Sustained land warfare is extremely costly in blood

Tuesday, September 15th, 2020

As Americans discovered during 1861–1865, sustained land warfare is extremely costly in blood, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), and there has been a pronounced American distaste for such since:

It is probably no accident that no great American tacticians have evolved since the War Between the States, while at the same time American strategical thinking has been superb. Having been once in the forest, United States military men tended to see it rather clearly — they had trouble with the trees, but rarely got lost in them.

During 1941–1945, on the whole, German tactical execution of battle was superior to American; German officers and N.C.O.’s on unit level exhibited particular excellence in fighting. But throughout the war, American strategical planning remained first rate. While the Wehrmacht, under Hitler, floundered about from one crisis to another, American strategists never lost sight of their ultimate goal of destruction of the enemy.

Because Germans considered battle itself important, their technique was bound to be good, but they became lost in the trees, winning battles, losing the war. After the fall of France, Germany’s rulers never gave the Wehrmacht a clear, concise, strategical goal, because German planning never went beyond winning the West.

In the East, German planners again and again wasted their substance on transitory gains, while the Red Army never lost sight of its ultimate aim, which was to win the war politically as well as militarily. Significantly, while in 1942 Hitler struck deep in the Caucasus for oil, Russian military men always planned offensives for political effect, and for the control of populations. And while the Wehrmacht won many a tactical victory on the 1,800-mile Russian front, by 1942 it had no hope of controlling the Russian people, or of ultimate triumph.

Since the end of the Civil War, the United States has never been a massive land power. The ninety-two divisions raised in World War II never came close to matching either the almost four hundred of the Wehrmacht or the truly enormous field forces of the Soviets. But because the United States had Allies, such as Russians and Chinese, to keep the enemy heavily engaged on the ground, it was able to keep its commitment on land to a minimum.

If war is to have any meaning at all, its purpose must be to establish control over peoples and territories, and ultimately, this can be done only as Alexander the Great did it, on the ground. But because after the Civil War America’s Allies again and again took the terrible losses required to bleed the enemy, Americans gradually developed a belief in cheap victory.

In World War I, after Britain had suffered over 900,000 dead, and France more than 1,000,000, the United States threw her forces into the fray, to tip the scales at a loss of 50,000 killed in action.

In World War II, Russia lost more than 20,000,000 both military and civilian. Even agonized, stumbling France, in six weeks of 1940, lost more combat dead upon the field of battle — almost 500,000 — than did America during the entire war.

Without this sacrifice of our Allies all over the world, World War II could not have ended as it did, with the United States relatively unscathed.

More Americans died in thirty minutes at Antietam than died in thirty days of the Normandy beachhead.

But by concentrating to a large degree on sea and air power, the United States was able to add the strategic punch that knocked the Axis out of the war. Japan, particularly, as an island empire was peculiarly vulnerable to air and sea attack. And the main body of the Imperial Japanese Army, on guard against the Soviets in Manchuria, was never engaged by the United States.

It must never be forgotten that without the enormous holding power of American Allies, American industrial capacity of itself would not have been a determining factor. Even in 1944–1945, when the United States Army engaged an already strategically defeated Wehrmacht upon the ground of Europe, the effort strained the relatively small land combat power of America to the limit.

Comments

  1. Harry Jones says:

    If there’s a time and place for all-out war, it’s to destroy an invading force on one’s own soil. Desperate need plus home court advantage. Keep our supply lines short and cut off theirs. Our boots, our ground.

    How much control over peoples and territories out there do we actually need, and is it worth the price? We can slam down existential threats when they emerge by remote control. Those who pose no threat to us we leave alone to live as they please.

    Allies? Reciprocity. If we always come to their rescue and they never come to ours, then there is something unbalanced in the relationship.

    Trade? Nineteenth century China. Police the high seas and the seaports, but leave the interior mostly alone.

    Humanitarian concerns? We can’t fix all the world’s problems, and we get into trouble when we try. Then we get blamed.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    Too much post victory rationalization

    The Nazis lost mostly because they were outproduced by the Allies. And had bigger armies.

    The so called American strategic thinking would lost all its supposed shinning if they were outproduced by Axis, or if Allies had smaller armies.

    Of course you can call Nazis declaring war to almost all industrialized world a strategic mistake, but i put that to stupidity and romanticism not to an emphasis in tactical.

  3. Kirk says:

    Mmmmm… No. If you had to analyze and come up with a reason the Nazis won, the root of it would be that they were a bunch of f**king nutters who only got as far as they did because they had the Prussian/Wilhelmine Imperial military to backstop the nuttery. And, sadly for them, that military was myopically focused on the campaign and below. Strategy? Industrial mobilization? LOL… If the German generals hadn’t been a bunch of romantic types with their pricks wrapped up around their “honor”, they’d have done the cold cruel calculations about 1938-39, and then slit Hitler’s throat some dark night, along with the rest of the Party’s leadership. The basic fact is, Germany had no real way to rationally get from “Point A” of 1938 to a “Point B” of reaching an attainable set of victory conditions. The fact that they got as far as they did is down to the fact that they were really, really good at low-level war (campaign/operational and below), and that the Allies were criminally bad. Throw in a little Communist sabotage of the French war effort, and you get the WWII of our timeline.

    German never should have gotten as far as it did, and the fact is that we can blame that on the two factors I mention–German excellence at the art of war, and the feckless cupidity of the Allied leadership. The fact that it took five-plus years, and nearly 20 million dead to beat them back into their cages? Absolutely criminal. The Nuremberg trials should have had Stalin and the rest of the pre-WWII Allied leadership up on trial right next to the Nazis, because without them? No WWII.

    Good God, Stalin was still shipping materials and money west to Hitler the day Barbarossa kicked off, and he was perfectly happy to let the Germans take down the rest of Europe or at least embroil them in a long-term war like WWI. I think Stalin was just as surprised by the Fall of France as everyone else, and it probably threw off his calculations considerably.

    The way I read the war, I think Stalin expected a replay of WWI that would exhaust the French and the Germans again, making very easy for him to stab the Germans in the back sometime afterwards, when both were exhausted. France’s collapse came unexpectedly, and then Barbarossa came. I don’t know when Stalin planned on coming west, but I’m almost certain he had those plans–The deployments and the schedule for rebuilding the Red Army make it clear he had something in mind. Problem was, Hitler’s gamble in France paid off bigger than anyone thought possible.

  4. RLVC says:

    Penniless Austrian corporal engineers his ascent to the German throne before effortlessly conquering France and proceeding to come within striking distance of Tsaritsyn and the eradication of Bolshevism from Europe forever.

    What a lunatic.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    The Nazis lost because they couldn’t quit when they were ahead. Their ideology got in the way of that.

    Napoleon made the same mistake, but mainly for reasons of hubris.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    “and the eradication of Bolshevism from Europe forever.”

    No.

    Bolchevism power structure is like Nazism: no separation of powers, no checks and balances, discretionary. It is primitivism with a new language for maskirovka.

  7. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Kirk: “I don’t know when Stalin planned on coming west, but I’m almost certain he had those plans …”

    Interesting book on that topic is “The Chief Culprit” by Viktor Suvorov (2008). Using Soviet archives, Suvorov concludes that Stalin had been trying to engineer WWII for a long time, as part of the Marxist view that revolution was necessary to overthrow the evil Capitalists. In this view, Stalin played Hitler, and took advantage of the rise of Nazis in Germany.

    Suvorov also claims that Soviet forces were already on the move to attack German forces across the frontier the two had established in conquered & divided Poland. That was why Soviet forces were out in the open and took such an initial beating when Germany launched the attack on the Soviets about 2 weeks before the planned Soviet attack on German forces.

  8. Sam J. says:

    “The Chief Culprit” by Viktor Suvorov (2008)

    That’s a great book and he goes over and over what exactly Stalin spent money on in preparation for war and it was almost all offensive in nature.

    I also don’t believe that Germans were necessarily doomed to failure. I’ve said this several times that a huge problem that the Germans had was air transport and the shoddy way that Goring ran the Luftwaffe. From Irvins books on WWII Goring told Hitler during the battle of Stalingrad that he could deliver so many tons of supplies but he knew 100% he could not do so. The Germans flat ran out of supplies the amount actually delivered were only a small percentage of what was needed. By the time Hitler found the truth it was too late.

    If the Germans had a shit load of stuff they finally started building after Goring lost influence like this thing the millipede,

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arado_Ar_232

    they could have changed a lot of things. In fact we in the US are repeating a lot of the German mistakes.

    Even though the Germans were delayed in attacking Russia by, I think it was, El Duce disaster in Greece they could have transported a lot of supplies and leap frogged across Russia like we fought in the pacific.

  9. Sam J. says:

    Harry Jones says,”…How much control over peoples and territories out there do we actually need, and is it worth the price?…”

    Good point and something to keep in mind “…By 2010, 80 per cent of people will live within 60 miles of the coast…”

    https://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/10/18/how-many-people-live-near-the

  10. Sam J. says:

    Another good plane for transport made from cheap gliders

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messerschmitt_Me_323

  11. Sam J. says:

    RLVC says,”Penniless Austrian corporal engineers his ascent to the German throne before effortlessly conquering France and proceeding to come within striking distance of Tsaritsyn and the eradication of Bolshevism from Europe forever.

    What a lunatic.”

    Yes, what an extraordinary feat. Specifically why they have to denounce every single thing he did.

  12. Harry Jones says:

    Franz Liebkind said all that can be said in defense of Hitler.

  13. Lucklucky says:

    “Suvorov also claims that Soviet forces were already on the move to attack German force”

    No. Soviet forces were not ready for attack or defense.

  14. Sam J. says:

    If you are insinuating that any recognition that Hitler did some good things means that anyone who recognizes this is a full blown Hitler worshiping Nazi…that’s not going to fly anymore. It’s just like “Orange Man Bad”. Only really stupid people think like that.

    Maybe I should back up, yes that will work with really stupid people but not most people. I think the majority of people are becoming immune to this sort of propaganda and when it’s thrown about instead of having the effect wanted, “Oh my God people might say I’m a Nazi”, today it just helps you recognize those who are fundamentally dishonest in their discourse with others. A great marker of sorts.

  15. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Luckylucky opined without presenting any supporting information: “No. Soviet forces were not ready for attack or defense.”

    It is very doubtful that any of us were there at the time — or in a position to know the full situation on both sides of the border in divided & occupied Poland even if we had been there. Thus, we have to rely on what seem like credible sources, while always keeping an open mind.

    Read Suvorov’s book, and make up your own mind. He presents (in true Russian fashion) a mass of data to show that the Red Army had been preparing to invade Western Europe for years, building weapons and training for this objective.

    Immediately prior to the German attack, the Red Army was on the move, getting into position to invade the German-occupied part of Poland. Troops had moved out of prepared defensive positions into open land where they were vulnerable. Soldiers in transit were separated from their supply chains. Aircraft were stacked unprotected on makeshift airstrips.

    The consequence was that when the Germans attacked first, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Hence the Red Army was pushed back a almost to Moscow before it could regroup and take the offensive.

    If you are aware of credible documentation to the contrary, Lucklucky, please do us all a favor and share.

  16. Lucklucky says:

    Go to Axis Forum.

    My knowledge came from reading about the combats. It is clear the Soviets were not prepared for one or another.

  17. RLVC says:

    Bolshevists HATE him (for this one weird trick).

  18. Lucklucky says:

    What do you mean, RLVC?

    Gavin Longmuir,

    How do you explain that Communists were sabotaging French and British war effort and also tried prevent US help to British and French? Singer like Pete Seeger released a music album against US intervention in War -> Songs for John Doe crime writer Dashiell Hammett was at forefront of organization to stop US be involved in war.

    All that changed in June 1941.

  19. RLVC says:

    Just kidding.

    In hindsight, rule by literal Stalinists was objectively superior to rule by techno-libertarians.

  20. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Luckylucky: “How do you explain that Communists were sabotaging French and British war effort and also tried prevent US help to British and French?”

    How does that relate to the question of whether the USSR was actively getting ready to invade the German-occupied part of Poland in June 1941?

    There are lots of different strands in anything as big as WWII. FDR in the US campaigned for the Presidency of the US in 1940 by promising to keep the US out of the European war. because most Americans wanted to stay out; but behind the scenes, FDR was trying to get the US involved — and we now know that FDR’s Administration was riddled with Communists. Communists generally seemed to believe that war would lead to their desired overthrow of capitalism.

    That is what is so interesting about Suvorov’s books on this topic — he explains some of the background from the Soviet perspective. Stalin had been trying to start a war (preferably between other countries) because his Marxist beliefs told him that war would lead to Communist revolutions — so the USSR signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939 which let Germany focus on England & France.

    Of course Communists wanted Britain & France to be unprepared for war — because losing would lead them to have Communist revolutions. But when Germany turned against the USSR, saving Stalin understandably became the Communists main priority.

    The weapons (planes, tanks, etc) that the USSR was building on a massive scale in the late 1930s were offensive in character, not defensive. The USSR was preparing to be the aggressor in war.

    Read the books. See if you think Suvorov is credible.

  21. McChuck says:

    Suvorov is completely credible. The archives that the Russians opened up to us in the 1990′s confirmed almost everything.

  22. Isegoria says:

    Viktor Suvorov has come up here many times, by the way.

  23. Dave says:

    “Penniless Austrian corporal engineers his ascent to the German throne before effortlessly conquering France and proceeding to come within striking distance of Tsaritsyn and the eradication of Bolshevism from Europe forever.”

    Some years ago I was watching the World Poker Tour and saw a player with the nickname “All-in Tony”. I thought, that guy will make it to the final round, then get his ass kicked, and that’s what happened, just like Napoleon and Hitler.

    Consider any man who, via a long series of bold plays where he bet everything and won, has risen from obscurity to uncontested rule over a great nation. Does the thought “maybe I should cash in my chips and retire” ever cross such a man’s mind?

    That’s one advantage of established monarchies; men born to rule tend not to have such a kamikaze attitude.

  24. Harry Jones says:

    The hot hand fallacy comes to mind. Also, Dunning-Kruger, which strikes people of all levels of ability.

    Sooner or later, you rise to your natural level. The key is to notice when you’re there.

  25. RLVC says:

    At the time, no one understood the ramifications of certain nascent technologies. No one could really comprehend the atomic bomb. And no one dreamed that it would arrive so soon.

    The First World War was fought for a very specific reason, you know: technoindustrially ascendant Germany threatened to eclipse its rivals and dominate Continental Europe, and from Continental Europe, all of Eurasia. But short years, 1933 to 1939, undid all of the good done by the Weimar Period.

    Today, we can say that the Germans should have played for time, sat on their collective ass, and waited out the British Crown. But they, then, didn’t have the luxury of hindsight. They went to war with the weapons that they had and they came within a whisker of winning.

    Fortunately, the great General George S. Patton was there to put a stop to that.

  26. Gavin Longmuir says:

    RLVC: “Fortunately, the great General George S. Patton was there to put a stop to that.”

    I yield to no-one in my admiration for General Patton — an amazing leader. But we have to look at the broader picture.

    The Germans had been in retreat from the Red Army since Stalingrad in early 1943 — over a year before General Patton got his chance. If the Normandy landings in mid-1944 had failed, the Red Army would simply have kept going until it reached the English Channel. And today, we would see something like the EU, only with Russia rather than Germany as its prime mover.

    Victor Hanson makes a good case in his book “The Second World Wars” that the Axis powers never really stood a chance. They had some brilliant generals and great troops — but in the longer term they were simply out-numbered, out-resourced, out-produced.

  27. Kirk says:

    Gavin,

    I would submit that the idea that the Soviets would have simply continued on to the English Channel all by themselves is, at best, nuts.

    By the time they reached the stop lines at what became the Inner German Border, they were at the end of their logistical tether. The Germans did a very good job of tearing up the infrastructure as they retreated, and the blithe idea that that wouldn’t make a difference is logistically laughable. Sure, the Soviets operated with an austerity that we’d love to match, but… Ya just can’t whip up the logistics to support even a Soviet army in terrain that’s been systematically looted and pillaged for four years, which is what Western Europe was. Can you imagine the results the Soviets would have gotten, trying to feed their armies in Holland, after the Hunger Winter? They, and the Dutch populace, would have starved. All the food they’d need was already taken up by Germany, shipped east, and consumed.

    Stalin might well have wanted to keep going until he hit the Atlantic, but… Yeah. Not happening, not in 1945 Europe. Might have worked in ’36, might have worked again in ’50, but there wasn’t anything at all there to work with Red Army logistics in ’45. Germany had already raped that out of the various economies.

  28. Lucklucky says:

    “How does that relate to the question of whether the USSR was actively getting ready to invade the German-occupied part of Poland in June 1941?”

    Logic. If Stalin was expecting to attack German Army why the directives to Communist parties and compagnons de route to sabotage Britain, France?

    If Communists would want to take on Nazi Germany the correct path is to have Germany more bloodied from that war.
    Besides strategically German was a land power and the only real competitor to Soviet Union and was also now the neighbor.

    By the way, Pete Seeger’s Songs for John Does was released in May 1941; it was retired from being sold after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union one month later.

  29. Lucklucky says:

    Some years ago I was watching the World Poker Tour and saw a player with the nickname “All-in Tony”. I thought, that guy will make it to the final round, then get his ass kicked, and that’s what happened, just like Napoleon and Hitler.

    “Consider any man who, via a long series of bold plays where he bet everything and won, has risen from obscurity to uncontested rule over a great nation. Does the thought “maybe I should cash in my chips and retire” ever cross such a man’s mind?”

    Yes he was a gambler, every concession made to Hitler embolden him to more do or die.
    But the worse part is that Germans people started to see him like a genius after all those diplomatic victories based on threats (besides Spanish CW) and the Allied caved in. France was morally decrepit as society with an army 5 years behind Germany’s in ideas.

  30. Kirk says:

    Lucklucky,

    Stalin had no idea at all how effective the German military had become. He misjudged the outcome, and expected that the Germans would need all the help they could get to be able to dismantle the French Army, which was very highly rated before the war. That was the first miscalculation, followed by the second, which was that Hitler would not be able to digest the conquests and use them to attack eastwards in any rational time scale. In that, he was correct–Hitler never mobilized Western Europe effectively. Captured military industries were looted, equipment sent back to Germany, which then sat there unused. Hitler still attacked the Soviet Union, even as unprepared as he was. It was an insane decision.

    Minor anecdote–The Soviets had meetings with the Germans prior to Barbarossa, extensive ones. Their people were shown all around German industrial and military facilities, and they kept seeing the utter lack of any real German heavy armor equivalent to the KV series and T-34 as being “obvious” disinformation. They thought the Germans were hiding a program of heavy tanks that they weren’t, and that was one reason Stalin was so bamboozled by the whole thing. He was sure the Germans knew about T-34, and somewhat certain from other sources that nobody was working on heavy tanks in Germany, either. From one perspective, it’s almost a given that the Germans would have had conniptions if they’d really known about T-34, and would have really crapped the bed had they known about how many divisions the Soviets could raise. Stalin’s secretiveness about those two factors probably did more to convince the Germans that an invasion could work than anything else, which is ironic as hell…

    I watched an interview with a Wehrmacht general, once. He was asked “What would have happened if you’d known in ’41 what you knew in ’45? Would you have still obeyed Hitler, followed his orders?”. His reply was pretty emphatic that if the German General Staff had had any idea what the Soviets were going to be able to throw up against them, there would have been a mutiny and “We’d have shot Hitler…”.

    Granted, that’s a self-serving survivor of the war, but…

  31. Lucklucky says:

    France + BEF + Holland + Belgium collapsed in June, 1940; by then the Soviet Union already knew what Germans were capable of.

    So one year to change the narrative. But it did not happen. Like I said, Songs for John Doe was released in May 1941.

    After the fall of France, the Soviet Union was still calling the war against Nazis an Imperialist War for capitalist profits.

  32. Sam J. says:

    Lucklucky says,”…It is clear the Soviets were not prepared for one or another.”

    I think it is clear if you follow The Chief Culprit by Viktor Suvorov (2008). He makes a damn good case.

    The glitch that confuses you is that while prepared for offense, no one gave the word. Meaning Stalin. So no one knew whether to attack or retreat or defend or what. In the wonderful workers paradise that Stalin crated if you fucked up and did what you thought needed done instead of what you were ordered to do it was very likely that you would end up with a bullet in the back of your head. THAT is what paralyzed the Russians.

    After the attack didn’t Stalin freeze for a few days and no one would even try to get him to give orders? Seems I read that. Tie that into the absolute panic from the German attack but even then no one would push Stalin to do anything.

    https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/stalin-suffered-nervous-breakdown.html

  33. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Kirk: “Can you imagine the results the Soviets would have gotten, trying to feed their armies in Holland, after the Hunger Winter? They, and the Dutch populace, would have starved.”

    That is an excellent point about logistics, Kirk. On the other hand, Stalin would not have shed a single tear if the entire population of Holland had starved to death.

    Many years ago, I met a guy who had been in the front lines of a US unit when it met up with the advancing Red Army. He described it as like a Mongol Horde on the move. The Red Army lumbered forward not just with the usual camp-following women — they had chickens, pigs, cattle. WWII Soviet logistics may have been difficult for us to understand. Despite the devastation in Poland and Eastern Germany, the Red Army reached Berlin in force and carried on moving West.

    By the way, Kirk, you are absolutely right about the surprise that France collapsed so quickly in WWII. After all, France (with some help) had held Germany to a near-stalemate for 4 years in WWI.

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