This is an elementary and self-evident Principle. Indeed, it is so axiomatic that few examples of it will be given in these pages. The only point to stress is that it is useless to hope to obtain complete security in passive defense. It is also unsound. “He who tries to defend everything saves nothing.” declared Marshal Foch, echoing Frederick the Great. It should be noted that the very act of assuming the offensive imparts a certain degree of security. Make as if to strike a man, and he instinctively assumes a defensive attitude. As General Rowan Robinson expresses it in his Imperial Defence, “The highest form of strategic security is that obtained through the imposition of our will upon the enemy, through seizing the initiative and maintaining it by offensive action.” There may sometimes be an element of risk in this, but, as we have seen, war in its nature involves risk.
Lt. Colonel Alfred H. Burne, The Art of War on Land, 1947.
July 27, 2014
July 4, 2014
Ace, at Ace of Spades H.Q., says the latest Quinnipiac poll shows that Barack Obama’s cult of personality is over:
It is cathartic and reassuring for We, The Gaslighted, to finally have the majority of the public agreeing that we were essentially right all along.
That shouldn’t matter — ideally, a man possessed of the truth should not care if his truth is popular or not — but as a practical matter it does.
It is an altogether unpleasant experience to be separated from one’s fellows and the greater culture by knowing a truth the masses consider unspeakable. And so then it is pleasant to see the mass of humanity regain its senses.
It is good to no longer be called “crazy” by people who are themselves overtaken by madness.
So the Cult of Personality is well and truly dead. Never again will we hear hoseannas about our Great Leader’s supple mind, erotically throbbing pectoral muscles, or literary genius, except perhaps from our Great Leader himself or his whispering sycophant Valerie Jarrett.
This is good for America, as well: It is a stupid and frightening and shameful thing for a people to fall so hard for a ridiculous, false-on-its-face fairy tale about a Crusading Hero Who Will Deliver Us All. This is how nations die.
Perhaps America has learned some hard-won wisdom from its folly. Perhaps there will not be a Next Charismatic Cult of Personality Hero on a White Horse, at least for a generation.
Perhaps Obama will become a shorthand for a dreadful folly, like “Ozymandias” or “Icarus.”
I could scarcely imagine a man more deserving of such a fate as the Failed God Obama.
But perhaps the American public is every bit as stupid as I think they are, and will fall for the next Man on a White Horse just as easily as it did for this one.
May 30, 2014
All commanders must have been aware of the advantages of vigorous pursuit; hence the mere fact that they did not succeed in achieving it shows that there must be some big predisposing cause militating against its attainment. This cause may be defined as lassitudo certamine (to coin an expression), that moral and physical fatigue and reaction that usually supervenes toward the close of a hard-fought struggle as the daylight departs and the pursuit should just be starting. At the battle of Orthez Wellington thoroughly defeated Soult but omitted to pursue him. Why? Almost certainly because he was himself wounded just at the close of the action, and his physical and mental powers at that critical moment no doubt suffered temporary eclipse. In the same way Marlborough after his brilliant exploit in forcing the Lines of the Geet in 1705 made no attempt to pursue. He had just taken part himself in a fierce cavalry charge, and was physically bouleversé. It is doubtful whether in any army this potential weakness is sufficiently recognized and systematically combatted.
Lt. Colonel Alfred H. Burne, The Art of War on Land, 1947.
May 29, 2014
Every student of human institutions is familiar with the standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed. The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers — these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimeters, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
May 1, 2014
I’m a little slow on the uptake from time to time. Occasionally people mistake this form of aphasia for things right in front of my face as a kind of aplomb — it isn’t. To coin an aphorism by butchering Kipling quotes: If you seem to be keeping your head because you’re a little dimwitted, while everyone else is smart enough to be losing theirs, they’ll often put you in charge of that pack of panicking headless men, for all the wrong reasons, and then you’ll be a man in a world of trouble, my son.
Sippican Cottage, “Real Estate, Red In Tooth And Claw “, Sippican Cottage, 2013-11-12
February 4, 2014
Nigel Davies has written a long post about the British and American standard of generalship in the two world wars, which won’t win him very many American (or Canadian) fans. That being said, he’s certainly right about the Canadian generals of WW2:
Contention: American senior generals in World War II were as bad, and for the same reason, as British senior generals in World War I.
[...] the politicians (and I will include Kitchener here, as he was by this time a politician with a military background rather than a real general), had based their recruiting campaign on a trendy ‘new model’ citizens army, rather than use the well developed existing territorial reserve system that would have done a far better job. They new enthusiastic troops were considered incapable of the traditional fire and movement approach of professional troops (the type that the Germans reintroduced in 1918 with their ‘commando units’, and the British army was able to copy soon after with properly trained and combat experienced personnel). Instead the enthusiastic amateurs were considered too badly trained to do more than advance in long straight lines… straight into the meat grinder.
Having said that the generals blame for the results should be at the very least shared with their political masters, I am still willing to express dissatisfaction with the approach of Haig and many of his senior commanders. They were Chateau Generals in approach and in attitude. They drew lines on maps without adequately considering the terrain, issued impossible instructions without looking at the state of the ground, and ran completely inadequate communications that were far from capable of keeping track of, or controlling, a modern battlefield.
It was noticeable later in the war that the more successful armies were commanded by competent and imaginative officers who insisted on detailed planning; intensive and specific tactical planning and operational training (down to practicing assaults on purpose built life size models); and very close control of operations to ensure success. They had usually learned the hard way, and had matured as experienced and pro-active leaders.
Of course some of this improvement was simply advances in technology. Tanks to breakthrough; better artillery fire plans to support and reduce casualties; air observation to enhance control and assess responses; better communications (including radio’s) to facilitate flexibility on the ground; and a generally better trained and more experienced soldier; with much more skilled officers. It all helped. But a lot came down to the attitude of the generals who believed that you got up front, found out the truth, stayed in close contact, and reacted to changed circumstances as immediately as possible.
However, as the American army was late to the battlefront, Davies contends that the leaders merely recapitulated the first stages of the bloody learning experience as their British counterparts, but didn’t produce the innovative leadership to match the Germans:
The Americans arrived on the Western Front when the war was already won. Only a few thousand were there for the last big German push, and by the time the Allies were moving to their final offensives with real American numbers involved, the German army was a broken reed. Which means that most American officers had only a few weeks of combat experience, and almost all of it against a failing army which had little resilience left to offer the type of resistance that might have caused the inexperienced American officers to have to reconsider their theories from their quicky officer training courses. Even the professional military officers received, at best, only a couple of hints that their ideas might not be inevitably effective against a stronger opponent. Certainly not enough time to learn how to analyse and adapt to circumstances in serious combat.
Which is why the majority of highly recognised American higher commanders in World War II appear to be chateau generals.
Eisenhower’s mistakes in theatre commands in Italy and France were possibly no worse in results than Wilson’s ongoing problems with Greece (he led the ‘forlorn hopes’ of both 1941 and 1944 there), but Eisenhower failed far more spectacularly with the Italian surrender, the Broad Front strategy, and the Bulge, than Wilson ever did with far inferior resources. MacArthur’s failures are more readily compared with Percival than the successes of a man like Leese, and Nimitz is often referred to as one of the great captains of history, for defeating a navy that repeatedly sabotaged its own efforts in the Pacific theatre. (Often by people who haven’t seemed to have ever heard of Max Horton’s much harder victory against the ruthlessly efficient U-boat campaign in the Atlantic theatre).
Similarly it is fair to say that the American front line commanders most people have never heard of were hardly inferior to their famous British contemporaries. Eichelberger was as good a commander, and as good a co-operator in Allied operations, as Alexander ever was. Truscott was probably at least the equal of Montgomery, given the opportunity. (I suspect possibly even better actually, but who can say?) Simpson, in his brief few months at the front, impressed many British officers who had served for years under men as good as Slim. And Ridgway showed in his few months of active operations a level of skill and competence (not necessarily the same thing) that far more experienced men like O’Connor did not surpass.
Why do we hear about the American chateau generals in preference to their front line leaders? And why do we hear about the British front line leaders in preference to their back office superiors. I would say it is because the British had been through a learning process in WWI that the Americans had not.
And the Canadian angle? As I’ve noted before, the First Canadian Army (scroll down to the item on John A. English’s book) was not as combat-effective in WW2 as the Canadian Corps had been in the First World War. One of the most obvious failings was in the advance to Antwerp:
Note that the equivalent British debacle during that campaign was when the Canadian Army took Antwerp undamaged, but then stopped for a rest before cutting off the retreating Germans. The Germans quickly fortified the riverbanks leading to the port, keeping it out of use for months. This was a clear example of the Canadian generals inexperience, and Montgomery is at fault here for being too involved in the last attempt to break the Germans before Christmas — Market Garden — and not paying close enough attention to one of his Army commanders, who was not supervising his Corps commander, who was not chasing his divisional commander adequately. (No one is imune from such glitches in a fast moving campaign. Inexperience any where down the chain can cause big problems. But it is noticeable that Crerar’s failure did not get him the public acclaim Patton has enjoyed?) Crerar was a ‘political appointment’ by the Canadians (an ‘able administrator’, but militarily ‘mediocre’ according to most) who Montgomery considered to be as inferior in experience and attitude as many of the American ‘chateau leaders’ he would have put in the same basket. By contrast Monty was delighted when the more competent front line leaders – the Canadian Simonds and the American Simpson – were assigned to him instead. As in the cases of the Australian General Morshead or the Polish General Anders, Montgomery only cared about ability, not nationality. But as was the case with the Americans, all too many generals in most armies, including the British and German armies, lacked experience or ability.
Update, 13 February: Mark Collins linked to an earlier post that helpfully describes some of the problems with Canadian generalship in Europe:
The Canadian command style in WW II was even more stuck in the mud than the American. With a few exceptions (McNaughton, Burns, Crerar) most Canadian generals had little or no General Staff experience, and those that did were practitioners of a successful, for the earlier WW I time and place, doctrine based on set piece battles founded on the systematic and intensive use of artillery.
One virtue of the German system is that it allowed officers to make mistakes: it did not allow them to sit on their butts waiting for orders; it encouraged risk taking which often worked but sometimes ended in bloody disaster (indeed it’s amazing it didn’t in France in 1940).
Indeed comparing the Canadian Army in WWII with the German is very difficult. Both had to expand from a tiny base to their war-time peak, but the Germans began in 1933 (actually even before then); we didn’t really begin until 1940. The Germans lost the Great War and the Reichswehr gave serious thought to how to do better next time.
One thing underlying the British set piece battle approach and limited freedom for commanders – the one the Canadian Army followed – seems to have been their realization in the late 1930s that the British Army was simply not as good as its 1914 ancestor. That was partly because of the losses of promising junior officers who never made general [though that affected the Germans too], partly because of indifference to defence at the governmental level, and partly because the military lapsed all too happily back into “real soldiering” in the 20’s.
February 1, 2014
The BBC television show Blackadder is arguably one of the funniest and finest comedies of the late 20th century. Achingly sharp, with jokes that are still funny to this day, it was a four series show which finished with Blackadder Goes Forth set in the First World War. Watching the show today, one is struck by how funny it is, and also worryingly how its anti-establishment jokes aimed at undermining the social structure of the time has become the accepted historical record of the First World War.
The UK has a very strange ‘love hate’ relationship with its military officers — junior ones are portrayed as incompetent (Lieutenant George), Captains are seen as possibly okay (Captain Blackadder), Majors are usually seen retired and with a snifter in their hand (the Major from Fawlty Towers), while Colonels or heaven forbid Generals (General Melchett) are usually seen as inept, incompetent, who do not have a clue about their profession or what it involves. They are seen as people without a clue until the point when they retire, at which point they suddenly become military geniuses, whose angry letters to Broadsheet newspapers warrant being printed on the grounds that they are military commanders who know what they are talking about.
January 20, 2014
BBC News Magazine has an article by Dan Snow discussing some commonly held beliefs about the First World War:
3. Men lived in the trenches for years on end
Front-line trenches could be a terribly hostile place to live. Often wet, cold and exposed to the enemy, units would quickly lose their morale if they spent too much time in them.
As a result, the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system, and of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month.
During moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.
4. The upper class got off lightly
Although the great majority of casualties in WW1 were from the working class, the social and political elite was hit disproportionately hard by WW1. Their sons provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.
Some 12% of the British army’s ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils – 20% of those who served. UK wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother of his was terribly wounded and an uncle was captured.
7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure
Never have tactics and technology changed so radically in four years of fighting. It was a time of extraordinary innovation. In 1914 generals on horseback galloped across battlefields as men in cloth caps charged the enemy without the necessary covering fire. Both sides were overwhelmingly armed with rifles. Four years later, steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells.
They were now armed with flame throwers, portable machine-guns and grenades fired from rifles. Above, planes, that in 1914 would have appeared unimaginably sophisticated, duelled in the skies, some carrying experimental wireless radio sets, reporting real-time reconnaissance.
Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy — using only aerial photos and maths they could score a hit on the first shot. Tanks had gone from the drawing board to the battlefield in just two years, also changing war forever.
January 6, 2014
To the very young, to schoolteachers, as also to those who compile textbooks about constitutional history, politics, and current affairs, the world is a more or less rational place. They visualize the election of representatives, freely chosen from among those the people trust. They picture the process by which the wisest and best of these become ministers of state. They imagine how captains of industry, freely elected by shareholders, choose for managerial responsibility those who have proved their ability in a humbler role. Books exist in which assumptions such as these are boldly stated or tacitly implied. To those, on the other hand, with any experience of affairs, these assumptions are merely ludicrous. Solemn conclaves of the wise and good are mere figments of the teacher’s mind. It is salutary, therefore, if an occasional warning is uttered on this subject. Heaven forbid that students should cease to read books on the science of public or business administration — provided only that these works are classified as fiction. Placed between the novels of Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells, intermingled with volumes about ape men and space ships, these textbooks could harm no one. Placed elsewhere, among works of reference, they can do more damage than might at first sight seem possible.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Preface”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
December 8, 2013
Salil Tripathi met Nelson Mandela and finds the frequent comparisons between Gandhi and Mandela to do less than justice to both men:
The South African freedom struggle was different from India’s, and the paths Mandela and Gandhi took were also different. That did not prevent many from comparing him with Gandhi. But the two were different; both made political choices appropriate to their time and the context in which they lived.
Gandhi’s life and struggle were political, but securing political freedom was the means to another end, spiritual salvation and moral advancement of India. Mandela was guided by a strong ethical core, and he was deeply committed to political change. At India’s independence, Gandhi wanted the Congress Party to be dissolved, and its members to dedicate themselves to serve the poor. But the Congress had other ideas. Mandela would not have wanted to dissolve his organization; he wanted to bring about the transformation South Africa needed, but he also wanted to heal his beloved country.
This is not to suggest that Gandhi wasn’t political. He was shrewd and he devised strategies to seek the moral high ground against his opponents — and among the British he found a colonial power susceptible to such pressures, because Britain had a domestic constituency which found colonialism repugnant, contrary to its values.
Mandela’s point was that he didn’t have the luxury of fighting the British — he was dealing with the National Party, with its Afrikaans base, which believed in a fight to finish, seeking inspiration from the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church which established a hierarchy of different races, which led to the establishment of apartheid. “One kaffir one bullet,” said the Boer (the Afrikaans word for farmer, which many Afrikaans-speaking South Africans were); “One settler one bullet,” replied Umkhonto weSizwe, the militant arm of the ANC.
And yet Mandela’s lasting gift was his power of forgiveness and lack of bitterness. He showed exceptional humanity and magnanimity when he left his bitterness behind, on the hard, white limestone rocks of Robben Island that he was forced to break for years, the harsh reflected glare of those rocks causing permanent damage to his eyes. And yet, he came out, his fist raised, smiling, and he wrote in his memoir, Long Walk To Freedom, that unless he left his bitterness and hatred behind, “I would still be in prison.”
By refusing to seek revenge, by accepting the white South African as his brother, by agreeing to build a nation with people who wanted to see him dead, Mandela rose to a stature that is almost unparalleled.
Calling Mandela the Gandhi of our times does no favour to either. Gandhi probably anticipated the compromises he would have to make, which is why he shunned political office. Mandela estimated, correctly, that following the Gandhian path of non-violent resistance against the apartheid regime was going to be futile, since the apartheid regime did not play by any rules, except those it kept creating to deepen the divide between people.
H/T to Shikha Dalmia for the link.
December 6, 2013
Within moments of the announcement that the great man had passed away, left-wingers on twitter gleefully started posting quotes from Reagan-era conservatives about Mandela. At the time, most right-wingers’ opinions of Mandela — with one notable exception — ranged from skepticism to outright hostility. (This William H. Buckley column from 1990, which compares the recently-released Mandela to Lenin, was not atypical.)
Support for apartheid was never justifiable, but when that racist system was in its death throes, it was hardly unreasonable to worry about what might come next. Many political prisoners and “freedom fighters” have eventually come to power in their countries, only to become exactly what they once fought against — or worse. (One of the most infuriating examples is just over the South African border, where the once-promising Robert Mugabe has driven Zimbabwe into the abyss.)
The young Mandela was a revolutionary, and after spending his entire life as a second-class citizen, and 27 years behind bars, any bitterness on his part would have been understandable.
Instead, he chose an unprecedented path of reconciliation:
The real measure of one’s greatness comes when that person achieves power. And by that standard, Mandela was one of the greatest of them all. May he rest in peace.
Damian Penny, “Why Mandela was different”, DamianPenny.com, 2013-12-06
November 19, 2013
In his NFL column last week, Gregg Easterbrook had a bit of fun-poking at the Royal Navy’s expense, based on a rather silly story in the Daily Mail which reported that Britain had many times more captains than combat ships and asked his readers for the “vessels-to-admirals ratio of the once-mighty Royal Navy”. He follows up this week:
Many readers, including Stephanie Cummings-White of Torqauy, England, suggested I should be asking instead for the admirals-to-vessels ratio, citing this 2008 story noting 41 admirals supervising 40 warships. Nathan Green of Hempstead, Long Island, suggested matters were worse, citing this 2013 story reporting the Royal Navy has “15 times more commanding officers than ships,” with 260 captains and 40 admirals for 19 warships.
The “15 times more” story, from the Daily Mail, lists as warships only “major surface combatants” — destroyers, frigates and the Queen’s lone remaining flattop, a light aircraft carrier scheduled to be retired in 2014. The major-surface-combatants definition excludes support vessels plus the Royal Navy’s strategic nuclear submarines, which bear far more destructive power than all the navies of the world combined during World War II. Paul Meka of Buffalo, N.Y., notes that in total, the Royal Navy has 79 commissioned ships, two vessels for each admiral. Yoni Appelbaum of Cambridge, Mass., compared this to the United States Navy, which has 331 admirals for 285 ships in commission, a worse H.M.S. Pinafore ratio than under the Union Jack.
A common mistake among those who’ve never served in the military is to assume that the appointment as commanding officer of a ship also means that officer is a captain by rank. And the reverse is also assumed to be true: that every captain commands a ship. Modern navies don’t work that way (and probably never did). The rank structure does not imply anything about the command structure other than indirectly. The army always has more brigadier generals than brigades, and not every brigade commander is a brigadier general (although it’s usually the case).
Every western military force in the modern era has more staff in non-combat roles than on the front lines, as they perform essential tasks in ensuring that the warfighters are properly trained, armed, equipped, fed, transported, housed, paid, and have appropriate levels of medical care while they’re doing the fighting (or training). The tail-to-teeth ratio of modern armies is much higher than ever before … and that’s the nature of modern military organizations. Demanding more “teeth” and less “tail” doesn’t mean you’ll get a more capable military — it means you’ll get a less capable one.
Certain armed forces (especially in the Middle East) have relatively huge inventories of weapons and a table of organization implying a much higher “teeth-to-tail” ratio than Western forces. Such armies are not likely to do well in actual combat (and historically have not done well), because they are too brittle and incapable of function after taking some combat losses. The troops run of out ammunition (or water) almost immediately after going into combat, because they don’t have sufficient administrative support to ensure that fresh supplies can be moved to where they’re needed. In many cases, they can’t even move into combat because they don’t have enough vehicles in a fit state of repair and lack the trained mechanical staff to fix anything more serious than flat tires.
Some non-Western navies have relatively large fleets … tied up at the dock almost all the time. They don’t go to sea very often and aren’t able to remain at sea for extended periods. They may have all the outward trappings of a modern navy, but it’s all show and no go. Ships need regular maintenance and ships’ crews need regular training. Sitting in harbour, polishing the brass and looking ship-shape won’t cut it.
November 13, 2013
If they are timid in some respects, the Trade Unions are aggressive in negotiation and cannot be otherwise. To keep in business a union has to do something. Each year there must be a fresh demand, without which the union will lose membership. Members expect to see some return for their subscriptions and union officials are not paid to be inactive. Lacking a grievance, they will have to invent one. Realizing this, the directors must make a show of reluctance, postponing the inevitable concession until it looks like a victory for the employees. If the union is quiescent it will lose membership, most probably to another union. Its officials, honorary or paid, can always gain consequence on the other hand, from their decision to do battle. Any Trade Union has, therefore, a built-in aggressiveness, without which it can hardly survive. Nothing can be more damaging to the union official than the rumour that he is friendly with the management. This can only be the result of blackest treachery, it is assumed, and the official has to stage a conflict in order to secure his own re-election. Aggressive toward management, the unions are almost as aggressive toward each other, competing for membership and staging frontier disputes over the exact territory which belongs to each. Nor is this unrest the fault of individuals. It is a characteristic of union organization and one for which there is no obvious remedy.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “The Feet of Clay”, Left Luggage, 1967.
October 19, 2013
Long ago I had learned that in conversation with an irate senior, a junior officer should confine himself strictly to the three remarks, “Yes, sir”, “No, sir”, and “Sorry, sir”! Repeated in the proper sequence, they will get him through the most difficult interview with the minimum discomfiture.
Field Marshal William Slim, “Student’s Interlude”, Unofficial History, 1959.
October 13, 2013
When the time came for us to leave Persia and make the long trek back to Iraq, we stopped again for a few days with Robertson in Kermanshah. Then I said good-bye to my host, my Persian friends, and to his house with keen regret — with, as a matter of fact, a secret personal regret.
As a junior officer in the first World War, I had been presumptuous enough sometimes to hope that if I survived and were not found out, I might with tremendous luck, by the time the next great war arrived, be a general. Then, I fondly imagined my headquarters would move from château to château, from which I would occasionally emerge, fortified by good wine and French cooking, to wish the troops the best of luck in their next attack. Alas, when the time did come and, by good fortune in the game of military snakes and ladders, I found myself a general, I was so inept in my choice of theatres that no châteaux were available. More often than not, I had to make do with a plot of desert sand, a tree in the African bush, or a patch of jungle, while my cuisine was based on bully beef and the vintages of my imagination were replaced by over-chlorinated water. Once or twice, however, I did get, if not my château with its chef and its cellar, at least an excellent substitute — an oil company bungalow. Once having sampled its comfort I would not have swapped Robertson’s house for all the châteaux of the Loire. Dug in there, a delectable future had spread before me in which I achieved my youthful ambition and conducted the war from linen-sheeted bed and luxurious long bath. But, like other youthful hopes, the vision faded. I was once more, had I known it, destined to châteaux-less wilderness.
Field Marshal William Slim, “Persian Pattern”, Unofficial History, 1959.