Ever since I have been aware of something called military history I have also been aware of someone called Basil Liddell Hart. He is usually described with great reverence as the man who invented the Blitzkrieg.
This is not really true. Yes, he was an advocate of an independent tank arm. Yes, he saw that it could achieve a tactical breakthrough. And, yes, he saw that it needed close support from the air. But that is not the full story. Firstly, he wasn’t original – that accolade goes to Major-General J F C Fuller. Secondly, while he saw the need for penetration the Blitzkrieg took it much further. Thirdly, there is no direct link between what he wrote and what the German armies did.
It gets worse. As Jonathan Mearsheimer points out in Liddell Hart and the weight of history there’s more to him than that. Or perhaps, depending on your point of view, less. For while Liddell Hart had indeed come up with some far-sighted ideas on tactics, by the 1930s he had more-or-less abandoned them.
In their place he argued that Britain’s generals were irredeemably incompetent and Britain should never again get involved in a continental war. He even found himself arguing that the tank was in fact far more useful in defence than attack.
These were dangerous ideas. Should the advocate of such ideas be in an influential position it would be likely that the British army would be starved of resources. This would mean that it would be in no state to fight a continental war and certainly be in no position to go on the offensive. That would mean that Britain would have no ability to deter an aggressor. As I said, if the advocate was in an influential position. Unfortunately, Liddell Hart, as Times military correspondent and confidante of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Minister of War, was in just such a position – to the extent he was sometimes known as the unofficial Chief of the Imperial General Staff – and the British army in 1940 was indeed in no state to fight a continental war. Surveying its parlous state Field Marshal Montgomery Massingberd was in no mood to be generous:
He accuses Earl Haig and the British generals of losing lives in the last war, but I wonder how many lives are going to be lost in this war because of the teaching of that man and of people like him.
It took Liddell Hart a long time to realise he was wrong. He continued to argue that defence was stronger than attack. After the German annexation of the rump of Czechoslovakia he continued to argue against a continental commitment. And when the Germans broke through at Sedan he argued that it was only a matter of time before they were stopped.
The Times 18 July 1939 page 9
After the Fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk Liddell Hart found himself (rightly) ignored. But you can never keep a bad man down and in the 1950s with the help of skint German ex-generals he managed to rebuild his reputation. He did such a good job of it that by the 1960s he was being lauded as the “Captain who teaches generals.” Such was his influence that it was almost impossible to make a career as a military historian without his help. The only exception to this was John Terraine: chief script writer of the Great War series part of which was recently repeated on BBC4 (amongst other things). When Terraine published a generally positive biography of Haig, Liddell Hart secretly organised a campaign against it.
I am suspicious of almost all political state apparati. But I make an exception for the State of Israel. My attitude towards the State of Israel is one of unconditional positive regard. Their fight is my fight, and they are actually fighting it. Whenever I hear that Israel has done something bad, I assume that (a) if it was bad they definitely had some very good reasons for doing it, but that (b) it almost certainly wasn’t that bad, and that whoever is telling me that it was that bad is deceiving me, either because he is himself deceived or because he is a malevolent fool.
This article, by Matti Friedman, explains some of the many reasons why I think and feel as I do about Israel. The article focuses in on, so to speak, a subject that has been very dear to my heart for the last decade and more, which is the vital role in the modern world played by photography, professional and amateur, and especially in its digital and hence instantaneously communicable form. Friedman includes a very telling photograph in his article, of a sort you don’t usually see, of a rally in Jerusalem in support of Islamic Jihad. Does the camera ever lie? It certainly squirts out a stream of lies by omission.
Hamas is aided in its manipulation of the media by the old reportorial belief, a kind of reflex, according to which reporters shouldn’t mention the existence of reporters. In a conflict like ours, this ends up requiring considerable exertions: So many photographers cover protests in Israel and the Palestinian territories, for example, that one of the challenges for anyone taking pictures is keeping colleagues out of the frame. That the other photographers are as important to the story as Palestinian protesters or Israeli soldiers – this does not seem to be considered.
In Gaza, this goes from being a curious detail of press psychology to a major deficiency. Hamas’s strategy is to provoke a response from Israel by attacking from behind the cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then to have the casualties filmed by one of the world’s largest press contingents, with the understanding that the resulting outrage abroad will blunt Israel’s response. This is a ruthless strategy, and an effective one. It is predicated on the cooperation of journalists. One of the reasons it works is because of the reflex I mentioned. If you report that Hamas has a strategy based on co-opting the media, this raises several difficult questions, like, What exactly is the relationship between the media and Hamas? And has this relationship corrupted the media? It is easier just to leave the other photographers out of the frame and let the picture tell the story: Here are dead people, and Israel killed them.
Mick Hartley, at whose blog I first learned of this article and first read the above quote, thinks that Friedman’s article is worth reading in full. I agree.
Normally it’s rather difficult to get the news media to lose their shit like a bunch of screeching schoolkids over a story like, “Defense Manufacturer Offers New Product That Makes Incremental Advances on Existing, Widely-Used Technology.” But fortunately for Israeli defense manufacturer Rafael, the maker of the Iron Dome short-range air defense system, reporters don’t always understand what it is they’re reporting on.
– Ryan Faith
…mobile phone technology!
VICE has a very interesting report, looking at at how the US military is adjusting to the astonishingly rapid proliferation and deployment of cheap drone technology. Faced with using multi million dollar weapons platforms firing munitions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars against these things, they are seeking more feasible ways to counter air threats costing thousands or even mere hundreds of dollars. And the threat is not hypothetical: even the daesh Islamic State claims fairly plausibly to be using cheap reconnaissance drones right now, and Hezbollah appears to have fairly sophisticated armed drones (fast forward to 1:25 or thereabouts to see the boom and hear the invocations to Admiral Ackbar or whatever). We really are entering a new era not just commercially but also militarily.
The fact Turkey was an early enabler of the Islamic State has been made starkly clear from its behaviour towards the Kurdish defenders of Kobani.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said his country would not agree to any US arms transfers to Syrian Kurdish fighters.
So the US has started air dropping supplies to them. This means that the supply situation within Kobani must have reached a truly critical state.
Moreover for extra added political significance, the supplies being dropped are in fact ones provided by the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil, in Iraq (i.e. US supplies that were promised to the Peshmerga but which the KRG agreed to instead see sent to the Syrian Kurds). This will give the wily Masoud Barzani in Erbil a nice political boost, cementing his position as the godfather of Kurdish nationalism.
I really did not think the current leadership in Washington had it in them, but by the actions of the USAF within sight of the Turkish border, Tayyip Erdogan cannot be in the slightest doubt he has just been invited to go rotate. Clearly there as been a significant rethink in US regional political strategy.
The BBC is reporting something that made the hair on the back on my neck stand up.
Islamic State ‘being driven out of Syria’s Kobane’
If this proves to be correct, then the Syrian Kurds of the YPG and their FSA allies have pulled off a breathtaking feat of arms worthy of being likened to Thermopylae, but with hopefully an altogether better ending. I am hesitant to start breaking out the champagne just yet, but I really really hope this proves to be the case.
Starting on 1st August, 1944, the Polish Home Army resistance rose against Nazi Germany in Warsaw, mounting what was by far the largest single military effort by a European resistance movement in World War 2. The advancing Soviet Red Army halted and waited for the German Army to completely crush Polish resistance and did not lift a finger to help, even though it had air force assets less than five minutes flight time away from where the Poles fought and died, light infantry weapons and a few captured heavy weapons against tanks and artillery. The Soviets quite literally watched and did nothing, refusing requests by the Western Allies to use Soviet airbases to provide assistance to the Poles. More than two hundred long distance supply drops were conducted by the RAF in spite of Soviet opposition, but were completely inadequate for the needs of the defenders.
However as the Polish Home Army was loyal to the Polish government-in-exile in London, the Soviets saw it as an obstacle to their intentions to turn Poland into a communist puppet state, and were delighted to have their former ally but now bitter enemy Nazi Germany eliminate this politically inconvenient group.
Starting on 16th September, 2014, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) began defending the town of Kobani from the Salafist forces of the Islamic State, light infantry weapons and a few captured heavy weapons, against an enemy who have heavy weapons and copious munitions that they acquired in Iraq, when the Sunni elements of the Iraqi Army either changed sides or simply abandoned their depots and ran away. Also early on in the Syrian Civil War, what was to become the Islamic State gained material support as part of the resistance movement against the Syrian Government, from Turkey under its politically Islamist leader Tayyip Erdogan.
The largely Kurdish defenders of Kobani in Syria are associated with Turkish Kurdish nationalists of the Marxist PKK, and thus the Turkish army are quite literally watching from across the border from within small arms range, as Kobani’s defenders are being crushed in bitter street fighting by the numerically superior and better armed Islamic State.
The Islamist government of Turkey is really not that concerned by the Islamic State, and so they are quite happy to see them crush the politically inconvenient and politically secular Kurdish nationalists in Kobani. Turkey has refused requests for NATO aircraft to use Turkish airbases, and the mostly American strikes have failed to prevent the Islamic State from forcing their way into the town at the time this article is being written.
The parallels are striking.
Talk about ingenuity! That thing does not looks very RPG-resistant, so it very wisely has a top mounted camera so it can fire from behind cover!
But guys, it is an improvised armoured ambulance, not a ‘tank’.
One of the many felicities of Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which I am currently engaged in reading and am enjoying greatly, is that noted warriors and statesmen do get mentioned, but for their peacetime activities.
The Duke of Wellington, for instance, gets just the two brief mentions, on page 128, for his habit of consuming a very large breakfast, this being an illustration of the then breakfasting habits of rich personages generally, and before that on page 49, when in his dotage Wellington was in nominal charge of an army of militiamen whose task would have been to quell any revolutionary outrages that the masses gathered for the Great Exhibition of 1851 might have felt inclined to perpetrate, outrages which were greatly feared at the time but which never materialised.
Concerning two big military and political movers and shakers on the other side of the Atlantic, Bryson has more to say, because they, unlike Wellington, made two very impressive and influential contributions (Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon) to the art of domestic architecture, and in consequence to architecture generally:
Had Thomas Jefferson and George Washington merely been plantation owners who built interesting houses, that would have been accomplishment enough, but in fact of course between them they also instituted a political revolution, conducted a long war, created and tirelessly served a new nation, and spent years away from home. Despite these distractions, and without proper training or materials, they managed to build two of the most satisfying houses ever built. That really is quite an achievement.
Monticello’s celebrated contraptions – its silent dumbwaiters and dual-action doors and the like – are sometimes dismissed as gimmicks, but in fact they anticipated by 150 years or so the American love for labour-saving devices, and helped to make Monticello not just the most stylish house ever built in America but also the first modern one. But it is Mount Vernon that has been the more influential of the two. It became the ideal from which countless other houses, as well as drive-through banks, motels, restaurants and other roadside attractions, derive. Probably no other single building in America has been more widely copied – almost always, alas, with a certain robust kitschiness, but that is hardly Washington’s fault and decidedly unfair to his reputation. Not incidentally, he also introduced the first ha-ha into America and can reasonably claim to be the father of the American lawn; among all else he did, he devoted years of meticulous effort to trying to create the perfect bowling green, and in so doing became the leading authority in the New World on grass seed and grass.
It is remarkable to think that much less than a century separated Jefferson and Washington living in a wilderness without infrastructure from a Gilded Age America that dominated the world. At probably no time in history has daily life changed more radically and comprehensively than in the seventy-four years between the death of Thomas Jefferson in 1826 and the beginning of the following century …
A “ha-ha”, in case you are wondering, is a fence set in a ditch, which works as a regular fence for impeding animals, but which doesn’t spoil the view.
Concerning those “proper materials” that Washington and Jefferson lacked, I particularly enjoyed reading (pp. 424-8) about the infuriations suffered by rich pre-revolutionary Americans when trying to get Brits to send stuff over to America for them to build and furnish their houses, in sufficient quantities, of the correct sort, not ruined in transit, and for a non-extortionate price. The Brits insisted that everything that Americans bought from abroad had to go via Britain, even stuff originating in the West Indies. Of this draconian policy, Bryson says (p. 428):
This suppression of free trade greatly angered the Scottish economist Adam Smith (whose Wealth of Nations, not coincidentally, came out the same year that America declared its independence) but not nearly as much as it did the Americans, who naturally resented the idea of being kept eternally as a captive market. It would be overstating matters to suggest that the exasperations of commerce were the cause of the American revolution, but they were certainly a powerful component.
Despite such things as the dramas now going on in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, most of us now live amazingly peaceful and comfortable lives, when compared to the hideously warlike and uncomfortable lives lived in the past. That being so, more and more of us are going to want to read books like this one by Bryson, about how life became as comfortable as it now is, who contrived it, and how, and so forth and so on. We are now becoming the kind of people who attach more importance to things like why forks are the way they are, or why wallpaper started out being poisonous, or how vitamins were discovered and itemised, or how farming got better just when big new industrial populations needed more food, or how gardening became such a huge hobby or how meat, fruit and vegetables first got refrigerated, than we do to such things as the details of the Duke of Wellington’s or George Washington’s battles.
All this peace and comfort may turn out to be a mere interlude, if all-out war between Great Powers is resumed, and if that happened, the people in the formerly comfortable countries, like mine now, would soon rediscover any appetite they might now be losing for learning about war rather than about peace. But despite recent claims that our times resemble those just before WW1, I personally see little sign of a real no-holds-barred Great War erupting soon between two or more Great Powers. Putin is not Hitler reborn and Russia now is not 1940s Germany; the Muslims are mostly killing each other rather than us; and attacks with H-bomb barrages remain as utterly terrifying now as they have been ever since they were first made possible.
Former head of the Marine Corps James Conway says Obama’s idea of relying on local forces with US air power has “not a snowball’s chance in hell“.
However Hemin Hawram, a leading member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, disagrees:
We just need armaments and training; we don’t need boots on the ground from any country to fight this war for us. We want these countries to support our Peshmerga – arm, train, and make them capable. Even for future confrontations against terrorists, there will be no need to support us militarily. In the coming 4-5 years, we hope the Peshmerga will be better equipped and trained, and that certain sanctions will be removed. Why should they not have tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, for example? I hope that they will be a part of an international military unit to fight terrorists in other countries and be part of peacekeeping missions.
Surely that must be a better solution.
And the reason I am inclined to believe him, rather than General Conway, is that the US and its allies were unable to create a viable unitary Iraq that could prevent what happened from happening, because Iraq is simply untenable as a nation. This has been clear for a great many years to anyone who does not have an institutional vested interest. A significant part of the US trained and equipped Iraqi Army simply turned its weapons over to the Islamic State, because they saw no reason to fight for an Iraq that was of zero value to them. The Peshmerga on the other hand has everything to fight for, and unlike foreign troops with western sensibilities and significant cultural ineptitude regarding the realities of the Middle East, the Kurds are far more likely to ‘sort things out on the ground’ if given the tools.
Southern Kurdistan intends to become an independent nation and moreover enabling that to happen by arming them (which will be the consequence) very effectively counters the threat posed by the Islamic State. It is hard to see the downside from the western point of view of enabling a pro-western de facto nation to become an effectively armed de jure nation, one very willing to do the dirty work and sort out Northern Iraq… and frankly probably Northern Syria (Rojava) too, rather than having to deal directly with the more politically problematic Syrian Kurdish PYG.
The Times from 12 September 1914. A vicar passes on a letter from his son, an officer in the British Expeditionary Force:
Another poor girl has just come in, having had both her breasts cut off. Luckily, I caught the Uhlan [German cavalryman] in the act, and with rifle at 300 yards killed him. And now whe is with us, but, poor girl, I am afraid she will die. She is very pretty, and only about 19, and only has her skirt on.
The article continues in a similar vein with this and other letters from the front telling tales of rape, the use of civilians as human shields and other forms of German treachery.
But what is one to think? I suppose the first question is, is it true? And then, was it intentional (on the part of the Uhlan)? Are there any mitigating factors? And are the British any better?
On that last one I am inclined to think yes, simply because they are amongst friends.
And on the first one, I see little reason why an officer or a vicar would make it up. But someone else might. And The Times which backs the war effort might not be that keen on checking up. Or maybe the officer was suffering hallucinations through lack of sleep.
But on the other hand, the Kaiser’s men did raze Louvain to the ground, and massacre civilians at Dinant and use the ones they hadn’t massacred as human shields.
Ultimately, I am inclined to believe this. And I am shocked. And if I am shocked a hundred years later it is not difficult to imagine what people must have been thinking at the time.
This is certain to cause much mirth:
The U.S. military has always been the one place in government with a plan, forever in preparation mode and ready to yank a blueprint off the shelf for almost any contingency. Need a response for a Russian nuclear missile launch? Check. Have to rescue a U.S. ambassador kidnapped by drug lords? Yup, check, got that covered. How about a detailed strategy for surviving a zombie apocalypse? As it turns out, check.