Tag Archives: Military Art

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.

 

The Battle of Antietam – 17 September, 1862

The Battle of Antietam is interesting for several reasons the most important of which for me is that it is the single bloodiest day in American military history. There have been bloodier battles in American wars but no single day matches the blood spilled on those Maryland fields that early day in 1862. The Union victory at Antietam, if you can call it a victory, also provided Abe Lincoln with the opportunity to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation. An executive act that was totally unconstitutional but that he did anyway for domestic and foreign political reasons.

Antietam was the final battle of Lee’s first invasion of the North and while it was not a decisive battle it changed things because of what came after.  If anything, from a purely tactical and operational standpoint the battle was a draw.  Both sides essentially beat themselves bloody over a few square miles of Maryland territory that neither considered vital.  The battle is only considered a Union victory because Lee took his army and left instead of renewing the fighting for a second day leaving the Army of the Potomac in possession of the battlefield.

The commander of the 75,000 man, six Corps strong Union Army of the Potomac was General George B. McClellan.  He was opposed the 39,000 man two Corps Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by General Robert E. Lee.

In the fall of 1862 following the Confederate victory at Second Manassas Lee decided to invade Maryland. There were several competing reasons for this decision. One was that it was thought that that best way to force the Union to a negotiated settlement was to inflict a defeat on Northern forces on northern soil. Another was the hope that by successfully taking the war to the North the Southern states could win foreign recognition and potentially aid. It was also believed that Maryland was the state still in the Union whose population was the most sympathetic to the southern cause. Lastly, Lee believed that by invading Maryland and threatening the capture of Washington D.C. he could force the Army of the Potomac under McClellan to accept battle on his terms.

The invasion began on 3 Sep. 1862 and almost immediately (McClellan was a notorious slowpoke) provoked a reaction from the Union forces garrisoned in and around Washington D.C.

Movements at the Battle of Antietam Sep. 3-17, 1962 Map Courtesy CivilWar.org
Movements at the Battle of Antietam Sep. 3-17, 1962
Map Courtesy CivilWar.org

There were several skirmishes and minor battles prior to the culminating battle of the campaign at Antietam. The most significant of these was Stonewall Jackson’s capture of the federal garrison and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on Sep. 15th. This was the largest surrender of Federal troops during the war and the loss of weapons was considerable. The Confederates captured roughly 13,000 small arms, 200 wagons, and 73 artillery pieces when they took the Arsenal.

In the days leading up to the battle McClellan was slowly gathering all the disparate forces of the Army of the Potomac together and began to converge them west of Frederick in the vicinity of Sharpsburg.  By contrast Lee’s army straggled in from their scattered positions in Maryland on 15 & 16 Sep. but McClellan’s habitual caution allowed Lee the time to consolidate his position prior to the Union assault on the morning of the 17th.

The first engagements between the two armies was on the night of 16 Sep when the Federal I Corps (Hooker) encountered rebel pickets.
During the night the Federal  XII Corps (Mansfield) moved up in support of I Corps.

At around 0600 on 17 Sep Hooker’s Corps advanced and attacked the Confederate Left in the area of the North and East Woods and the Cornfield that was held by Stonewall Jackson’s Corps.  The attack was almost successful until Hooker’s Corps was hit in the flank by Hood’s division who drove off the Union attack.  As the I Corps retreated Mansfield was told that he was needed to cover the broken I Corps or the battle was lost before it really began.

As the XII Corps moved up to the attack Mansfield, it’s commander was mortally wounded and confusion briefly reigned as the 1st Division commander established his command of the Corps
At 0800 the XII Corps finally got into the fight and after heavy combat took and held the Dunker Church area unsupported by other Federal troops.

Morning attacks of the battle. Map Courtesy USACMH
Morning attacks of the battle.
Map Courtesy USACMH

At about 0830 the II Corps (Sumner) entered the battle passing through the area where I and XII Corps had been so severely handled by Jackson’s Corps earlier.  As the II Corps advanced into the battered formation of Jackson’s Corps they were  hit in the flank by Fresh troops Lee had sent from his right and last Confederate reserves who managed to halt the attack in and around the Dunker Church and Cornfield.  The failed attack by II Corps ended the first phase of the battle.

In the afternoon Sumner wanted to attack the Confederate left again because he believed the Rebels were more badly damaged than him and with the reinforcements from VI Corps he had the chance to

Afternoon movement's during the battle. Map Courtesy USACMH
Afternoon movement’s during the battle.
Map Courtesy USACMH

crush the Confederate left.  The matter was referred to McClellan who denied permission for the attack and probably squandered the Union’s best chance to decisively defeat Lee’s Army, which was exhausted of reserves.  The IX Corps (Burnside) begins to enter the battle around the Burnside Bridge at approximately 1300.  At 1600 the IX Corps attacks towards Sharpsburg but the attack falters as the Corps is attacked in the flank by the Division of A.P. Hill and falls back to the bridge by 1700.  This was the last major Federal assault of the day and ended the battle although skirmishing continued.

On 18 September both armies remained in position and Lee considered renewing the battle but taking his own casualties and federal strength into account he instead stars withdrawing his army south.  McLellan chose not to pursue the retreating Confederates out of a belief that Lee was falling back on significant reinforcements.

Battle casualties near the Dunker Church. Image: Library of Congress
Battle casualties near the Dunker Church.
Image: Library of Congress

With 3,782 dead and a total of 22,000 casualties out of 114,000 troops engaged the Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in the history of American Arms.   The next costliest battle I can think of that took place on one day and is continually mentioned is the D-Day invasion of Normandy. At D-Day the US had roughly 1,400 dead and a further 3,500 wounded out of approximately 80,000 invasion troops.  Casualties at Antietam were roughly 19% while at D-Day they were 4.5 % of troops engaged.

An afterword is that an image was captured at Antietam that was a rarity prior to WWI.  Namely, Alexander Gardener captured an image of the battle as it was happening.  If you look at the below image on the right side you can see Union cavalry lined up awaiting orders and on the left side you can see the infantry of both armies on the fighting wreathed in the smoke from artillery and their rifles.  If you blow the image up you can even see a couple of places where guys are dragging casualties away from the line.  Why this has not become an iconic image of the Civil War I have no idea.

Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner
Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner

 

Von Saucken – The Last Aristocrat

Today’s generation can be forgiven for seeing the Second World War’s common participants as engaging in a battle of ideologies. That being said, the Waffen SS were the ultimate outsiders who became the ultimate insiders. During the blitzkrieg into Poland the Wehrmacht saw them as little more than auxiliaries, along for the ride. It is therefore interesting to appreciate the fact that the majority of the Heer were not ideologues, and therefore why they were capable of constantly putting up amazing fronts against an opponent (Russia) that outnumbered them 13:1.

The German military predated the rise of national socialism and shared few values with the Fuhrer and his henchmen. German military officers usually hailed from rigid class hierarchies that could trace their bloodlines back 600 years to the Teutonic Knights.

Stereotypically, this is the image we have of the Kaiser, the pickelhaube, and the monocle, and this was actually the attitude of the majority of Germany’s fighting men during the second World War. In other words, the majority of the Heer’s warriors were primarily interested in fighting to preserve Germany’s honor after what they viewed as the betrayal of Versailles.

No man exemplifies this aspect of the Wehrmacht as much as Dietrich von Saucken. The Panzer leader famously refused every formality when greeting the fuhrer, hands on his cavalry sword he made a slight bow and proclaimed his lack of intention to fight under the NS brass. The two men’s eyes met and the fuhrer’s will crumbled, as he allowed the cavalry officer to lead his own kampfgruppe.

Like Ernst Junger his only interest was a deep sense of personal honor that his Junker ancestors instilled in him.

If we are to understand the motivations that led Germans to fight under the banner of National Socialism, we should remember that the majority of the fighting men were ideological anachronisms, products of 19th century thinking, at best.

To appreciate this truth is to begin to understand why German officers, from Rommel on down often had a reputation for honorable dealings with their opponents, despite the broad brush we often paint their side with.

The Christ of Nations, 1920

In Polish history, war usually comes down to two conflicting scripts. From the Polish side, pushing geographical boundaries out in all directions, as far as possible. From the opposing side: eliminating the irritating roadblock begrudgingly acknowledged as “Poland.” This theme is perennial.

It has not only been steel and fire that has determined if the land of the White Eagle was to be a flesh and blood state, or merely a state of mind; it was also the petitioning of the fighting spirit through ideological appeal.

Literature in Poland has served such a purpose. Polish literature is not meant to appeal to outsiders. It is generally so nationalistic that neighboring nations, even the most tolerant and enlightened, would feel a certain hostility emanating from its pages.

This is not to condemn Polish literature. The nonpareil polish bard, Adam Mickiewicz wrote his magnum opus, Pan Tadeusz, as an exile in France, when his drawn nation had been quartered by standing armies from neighbor states. The loot went to Vienna, Moscow and Berlin, but the heart went to Paris.

National Messianism, as a political ideology, grew from ethereal to concrete when General Pilsudski took this doctrine to the field, playing immovable object vs. unstoppable force, a.k.a the Russian Bear, immediately after the First World War.

Interestingly enough, however, national messianism had already been translated to the East. If Western readers ever confront this strain of thought, it probably will first be through Dostoevsky, an ardent Russian Slavophile who saw his nation as a victim of Prussian and Polish military aggression. In Dostoevsky, it is Russia, not Poland, that is to suffer for humanity, and teach the nations the righteousness of his ever-expanding enlightened empire.

Russia had become the Christ of Nations, filled with millions of little Christs ready to pick up the bayonet in the mud and charge forward.

Did these two competing messianic visions go toe-to-toe?

Rewind to November 21st, 1919. Out of the ashes of the Austrian and Russian empires, arise new nations, still wet from blood-soaked trenches. Two of these nations are Poland and the Ukraine who had just met each other in battle and are now signing an armistice.

Fast forward to April, 1920. Pilsudski launches an offensive into the Ukraine as a preemptive strike to halt Soviet expansion. May, 1920 – Polish forces take Kiev.

If anyone is the victim of these scrambles for land (and oil fields) it is the Ukraine, who is now partitioned between competing forces; Red Russians, White Russians, Poland, and Romania.

That Pilsudski believed in the Polish Messianic doctrine is not in dispute.

That Lenin’s boys in the field, Trotsky and Stalin, believed in the reactionary Slavophile ideal would be harder to prove.

Trotsky was active in trying to make Poland a Russian dacha-land for Soviet Party members. He would become a symbol on both sides in the propaganda war, yet both sides would utilize traditionalist Christian imagery to appeal to the peasantry and recruits, as the idea of an atheistic world-brotherhood of workers had yet to sink in with the illiterate icon-praising Russian bumpkin.

The Soviet propagandists utilized traditionalist, Slavophile, and Messianic motifs in their early deployments. Their appeal to their own soldiers was often reactionary and messianic.

The Polish-Soviet War was intense. It was also ideological. It lasted less than two years, but took more lives on each side than America lost in Vietnam or Korea. And we are talking 1920 technology and weaponry. This suggests a fiercely personalized battle between belligerents.

19 years later World War Two would start, and 95% of German deaths would be claimed by Eastern European ravens, not by Anglo-American hardware.

As always, ideological struggles prove the most bloodthirsty. The playing ground of red and white goal posts was between the Vistula and the Volga. World history, either before nor since, has never seen such a merciless score.

Barbarossa/Eatern Front Timeline in WWII

Over the past few days I have had an email conversation with Mr. George Toomes, one of my readers, and he brought up a very interesting question. It started with asking if I had or knew where to find a map of the Russian counter-attack outside Moscow in the winter of 1941. In a follow up he mentioned that he was trying to get an idea of when and where the Germans and Russians stopped in their various offensives and counter-offensives in the war in the East.

Russia-1941
Russia-1941

I don’t think I have ever seen a video or graphic that lays out the back and forth of the eastern front in the way this question asks. One thing is certain, the Eastern Front in World War II was dynamic throughout the entire war. From the massive gains of the Germans during the first year of the invasion to the equally massive gains by the Russians in the last, the front was always in motion somewhere. One of the difficulties when discussing the War in the East is the sheer scale of the operational area. The Eastern Theater of the war encompassed an area almost 1,500km deep by roughly 2,000km north-south., an area of roughly 3 million km2.

Best animation of the front movements of WWII I have found freely available. It is from Wikimedia Commons and unfortuantely for English speakers the labelling is in German.

During the 4 years that the war was fought the Germans started from just east of Warsaw and went almost to Moscow before being stopped and then being ground back to Berlin over the subsequent 3 years. It is not that simple though, there were constant ebbs and flows as the front line moved constantly from the huge gains of major offensives by both sides to small tactical adjustments at battalion and even company level.

Berlin-1945
Berlin-1945

The volatility, to borrow a term from the stock market, of the Eastern Front is breathtaking if one takes the time to really look at it. There are several good books post USSR that utilize newly available archives to tell the story of the Eastern Front in even greater detail than before and the most distinguished author writing on the Russo-German War is David Glantz whose best titles include: When Titans Clashed and Stumbling Colossus.