Tag Archives: Military Art

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.

Berlin-1945

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.

The face of Middle War: documents and weapons sized in raid in Al-Alam, Iraq.
Photo by Uathor

“Middle War”: The new normal going forward

The face of Middle War: documents and weapons sized in raid in Al-Alam, Iraq. Photo by Uathor

The face of Middle War: documents. cash, and weapons seized during a raid in Al-Alam, Iraq in 2004 by the author.  There was plenty of other stuff but this is the best picture.
Photo by Me during my tour downrange

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has just released Beyond the Last War: Balancing Ground Forces and Future Challenges Risk in USCENTCOM and USPACOM.  The report makes for interesting reading.  What I found the most interesting aside from the scenarios considered was the realization that air power and spec-ops troops cannot win wars by themselves.  Conventional military forces will be required into the foreseeable future.  That view alone is a breath of fresh air given the Pentagon’s lamentable tendency over the past few years to tour both types of forces while the simple ground-pounders are out there doing Yeoman’s work trying to make an unstable world more stable.  High profile raids and airstrikes do not a war make.  It is the infantry, cavalry, artillery, and engineers out there interacting, fighting, and dying on a daily basis that win wars.  In fact, I cannot think of one war that ended by decapitation strike.

Discussion?

Victory, what is it?

This question came up for several reasons mainly because of the news out of Afghanistan and Iran plus the book I am currently reading about the Second World War . Victory is an elusive thing because in war defining victory is perhaps the major strategic goal of the belligerents. I suppose that one could take the Clausewitzean the ideal of destroying the enemy’s force or means to fight  as victory but that really isn’t it.

As we saw in Iraq the destruction of the enemy army does not necessarily mean that the war is over.  Unless the population of The enemy country, nation, or tribe is convinced that they have been defeated the fighting will not stop. The dilemma then, that planners are faced with is that they have to decide how to fight a war to convince the enemy population that they have been defeated. It is obvious that the in Iraq the vast majority of the population was not convinced that their defeat therefore, they provided tacit support to the insurgency. This lack of acceptance of their defeat made consolidating the military victory extremely difficult. This tends to demonstrate that absent any acknowledgement of defeat victory  itself is a mirage.

The U.S. is currently seeing that phenomenon at work as well in Afghanistan. Our problem there is that Afghan Society is so splintered that a general acknowledgement of defeat is impossible on a countrywide scale.  I fear that the eventual American solution to the quandary in Afghanistan is a simple declaration of victory and we leave. This leads us back to the question of what victory actually is? I would argue that victory is not simply the defeat or destruction of the enemy military and forcing the enemy population to acknowledge that they have been beaten. Historical examples tend to support my view.

For example, despite the destruction of multiple armies y Hannibal during the Punic Wars the Roman people never admitted defeat, They continued to field new armies until they were eventually successful.  Another example is the Prussians after their defeat by Napoleon in 1806, the Prussians did not truly accept their defeat, instead they reformed their military and prepared for a resumption of resistance against Napoleon.  Similarly in 1941 the Russian refused be defeated by the exceptional German success is in the opening months of Operation Barbarossa, instead they continued to reconstitute armies and continue the fight until they eventually achieved victory.

A good example of the destruction of the military not meaning enemy defeat is the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. In that instance, the French army was essentially destroyed in the field at Metz and Sedan but the French people refused to admit defeat. It took the Prussian army a further seven months and the bombardment of Paris to convince the French people to capitulate.

It seems that in essentials Clausewitz was correct.  The essence of victory is convincing the enemy nation or people that regardless of the sacrifices they are willing to bear, they cannot be successful.  The modern method of western warmaking in seeking a supposedly decisive battle with minimal civilian and military disruption and then declaring the war over obviously does not work.  What modern western methods do is convince our enemies that because of an aversion to casualties if they can hold out long enough the weak public’s in western nations will force withdrawal and our enemies will eventually achieve victory.  It worked in Vietnam, Afghanistan against the Soviets, Somalia, and elsewhere so why will it not work again?

If you actually think about it, modern western ,military methods cause more suffering long term than if we just went in and killed and terrorized our enemies into submission.  The hope of our enemies of eventual victory through western exhaustion prolongs individual suffering.  A thought and fact lost on the liberals who only see pictures on CNN of suffering children and delude themselves into thinking they are doing good instead of making the situation worse from a humanitarian perspective.

The goal of war is not to disrupt the enemy as little as possible, it is to defeat them a as quickly as possible.  Sometimes, often in fact, that requires people to die, both civilians and military.  That is not a tragedy except on a personal level.  Instead it is a fact of warfare.  It was true 5,000 years ago and will no doubt be true in a further 5,000 years.  The immorality is the modern belief that wars can be won without bloodshed. Unfortunately, that still only happens in books and movies.

In the end, victory means forcing your enemy to submit.  War is one of the last human endeavors in which the ends mostly justify the means.