The U.S. Military’s German Fetish

American Blitzkrieg – Loving the German War Machine to Death
By William J. Astore, TomDispatch, 18 February 2010 — Reposted with permission.

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Remember the 100 hours of combat that made up the first Gulf War, the mere weeks it took for Kabul to fall in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, or the “shock and awe” wave of air attacks that led off the 2003 invasion of Iraq, followed by the 20-day blitzkrieg-like campaign that left American troops occupying Baghdad? Those were the days when, as retired lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore reminds us, the civilians in the Bush Pentagon thought they were the masters of lightning war. Now, skip almost seven years, and in Afghanistan the U.S. military has just launched the largest campaign since the invasion of 2001. Fifteen thousand U.S., British, and Afghan troops have been dispatched to take Marja, a single, modest-sized, Taliban-controlled city of 80,000 in one of more than 700 districts in Afghanistan, many under some degree of Taliban control or influence. How the time frame for success has changed.

As the Americans went in, Marine Commander Brigadier General Larry Nicholson was already warning that it might take up to 30 days, longer than it took to capture Baghdad, just to clear Marja of hidden explosives and, despite overwhelming power arrayed against perhaps a few hundred Taliban guerrillas, the fighting in the town has gone on relatively steadily for days. What, in 1991, 2001, and 2003 was the swift claim of total victory is now a long-haul campaign, according to American military sources, to blunt Taliban success (or, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, to “degrade the capability of the Taliban”) and so, evidently, bring the enemy in a chastened state to the negotiating table before an American drawdown begins.

As for timelines, U.S. officials now talk about the combat portion of the Marja campaign being but the beginning of a full-scale, militarized version of nation-building on a local level. Think of it as city- or district-building, and the process includes (we’re told by the U.S. war commander with some pride) the unpacking of an imported “government in a box” — the governing and security forces of Hamid Karzai’s central government — and the launching of a well-funded, local reconstruction program to win “hearts and minds.” As a result, the test of success is now considered to be months down the line, and that’s if the Marja campaign doesn’t turn out to be a classic counterinsurgency quagmire.

The story of how Pentagon strategists and the U.S. military went from being the masters of war to a force of would-be long-haul city-builders in the backlands of Afghanistan is a strange one indeed, made stranger yet by the bizarre detour they took through modern German military lore. (To catch William Astore in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview discussing the U.S. military’s fascination with the Wehrmacht, click here.)

The main feature

“Why do people have a fixation with the German military when they haven’t won a war since 1871?”
— Tom Clancy

I’ve always been interested in the German military, especially the Wehrmacht of World War II.  As a young boy, I recall building many models, not just German Panther and Tiger tanks, but famous Luftwaffe planes as well.  True, I built American tanks and planes, Shermans and Thunderbolts and Mustangs, but the German models always seemed “cooler,” a little more exotic, a little more predatory.  And the German military, to my adolescent imagination, seemed admirably tough and aggressive: hard-fighting, thoroughly professional, hanging on against long odds, especially against the same hordes of “godless communists” that I knew we Americans were then facing down in the Cold War.

Later, of course, a little knowledge about the nightmare of Nazism and the Holocaust went a long way toward destroying my admiration for the Wehrmacht, but — to be completely honest — a residue of grudging respect still survives: I no longer have my models, but I still have many of the Ballantine illustrated war books I bought as a young boy for a buck or two, and which often celebrated the achievements of the German military, with titles like Panzer Division, or Afrika Korps, or even Waffen SS.   

As the Bible says, we are meant to put aside childish things as we grow to adulthood, and an uninformed fascination with the militaria and regalia of the Third Reich was certainly one of these.  But when I entered Air Force ROTC in 1981, and later on active duty in 1985, I was surprised, even pleased, to discover that so many members of the U.S. military shared my interest in the German military.  To cite just one example, as a cadet at Field Training in 1983 (and later at Squadron Officer School in 1992), I participated in what was known as “Project X.”  As cadets, we came to know of it in whispers: “Tomorrow we’re doing ‘Project X’: It’s really tough …”

A problem-solving leadership exercise, Project X consisted of several scenarios and associated tasks.  Working in small groups, you were expected to solve these while working against the clock.  What made the project exciting and more than busy-work, like the endless marching or shining of shoes or waxing of floors, was that it was based on German methods of developing and instilling small-unit leadership, teamwork, and adaptability.  If it worked for the Germans, the “finest soldiers in the world” during World War II, it was good enough for us, or so most of us concluded (including me). 

Project X was just one rather routine manifestation of the American military’s fascination with German methods and the German military mystique.  As I began teaching military history to cadets at the Air Force Academy in 1990, I quickly became familiar with a flourishing “Cult of Clausewitz.”  So ubiquitous was Carl von Clausewitz and his book On War that it seemed as if we Americans had never produced our own military theorists.  I grew familiar with the way Auftragstaktik (the idea of maximizing flexibility and initiative at the lowest tactical levels) was regularly extolled.  So prevalent did Clausewitz and Auftragstaktik become that, in the 1980s and 1990s, American military thinking seemed reducible to the idea that “war is a continuation of politics” and a belief that victory went to the side that empowered its “strategic corporals.”

War as a Creative Act

The American military’s fascination with German military methods and modes of thinking raises many questions.  In retrospect, what disturbs me most is that the military swallowed the Clausewitzian/German notion of war as a dialectical or creative art, one in which well-trained and highly-motivated leaders can impose their will on events. 

In this notional construct, war became not destructive, but constructive.  It became not the last resort of kings, but the preferred recourse of “creative” warlords who demonstrated their mastery of it by cultivating such qualities as flexibility, adaptability, and quickness.  One aimed to get inside the enemy’s “decision cycle,” the so-called OODA loop — the Air Force’s version of Auftragstaktik while at the same time cultivating a “warrior ethos” within a tight-knit professional army that was to stand above, and also separate from, ordinary citizens.

This idolization of the German military was a telling manifestation of a growing militarism within an American society which remained remarkably oblivious to the slow strangulation of its citizen-soldier ideal.  At the same time, the American military began to glorify a new generation of warrior-leaders by a selective reading of its past.  Old “Blood and Guts” himself, the warrior-leader George S. Patton — the commander as artist-creator-genius — was celebrated; Omar N. Bradley — the bespectacled GI general and reluctant soldier-citizen — was neglected.  Not coincidentally, a new vision of the battlefield emerged in which the U.S. military aimed, without the slightest sense of irony, for “total situational awareness” and “full spectrum dominance,” goals that, if attained, promised commanders the almost god-like ability to master the “storm of steel,” to calm the waves, to command the air.

In the process, any sense of war as thoroughly unpredictable and enormously wasteful was lost.  In this infatuation with German military prowess, which the political scientist John Mearsheimer memorably described as “Wehrmacht penis envy,” we celebrated our ability to Blitzkrieg our enemies — which promised rapid, decisive victories that would be largely bloodless (at least for us).  In 1991, a decisively quick victory in the Desert Storm campaign of the first Gulf War was the proof, or so it seemed then, that a successful “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA in military parlance, was underway.

Forgotten, however, was this:  the German Blitzkrieg of World War II ended with Germany’s “third empire” thoroughly thrashed by opponents who continued to fight even when the odds seemed longest. 

What a remarkable, not to say bizarre, turnabout!  The army and country the U.S. had soundly beaten in two world wars (with a lot of help from allies, including, of course, those godless communists of the Soviet Union in the second one) had become a beacon for the U.S. military after Vietnam.  To use a sports analogy, it was as if a Major League Baseball franchise, in seeking to win the World Series, decided to model itself not on the New York Yankees but rather on the Chicago Cubs.

The New Masters of Blitzkrieg

Busts of Clausewitz reside in places of honor today at both the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and the National War College in Washington, D.C.  Clausewitz was a complex writer, and his vision of war was both dense and rich, defying easy simplification.  But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. military from simplifying him.  Ask the average officer about Clausewitz, and he’ll mention “war as the continuation of politics” and maybe something about “the fog and friction of war” — and that’s about it.  What’s really meant by this rendition of Clausewitz for Dummies is that, though warfare may seem extreme, it’s really a perfectly sensible form of violent political discourse between nation-states. 

Such an officer may grudgingly admit that, thanks to fog and friction, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  What he’s secretly thinking, however, is that it won’t matter at all, not given the U.S. military’s “mastery” of Auftragstaktik, achieved in part through next-generation weaponry that provides both “total situational awareness” and a decisive, war-winning edge.

No wonder that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld were so eager to go to war in Iraq in 2003.  They saw themselves as the new masters of Blitzkrieg, the new warlords (or “Vulcans” to use a term popular back then), the inheritors of the best methods of German military efficiency.

This belief, this faith, in German-style total victory through relentless military proficiency is best captured in Max Boot’s gushing tribute to the U.S. military, published soon after Bush’s self-congratulatory and self-adulatory “Mission Accomplished” speech in May 2003.  For Boot, America’s victory in Iraq had to “rank as one of the signal achievements in military history.”  In his words:

“Previously, the gold standard of operational excellence had been the German blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France in 1940.  The Germans managed to conquer France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in just 44 days, at a cost of ‘only’ 27,000 dead soldiers.  The United States and Britain took just 26 days to conquer Iraq (a country 80 percent of the size of France), at a cost of 161 dead, making fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison.”

How likely is it that future military historians will celebrate General Tommy Franks and elevate him above the “incompetent” Rommel and Guderian?  Such praise, even then, was more than fatuous.  It was absurd.

Throughout our history, many Americans, especially frontline combat veterans, have known the hell of real war.  It’s one big reason why, historically speaking, we’ve traditionally been reluctant to keep a large standing military.  But the Cold War, containment, and our own fetishizing of the German Wehrmacht changed everything.  We began to see war not as a human-made disaster but as a creative science and art.  We began to seek “force multipliers” and total victory achieved through an almost Prussian mania for military excellence. 

Reeling from a seemingly inexplicable and unimaginable defeat in Vietnam, the officer corps used Clausewitz to crawl out of its collective fog.  By reading him selectively and reaffirming our own faith in military professionalism and precision weaponry, we tricked ourselves into believing that we had attained mastery over warfare.  We believed we had tamed the dogs of war; we believed we had conquered Bellona, that we could make the goddess of war do our bidding.

We forgot that Clausewitz compared war not only to politics but to a game of cards.  Call it the ultimate high-stakes poker match.  Even the player with the best cards, the highest stack of chips, doesn’t always win.  Guile and endurance matter.  So too does nerve, even luck.  And having a home-table advantage doesn’t hurt either.

None of that seemed to matter to a U.S. military that aped the German military, while over-hyping its abilities and successes.  The result?  A so-called “new American way of war” that was simply a desiccated version of the old German one, which had produced nothing but catastrophic defeat for Germany in both 1918 and 1945 — and disaster for Europe as well.

Just Ask the Germans

Precisely because that disaster did not befall us, precisely because we emerged triumphant from two world wars, we became both too enamored with the decisiveness of war, and too dismissive of our own unique strength.  For our strength was not military élan or cutting-edge weaponry or tactical finesse (these were German “strengths”), but rather the dedication, the generosity, even the occasional ineptitude, of our citizen-soldiers.  Their spirit was unbreakable precisely because they — a truly democratic citizen army — were dedicated to defeating a repellently evil empire that reveled fanatically in its own combat vigor.

Looking back on my youthful infatuation with the German Wehrmacht, I recognize a boy’s misguided enthusiasm for military hardness and toughness.  I recognize as well the seductiveness of reducing the chaos of war to “shock and awe” Blitzkrieg and warrior empowerment.  What amazes me, however, is how this astonishingly selective and adolescent view of war — with its fetish for lightning results, achieved by elevating and empowering a new generation of warlords, warriors, and advanced weaponry — came to dominate mainstream American military thinking after the frustrations of Vietnam.

Unlike a devastated and demoralized Germany after its defeats, we decided not to devalue war as an instrument of policy after our defeat, but rather to embrace it.  Clasping Clausewitz to our collective breasts, we marched forward seeking new decisive victories.  Yet, like our role models the Germans of World War II, we found victory to be both elusive and illusive.

So, I have a message for my younger self: put aside those menacing models of German tanks and planes.  Forget those glowing accounts of Rommel and his Afrika Korps.  Dismiss Blitzkrieg from your childish mind.  There is no lightning war, America.  There never was.  And if you won’t take my word for it, just ask the Germans.

2010 William J. Astore

About the author

William J. Astore (wastore@pct.edu), a retired Leutenant Colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular, teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. To catch him in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview discussing the U.S. military’s fascination with the Wehrmacht, click here.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Including About the FM website page. Of esp relevance to this topic:

About our defense strategy :

  1. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy, 1 March 2006
  2. Adopting the tools of our enemies, a path to victory, 4 September 2008
  3. How can America adapt to a new world? A conference about national security lights the way., 18 October 2008
  4. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  5. Can we defeat our almost imaginary enemies?, 10 December 2009
  6. More Chirstmas Eve war advocacy – bombing while we sing, 24 December 2009

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Also — you can now subscribe, receiving posts by email — see the box on the upper right.

31 thoughts on “The U.S. Military’s German Fetish

  1. “The army and country the U.S. had soundly beaten in two world wars (with a lot of help from allies, including, of course, those godless communists of the Soviet Union in the second one)…”

    Wait, wut? You can make a (cautious) case for the US beating the Germans in WW2 but WW1? Where were they at the Brusilov Offensive, at Gallipoli, at Jerusalem, at Verdun, at the Somme, at Passchendale… The US had an important role but it was hardly the prime mover in the defeat of Imperial Germany. In the Hundred Days campaign that ended the war it was the British that did most of the heavy lifting.

    Anyways. Its a great idea for an article but not especially well thought out. From a historical point of view I’d point out that the real lesson the US military should have taken from WW2 was that Blitzkrieg only works against the unwary. By 1942 the British at El Alamein and the Soviets at Stalingrad showed Blitzkriegs limitations. Then in 1943 the Soviets showed Blitzkrieg could be defeated at Kursk. Then in 1944 Operation Bagration, again by the Soviets, showed that whilst Blitzkrieg was a busted flush, Deep Battle wasn’t. And they promptly trounced the Germans. After 1943 they never tried Blitzkrieg again. The fact that the US military then decided that the way to defeat the Cold War Soviet Deep Battle was with Blitzkrieg shows a startling failure of analysis.

    Similarly one should be fair to Clausewitz, he doesn’t cover ‘small wars’ because he ran out of time. ‘On War’ is a brilliant book but its uncompleted and will never be finished (and so suffers in comparison to Sun Tzu or Corbett). Clausewitz is still the best distillation of war (regardless of whatever John Keegan says!) but it is hardly the be-all and end-all. Incidentally Rupert Smith’s ‘Utility of Force’ was partly written to act as a ‘small wars’ adjunct to ‘On War’, to fill in the gap, which it does fairly well.
    .
    .
    FM reply: Agreed, Rupert Smith’s “Utility of Force” is one of the great military books of our time.

  2. “Why do people have a fixation with the German military when they haven’t won a war since 1871?” … None of that seemed to matter to a U.S. military that aped the German military, while over-hyping its abilities and successes. The result? A so-called “new American way of war” that was simply a desiccated version of the old German one, which had produced nothing but catastrophic defeat for Germany in both 1918 and 1945 — and disaster for Europe as well.”

    I think downplaying the German military because of defeats in WW1 and WW2 is naive. The German military had to fight the war the German political leadership presented it with. Putting the German military into a war against multiple opponents, each of which were comparable in population, economic, and technological achievement, was a major disadvantage to say the least. The fact Germany lasted so long in WW1 and especially WW2 is testament to the prowess of its military.

    The failure of Germany in regards to war has been more of a failure of of statecraft than military competence.

    On a side note, I also believe there exists a military fetish for the Confederates probably held by many of the folks who like the Germans. At least that is what I’ve encountered in my experiences.

  3. Ah yes. The “Lost cause,” the “stab in the back.” Gone with the wind. The last dance in the Fuhrer bunker. So tragic. So romantic. If only the wind had been a bit more easterly. :P

  4. This article seems to be rather long on emotions (entirely commendable) and short on facts.

    1) German officer training system during the IIWW was indeed superior to American one. This caused measurable results on the battlefield. The reason America won was not “the dedication, the generosity, even the occasional ineptitude, of our citizen-soldiers”. American soldiers were brave, obviously, but German soldiers were no less brave. America won thanks to its superiority in industry, weapons, technology and military intelligence – on the material side. America had also rather more attractive ideology which allowed it to gain more allies.

    http://www.instahlgewittern.com/2009/10/heresy-of-trevor-n-dupuy.html

    Here you can find the description of actual measurements of German army effectivesess in WWII, compared to American one, with the refutation of counterarguments.

    2. American army today, despite all that fascination with Clausewitz, is by no means based on Auftragstaktik. In fact, it is still based on tight control by superior officers.

    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2009/12/don-vandergriff-on-adaptive-leadership.html

    Here you can find a good description of the officer training system and of the command system in American army.

    What is Auftragstaktik?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission-type_tactics
    Mission Type Tactics, or Auftragstaktik
    http://www.ducimus.com/Archive/auftrags-oleary.htm

    Here you can find examples of Befehlstaktik in operation:
    http://www.captainsjournal.com/2009/12/08/micromanaging-the-campaign-in-afghanistan/

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/2009/12/29/micromanaging-the-campaign-in-afghanistan-ii/

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/2010/02/19/ar-15-6-investigation-of-marine-deaths-in-kunar-province/

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/2009/09/08/taliban-ambush-in-eastern-kunar-kills-four-u-s-marines/

    3. Despite my disagreement with Mr. Astore’s facts, I agree with his sentiments. To put it shortly, Germany before and during I and IIWW had many faults and made many mistakes, which caused its ultimate defeat. Officer training system was not one of those faults – it was, measurably, the best in the world. The fundamental aspects of German state and society, however, which made it easy to create a good officer training system, caused their ultimate defeat.

    Similarly, the American and English armies before the IWW were deliberately small and badly organized – in order to avoid tyranny. Reliance on citizen-soldiers and on militia is an old American and revolutionary tradition, with the usual argument that the zeal of patriots fighting for freedom will always win over merceraries fighting for slavery and money. Historically, zealots of freedom usually lost, but in the end managed to overthrow the old world of kings.

    http://www.albanygovernmentlawreview.org/articles/1_2_250-291.pdf
    David Thomas Konig
    THOMAS JEFFERSON’S ARMED CITIZEN AND THE REPUBLICAN MILITIA

    4. The problem is, at present America has a professional army, which is fighting not to defend USA, but to conquer Afghanistan. Whether that aim is useful is another matter. But any conceivable future American army will be a professional army fighting overseas. And that army must be trained professionally, without relying on systems designed to rapidly convert civilians into soldiers. For that reason it is necessary to consider all historical models, making use of their best practices and avoiding their mistakes.

  5. Re C. v.Clausewitz:

    Many problems with CvC come from the fact, that most people have not read Clausewitz but still (mis)use him in their arguments. It is quite common that CvC actually said the opposite of what his distractors claim he is saying, so here a better methodology would help a lot IMHO :-)

    Re German army:

    As long as there is no prove that the German excellence on tatical level is necessarily coupled with a weakness on the strategic level, the obvious solution for me is to use the best of both worlds. With this background, the author completely failed to bring arguments why there is the decline of strategic capabilities of the USA.

    In additon, he misses some interesting facts of the New Prussian/German army: It was usually a mass army but still provided a higher quality than opponents which started with a larger peace time army, an aspect which is important if the author wants a small (peacetime) army which could do a good job in war time. Also some parts of the officer training and repacement system are still worth to be copied.

    Clancy’s argument is stupid, because in a good analysis it not only matters whether you win or loose but it also matters how. If he were correct then Bonaparte, the Confoederates in the ACW or the Finnish forces in the winterwar 1939 would simply be poor losers and it is a waste of time to read and write about them, I tend to side the people who assume that reading Clany is a waste of time :-).

  6. I haven’t read the article, but once upon a time Prussia was described not as a state equipped with an army but as an army equipped with a state. Such a description for the United States seems to be increasingly apt. Perhaps we have a comparative advantage in warfare?

    In which event, like early Prussia, we should consider hiring ourselves out as muscle.
    .
    .
    FM note:

    “Prussia was not a country with an army, but an army with a country.”
    — Friedrich Leopold Freiherr von Schrötter (1743 – 1815), Junker and Prussian government minister.

  7. War always has financial interests clashing behind it, the ideological reasons are the screen in front of us. Here’s an interesting article on Hitler’s financial policies: “HITLER’S MONEY – The Bills of Exchange of Schacht and Rearmament in the Third Reich“, Guido Giacomo Preparata (University of Washington, Tacoma), American Review of Political Economy, October 2002 – Abstract:

    The economic recovery under Hitler stands as a remarkable feat of financial swiftness. Consummated in less than four years, the Nazi resurgence could vaunt by the end of 1938 the erasure of nearly eight million unemployed, the total absence of inflationary pangs, and the most ravaging army one could then conceive. The monetary contrivances behind such a conjuring of awesome potency were imagined by a team of traditional bankers, headed by Reicksbankpräsident Hjalmar Schacht. It is here argued that the financial underlining of the Nazi episode is but a variation of the famous ‘monetary sleight-of-hand’ that Mephisto played before the Kaiser in Goethe’s Faust. Theatrical prophecy and war expectancy mix uncannily in this unique example of economic expediency achieved without the least concern for ideological etiquette.

  8. Sometime around 1980, Boyd interviewed one of the Wehrmacht’s best commanders, Hermann Balck. They were discussing how German strategy failed against Russia, when Balck said, in as many words, “Look, if the Fuehrer hadn’t screwed it up, we could have conquered Russia. But it would have made no difference. We could never have held it.”

    Martin van Creveld explains why in The Culture of War.

    Point is that ultimately, wars are won at the level of grand strategy, and at that level, the actions of armies are frequently counterproductive.

  9. This article seems to be rather long on emotions (entirely commendable) and short on facts.

    1) German officer training system during the IIWW was indeed superior to American one. This caused measurable results on the battlefield. The reason America won was not “the dedication, the generosity, even the occasional ineptitude, of our citizen-soldiers”. American soldiers were brave, obviously, but German soldiers were no less brave. America won thanks to its superiority in industry, weapons, technology and military intelligence – on the material side. America had also rather more attractive ideology which allowed it to gain more allies.

    Here you can find the description of actual measurements of German army effectivesess in WWII, compared to American one, with the refutation of counterarguments: “The Heresy of Trevor N. Dupuy“, Thomas E. Nutter, In Stahlgewitternm, 6 October 2009.

    2. American army today, despite all that fascination with Clausewitz, is by no means based on Auftragstaktik. In fact, it is still based on tight control by superior officers.

    Here you can find a good description of the officer training system and of the command system in American army: “DON VANDERGRIFF: On Adaptive Leadership“, John Robb, Global Guerillas, 15 December 2009.

    What is Auftragstaktik? (Wikipedia)
    Mission Type Tactics: “Auftragstaktik“, Capt M.M. O’Leary (CD, The RCR), CANADIAN INFANTRY ASSOCIATION, undated
    Here you can find examples of Befehlstaktik in operation:
    * “Micromanaging the Campaign in Afghanistan“, Herschel Smith , The Captain’s Journal, 8 December 2009
    * “Micromanaging the Campaign in Afghanistan II“, Herschel Smith, The Captain’s Journal, 29 December 2009
    * “AR 15-6 Investigation of Marine Deaths in Kunar Province“, Herschel Smith, The Captain’s Journal, 19 February 2010
    * “Taliban Ambush in Eastern Kunar Kills 4 U.S. Marines“, Herschel Smith, The Captain’s Journal, 8 September 2009

    3. Despite my disagreement with Mr. Astore’s facts, I agree with his sentiments. To put it shortly, Germany before and during I and II WW had many faults and made many mistakes, which caused its ultimate defeat. Officer training system was not one of those faults – it was, measurably, the best in the world. The fundamental aspects of German state and society, however, which made it easy to create a good officer training system, caused their ultimate defeat.

    “Similarly, the American and English armies before the IWW were deliberately small and badly organized – in order to avoid tyranny. Reliance on citizen-soldiers and on militia is an old American and revolutionary tradition, with the usual argument that the zeal of patriots fighting for freedom will always win over merceraries fighting for slavery and money. Historically, zealots of freedom usually lost, but in the end managed to overthrow the old world of kings.”
    — From “THOMAS JEFFERSON’S ARMED CITIZEN AND THE REPUBLICAN MILITIA“, David Thomas Konig (Prof of History & Law at Washington U St. Louis), Albany Government Law Review, Volume I Issue 2, 2008.

    4. The problem is, at present America has a professional army, which is fighting not to defend USA, but to conquer Afghanistan. Whether that aim is useful is another matter. But any conceivable future American army will be a professional army fighting overseas. And that army must be trained professionally, without relying on systems designed to rapidly convert civilians into soldiers. For that reason it is necessary to consider all historical models, making use of their best practices and avoiding their mistakes.
    .
    .
    FM reply: Two notes about this.

    (1) Befehlstaktik (literally “detailed-order tactics”) — Herschel Smith’s articles note the commonplace observation that the US military prefers tight command and control of subordinates. From a generations of war perspective this shows the US military’s tendency to rely on second-generation tactics (e.g., WWI reliance on firepower). However, he remains oblivious to the specific problem faced by foreign armies facing insurgents: his “kill them all” model has consistently failed since WWII. COIN tactics might not work, but they are attempt to grapple with the problem. The following quote shows a desire to replicate proven failed tactics (for more Smith quotes see here):

    “I have recommended chasing the Taliban into their lairs by a combination of tactics, including distributed operations (Force Recon, Scout Snipers, small unit operation, and high confidence in their decision-making). Based on the micromanagement of the campaign by high level officers, this is a forlorn hope and wasted counsel. We continue to seek riskless war.”
    — “Micromanaging the Campaign in Afghanistan“, Herschel Smith , The Captain’s Journal, 8 December 2009

    (2) There is a large body of work comparing the Wehrmacht and US Army in WWII. In my opinion the best of these is Martin van Creveld’s book “Fighting Power “. Rather than learn from his well-researched insights, the Army commissioned 3 books as rebuttal (weakly so, perhaps #4 will do it). For review of this litterature I recommend “Mythos revisited: American Historians and German Fighting Power in WWII“, Thomas E. Nutter, posted at Military History Online. (The article by Nutter you cite is a follow-up to this review.

    (3) For an archive of links to articles about US military leadership and trianing, see The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff.

  10. “Then in 1943 the Soviets showed Blitzkrieg could be defeated at Kursk.”

    I would argue that Kursk isn’t an example of blitzkrieg, as the critical element of surprise was completely lacking. Stalingrad itself was not either, though the overall Fall Blau operation can be considered a blitzkrieg IMHO.

    “Balck said, in as many words, “Look, if the Fuehrer hadn’t screwed it up, we could have conquered Russia. But it would have made no difference. We could never have held it.”

    While there is an element of truth in that, blaming Hitler was certainly a popular and convenient way of covering one’s ass, the guy was dead and not very popular after 1945. It might perhaps be possible to imagine a german victory in 1941 but it would require the germans being even more lucky and skilled that they were already and the russians screwing up far more than they did. In short it would have required perfect circumstances.

    Holding Russia was the least of their problems, they would have killed everyone who even just looked at them funny and then the rest of the village, just to be safe. Before they realized it was not immediately practical they were planning to simply starve to death all the major cities in the western USSR, just to generate an agricultural surplus. But first of course they had to win.

  11. Dear Marcello,

    While alternative history is a worthless exercise, Balck was referring to something more substantive — the lack of a Schwerpunkt for the Russian campaign. This is a point also made by many other generals, including von Rundsted. Balck’s point was that it would have made no difference.

    As for killing all the Russians — there were a lot of them. The Germans tried your tactic. It didn’t work and as van Creveld points out, it’s hard to see how it could have. Killing Russians wasn’t like shooting fish in a barrel.

  12. “As long as there is no prove that the German excellence on tatical level is necessarily coupled with a weakness on the strategic level, the obvious solution for me is to use the best of both worlds. With this background, the author completely failed to bring arguments why there is the decline of strategic capabilities of the USA.”

    I think he’s posing the issue of means (the US military) influencing ends (strategy) as well as self delusion. If you really believe that you have an uber military it becomes all too easy for politicians biting more than the country can actually chew…

  13. “As for killing all the Russians — there were a lot of them. The Germans tried your tactic. It didn’t work and as van Creveld points out, it’s hard to see how it could have. Killing Russians wasn’t like shooting fish in a barrel.”

    The plan was not killing ALL the russians, just all those who posed a problem or were not necessary to sustain their eastern colonization schemes. Had they won the war (massive “if” of course) it is hard to see why they could not have done so, just like they did with european jews.

  14. The Astore article seems to me to be wide of the mark. Desert Storm always seemed to me to have more in common with a World War I style operation, with it’s prolonged preliminary bombardment, and cautious advance by phase lines, than it did to a blitzkrieg. I’ve always thought that Rommel would have considered Stormin’ Norman a piker.

    In any case the American way of war since Vietnam has often been a continuation of Westmorland’s Vietnam operations by other, improved means. The difference is that nowadays, with the improvements in accuracy, we can obliterate a target with less expenditure of high explosives than Westmorland used, and geneally with a lot less collateral damage. It works well in the open desert, where the enemy has no cover. When he can disperse himself, as in the Balkans, or get amongst civilians, not so much.

    I would say that the tactical conduct of the Marja operation, whether you want call it blitzkrieg or not, has been above reproach. Whether you can build a functioning government in that wretched place is another matter.
    .
    .
    FM reply: I would apply your comments even more broadly. Most 4GW’s by foreign armies since WWII are broadly consistent in their tactics, and consistent in their failure to achieve the war’s objectives.

    “Whether you can build a functioning government in that wretched place is another matter.”

    Define “you.” Throughout history people have established governments for themselves in similar or worse circumstances. Whether the US can build a government by this means is less likely. I suspect we’re not trying. This might be like Fallujah, a punative raid made with big but false promises for what comes afterwards.

  15. ( to be sung very loudly to a hymn tune , the name of which escapes me .)

    “We are Frank Karno’s army ,
    What bloody use are we ?
    We cannot fight
    We cannot shoot
    We cannot even see.
    And when we get to Berrrrlin ,
    The Kaiser he will say :
    Hokk Hokk Mein Gott !
    What a bloody useless lot !Are the British In-fan-tray .”

    .
    FM note: This is a WWI song of the trenches, sung to the tune of ‘The Church’s One Foundation’. Fred Karno was a well-known comedian.

  16. Too bad the german fetish of a decentralized decisionmaking organizational culture was never tried. But, that would never happen in the Pentagon where the most disfunctional organizational culture since the collapse of communism exists. “Without the Proper Culture: Why Our Army Cannot Practice Maneuver Warfare” by Major Donald E. Vandergriff (retired), ARMOR, Jan/Feb 1998.
    .
    .
    FM note: For an archive of links to articles about US military leadership and trianing, see The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff.

  17. @Marcello
    The definition of Blitzkrieg is highly debated. Perhaps it would be better to say that the German ‘Cauldron Battle’ method, which had served them so well in Op Barbarossa and Op Blue, was repeated in Op Citadel (Kursk) and failed. Stalingrad showed the limitations of Blitzkrieg because the Soviets (as with the British at El Alamein) forced the Axis to fight non-mobile battles which neutralised their advantages.

  18. The Germans also increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbor” and “Lose”. {See here for the rest}

    My favorite: The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

  19. Well Wehrmacht Penis Envy wasn’t limited to the US. The Canadian Army developed a Corps organization in the mid 80’s that it hoped a newly elected Conservative Government would fund. It had all sorts of great gear including a 120mm Jagd Panzer supposedly for flank protection but I suspect more likely a reflection on an armored officer corps who to man knew the words to the Panzer Lieder . There was even a staff college problem where this mythical Canadian Corps started WW 3(!) by blitzing across the inner German border and catching a Soviet MRD on an administrative road move. The Staff College instructors had all the Blitz Speak down and would happily ignore presentations by historians on the thumping SS Panzer Divisions took at the hands of battalions of prairie farmers lead by militia officers in Normandy. And this from an army that is having trouble sorting out one village in Kandahar.

    I worry that the 80s and 90’s Blitz craze has been replaced by an mindless and likewise wishful belief in Pop-centric COIN.

  20. I think there were good reasons for the US Army to study the Wehrmacht – there was much to learn from them at the operational and tactical levels. At the strategic level, not so much. But there was more to it than that. American Generals spent much of the war trying to expunge the defeat at Kasserine, at times to the detriment of Allied strategy. Late in the war, they were caught flatfooted at the Bulge (But rallied and recovered) Often, when on the attack the Americans could make no headway against even modest numbers of Germans. Rightly or not, the Wehrmact left American commaders with a sense of inferiority.

    The desire to expunge a defeat can have a distorting effect on strategy. Kasserine did, and to a degree so did the surprise in the Ardennes. The French army sought to recover its reputation in Indochina. I do not believe the American officer corps has a burning desire to expunge Vietnam, but at times I sense something like it on the political Right.

    I do not believe that the American military fights in the German way, or even close to it, but the extensive study of the Wehrmacht may be partly rooted in these things.

  21. Ave, Quintus Fabius.

    I was going to let this one ride by, but couldn’t help remembering how the Senate kept urging you, Fabius Cuncator, to fight more like Hannibal. Imagine that: Romans fighting like Carthaginians. As if we Romans did not have a lineage of combat all our own. Recall that you lost your job as consul – what was it, once or twice – because you refused to bow to the popular, know-it-all, REMFs who never lifted shield or sword in defense of the Republic. They let Varro command at Cannae; I forget who the know-it-alls had in command at Lake Transimene.

    This fellow, Clausewitz, I have read and re-read several times. I agree with those who have studied him closely, those with names like Bassford and Howard and Paret and Echeverria (strange almost Celtiberic name), that 99% of those who start to read him, never finish, and of those who finish, do not understand 99% of what he wrote.

    Clausewitz would have agreed with your tactics, Quintus Fabius, because he understood that Defense is the strongest method of battle. He also would have agreed with both of us that battles are unique and not subject to generalizations (e.g. attrition vs. maneuver). Most of all, this Clausewitz called for those who are in decision-making authority to see clearly the war upon which they are to embark for what it is, not what they wish it to be. Oh, had that been the idea in 2003! That last comment also reconciles the Astore (a Gaul??) comment: perhaps now the Republic is seeing the war in Afghanistan – finally – for what it is, as opposed to what it so long wished it to be.

    Finally, thank you for your inclusion of befehlstaktik to complement auftragstaktik. It is never one or the other, even by the Germanic Wehrmacht’s doctrine; rather it is the case of balance according to situation.

    Vale,

    Publius Cornelius
    Amicus

  22. @Duncan Kinder

    While the argument is correct for the old Prsuuisan army, after 1807 the army was comparatively small due to economic problems – the population doubled, the peace time army was only ~130.000-150.000).

    If you then check the population/peactime strength ratio you will find that in the century after 1815 the Prussian/German army usually used a much smaller percentage of the menpower than the French, so some of the typical explanations do not work.

  23. The Germans developed there operational approach to solve a strategic problem, attritional warfare and a two front conflict against a coalition, which they recognized they could never win. The US army much prefers to bomb from afar then occupy. Most of the time this is far less costly to the troops. If the Germans lived in America I’m sure they would have come to the same tactical approach. Its not rocket science, lack of resources and no strategic depth means you expand rapidly and don’t waste your time hanging about, Lots of resources and limitless strategic depth means you can take your damn sweet time.

    I dont really understand the article though, German operation art was far superior to anything on the allied side, the victors would do well to learn from the vanquished in this regard. The reasons for victory did not hang on operational excellence though, they were decided by strategic position, resources, and unified strategic vision, all of which the Allies possessed in spades.

  24. It does not seem to me to be a valid comparison between the “shock and awe” campaign and the current operation, which does not seek to destroy a village to save it (to use a Vietnam-era phrase).

    It would be a better comparison to look at partisan operations in WW2 in comparison to current insurgents. Partisans were terrorists by another name, however noble we see them in retrospect. But they did not beat the Germans; in fact, they could barely survive against the dregs units of the German army. But once the occupied territories were invaded by an outside army (the Allies), the Partisans made it harder on the German defenders.

    Similarly, the insurgents alone could not possibly drive away the American military. But the difference of willpower between Nazi Germany and the US might. Don’t get me wrong – I am glad that the American people do not seem to want to build a military empire on a stack of American bodies, at least not for the benefit of the elites.

    I don’t think it is possible to separate the military actions of nations from their politics, and I don’t think Balck is just making an excuse. But I do think he is just wrong, in that Russia was just too vast to conquer, let alone hold, particularly with the death squads policies that if anything were worse than those of Stalin.

    Maybe willpower is not the right term, because while the Neocons might indeed have the stomach and resolve, those who would need to die for the latest version of the ‘iron dream’ will only follow so far before they vote out the hawks, because the American in the street does not want a ‘long war’ – just the opposite.
    Unless someone could convince them it was a survival of the fittest death match. So far, that dog won’t hunt, at least not for longer than 2 terms of office.

  25. I have to agree with Publius Cornelius Amicus. The original Fabius Maximus understood how to defeat Hannibal. Individual battles, or even campaigns are seldom ever decisive, but resources, public morale, and civilian leadership that know “war is too important to be left to the generals” win the wars. War is the single most expensive enterprise humans undertake. The second most expensive is preparing for war. As long as the military industrial complex runs our government we will be wasting precious resources. Ultimately, it does not matter what tactical system the military espouses, we the people are on the losing end.
    .
    .
    FM reply: But the military and their vendors flourish because Americans have become so fearful since WWII. Our newspapers and politics are dominated by expressions of fear. Communism, leftist radicals, black activists, illegal drugs, AIDS, Herpes, Alar on fruit, global warming, Islamic terrorists, Iran getting the bomb… our foreign and domestic policy has become a mad pursuit from exaggerated nightmares. It’s a feature, not a bug, of our political system. Fearful people are easily manipulated.

  26. joey wrote: “I dont really understand the article though, German operation art was far superior to anything on the allied side, the victors would do well to learn from the vanquished in this regard. The reasons for victory did not hang on operational excellence though, they were decided by strategic position, resources, and unified strategic vision, all of which the Allies possessed in spades.”

    While this describes nicely the phenomenon, the (unanswered) Gretchefrage for me still is, why did the German strategy in the time after the FPW lack a significant civilian component. The limits (lack of own recources, high peace-time strength of the French army etc.) were well known and should have led to deeper analysis of the options. The only presented solution was the redcution of the problem to a series of short wars, for which the peace time strength of the German forces was too small, and led to the attempt to compensate with risky options like invasion of Belgium.

Leave a Reply