War Myths: An Exchange

by Victor Davis Hanson

Historically Speaking

The following essay appears in Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society, (March/April 2005,Vol. VI, No. 4)

Preface from Historically Speaking:

In recent years, a new voice has entered the crowded field of 20th-century military history to challenge conventional wisdom. John Mosier’s The Myth of the Great War (HarperCollins, 2001) argued, among other things, that American involvement saved the Allies from a German victory. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Mosier’s sequel, The Blitzkrieg Myth: How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II(HarperCollins, 2003), continued his assault on standard military historiography, this time claiming that both sides in the European theater of World War II were seduced by the myth that Blitzkrieg tactics were the decisive way to victory. Mosier’s books amount to a challenge to military historians to admit that they have been propagating myths, and we wondered whether Mosier’s revisionism had prompted a rethinking of 20th-century military history. To get at this, Historically Speaking asked Mosier, a professor of English literature at Loyola University, New Orleans, to draft an essay that would introduce his views, especially on World War II, to our readers. We then asked three prominent military historians — James Corum, Victor Davis Hanson, and Dennis Showalter — to comment. Professor Mosier’s response concludes our exchange on “War Myths.”

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Victor Davis Hanson

“An Overextended Argument. A reply to John Mosier’s “War Myths””

John Mosier’s revisionist examination of the First World War has a great deal of merit. Most historians, especially in the United Kingdom, have both underplayed the critical role of the American army that began arriving in force in 1917 and underappreciated the record of qualitative superiority of the German army over its Allied counterparts. After all, when Russia was at last knocked out, German armies, undefeated on two fronts, combined in the West against exhausted and depleted enemies, only to lose the war in less than two years. Mosier is absolutely right to emphasize these facts and to argue that only the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) accounted for victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Yet there is a fallacy of overextending that argument, as for example, when he emphasizes that the British only occupied 15% of the battle line on the Western Front — as if the allocation of terrain is a better gauge of military efficacy than, say, the relative numbers of Germans killed by the British or the contribution of British technology in critical areas like tank or aircraft innovation. This larger question of the proper credit for the Allied victory in the First World War can never be properly adjudicated, since it hinges on fundamental and often intangible questions of emotion and human nature. Is credit for victory (in any context) to be given to those who hold off the enemy, while suffering horrendous casualties, only to be saved by late arrivals? Or do the laurels deservedly belong to their eleventh-hour rescuers, without whose timely appearance in force the previous sacrifice would have proven in vain? “They” say we came late, suffered little, and stole the show; “we” retort that we arrived in the nick of time to save them from defeat in their own war. Both claims have merit and I don’t see how Mosier or any others will quite settle the relative arguments, although he is to be congratulated for emphasizing the other side of the often forgotten equation.

Mosier again reveals a penchant for revisionist insight when it comes toBlitzkrieg — and yet again simplifies elements of his often zealous argument to the point of caricature. He seems to think that Blitzkrieg was a static method, that its success or failure hinged on the basis of some theory chiseled in stone, independent of time and space. But was that really true outside of the handbooks of a few strategists who were still shaken by the trench holocausts of the First World War?

In fact, in certain instances, Blitzkrieg was a far superior tactic to mass infantry charges, entrenchment, or static and incremental patrolling — but only if particular prerequisite conditions were first met. Good weather, fairly level and unobstructed terrain, and ample gas and supplies were all essential for sustained mobility and advancement. Only tactical air support made the fast moving use of armor on a narrow front safe from flank attack — as Patton and Pete Quesada proved in August 1944.

In contrast, factor in rain, clouds, or snow — whether in the case of the 1941 final German late autumn approach to Moscow, Patton at Metz, Market-Garden, or the December 1944 German advance into the Ardennes — and motorized columns could stall and become vulnerable to counterattack by even small pockets of well-led infantry. Add in the problem of supply lines that were either stretched or for a time nonexistent, and then persistence in Blitzkrieg was a prescription for a disastrous combination of impassable roads, out-of-gas tanks, fog and clouds hampering fighter support, and armor offering easy targets in mountain roads and forests.

If Mosier’s argument is that the efficacy of Blitzkrieg has been exaggerated as a cure-all wonder strategy, thus distorting our own appreciation of the real pulse of the war, then he is, of course, mostly correct. In fact, armored breakout was just an alternate method of rapid advancement ushered in by the internal combustion engine, whose efficacy depended on an astute general who knew when and when not to employ it. Blitzkrieg does wonders when you want to outflank the Iraqi army in the deserts outside Kuwait or reach Baghdad in a rapid anabasis along the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in just three weeks. But it proves of little value in taking the streets of Fallujah or ejecting killers from a mosque in Najaf.

So if the weight of Mosier’s argument is that Blitzkrieg brought no real novel advantages to warfare and instead was counterproductive, then it is once again a thesis taken too far. Dismissing Blitzkrieg’s efficacy takes no account of the radical change on the battlefield that tanks, motorized transport, and tactical air support could achieve in mere days — not merely encircling and surrounding less mobile enemy forces, but also in achieving a psychological toll that might exceed the actual severity of the attack.

Mosier fails to distinguish between what we should call “good” and “bad”Blitzkrieg. His apparent assumption is that unthinking swashbucklers always thought as if they were doctrine theorists such as Fuller or Liddell Hart. Yet read Patton’s frantic comments in August 1944 when he was already worried that stretched supply lines, reduced enemy interior lines, shorter days, bad weather, and rough muddy terrain on the horizon would soon grind his advance to a halt before crossing into Germany. Even advocates like Rommel, Guderian, and Patton accepted, whether by instinct or bitter experience, that there were times when the unleashing of supposedly rapid moving tank columns proved neither rapid nor even successful. Patton, for all his bluster, privately knew that his lateral rescue sprint to Bastogne in snow over icy narrow mountain roads in sub-zero weather was not going to be anything like the past race around Paris.

By the same token, many on the German general staff anticipated that the so-called von Runstedt offensive of December 1944 would be doomed in a way the similar 1940 strike was not — given the changed strategic calculus, the nature of the respective enemies, changed weather conditions, and the absence of even minimal reserves of petrol. In fact, the initial German breakthrough of late December showed the full irony of Hitler’s idiocy: adherence to a sound concept in absolutely the wrong conditions; rapid advance with only a few days of logistical reserves; little air support when the weather cleared; and thrusting a long column into an enormous foe when there were no more reserves to protect the base.

Similarly, inclement weather and fighting on the defense in mountainous terrain favored the Finns — for a time. That the Russians may have thought massed armor assaults under such impossible conditions were viable is hardly a referendum on the efficacy per se of Blitzkrieg. Mosier at times seems to forget that to astute practitioners Blitzkrieg, like all military strategies, was simply one of many alternatives suitable for a given time and place.

Had Grant sought to outflank Lee and march to his rear without first defeating him in Northern Virginia, he probably would have failed with disastrous consequences for Lincoln in a vulnerable Washington. But such a foolish move would not necessarily have been a referendum on the logic of the so-called “indirect approach,” much less a harbinger that a firebrand like Sherman would fail in Georgia and the Carolinas when he tried avoiding battle and advancing deep into enemy country without communications, flank protection, or logistical support (but in more favorable terrain, in a wider theater of operations, with an entirely different army, and against commanders unlike Robert E. Lee). In fact, the Grant-Sherman partnership is a good antidote to Mosier’s various theses, reminding us that it is hard to give credit to victory to a particular army in a multifaceted struggle replete with differing types of sacrifice, and that certain theories of advance are not only predicated on particular favorable conditions, but also only work in concert with their radically opposite counterparts.

The same pattern of overgeneralization is again true of Mosier’s critique of strategic air power. It likewise was not a static concept. Sending lumbering bombers over targets at high altitudes, without fighter support, when wedded to the illusion of pinpoint accuracy with a small load of high explosives was naïve and surely not worth the sacrifice of devastating losses in crews and planes. By 1942-43 the Army Air Corps nearly wrecked itself over Europe, proving that the grand claims of air advocates of the 1930s were lunatic.

Or were they? In the rapidly changing contexts of World War II what was true in 1942 (Mosier’s “right from the start of the war”) was not necessarily so in 1944-45, either in Europe or over Japan. Fast fighter escorts with drop tanks, improved versions of the B-17s, the entrance of the latest model Lancasters, and the appearance of the B-29 in the Pacific, coupled with the frequent use of incendiaries in loads of well over 10 tons per plane, soon spelled the loss of entire cities and a resulting disruption in enemy industrial production, communications, and transportation that in a cost/benefit analysis (if we dare use such terminology when speaking of mass death) could more than justify the (vastly reduced) losses in strategic aircraft. Moreover, much of the successes over Europe in 1944-5 were borne on the experience bought so dearly in 1942.

That Germany did not have successful four-engine bombers with long-range fighter escorts eventually proved deleterious for its cause for a variety of reasons. Neither Russia nor England (much less the United States) redeployed critical artillery for anti-aircraft use around its major cities to the same degree as the Germans. Therefore they were free to use far more of their available heavy guns on the ground in their offensives against panzers. And this question of degree is important. Both Americans and Germans diverted fighters from ground support to dogfights over the German cities. But the Americans had far more planes to spare and were inflicting bombing damage in the process; the Germans sought to defend the homeland and diverted their precious fighters from attacking rapid Allied armor advances.

The belated use of V-1s and V-2s was a disastrous strategic blunder, precisely because it allotted scarce capital and labor to weaponry that in comparison to a Lancaster or B-17 was a terribly inefficient means of dropping a ton of explosive per Mark spent. And as Williamson Murray has variously shown, it is not accurate to imply that historians are correct in concluding that “the strategic bombing campaign in Europe was hardly a howling success” — even if we look only at the larger picture of the vast diversion of resources to prevent air attacks, the inefficient restructuring of the German economy to adapt to daily bombing, and the real effect that the destruction of urban cores had on transportation and communications. The Americans, unlike either the Germans or Russians, waged a multifaceted war involving surface ships, merchant marine convoys, and a variety of land, sea, and air forces over two vast theaters, an effort in which Blitzkrieg and strategic bombing played key, but not necessarily always the key, roles.

Examine the failed German blitz of 1940, and Douhet looks like a crackpot prophet. But look again at March to August 1945 when Curtis LeMay’s Superfortresses, loaded with napalm and mines, virtually shut down the Japanese economy in six months without destroying his bomber fleet, and we are not so sure quite how to assess his mad predications. By March 11 over Japan, “the bombers always get through” was as true as it was over Germany by early 1945 — and as false as it had been in 1942.

In short, Mosier offers historians valuable reminders not to become wedded to myths that a particular theory of attack ipso facto marks watershed breakthroughs in military art and practice. But to press his claims, he sometimes must employ the same sort of inflexibility in thinking that he rightly exposes in his critics, failing to appreciate the natural evolution of a theory as both technology and practical experience prove hardly static.

Strategists eventually did fathom the advantages of new ways of making war, and by trial and error worked hard to find the proper conditions and landscapes to use strategic bombing and Blitzkrieg to their full potentials. That the Allies did so far better than the Germans explains in part why they won the war.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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