Friday, December 31, 2004

 

How many dead soldiers do they want? And why?

Brad DeLong is a professor of economics at Cal Berkeley. He's also a daily blogger. I have no idea how good an economist he is, but I find him a solid, entertaining, informative blogger (left-wing variety).

But who knew he was also a historian of World War II?
In Defense of the 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions

First, a few numbers. A U.S. World War II infantry division had a full strength of 14,087 - of whom about 6000 were front-line rifle-carrying officers and men, and the rest were cooks, artillerymen, staff, orderlies, drivers, medics, et cetera. The U.S. 1st Infantry Division hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. From then until the end of the war it was in combat for 292 days. It suffered 2,924 killed and missing, 11,448 wounded in combat, and 631 captured. The 4th Infantry Division hit Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. From then until the end of the war it was in combat for 299 days. It suffered 5,348 killed and missing, 16,985 wounded, and 121 captured.

Now come Ross Douthat and Max Hastings arguing that the riflemen of the 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions lacked the "martial virtues" because they were citizens of democracies rather than subjects of dictatorships, and that their commanders were too cautious and prudent, unwilling to spend the lives of their men on an appropriate scale for geopolitical advantage.

In so arguing Douthat and Hastings show themselves greatly in need of remedial military history:
www.AndrewSullivan.com - Daily Dish: It's instructive, therefore, to consider just how tough it was for the Western Allies to defeat Nazi Germany, even in 1944 when everything seemed to be going the Allies' way. Max Hasting's new book out the 1944-45 slog, called Armageddon, is reviewed in this Sunday's Times, and this passage struck me as worth highlighting:
...the generals' failure to knock Germany out of the war in late 1944 reflected the kind of armies they led as much as their own deficiencies as leaders. The British and American armies were composed of citizen soldiers, who were usually prepared to do their duty but were also eager to survive. ''These were,'' Hastings writes, ''citizens of democracies, imbued since birth with all the inhibitions and decencies of their societies.'' Such peacetime virtues are not easily transformed into military effectiveness. James Gavin, whose airborne division was among the finest units in any army, filled his diary with harsh comments about the average soldier's military quality. ''If our infantry would fight,'' he wrote in January 1945, ''this war would be over by now.... Everybody wants to live to a ripe old age.'' When Winston Churchill complained to Montgomery about the British Army's lack of initiative, Montgomery replied by recalling the carnage on the Western Front during World War I: ''It was you, Prime Minister, who told me that we must not suffer casualties on the scale of the Somme.''
By contrast, Armaggedon points out, the Soviets were prodigal with the lives of their soldiers - and ended up in a much-better postwar position because of it.
One does not know where to begin.

Does one begin with the observation that if the riflemen of the 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions thought that surviving the war was more important than fighting and beating Hitler, they did not do a very good job of it? Does one begin by asking how Zhukov's waste of hundreds of thousands of lives in frontal assaults at Seelowe Heights and elsewhere made the post-WWII Soviet Union any stronger?

Does one start with the observation that Somme-scale casualties are usually viewed as the nadir rather than the zenith of generalship, and that Montgomery was very good at set-piece assaults and attrition battles? Does one point out that commanders who don't care about the lives of their soldiers and launch "human wave" attacks against fortified positions like the Chinese in the Korean War or the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq are commanders who lose?

Does one start by pointing out that at different points during World War II the Russian commanders fought stupid and fought smart, and that they broke the back of the Nazi army not when they fought stupid - were prodigal with the lives of their soldiers - but when they fought smart?

Does one start with Patton's observation that he did not want soldiers who would die for our country, but soldiers who would make the other damned bastards die for their country?

Does one start by pointing out that the initiative possessed by citizens of democracies is very valuable in wartime? That their nature as democracies was one of the things that made it possible for Britain and the U.S. to mobilize on an awesome scale and to use their mobilized resources effectively, with much less of the hideous waste because noone dares tell the leaders that things are going wrong found in Nazi Germany - and in Stalinist Russia?

This breakthough-and-exploitation-to-the-limits-of-supply happened over and over in World War II. After the success of the initial landings, the ETO in 1944 followed this standard pattern. First came an attrition battle in Normandy. Then came the breakthrough with Operation Cobra and what may have been Eisenhower's best decision of the war: to hand control over the exploitation to Patton. Then came the pursuit to the limits of Allied supply at the German border. The iron law of World War II is that exploitation stops where supply becomes problematic.

So why do Ross Douthat and Max Hastings talk about how a key Red Army edge during World War II was Russian commanders who were "prodigal with the lives of their soldiers"? Prodigal the Russian commanders were at times. But that was not why they won big. And why do they think that British and Americans valued their lives too much to be good soldiers?
Don't you just love it when armchair warriors expend soldiers' lives - not their own? Robert Waite, in his biography of Hitler, The Psychopathic God, quotes Hitler as telling someone, "There can never be too many casualties!" Hitler, at least, had risked his life as a messenger during World War I (a very dangerous assignment). I don't know about Hastings and Douthat, but I find it offensive when anyone, even someone who actually faced combat, theorizes about how casualties are the metric of combat effectiveness. Especially when they are, essentially, singing the praises of dictatorships over democracies.

The only thing more offensive than this is the right-wingers who - still! - argue that the US should have sided with the Nazis against the Soviets.
Comments:
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i was just browsing through the blog world searching for the keyword posters and it brought me to your site. You have a great site however it is not exactly what i was looking for. Good luck on your site. sincerely, antonio.
 
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Comments: "
i was just browsing through the blog world searching for the keyword posters and it brought me to your site. You have a great site however it is not exactly what i was looking for. Good luck on your site. sincerely, antonio.
 
" "
i was just browsing through the blog world searching for the keyword posters and it brought me to your site. You have a great site however it is not exactly what i was looking for. Good luck on your site. sincerely, antonio.
 
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