the military, I recall how so many officers put on a great show of looking busy.  “I have 276 emails to answer.”  “I’m wrestling alligators.”  “So busy — need to come up for air.”  When did being swamped by work become a sign of success?  In my view, the more efficient you are, the less grinding work you should need to do.  (Of course, many jobs are all about grinding work: as my dad used to say, the more physically grueling the job, the less he usually got paid.)

Work mania has many pitfalls.  Exhaustion leads to mistakes.  Broken health, either physical or mental.  Estrangement from family and the natural world.  I wonder, for example, whether people are dismissive of global warming and other environmental issues simply because they spend no time outdoors.  They’re always working, or going to and from work.

I used to commute 60+ miles to and from work.  I’d get up about 5:30AM, leave about 6:15AM, get to work by 7:30AM, work until about 4:30PM, then get home about 5:30PM (on a good day).  After that, I was tired.  And I didn’t come home to screaming kids with school and sporting events and so on.  Are we so busy and distracted that we hardly recognize that we live in an ecosystem of great fragility?  In fact, all our commuting, all our busyness, all our consumption, only broadens our carbon footprint.

This is not a rant against work, or a cry to get ourselves back to the garden.  But surely there’s a better way of striking a balance between work and everything else.  I recall watching Michael Moore’s documentary, “Where to Invade Next.”  The segments on Italy and Germany are telling here.  In Italy, workers get much more vacation time than their U.S. counterparts, roughly five weeks plus 12 national holidays (watch this segment).  U.S. workers by comparison are lucky to get two weeks’ paid vacation.  In Germany, Moore asks a bunch of German workers if they have second jobs.  They look at him like he’s crazy.  One job is enough, they say, at which they work about 36-38 hours a week.  What do you do with all the “extra” time, Moore asks.  Hang out at a café, read, and otherwise decompress, they answer.

I recall that Italian workers often get a long break so they can go home and prepare lunch for the family.  U.S. workers may be lucky to get 30 minutes (often unpaid), or even 15 minutes, for lunch, during which they’re fortunate to be able to bolt down some (probably unhealthy) fast food.

Some things in life shouldn’t be “fast,” like food.  And some things shouldn’t dominate our lives, like work.  Sure, some people work long hours at jobs they love, and if that’s the case, go for it.  But America’s work mania has its costs, including an estrangement from ourselves as well as the living world around us.

Incurious Donald: The Woeful Trump Presidency

Trump-immigration-ban-extreme-vetting-670x450
Look at what I signed!

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump is incurious, ignorant, and ill-informed.  He hides this with rudeness, bluster, and lies.  As an anonymous German Foreign Ministry official said during Chancellor Merkel’s visit, Trump “uses rudeness to compensate for his weakness.”

Trump couldn’t hold his own with a brilliant woman of substance like Angela Merkel, so he changed the narrative.  He accused Germany of not paying up with NATO; he said Obama wiretapped Merkel, just like he tapped Trump tower; he whined about unfair trade with Germany.  In public, Trump showed little substance and no sophistication.

It’s not that Trump can’t learn; he doesn’t want to.  He’s happy watching Fox News or movies like “Finding Dory,” golfing at his expensive resorts, signing executive orders and holding them aloft like a proud second-grader (Look Ma!  I can sign my name!), and holding rabble-rousing rallies (“Lock her up!”) and basking in applause.

Trump operates in the shallows.  His experience is in high-priced real-estate and media.  He’s best at hyping a certain image of himself.  He’s a bull-shitter, and he’s had lots of practice.

A big part of the presidency is ceremonial: the U.S. president is king and prime minister all in one.  Trump is failing at both jobs.  As a symbol of America, he’s boorish, boastful, and bullying.  As a prime minister, he’s incurious, ignorant, and vain.

Five examples: Candidate Trump knew nothing about America’s nuclear triad.  He didn’t know it consists of SLBMs (on Trident submarines), ICBMs (land-based), and “air-breathing” bombers.  All he “knew” is that allegedly the U.S. nuclear arsenal is obsolete and inferior to the Russian arsenal.  But actually the U.S. arsenal is more accurate, more survivable, and far superior to that of any other country, including Russia.

Second example.  According to Trump, before he came along, nobody knew how complicated health care could be.  We owe that stunning insight to Trump.  Third example.  According to Trump, Germany owes vast sums of money to the U.S. for defense costs, a false claim rejected by the Germans.

Fourth example: Based on a false Fox News report, Trump accused the previous president of committing a felony by tapping his phones during the campaign season, a charge for which there is no evidence whatsoever.  Yet Trump refuses to rescind the charge, despite its repudiation by the FBI, NSA, British intelligence, and his own party.

Fifth example: Trump refuses to admit his Muslim ban is, well, a Muslim ban.  Yet the ban refuses to target the one country that supplied 15 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11: Saudi Arabia.  Most experts agree that Trump’s ban is unconstitutional and counterproductive in the war on terror.

Being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.  In his unapologetic blustering, Trump echoes the foreign leader he seems to admire most: Vladimir Putin.  In Putin’s Russia, with its history of Tsars and other strong leaders, uncompromising firmness and unyielding certitude are expected if not always applauded.  In democratic America, an ability to compromise and a willingness to yield on matters of fact are generally seen as signs of adult leadership by statesmen who serve the people rather than themselves.

Trump’s behavior is better suited to that of Tsars and other anti-democratic strongmen.  Trump the incurious has surrounded himself with loyalists, family members like his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, and commissars who watch over his cabinet appointees to ensure their loyalty.  Pettiness, paranoia, and score-settling characterize the Executive branch.

Trump often harkens back to World War II and the likes of Generals Patton and MacArthur.  How does he compare to the president back then?  Franklin D. Roosevelt had a global view of the world while exhibiting a mastery of detail. (So too did Winston Churchill.)  Self-confident, FDR looked for no-men, not yes-men.  He and his administration took pains to be inclusive and bipartisan.  And FDR, with help from Allies like Churchill and Stalin, won World War II.

By comparison, Trump has a parochial view of the world and can’t even master himself (witness those temper-driven tweets).  He hires yes-men and demonizes Democrats and indeed anyone he sees as against him.  Alienating allies like Britain, Australia, and Germany, Trump seems least critical of Russia.

Some leaders surprise: they grow in office.  But Trump’s smugness, his unwillingness to admit when he’s wrong, his showboating to hide uncomfortable truths, are stunting him.  Effective at selling himself and entertaining as a blowhard on (un)reality TV, Trump is failing as a statesman.

Rather than grow, it’s likely Trump will wither in office.  The problem is he won’t be alone in his decline and fall.

Update: To state the obvious, Trumpcare is not a health care plan: it’s a massive tax cut for the rich combined with a cut in services for the working classes and poor.  Under this “plan,” the CBO estimates that 14 million will initially lose coverage, rising by another 10 million in the next decade.  How is this a health care plan?  Add cynicism and broken promises to Trump’s qualities.

Update (3/25): As Heather Digby Parton puts it, Trump “truly believes that he’s never ever been wrong about anything and when he lies he’s actually telling the future. He said it over and over again in that astonishing interview [for Time Magazine].”

Matt Taibbi, in his inimitable style, captured Trump during the election season: “On the primary trail we had never seen anything like him: impulsive, lewd, grandiose, disgusting, horrible, narcissistic and dangerous, but also usually unscripted and 10 seconds ahead of the news cycle … maybe he was on the level, birthing a weird new rightist/populist movement, a cross of Huey Long, Pinochet and David Hasselhoff.  He was probably a monster, but whatever he was, he was original.” (Insane Clown President, pg. 221)

The Deeply Disturbing Trump-Merkel Press Conference

merkel_trump_meeting
Trump, in his own militarized world

W.J. Astore

Yesterday’s Trump-Merkel Press Conference was disturbing on several levels.  Worst of all was the scene of a German Chancellor listening to an American president boast about how strong his military is, and how much stronger it soon will be. Not that long ago in historical terms, Germany was a country that stressed military dominance. Two lost world wars cured Germany of its militarism. American militarism has taken its place.

As Trump responded to questions, again and again he returned to the U.S. military, vowing that he’s going to strengthen it from its “depleted” condition, perhaps to a level of power that “we’ve never seen before.”

America as a country is “very strong, very strong,” said Trump, a “very powerful company/country,” and soon the U.S. military would be “stronger,” and “perhaps far stronger than ever before.”  Naturally, the president added that he hoped he wouldn’t have to use that “far stronger” military, even as the U.S. military garrisons the globe at more than 700 bases while launching ongoing attacks against “radical Islamic terrorism” (Trump loves enunciating those three words) in places like Yemen.

Merkel and Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington
She’s right to be worried …

This coming year, Trump is enlarging the military with a fresh influx of $54 billion.  “My generals,” as Trump likes to refer to James Mattis and John Kelly and Company, support him in part because he’s boosting military spending.  But will they continue to support Trump and his advisers like Steve Bannon when the President uses that “much stronger” military in unwise ways?

When you forge a bigger hammer, you tend not to leave it unused in the tool shed.  No — you look for bigger nails to strike.  As Trump noted at the press conference, he’s not an isolationist.  “Fake news,” he said.

That Trump, with his “far stronger” military, is not an isolationist is disturbing “real” news indeed.  Small wonder that the German Chancellor looked discomfited; her country has seen it all before.

What price military dominance?  Perhaps Chancellor Merkel could explain that to President Trump, if only he’d listen.

A Few Letters to My Dad during World War II

My Dad in 1945
My Dad in 1945

W.J. Astore

My dad was in the Army in World War II.  He was a dental technician in an armored headquarters group and never went overseas.  But many of his friends did go overseas and saw combat.  What follows are some excerpts from letters sent to my dad.

Bill Zerby was attached to the 781 Tank Battalion, 7th Army, in France and Germany.  In December 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge, Zerby wrote to my dad that:

“Here we have plenty of mud and rain and 24 hours a day the field artillery lays down a barrage with everything they have.  The outfit is making out pretty well so far.  One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners…. We all live in houses and have lanterns for lights.  Everything is blacked out at 5 P.M. till dawn.”

I’d like to repeat Zerby’s 3rd sentence: One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners.

The fight against the Nazis was tough, and it wasn’t just the Germans who violated the Geneva Convention and its rules about taking prisoners.  War, in short, should never be sugarcoated.

At the end of March 1945, Zerby wrote to my dad again, a letter that contained this telling sentence:

“Bookbinder [a fellow soldier] sure got a break [by not going overseas] but he better hope he don’t get sent to Germany.  It seems they don’t like the Heb’s [Jews].”

By this point, Allied troops were beginning to liberate German concentration camps, and beginning as well to realize the murderous hatred the Nazis had for the Jewish people.

On a lighter note, Zerby regales my dad with the following story:

“The place where we live now is a large estate that belongs to a German big shot.  He got chased out and we moved in.  He has a wine cellar that runs all over town—all underground passages, and the dates on some of the casks run back to 1755.  Well some of the wine was really good.  The boys made a tour of the place and took all the best drinks for their own use.  Yes, I was in on it too.  Now we are tired of it and don’t take anymore.  Of course it’s bolted up now but that don’t mean anything.”

In another letter, Zerby writes about American soldiers hunting for deer.  Yes, American troops knew how to have a good time. Wine, venison, and women.  After all, who knew from day to day if you’d live to see home again?

At the end of 1945, Zerby writes again to my dad that “I am now a proud civilian and no more lousy Army life.”  And to my dad’s mention of a few of their friends from the battalion, Zerby writes with painful honesty: “I don’t remember many of those guys anymore.  A hell of a lot of them got bumped off also last winter [in action in France and Germany].  I guess we were just lucky.”

Another of my dad’s friends was Corporal Ed C. Sarna, who was assigned to a headquarters battery in Divisional Artillery.  He wrote to my dad in December 1944 that:

“To date, I have seen a number of [German V-1] buzz bombs at a very close range.  A little in regards to Germany.  If Hitler decided to fight until we hit Berlin, I can sincerely feel that the destruction will wipe Germany right off the map.  At our present place – there isn’t a place found to be livable.  Our forces are really doing a good job of it.”

The Allies wanted to make sure the Germans knew they had been well and truly beaten in this war, so as to prevent the myth that emerged after World War I that the German Army had not been defeated in the field.

This was a sentiment seconded by Corporal Paul Vella, 5th Depot Repair Squadron, Maintenance Division.  He wrote to my dad in March 1945 that “You’re right, Julie, the Germans are getting the shit kicked out of them and the quicker it’s over the better I like it.  I sure would like to see the states after a couple of years of being away from it.”

Corporal Vella also jokingly mentioned the “Soldier’s Prayer” in his letter: Please, Dear God, distribute the bullets like you do the pay and give officers first dibs. Yes, there’s some grim humor shared in the front lines.

There’s nothing really that special about these letters to my dad – and that’s their value.  They are the typical sentiments of American dogfaces in Europe in World War II.  Men who saw the destruction of Germany and the deaths of their friends.  They had no illusions about war, and they didn’t spout patriotic platitudes.  They just wanted the war to be over so they could get back to living their “real” lives.

As one soldier put it to my dad in 1945, “I sure hope that I’ll get my discharge soon, I’ve got plans to complete, my girl is getting tired of waiting so long.”

And thus baby boomers like me followed.

A New Thirty Years’ War in the Middle East?

Jacques Callot captured the miseries of the Thirty Years' War.  Here we see a mass hanging
Jacques Callot captured the miseries of the Thirty Years’ War. Here we see a mass hanging

W.J. Astore

The Middle East of the early 21st century is looking more and more like the Thirty Years’ War of the early 17th century that tore apart the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire.  Religious sectarianism?  In the 17th century, Catholics and Protestants killed each other with gusto.  Disunity?  Yes, within and among the various Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire.  Great power intervention that made matters far worse?  Yes, Protestant Sweden and Catholic France intervened in a big way, among a host of other lesser powers. Privatized, for-profit militaries that threw more fuel on the fire?  Yes, Albrecht von Wallenstein, the greatest mercenary captain of the age, created his own empire until he was assassinated in 1634.

The war finally ended when it burnt itself out, and when European leaders realized the more they intervened, the more they risked the infection spreading to their own kingdoms.  Thus came the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but not before roughly eight million people, most of them civilians, died in and of the war.

When will conflicts in the Middle East finally burn themselves out?  In 2048?  When the oil is finally gone? (Sadly, water may replace oil as a major source of conflict.)

And when will great powers like the United States realize the more they intervene, the more the infection spreads elsewhere?  Indeed, the more it comes home to endanger the United States?

Speaking of 30 years, when did the war for the greater Middle East truly begin?  With the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s?  The creation of Israel in 1948?  The end of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918?  Biblical times?

The Thirty Years’ War worked to delay German unification until 1871, after which Germany, late to European power politics, decided to rattle its saber for a bigger seat at the table.  World War I was the result.

What will be the long-term effects of constant warfare in the Middle East?  Impossible to see, perhaps, but the short-term ones are before our eyes: more instability ahead, more innocents dead, more hatred spread.

The time is now to put a stop to the killing.

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.

Thirteen Movies About the Holocaust

scholl movie

I’ve seen a lot of movies and documentaries about the Holocaust or with themes related to the Holocaust and totalitarianism.  Of the films I’ve seen, these are the thirteen that stayed with me.  Please note that these movies have adult themes; they may not be suitable for children or teens.

  1. American History X (1998): Searing movie about neo-Nazis and the power of hate.  Violent scenes for mature audiences only.
  2. Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001): Excellent dramatization of Anne Frank’s life, to include the tragic end at Bergen-Belsen.
  3. For My Father (2008): A movie about Palestinians, Israelis, and suicide bombers, but also a movie about the difficulties of confronting and overcoming prejudice.
  4. Hotel Rwanda (2004): The genocide in Rwanda, and how one brave man made a difference.
  5. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): Powerful indictment of Nazi war criminals after World War II. 
  6. Katyn (2007): A reminder that the Nazis weren’t the only mass murderers in World War II.
  7. The Last Days (1998): Incredibly moving documentary that explores the fate of Hungarian Jews.  Highly recommended.
  8. Life Is Beautiful (1997): It’s hard to believe that a comedy could be made about the Holocaust.  But I think this movie works precisely because the main character is so resourceful and full of life.
  9. The Lives of Others (2006): Astonishing movie about life under a totalitarian regime (East Germany).  A “must see” to understand how people can be controlled and cowed and coerced, but also how some find ways to resist.
  10. Lore (2012): Movie about a German teenager who has to survive in the chaos of 1945 as the Third Reich comes crashing down.  Various small scenes show the hold that Hitler had over the German people, and the reluctance of many Germans to believe that the Holocaust occurred and that Hitler had ordered it.
  11. Sarah’s Key (2010): Heart-wrenching movie about the roundup of Jews in France, which reminds us that the Nazis had plenty of helpers and collaborators.
  12. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005): Inspiring movie about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany.  The Scholls were college students who took a courageous stand against the Nazis.  Executed as traitors in 1943, they are now celebrated as heroes in Germany. 
  13. The Wave (2008): Compelling movie about the allure of fascism and “the Fuhrer (leader) principle.”  Highly recommended, especially if you want to know how Hitler got so many young people to follow him.

W.J. Astore