November 12, 2012

The Great War and the Complexity of Military Failure

Military failure is always hard to discuss rationally. Whether we are considering a black mark on an otherwise victorious strategy or yet another disgrace in a lost war, military failures always are contentious issues and great analytical challenges. Veterans Day and the circumstances that inspired it offer a useful moment to reflect on the difficulties of analyzing strategic failure---and the costs of getting it wrong.

Veterans Day originates from a set of interrelated events (Poppy Day, Armistice Day, Rememberence Day) that commemorate the end of World War I. For many, World War I inspires either patriotic zeal or a sense of intense revulsion. The latter is particularly prevalent in the West, feeding a popular image of World War I as a nihilistic slaughter enabled by generals guilty of nothing less than strategic malpractice. The sheer scale of the war's devastation inspired a host of simplistic explanations, ranging from a supposed "ideology of the offensive" to conservative strategists and tacticians unwilling to recognize that firepower's dominance on the battlefield made a Napoleonic style of massed assaults untenable.

Newer history casts doubt on these popular explanations. Military thinkers were well aware of the techno-tactical challenges new technologies posed. Warfare from the end of the Napoleonic era to World War I did not offer manifestly clear lessons about the kinds of operations and tactics appropriate for the modern battlefield. In fact, some pre-WWI wars even suggested that old methods could be retrofitted to deal with new weapons and logistical technologies. The Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 featured large-scale infantry assaults and infiltrations well in keeping with prewar military experience. Observing the battles of the wars of German unification, military professionals had good reason to predict that railroads and continuous logistics simply made the quest for decisive battle larger and more destructive. Military revolutions are incremental in nature, building up to a violent and sudden shift that observers often fail to predict.

Even a solid understanding of new technology does not translate into the ability to usefully employ it under major combat conditions. It took the major European powers a substantial amount of time to understand how to coordinate all arms together, properly supply them, and ensure that front and headquarters could effectively communicate. Contrary to public belief, the major Western powers mostly adapted to the new strategic environment and some even innovated. By 1918 every element of World War II existed in embryonic form. The fact that particular lessons of the Great War, such as France's "methodical battle," were no longer valid by the 1930s does not necessarily constitute proof that they were obviously useless to contemporary observers. Finally, thinkers proposing the thesis that better maneuver could have somehow avoided mass slaughter must deal with the unavoidable fact of the Western front's high force-to-space ratio and this density's fatal consequences for any offensive strategy.

if planning for a radically uncertain future war is difficult, learning from it presents even greater hazards. Basil Liddell Hart, Giulio Douhet, and a host of thinkers within the British and American air forces placed the blame for World War I's stalemate and attrition on a mode of strategy built around direct combat. These thinkers instead visualized the enemy army and society as a unified organism and argued that the enemy "brain" could be crippled by targeting leadership targets, industrial centers, and public will. Ironically, the interwar military thinkers' visions of a less cruel war spawned World War II's massive and destructive strategic bombing campaign. Instead of limiting war's slaughter, they merely brought painful death and mass terror upon the civilians who had once been safe behind the battle lines.

Military failure is always a complex matter that deserves broad introspection. We need to follow Eliot Cohen and John Gooch's example (as seen in their pioneering work on the subject) and reach for systemic answers. What we find might be troubling---and even disturbing. It is hard to see how World War I's massive armies, new technologies and tactics, prewar doctrinal uncertainty, and totalizing strategic aims would not result in mass death. But grappling thoroughly with the dynamics of failure in every conflict is the least we owe to the men and women we honor on Veterans Day.