Category Archives: Military Principles

Posts dealing with discussions of the principle of the military art or Strategy, Operations, and Tactics

CSA PRL Book Review: The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was released in the Summer of 2014 and I was relieved in the extreme to see that there was only one novel on the list, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.  The list is different than earlier lists because it is organized topically instead of by position as earlier lists were.  I have read many of the books on the list already and decided to read the ones I have not and post my thoughts on the books on the list.  This review is the third in that series.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World is an intriguing book, to say the least.  I will admit that after finding out a little more about the author, a retired British General, I was somewhat biased going into reading it as I then expected it to be a book advocating more soft power approaches to hard power problems.  As I got into the text itself that turns out to not be the case.

The book itself is 415 pages of text with an index.  It is separated into an introduction, three, topical three chapter parts, and a conclusion.  The topics of the parts are Industrial Warfare, Cold War Confrontation, and War Among the People.

The essential argument of the book is that the paradigm of war has changed in the past century and the dividing line is 1945 and the employment of nuclear weapons.  The premise goes that nuclear weapons changed the dynamic of war by making it realistically impossible for two nuclear armed states to fight each other out of fear of societal annihilation.  That is all well and good as far as it goes and actually makes sense within the context of historical occurrence since 21945 and the prevailing Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the east-west standoff we call the Cold War. He further goes on to explain the paradigm change in terms of war moving from a conflict between recognized forces belonging to sovereign states to one between sovereign forces and non-state forces that live among the people on whose behalf they are ostensibly fighting for.  It is this movement of war from being between defined forces to between undefined forces that makes for the paradigm shift by changing the way wars are to be fought.  That is the essence of the argument as I read it.

He makes several very good points within the narrative.  The first is he continually asserts the primacy of politics in the decision to use force.  In this he is absolutely correct.  In addition he makes clear that policy makers should not make the decision to use force without discussing the use of said force with their military commanders to find out if force is an appropriate tool. That is, can the use of force achieve the desired objective?  This is a point that is often lost or ignored by political leadership in many countries.

The Clausewitzean notion that rue generalship is the ability to impose your will on your enemy is discussed at length.  More importantly, he discusses how that concept has been applied in the era of non-state, non-centralized warfare in which we now find ourselves.  He correctly points out that decapitating the supposed leadership of what we think of as insurgent groups does not have a very stellar record as there seems to be an endless supply of leaders waiting in the wings when one leader gets killed or captured.  The resilience of non-state, non-centralized groups is one of their defining characteristics.

His discussion of the Darwinian nature of modern combat is revealing.  I remember having the same discussion among the NCOs and Officers of my Cavalry Troop in 2004-2005.  As we killed or captured insurgents the ones who remained got ever more competent and able to pull off their operations better.  The end result of such Darwinian, endless war is the creation of groups such as IS/ISIS/ISIL composed of men who have been trained by surviving the best we could throw at them.  They are a hard core of survivors and that much more capable and dangerous because of it.  I am reminded of the phenomenon that occurred in the World Wars where veteran units could accomplish missions that fresh units half their size could not because the men in those veteran units were the hard core of soldiers who just did not quit and had learned how to survive in the crucible of combat.

Lastly, Smith has a very useful discussion in his conclusion about how force should be used.  This is probably the only part of the book that is prescriptive in nature.  I agree with most of this and disagree with parts. Mainly I disagree with how thinks we should deal with the media.  Personally, I think the media should be treated as potential enemies and barred from the area of active operations.  I realize that is not really feasible though and some method of managing the media must be devised.  I suppose Smith’s prescription is as good as anybody else’s since it involves making certain the media understands what the military is doing and providing the context of military operations. More important is his discussion and prescription for deciding when, where, and how force should be used and why it is vitally important that all decision makers be on the same page.  Perhaps most vitally, he is correct in pointing out that an inflexible strategic end-state must be decided upon before force is used because an incoherent strategy leads to incoherent operations.  More importantly, flexible strategic goals almost ensure ultimate mission failure by precluding the proper planning and execution of military operations because it leaves commanders in the dark as to what their purpose really is.

This is an outstanding treatise on the use of military force in the modern world.  I may not agree completely that paradigm of warfare has shifted but Smith has undoubtedly correctly diagnosed why military interventions since World War II have been at best costly successes and more often even costlier failures.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in contemporary military theory.  Smith’s book is hopefully the opening of a conversation among generals and policymakers about the utility of using force in the modern world.

 

Reading and Military Service

There is an interesting piece on Medium.com recently about basic training and encouraging new soldiers to read.  I read, and read a lot, and have always tried to encourage others to read, not only my fellow soldiers when I was in the Army, but people in general.

I find that the idea of having a reading list and free copies of said books available to basic trainees to read in their less-than-copious free time is an awesome idea and I am chagrined that I did not do it when I was a Drill Sergeant at Fort Knox many years ago.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the titles on the list, I would remove some and add a few others, mot notably Storm of Steel, The Face of Battle, and Helmet for My Pillow.  That being said, the idea is an excellent one and I would hope the Army would pick up on it and actually sponsor it so that Drill Sergeants do not have to finance such a worthy idea themselves.

The original article is linked below.  KNUCKLE-DRAGGERS NEED TO READ TOO:

The First Battle of Manassas – 21 July, 1861

First Manassas or First Bull Run as it was called in the North was the first major battle between land forces of the Civil War.  The outcome of the battle also set the general pattern for battles in the first two years of the war. That pattern being tactical Union defeats with the Confederacy being incapable of following up on the strategic opportunities presented by their victories.

Forces Involved:
Union – 28,450 troops under BG Irvin McDowell
Confederate – 32,230 under BG Joseph Johnston and BG P.G.T. Beauregard

A key point is to remember that uniforms were not standardized on either side this early in the war. Both armies looked like multi-colored mobs and the lack of standardization was to increase confusion about unit identity on the day of the battle.  Another Point to remember is that the Confederate forces were those of two different armies and neither army was completely engaged during the battle. Only about half of the Confederate forces took part in the decisive fight around Henry house Hill.  The commanders of both armies but especially the Confederates comprised almost a who’s who of people that would be prominent later in the war.

Manassas 1

The Opening Skirmish: On July 18th Tyler’s Division of the Union Army tried and failed to force Blackburn’s Ford across Bull Run on the direct route to Manassas Junction.  He was supposed to just demonstrate in that direction while avoiding an engagement.  Instead got into a fight with Longstreet’s Brigade of Confederates that was guarding the ford.  Tyler continued the fight at the Ford until McDowell arrived personally and ordered him to break off the engagement.

The Confederates planned on standing on the defensive just south of the Bull Run River with the approximate center of their line being the stone bridge along the Warrenton Pike where it crosses the river.  By contrast the Union planned a two piece attack with Tyler’s Division demonstrating along the river line while a Two Divisions would march around the Confederate flank, cross Bull Run at the Sudley Springs Ford and attempt to roll up their line from the confederate left.

The morning of the battle itself found the action beginning around 0800 as Tyler’s division demonstrated by the Stone Bridge. About 0900-0915 the Evan’s Brig. on the Confederate left flank began engaging the lead elements of the Union 2nd division as they approached Matthew’s Hill from the west. Evan’s was reinforced by two more brigades but the Union troops arrived too fast forcing the Confederates to engage as they came up and not allowing them concentrate. Around 1100 hours the Confederates were driven from Matthew’s Hill and retreated to Henry House Hill where the first units of Joe Johnston’s Army was arriving and they could establish a defensive line as the Union Army kept approaching.

As the Confederate troops attempted to establish their new position on Henry House Hill vital time was bought by the privately raised Legion of Wade Hampton which delayed the Union troops by about five minutes in a short sharp fight at the foot of the hill.  Incidentally, Hampton’s Legion suffered the highest casualties of any unit engaged at First Manassas.

Manassas 2

After the Confederates had retreated they established a defensive line in the shape of a an inverted semicircle.  This shape allowed the Confederates to fire on the Union troops from three sides as they came up the hill in the assault.

It was at this time that Stonewall Jackson earned his nickname as his Brigade fought desperately and bought the remainder of the time necessary for the Confederates to consolidate their position.

The key and decisive part of the battle was the fighting that swirled around Henry House Hill in the afternoon from roughly noon until 1600.  The Union army had gotten two batteries of Regular Army artillery in good position to fire on the Confederate lines.

As the fight developed the Union initially had a superiority of force of somewhere between 3 and as much as 5 to 1.  If they had concentrated and attacked with an entire division or even an entire brigade they probably could have taken the hill and won the battle, but they did not d that.  Instead, the Union troops advanced and attacked a regiment at a time.

The Decisive Moment
The Decisive Moment

As each Union regiment assaulted the crest of the hill they were repulsed and thrown back only to be replaced by a fresh regiment to whom the same thing happened.  Throughout the course of the afternoon the Union troops continued to assault in the way until there was a mass of defeated mixed up Union regiments at the foot of the hill.

Keep in mind also that the Confederate troops were continually being reinforced as Johnston’s Shenandah troops were fed into the battle as they arrived from the railhead at Manassas Junction.  Eventually the balance of forces started to swing against the Union.

The battle finally turned entirely against the Union hen the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart attack and overran the two batteries of Union artillery that had been so damaging to the Confederates all afternoon. This was doubly worse as the artillery was caught as it was displacing to get a better angle of fire on the defenders.

As the artillery was overrun fresh confederate troops of Jubal Early and Arnold Elzey followed the cavalry and plowed into the Union right collapsing it forcing the entire Union army to begin to retreat.  The Union troops managed to retreat in fairly good order until they reached the Cub Run bridge where a destroyed wagon on the bridge itself caused a traffic jam forced the army to cross the creek on foot.  It was here that rumors of confederate cavalry turned a retreat into a rout and then a rout into a panic.  The only Union unit that maintained discipline was the 14th U.S. Infantry which kept its order and continued to fight serving as a rear guard for the entire union army as they fled the battlefield.Manassas 4

The Confederates were too exhausted to immediately pursue the defeated Union army and by the time they were rested the next day rain overnight had turned the roads into a morass and ruled out any effective pursuit.  This allowed the defeated Union Army of the Potomac to regroup and reconsolidate in and around Washington D.C. in the next few weeks.  The first Union campaign of the war had ended in failure. Casualties were actually fairly light for such a large battle, especially when considered by the casualties standards of later battles of the Civil War.

Periodic World Craziness Update # 32

The latest month’s wackiness in the world of international relations, politics, and  brinkmanship.  

Iraqi Military Makes Gains North of Baghdad in Conflict With ISIS:  It will be interesting to see how the response to the ISIS offensive plays out both in Iraq and in the wider world.  The INA is a broken reed and any gains they make will be fleeting.  I fully expect a stalemate to ensue shortly wherein Iraq is effectively partitioned.  We are saying the beginning of bloody fighting.  Think of it as Sunni Triangle II.

Ukraine Says Russia Has 38,000 Troops on Border Amid ‘Invasion’:  The biggest news out of this story is not that Russia is massing limited numbers of troops on the Ukraine border or even that Russian SF agitators are probably already in Eastern Ukraine but that Gazprom has cut off gas supplies to Ukraine.  Supposedly through traffic to the EU is continuing but who thinks they won’t shut that off too if the EU gets too froggy about their support for Ukraine?

Putin Backs Cease-Fire in Ukraine Amid Russia Army Drills:  I am simply amazed at the level of duplicity displayed by Russia regarding events in Ukraine.  I am even more amazed that the Western powers are not calling them on it.  It is obvious that the rebels are getting arms from the Russians yet the European powers refuse to acknowledge that and when Ukrainian or US authorities say it aloud the silence from our supposed allies is deafening.

Ebola ‘out of control’ in West Africa: MSF: A new strain of the Ebola virus is a potential nightmare. It is 90% lethal and apparently the strain currently spreading through West Africa is more easily transmitted than previous strains although news reports are not explicitly saying that. If this virus ever becomes airborne transmissible, all bets are off.

Kerry issues warning after Syria bombs Iraq:  In the most ironic thing of all, I have to wonder if some Western leaders are privately beginning to think that Assad is not that bad after all?   At least Assad made sure that his corner of the middle east was fairly stable, and it is obvious that a large chunk of the Syrian people support him as well.

ISIS Tries to Grab Its Own Air Force:  The significance of Balad falling would not be in ISIS control of aircraft, but in Iraqi loss of same.  I find it difficult to believe that ISIS counts a large number of pilots in its ranks, much less pilots qualified to operate combat aircraft and the aircrew to keep them operational.  The fall of Balad and Taji, were it to occur, would be a further symptom of how rotten the Iraqi army is.  Of course, I called that ten years ago when I was helping to establish the first Iraqi training program for the INA we were rebuilding.

BREAKING: ISIS Shows Off MASSIVE SCUD Missile in Military Parade:  I am not certain that the Iraqis need to worry overmuch about ISIS getting their hands on artillery and SCUDs.  Those are very technical weapons and if they are not served right are more dangerous o the operator than the enemy.

Poroshenko ends Ukraine ceasefire, says government will attack rebels:  If Russia withdraws support for the rebels the separatists could be crushed within weeks.  If however, Russia is just playing for time then this could last months yet.  It is also significant that apparently someone has admitted that Russian control of European energy supplies is a major factor in the tepidness of the European response to blatant Russian aggression all along.  Of course, the time for strong sanctions and pressure on Russia is now when energy needs are not as acute as they will be this coming winter.

Ukrainian forces tighten grip on Slavyansk as retreating rebels regroup:  Now it is up to the Ukrainian Army to “keep up the skeer” and not pause in applying pressure to rebels who are now clearly on the defensive and have lost the initiative.

Hamas rockets reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv:  I am curious to see if Israel will finally be smart, ignore international public opinion, and teach the Palestinian Arabs a brutal, bloody lesson they won’t forget for a generation.  They probably won’t though.  The Israelis will piss around, kill some Arabs, lose a few troops, and go back to the status quo.  Western leaders, Israel included, refuse to face the bitter truth that the only thing Arabs understand is force, everything else is weakness.

ISIS militants take sledgehammers to Mosul tomb of Prophet Jonah:  Yet more peaceful destruction from the adherents of the Religion of Peace.  Unless and until the Iraqi government gets their collective heads out of their 3rd point of contact ISIS and it’s adherents will continue to commit these outrages.

IDF strikes 80 Gaza targets in under thirty minutes:  One would think that at some point the Israelis are just going to evict all the Arabs from Gaza and bulldoze the slums that have been built there.

Germany Cites Deep Rift With U.S. Amid Second Spy Case:  If the allegations are true this is one of the dumbest possible things the US could do.  Germany has been a staunch US ally since the founding of the FRG in 1949.  What possible intelligence could be worth losing an ally?

Israeli troops wounded in first ground incursion in Gaza:  I wonder how long it will take Hamas to organize a mass firing on an Israeli city in hopes of overwhelming the Iron Dome system?  If something like that does happen then a ground invasion is a virtual certainty.

Russia warns Ukraine after shell crosses border:  The fighting in Ukraine continues with government forces slowly making inroads and regaining control of territory.  The likelihood of cross-border incidents only increases as gov. troops regain control of territory and I would not be surprised if at some point Russia does not use such an incident as a causus belli to get involved and support their proxies.

The Battle of Messines Ridge – 1917

From the opening months of the World War I, Flanders was the decisive sector for the British Army.  It was in an around the medieval Belgian town of Ypres that the original BEF had decimated themselves fending off German attacks from October to December, 1914.  Ypres and the salient surrounding it was where the British would see the hardest and most prolonged fighting of all the places where the British would fight in World War I.

The Battle of Messines Ridge fought from 7-14 June, 1914 was not really a separate battle at all but rather the opening phase of what would come to be known variously as the Third Battle of  Ypres or Passchendaele.

Messines 1

 

The Battlefield: Then and Now
The Battlefield: Then and Now

The Messines Ridge is on the southern shoulder of what was then the Ypres salient.  It is commanding terrain the possession of which allowed the German army to see almost all the way into the center of the city of Ypres itself and observe British movements inside the salient allowing the Germans to target British concentrations of troops very accurately.

The Ridge itself is not very high, about 90 feet, but that was more than high enough for military purposes given the flat nature of the terrain in Flanders near the coast.  I never fully appreciated the advantage to be gained from possession of a 90 foot ridge-line until my first visit to the battlefield in 2004 while on R&R from my tour in Iraq.  In Flanders a 90 foot difference in elevation makes all the difference in the world.

Possession of the Messines Ridge would allow the British to deny observation of a significant portion of their rear area to the German army and would also serve as an excellent stepping off point for follow on offensive operations both to expand the salient and effect the ever elusive breakout that all generals from any side fervently wished for.

The immediate commander and primary planner for the British forces in the lead-up to Messines Ridge was Gen. Herbert Plumer who had the unfortunate reputation with Haig of being a plodder.  Plumer reputation among the troops however was different.  He was on of the few British generals who the troops adored or even loved because of his well-known concern for their welfare and desire to avoid excessive casualties.

Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle
Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle

The plan Plumer came up with to take the ridge entailed the explosion of 25 mines that the Royal Army had laboriously emplaced under the ridge in the months leading up to the commencement of the offensive.  The mines ranged in size from the 96,500 lb St. Eloi mine to the 30,000 lb Petit Bois mines.  These were set to essentially demolish and demoralize the German front line trenches whereupon the British troops were expected to easily occupy them before the stunned Germans could react and throw them out.

A creeping barrage by 2/3 of the 2,200 artillery pieces available was to “shoot the attacking infantry in” once the mines exploded.  The rest of the artillery was reserved for use in the counter battery role to suppress German artillery to a depth of 9,000 yards along the attack front.

A preliminary bombardment lasting almost two weeks was also planned for the preparing the battlefield and hindering the Germans from reinforcing the sector to be attacked.  (NOTE:  preliminary bombardments of this style were not meant so much to destroy defensive works so much as to demoralize the enemy, injure defenders, and keep the enemies head down allowing attacking infantry to assault when the time came)

The Messines battle was the opening act of what was ultimately planned to be a British rupture of the German defenses in Flanders.  The overall plan failed.

At approximately  3:10 a.m. on the morning of June 7th, 1917 19 of the 25 emplaced mines exploded.  The 4 Birdcage mines were not detonated because the Germans had already evacuated the area by Zero-Hour and two failed to explode. The mines were wildly successful and the British troops did indeed essentially waltz into the German positions and establish occupancy.

The Germans attempted to counterattack on day one but they were unable to keep the British from occupying and holding the entirety of the first three lines of German trenches except for a portion of their third line which they retook from II ANZAC Corps.

On the morning of 8 June the II ANZAC Corps retook the section of the German third line they had been ejected from.  The rest of the British assault divisions set about consolidating the defenses in the newly won positions while the British artillery provided disrupting fire on German counterattacks while a portion of the artillery was displaced forward.

German artillery unleashed a massive bombardment on the captured trenches during which it is estimated that the British suffered up to 90% of their casualties during the battle.

Once large-scale German counterattacks stopped on 14 June the Messines sector settled down until the Passchendaele battle restarted active fighting in the beginning of July.

The Battle for Messines Ridge was one of the few arguably successful offensives of World War I prior to the offensives of the Last Hundred Days in 1918.

Messines 4