Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

War commentary is hell

The usually reliable Dsquared slips:
In which I disagree with Paul Krugman, about something that was once very important

America’s other great moral war, World War II, was similar. The war movies I watched when I was a kid always had plucky, individualistic American heroes beating superbly equipped Nazis, but the reality was mostly the other way around. We had many heroes, but the truth is that Americans were never as good at the art of war as the Germans. What we were good at was the art of production, of supply. Honor the heroes who stormed Omaha Beach — but it was the floating harbors, the trans-Channel fuel pipeline, and the air superiority achieved through production miracles that really did it.

True but false. In the European theatre, maybe so, but then in the European theatre there weren't really all that many face-to-face, head-to-head, like-for-like scraps between the US Army and the Germans. In the Pacific, on the other hand ... it was indeed US industrial power that got them to Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but once they were there, it was nothing more nor less than exactly the kind of man to man combat that we were talking about. And the USA won. As I've noted elsewhere, it's surprising that the US Army has pockets of the "Warrior Ethic", because their finest hour was also the destruction-testing of "imperial martial culture versus citizen-soldiers of a democracy", and the right side won.

Bottom line is that it's a common and romantic notion (with roots in Ruskin, Nietszche and other Romantic types many of whom had a "complicated" relationship with sexuality) that industrial societies, for all their worldly wealth and productive capacity, somehow produce a slightly less worthy figure of human being; the triumph of the Last Man. Not true; actually they're better people as well.

Let's not let the line "in the European theatre there weren't really all that many face-to-face, head-to-head, like-for-like scraps between the US Army and the Germans" pass without comment.
The adjectives here do seem to be doing a lot of heavy lifting, erasing most of the fighting in Italy, Normandy, and Germany. In which fighting, there appears to be virtual unanimity among military historians, German soldiers couldn't be shifted without (a) air superiority, overwhelming material support, many more tanks, many more guns, and all the paraphernalia of the 'art of production, of supply, and (b) two-to-one (or four-to-one, to be safer) superiority in numbers. They were, man for man, better soldiers. Such books as Overy's 'Why the Allies won' phrase this as something requiring an explanation specifically because an explanation is needed for why worse soldiers could defeat better soldiers. Overy points to various reasons why some of the factors that led to Germans being better soldiers on the ground contributed to them being worse war-fighters in the big picture, but he doesn't contest the specific superiority.
I really can't see that Krugman's point is even debatable.
And in the Pacific, it's really very hard to judge how face-to-face combat would have gone once you remove the handicap that stemmed from, for example, the US being able to supply each of its soldiers with four tons of supply compared with four pounds of supply for each Japanese (see Max Hasting's Nemesis). You can say "I think it is hard to argue that a country which made use of the tactic of literally building aeroplanes for the sole purpose of crashing them was facing an utterly binding resource constraint", but at the end of the war those planes had to be fueled by getting turpentine from pinecones - and even then, the Americans actually had more warships than the Japanese had planes.
Yes, it's true that in a fight between an "imperial martial culture versus citizen-soldiers of a democracy" the right side won, but it certainly wasn't because the individual citizen-soldiers were better: it was because the system that produced those citizen-soldiers was much more effective as a whole than its rival, and in the end that prevailed. To put it another way, it's complicated.
To put it another way still, the besetting fault of American and British soldiers was that when they met with stiff opposition they fell back and waited for air and artillery support to smash the opposition before they pressed forward. Sensible enough, and certainly as much or more than I would have done, but not what the Germans did, and not a method showing as much confidence as DD shows in their soldierly superiority.
Better people, perhaps, but worse infantrymen. And insisting the two should go together seems to me to be conceding quite a bit too much to the cavalrymen.

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