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The Strategy Of Survival
A lifelong student of military history and affairs says that nuclear weapons have made the idea of war absurd. And it is precisely when everyone agrees that war is absurd that one gets started.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Yes. There are national styles in war, and they arise not from choice but from circumstances. The American style is the style of war that amounts to an attempt to avoid war. A shorthand description of the American style is that they’re always trying to abolish the infantry; they’re always trying to abolish the necessities of combat; they’re trying to use air and artillery bombardment. It is the style where you wage war by efficiently administering resources on the largest possible scale, throwing them in the general direction of the enemy and obliterating him by a process of sequential attrition, destroying him bit by bit, and doing so by the most remote means possible. So you prefer air power to artillery and you prefer artillery to infantry. You tend to avoid maneuver and other things that would make victory or defeat dependent on chance.
This is, in fact, the correct style of war if you have a superiority in material resources. It is certainly costly in material terms but need not be very costly in terms of casualties. It’s expensive but reliable.
The German style of war is a style that started off with the presumption that Germans would always be outnumbered, that there would always be more enemy troops and more enemy matériel, and that they would have to win not by attrition, by destroying the enemy piece by piece—because when you do that, you are destroyed as well—but rather by outmaneuvering him. It’s much lower in cost because you can win spectacular victories with very little. It’s also much higher in risk. I would say that Montgomery exemplifies the attrition style, and Rommel the maneuver style. Rommel achieved a great deal with very little. Not enough to win; under the circumstances he just couldn’t.
In the case of the Soviets, their style is often satirized as just being a question of mass, of numbers. That is simply untrue. Had the Russian style of war been only a question of numbers, then they would have been no better off than the Zulus and destined to be massacred by an enemy with a touch of superiority and technique. The peculiar Russian style of war is based on the use of numbers, of mass, not mass employed mechanically to overwhelm the enemy but rather the creative, inventive use of mass. During the Second World War the Red Army learned, by 1943, to use the numerical advantage in its pattern of offensive action. The army advanced all across the front, at least in a theater of war, with regiments that were like the fingers of a hand, and the regiments were pretty rigid; their job was to advance as far as they could. The high command behind them kept back the reinforcements in a pool and would then reinforce opportunistically—whichever finger, whichever regiment or division happened to find a path through. Then they would let all the reinforcements flow through that path, thereby condemning the Germans who were holding out on the line to encirclement when the successful torrent breaking out behind them hit. So this was a case of the high command’s making a highly fluid, elastic, and flexible use of numbers, not just using mass in waves of attack.
Each style of war reflects its origins. Today the exemplary maneuver style of war would be the Israeli style. The Israelis simply don’t go to war unless they’ve figured out a highly sophisticated, very high-risk plan to outmaneuver the enemy and destroy his system of operation rather than try to destroy his units one by one. You had cases in the Israeli victory in 1967 where in theory neither side should have sustained any casualties, yet one side would be decisively superior.
One of your most persuasive essays is “On the Meaning of Victory,” in which you talk about the Manchurian campaigns of the Russo-Japanese War. You point out that lessons drawn by observers, lessons that ought to have enabled any of the belligerents to avoid disasters several years later, during the First World War, went systematically unlearned. You go on to talk about a Manchurian problem in the American armed forces, with their refusal to learn from the Israelis and the British, in the Falklands or the Middle East. Why do such dramatic lessons seem so difficult to absorb?