If Russia’s defense ministry really does believe that all the missiles found their intended targets, those sheep must have been up to something
How say you?
Trevor Dupuy was a US soldier and a military historian who took a statistical approach to evaluating combat performance. He paid particular attention to casualty statistics. Casualties – in case you did not know – include deaths but also include wounded, missing and captured. They answer the general’s question: how many men do I have who are able to fight?
Of course, statistics aren’t everything. For instance, the North Vietnamese took vastly more casualties in the Vietnam War than the Americans but they still won. But all things being equal, being able to kill more of your enemy than he can kill of you is a good thing to be able to do.
In A Genius for War Dupuy enquired into the nature of the German army. He found that the statistics told a remarkable story: the German army was very good and had been for a long time. From the Franco-Prussian War to the Second World War the Germans were consistently better at killing the enemy than the enemy were at killing them.
Now you may be thinking that such comparisons might be skewed due to the Russians and Dupuy found that that the Russians were indeed every bit as bad as you might think. But even when he removed the Russian numbers Dupuy found that the Germans still held a clear and consistent superiority over the French, British and Americans. This superiority existed regardless of whether the engagement was offensive or defensive.
Chauvinists might be surprised to learn that there seems to have been no great difference between the western allies. French and British performance was more or less equal in the First World War. British and American performance was more or less equal in the second. The Americans in the First World War and the French in the Second are special cases.
Having satisfied himself that the German army was indeed superior, Dupuy asked why this was. His key finding was that there seemed to be nothing inherent in being German. Dupuy found a number of historical examples where the Germans proved to be anything but good fighters. These included largely-German units in the American War of Independence and various battles between German mercenaries and the Swiss.
So, if being German didn’t make you a good soldier what did? Dupuy’s theory was that it was all due to the German General staff. So what was so good about the General Staff? Dupuy listed several criteria. These included selection by examination, historical study and objective analysis. In other words it was an institution that thought seriously about war.
The doctrine that all this thinking led to might be summed up as bold plans tempered with flexibility. Perhaps the best-known example of bold planning was the invasion of France in 1940. No one on the allied side thought a tank-led thrust through the Ardennes was possible. But it was and France collapsed soon afterwards.
As many of you will know far from being an official General Staff masterplan the invasion of France was in fact dreamt up by Erich von Manstein in opposition to his superiors. But Manstein was still every inch the General Staffer.
Flexibility was also important. Contrary to the stereotype the German army did not want blind obedience. Not only did it allow subordinate commanders to figure out how to achieve their objectives but if opportunities arose which were unforeseen they were not only allowed to take advantage of them but expected to do so. “His majesty made you a major because he believed that you would know when not to obey his orders.” as Prince Frederick Charles put it.
I would like to thank Perry de Havilland for pointing me in the direction of Dupuy and his works.
In my recent post on rent control, I quoted approvingly a comment from someone who said he had come round to our point of view on the harmfulness of rent control while still claiming to be a lefty. “You are not there yet, my friend,” I murmured. “But does not every journey begin with one step? Let us encourage this partial recantation, that it may be reproduced.” Perry de Havilland took a less tolerant view, while still encouraging reproduction. Niall Kilmartin took the middle road:
If it sticks in the throat to welcome an incompletely-converted convert from an opinion we oppose, how much more so when the defector has joined and then abandoned a literal enemy.
This view is typical of the most popular comments to the story:
To which my reply would be that answering exactly that question is the job of the intelligence services to whom this lady will sing like a bird as a condition of being allowed to return. I hope and trust it does work that way and the local consular staff haven’t gone completely softheaded. We want defections and should make them easy but not cheap. It is painful to see crimes go unpunished – and I consider joining a group that boasts of its murders, enslavements and rapes to be a crime in itself – but renegades can help to stop the murders, enslavements and rapes, not to mention prevent the attacks here in the West that ISIS has promised. We have long allowed known criminals to turn Queen’s evidence / State’s evidence for very similar reasons. And her children are innocent.
Between 1945 and about 1965, atom bombs and then hydrogen bombs were devised and demonstrated by the two biggest Great Powers, and then manufactured and attached to rockets in sufficient numbers to cause any all-out war between these two superpowers very probably to be a catastrophic defeat for both, to say nothing of being a similar catastrophe for all other humans, within a few hours. This new kind of destructive power also spread to a small club of lesser Great Powers.
This did not happen overnight. It didn’t all come about in 1945. But it happened pretty quickly, historically in the blink of an eye. It changed the world from a place in which Great Wars between Great Powers had to be prepared for, at all costs, to a place in which Great Wars between Great Powers had to be avoided, again, at all costs. That is a very big change.
I do not assert that all wars have ended. Clearly they have not, as one glance through a newspaper or news website will tell you. Small powers still have small wars, and Great Powers regularly join in, in small ways. Sometimes, Great Powers start small wars, like the one in the Ukraine now. But even these small wars have been getting less numerous and smaller in recent decades. Small wars can get big, so even small wars are now discouraged by Great Powers.
Nor do I assert that all preparations for war by Great Powers have ceased, or that they should. But more than ever, the purpose of such preparations is to enable mere confrontations to be emerged from victoriously or failing that satisfactorily, rather than for such preparations – such weapons – constantly to be “used”, in the sense of being fired, fought with, and so on. The purpose of weapons is to scare, as well as to win fights, and they are being “used” whenever anyone is scared by them. Great Powers will still spend lots of money on weaponry.
But what has not happened, for many decades now, and what still shows no sign of happening despite all kinds of diplomatic, ideological and financial turbulence, is an all-out fire-every-weapon-we-have war involving two or more Great – by which I of course mean nuclear – Powers. In this sense, countries like mine, and almost certainly yours too given that you are reading this, have become peaceful in a way that they have never experienced before in all of human history before 1945.
In case anyone mentions Iran, I don’t believe that Iran’s leaders want to use nuclear weapons, as in: detonate them. I think they want to scare their enemies while trying to win other, non-nuclear victories, just like any other nuclear power. I didn’t believe Chairman Mao when he played the nuclear madman either. He was just trying to scare people, and he succeeded also.
And if you want to say that like all historical trends, this one could end, because of this or that imaginable or unimaginable circumstance, then I of course agree with you. History keeps on happening. But for the time being, the trend is as I have described it. We now, still, live in an age of peace more profound than any of our ancestors have ever experienced.
There have already been many, many consequences of this historic turnaround, this Great Change, and there will surely be many more. Indeed, I would say that just about everything of importance, not just politically but in the wider culture, that has happened to the world, anywhere and everywhere, between 1945 and now, can only be understood properly if you factor in the invention of and the deployment of nuclear weapons.
Do I really mean that? Yes, I really do mean that. Indeed, I offer the world, and in particular the Samizdata commentariat, a challenge. Tell me about a change that has happened in the world in recent times, any change, to absolutely anything, and I will be able to show you, at about one or at the most two or three removes, how your particular change has been affected by this great thermonuclear transformation, this Great Change, that I have just described. Indeed, there is nothing in the entire world, I assert, that has not been affected, often very profoundly, by this Great Change. (I don’t promise actually to answer all such comment-challenges on the spot. I merely announce that if I had nothing else to do for the next week, I could. So, let’s make it a team effort. Let those of us who already understand the truth of what I am saying respond as a tag-team to those who are still unconvinced.)
Talking of team efforts, let me offer the example of sport, and in particular the inexorable rise in the importance and in the social and economic impact of professional sport, during the last clutch of decades.
I have posted very little recently from a century ago. This is because my main source, The Times, has become rather dull. You would have thought with hundreds of people being killed every day on three continents it would have lots to say but it doesn’t. Part of this is due to censorship. For understandable reasons, there is very little that the military authorities are prepared to make public. Another part of it is due to self-censorship. In wartime newspapers are extremely reluctant to criticise. Criticism is close to defeatism and defeatism is close to treason. Criticism can also carry a high price. A couple of months ago The Times criticised Lord Kitchener’s handling of munition supplies with the result that copies of the paper were burnt on the floor of the Stock Exchange.
Britain has to recruit, train and equip an army and until such time as she does there is very little she can do that’s going to make much of a difference. Even after she does these things it won’t make much of a difference because the army won’t have the experience to make itself truly effective.
So, actual front line reports tend to be all very similar. It’s all talk of our brave men, victories and heavy losses inflicted upon the enemy. Sure, the men are brave but it is difficult to cover up the fact that the frontline is hardly moving.
I was on the verge of giving up. My plan was to find a particularly egregious example of this sort of vapid war report and hang up my typing fingers until next year when things will get a bit more interesting. But occasionally you get an article that pricks your interest. In this case it’s a sentence: “Gradually, but inevitably, the voluntary is yielding to the compulsory”. It appears in a leader prompted by a bunch of City types asking the government – I kid you not – to increase taxes.
The sad thing is that it is true. Conscription will be introduced. Restrictions on the sale of alcohol are already starting to come in. Indeed, in some places it is already a criminal offence to buy a round of drinks. There will be rationing. Before long the Liberal Party will split and then wither away. Many liberals are giving up on liberalism altogether and becoming out and out socialists.
Before we condemn the war for this it is important to bear in mind that the voluntary principle was in big trouble well before its outbreak. The telephones had (effectively) been nationalised. State pensions and sick pay had been introduced. Many doctors found themselves working for the state. There were also the beginnings of unemployment benefit.
It’s all very sad – although not for The Times. The Times is all in favour of compulsion. Long before the war it was in favour of trade barriers or “imperial preference” (as it was then known) and national service. Ever since it has been campaigning for conscription and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. The paper is enjoying itself:
Nice, although it does beg the question if principles are bosh then what exactly does The Times think we are fighting for?
However, that is not to deny that this does rather put me in a bind. I think Britain was – perhaps I should say “Britons were” – right to fight the First World War. Willhelmine Germany posed a direct threat to Britain’s peace and prosperity. But do I really think the war could have been fought without compulsion? There are two questions here. After all, the British government existed long before 1914 and a government is nothing if not a mechanism of compulsion. So, could the war have been fought without any compulsion? and it could it have been fought without any extra compulsion?
I’ll deal with the second question and leave the first to the idealists. Could the men have been recruited? Large numbers of men signed up shortly after the outbreak of war and I have heard it said that conscription which was introduced in 1916 was not particularly successful. So maybe they could.
In the days before the welfare state there were all sorts of ways that funds were raised for “good” causes: friendly societies, public subscription and flag days were among them. There were all sorts of social pressures applied to get people to cough up. Not nice but a lot nicer than outright extortion via the tax system. Even so the amounts raised by the best-known funds were not spectacular. There was a fund created after the sinking of the Titanic and it raised a lot of money but nothing on the scale needed to fight a war.
It’s all very well sticking up for your principles but if a society that follows those principles can’t defend itself those principles are worthless. And if you abandon your principles in order to win what was the point of fighting in the first place? It seems to me that wars are often – if not always – battles of ideas. Oh, those ideas might be well hidden but more often than not they are there. War is often the ultimate test of political ideas. So, it seems a bit of cheat to go into war proclaiming a set of principles that you then abandon.
The US Navy, who job it is to, well you know, kill people when directed to, it proudly celebrating Earth Day.
No doubt this is a strategy to cause the ships of the Chinese Navy to collide, their captains unable to issue orders due to tears of mirth and uncontrollable fits of laughter.
If anyone doubted the western world’s political class and their retainers have been utterly debased … well, here we have proof positive… I can only hope we snap out of it collectively, before it is too late and the congruent cultural decline leaves us with the future prospects of Carthage. And no, I do not accept that it is already too late, and will ignore the usual wailing suicide note comments that suggest otherwise
I have recently been suffering from one of those annoying state-of-the-art flu bugs that made me properly ill for only a few days, but which then hasn’t allowed me to get truly better for another month. I still await full functionality.
When in such a state, I find serious writing difficult. (I can still manage unserious writing.) But what I really like to do when thus semi-incapacitated, is to read. And there is nothing, I find, like reading well-written history about long-ago times to make me count my modern blessings and cheer me up.
I recently began what looks like being a very good book about King Edward I. (A short excerpt from this book, on the subject of medieval historical evidence, can be read here.) Edward I was the English monarch who won the Battle of Crécy, and who soon after that presided – if that’s the right word – over the Black Death. You want a bug? That was a bug.
But I haven’t got to the Black Death bits yet. …
(LATER: And I won’t ever. I’m muddling Edward I up with Edward III, see commenter number one below, to whom thanks, and with apologies to everyone else. Edward III was the victor of Crécy, and I will wait in vain for anything about the Black Death in this book. I will be learning about such persons as Simon de Montfort. But the Black Death was, as I have read elsewhere, very nasty.)
… In the bits I have read so far, Edward is still a teenager, and his dad, Henry III, is fretting about how to crush a rebellion in his French possessions, and in particular (p. 16), how to persuade his English subjects to foot the bill for that enterprise:
It is always worth keeping an eye out for a use of the word “but” when it would make more sense to have encountered the word “and”, or “therefore”. The unpopularity of taxes in England on the one hand, and on the other, the fact that England was a rich and prosperous country sound to me a lot like a cause and an effect. But the way that modern-day author Marc Morris phrases it, if your country is rich, it can accordingly afford to pay higher taxes without its richness being in any way disturbed.
It was this next bit that made me laugh out loud:
Ah those medieval fools, so lacking in our modern grasp of the obvious and fundamental differences between taxes and robbery!
Here is a way in which things – things that in general are so much better now than then – have actually got worse.
I do not want to single out Marc Morris for criticism here. He is only describing matters in a way that most of his readers will immediately understand. Taxation? Of course. What he personally thinks about the idea of there now being higher taxes, to pay for such things as foreign wars, now, I do not know. As for me, although I will not live to see it, I look forward to a time when both taxation and death (at the sort of age that I will in due course be encountering it) are thought of in the same kind of way that we now think only of such things as the Black Death.
How on earth could those blundering and miserable twenty-first centurions not understand such obvious ideas?
But said Russian minister also seemed to be suggesting Norway does not really have sovereignty over Svalbard. However that is not really what the Svalbard Treaty says, not that the Kremlin is known for worrying over much about such niceties.
Under the Svalbard Treaty the peninsula is not supposed to host bases but is not actually ‘demilitarised’ as such, so now might be a nice time for the Norwegian army to send a company on an extended posting up north.
[This is the text of a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago to the 6/20 Club in London. As you will see this introductory part is mainly about 1915. Part II is here]
By March 1915 the people of the United Kingdom were beginning to realise that the war was going to be much longer, involve many more men and be more expensive than they had previously imagined.
The military correspondent of the Times was a man called Charles à Court Repington. He was normally pretty astute. In a recent article he had argued that the war on the Western Front had become an attritional struggle. As there was a line of trenches stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel, there were no flanks to turn and no prospect of a war of manoeuvre. The two sides were of roughly equal quality. It had become a war where progress could only be made by material means: by being able to put more guns, shells, bullets and men on the battlefield than the enemy.
This massively favoured the Allies: France, Britain, Russia and Belgium. Combined they had more people and more industry than the Central Powers. They were also less good at “cleverness” in warfare – so a material struggle also played into their hands. Their victory was inevitable. But that didn’t mean it was going to come soon.
But at the time, the British in particular, were short of everything. This would come to a head soon afterwards when Repington, again, claimed that the Battle of Neuve Chapelle could have gone much better had the British had enough shells. This would lead almost immediately to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions under Lloyd George.
By this time food prices were beginning to rise. Some foods were already up by 50%. Given that a large proportion of the average person’s income went on food this was inevitably causing hardship. Worse still, this rise took place before the Germans declared the waters around the UK a warzone. I must confess I don’t entirely understand the ins and outs of this but essentially this means that submarines could sink shipping without warning. The upshot was that rationing would be introduced later in the war.
Government control also came to pubs with restricted opening hours. It would even become illegal to buy a round.
So far the Royal Navy had not had a good war. It had let the German battle cruiser Goeben slip through its fingers in the Mediterranean and into Constantinople where it became part of the Ottoman navy which attacked Russia. An entire squadron was destroyed off the coast of Chile and even the victories were hollow. At the Battle of Dogger Bank the chance to destroy a squadron of German battle cruisers was lost due to a signalling error.
But the man at the top, one Winston Churchill, was undeterred. He thought the Navy could take the Dardanelles, take Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war alone. Repington thought – or at least, I think he thought – that this was nonsense.
The Navy had, at least, for the time being deterred the German Navy from shelling any more coastal towns. Now the threat came from the Zeppelins high above.
The Army, traditionally the junior service, was having a much better war. But The Times still records about a hundred deaths a day and this at a quiet time when the Army in the field was still small. This was not going to last long. About 2 million men had volunteered and the job of turning them into useful soldiers had started.
Mind you, every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps, given events earlier, that should be every eclipse has a corona. In July 1914 Ireland was on the verge of civil war. The First World War came along in the nick of time and for the duration of the war the main participants had agreed to bury the hatchet. Similarly, the suffragettes called off their campaign of destruction and there are far fewer strikes – Britain having been plagued by them in the years leading up to the war.
But as we know things were only going to get worse. In all the war lasted four years, killed 10 million people and saw the birth of a totalitarian communist regime. Something like 5 million Britons served on the Western Front. There they experienced trenches, mud, barbed wire and shelling at a minimum. Others would have experienced gas, machine-gun fire and going “over the top”. A million never came back. And for what? Twenty years of political instability followed by the experience of having to do it all over again in the Second World War.
In Britain we tend to think of the First World War as being worse than the Second. This is because, almost uniquely amongst the participants, British losses in the First World War were worse. It is also worth bearing in mind that Britain’s losses in the First World War were much lower than everyone else’s. France lost a million and a half, Germany 2 million. Russia’s losses are anyone’s guess. For all the talk of tragedy and futility, the truth is that Britain got off lightly.
For many libertarians the First World War is particularly tragic. They tend to think (not entirely correctly) of the period before it as a libertarian golden age. While there was plenty of state violence to go around, there were much lower taxes, far fewer planning regulations, few nationalised industries, truly private railways and individuals were allowed to own firearms. If you were in the mood for smoking some opium you needed only to wander down to the nearest chemist.
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