Archive for the ‘ History ’ Category

Book Review – Mark Thompson’s The White War

I never thought much about Italy’s experience in the First World War. What I knew about it was an offhand remark from the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, who was emasculated on “a joke front like the Italian”. I knew Erwin Rommel had first come to glory there, putting into practice the theories of warfare that would drive German success early in World War Two, at a time before those theories had even crystallized. And I knew that Italy performed in-line with jokes about its military incompetence..

But it turns out there is a remarkable and important story to be told about the Italian front. I only happened on it by chance in the remaindered section of the Harvard Bookstore, where I picked up a copy of Mark Thompson’s The White War for $5, after it had likely sat ignored on the history shelves in the same way that “history buffs” like me tend to ignore its subject matter.

In the main, Thompson’s book fulfills its most important obligation: it tells an interesting and unfamiliar story, and it tells it very well. The White War is stocked with scarcely believable characters, like the proto-Fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, who styled himself as the poet laureate of the Italian right and was basically allowed to treat the battlefield as a kind of muse-for-hire. One day he is seen giving pep talks to headquarters staff, the next he is flying over Austrian lines, dropping propaganda leaflets. The next time he pops up, he is arranging some kind of absurd raid to capture a distant castle and raise the Italian flag over its ramparts, thereby boosting morale across the entire front.

In a way, a character like D’Annunzio is laughable, and stereotypically Italian. Look at him bluster, look at his vainglory. Look at this failure.

But the horror of Thompson’s book is that millions of men and women were caught up in this joke, and at the mercy of the pure viciousness that lay behind the strutting vainglory. As the Italian raid on the Austrian castle fell apart at a river crossing, under heavy Austrian fire, stranded Italian troops began advancing toward the Austrians to surrender. D’Annunzio, watching from across the river, was disgusted by their “cowardice” and orders the artillery to execute a fire mission against the Italian “traitors”. And such was the poet’s power in this Italian army that the batteries did indeed open fire and on the victims of D’Annunzio’s own folly.

But all that pales next to the character of Luigi Cadorna, a general whose name I had never heard prior to this book.

Discovering Cadorna and his place in the annals of history’s worst commanders is like discovering there is an extra planet in the solar system that nobody ever mentions. He’s so profoundly awful, as a general and as a human being, that the mind reels.

In fact, The White War warms to its task as Thompson really begins dissecting Cadorna’s record, and shifts focus from the front lines to the rear echelons and headquarters. Cadorna revealed himself to be an ineffectual martinet in the opening stages of the war, as he squandered massive opportunities and then, for good measure, squandered immense numbers of lives trying to crack impregnable Austrian positions across the Alps. Yet he was so arrogant, and so coddled by an Italian government that feared his prestige, that he was neither shaken by his failures nor fearful of their consequences.

But as the war dragged on, Cadorna’s lack of accountability and belief in iron discipline began going to darker and darker places, and Thompson follows right along. Cadorna, so contemptuous of the soldiers he was charged with leading, became convinced that Italian setbacks were due to poor morale, poor discipline, and outright cowardice.

His solution, at first, was limited to trying to remake the Italian soldiery in his image: ascetic, hard-working, and fanatically dedicated to duty. Soldiers barely received any leave and, on the rare occasions their units were rotated off the front lines, they were sent not for R&R but for hard-labor behind the lines, lest they become soft. The theory was that soldiers should greet their return to the front with zeal and relief, and go about each day without a thought of home and peacetime pursuits.

But as years of hopeless slaughter took their toll (Thompson’s descriptions of combat along the varied and universally forbidding terrain of the Austro-Italian border are frequently jaw-dropping, like when he describes Italian “lines” where soldiers were living in tents anchored to cliff faces), the Italian troops became increasingly hopeless and their performance seemingly declined. There were more instances of indiscipline and routing.

Cadorna escalated matters, taking a “the beatings will continue until morale improves” approach, instituting an entirely extralegal regime of summary executions for all manner of infractions, to be pursued at the discretion of officers in the field. Courts martial, he decided, were too lenient for the weak, slovenly Italian army. He openly called it a policy of decimation.

The incidents Thompson brings to light are shocking. Cadorna is a real-life version of General Broulard in Paths of Glory, only far worse than even Stanley Kubrick could plausibly make out. Under his regime, subordinate commanders began looking for reasons to execute soldiers, so that they could demonstrate their fealty and zeal to the generalissimo’s vision.

In one gut-twisting example, Italy’s Ravenna Brigade “mutinies” when it discovers it is being sent back to the line after only a short respite. A few drunk soldiers fire guns in the air, and many soldiers refuse to go. Then the assistant division commander and brigade CO hear out the men’s grievances, summon military police to restore order, and pack the brigade on its way.

Except the division commander and eventually the corps commander get wind of the incident and began demanding executions. First a handful of men are shot and then, as each higher-ranking officer hears of the incident, ever more executions are demanded. In the end, Thompson writes, “29 men died to punish a minor rebellion in one battalion that lasted a few hours, causing no casualties.” (p. 265)

This is just one, unusually well-documented example, Thompson writes. The actual death toll for Cadorna’s summary executions goes as high as 750, if not higher.

Months later, in the autumn of 1917, Cadorna was stunned when a joint German-Austrian offensive hammered his lines at Caporetto and his army collapsed, with entire formations refusing to obey his order to fight to the death.

The Undertow of Progress

This would all make for a riveting account of a disastrous military campaign, but what elevates The White War is Thompson’s broader interest in Italian politics and culture. Cadorna as a general is a villain. But Cadorna’s absolute authority in Italy, his aimless brutality…. all these are harbingers of what is to come.

Over the course of The White War, Thompson shows the seeds of Fascism taking root in a soil rich with political, social, and cultural dysfunction. Italy, a young state in 1915, immediately began drifting toward militaristic hyper-nationalism and authoritarianism as soon as war was declared. The press was promptly muzzled, and happily went along with the policy of official censorship. Civilians were denounced and jailed for defeatism and lack of patriotism. Italy would not become formally fascist until 1924, but its slide in that direction started early in the war.

This had real consequences during the war and lent Italy’s ultimate victory a toxic legacy. There were always more delusions and excuses that enabled Cadorna’s mismanagement of the war. Socialist agitators sapped the soldiers of their will to fight. Italy’s allies weren’t helping enough. Unpatriotic politicians were shaking the army’s belief in itself every time they raised questions about the campaign. The soldiers were weak, lazy, ignorant who broke faith when victory was at hand. Each of these stories became a part of the right-wing’s founding myth of fascist Italy.

Cadorna himself was called “Il Duce” long before Mussolini (who lurks at the margins of his narrative, a minor player in the unfolding political drama, and not yet sure of his own beliefs). He was actively indulgent of suggestions that he be made dictator. Cocooned by a restricted press that parroted his own propaganda back at him, and a quiescent general staff that had been conditioned to flattery and mimicry, Cadorna became convinced of these “facts” that he’d helped invent.

Thompson also shows how Cadorna’s mindless credos, his oft-disproven and oft-repeated belief in the power of the offensive and the “irresistible spirit” of a good army, had their underpinnings in a widely-shared, somewhat incoherent set of beliefs called vitalism, which valued intuition personal character over intellect or material goods. In an insightful and important passage that helps explain the entire era, he writes:

“Vitalism appealed to the anti-intellectual bent of intellectuals who already doubted the rationalist rules of their game. Trapped in the vast dynamics of nationalism, imperialism, militarism, industrialisation and commerce, and by the theories of natural evolution, human history and the unconscious mind discovered by Darwin, Marx and Freud, what room was left for individual reason and moral will? How should men not succumb to the dark currents running below Progress (justly called ‘the political principle of the nineteenth century’), namely a gnawing sense of degeneration and impotence, merging fear of technology with fear of women? In hindsight, vitalism was a resistance movement, a late-romantic defence of the individual male and his solitary resources, a consolation after the ‘death of God’ in the mid-nineteenth century and before the birth of ‘human rights’ after 1945. For the vitalist vision is self-deifying, promising to restore mankind to his rightful place in the scheme of things, able to master all species and materials through mystical life-force.” (p. 229-230)

This is a passage that immediately helps crystallize a lot of the thinking that went into World War I, and even more of what came out of it. It’s fascinating that the Italian Front provides such a perfect window into the 20th century, in Thompson’s telling.

The ultimate tragedy of The White War, beyond all the lives lost, is that Thompson convincingly demonstrates that this incoherent mix of self-loathing and denial never really left Italy. Italy, a young country at the time of World War 1, was traumatized by its monumental failures against the Austrians. It promoted the idea that Italy itself was broken and needed to be fixed, and Fascism took advantage of that impulse when it sought to rehabilitate the war and sell it as a “founding myth” of Mussolini’s fledgling empire. When that was discredited, the self-doubt crept back into Italian politics.

In Thompson’s view, Italy is stuck with the memory of Caporetto, and the sudden disintegration of their army, their confidence, their view of themselves as a nation. In one form or another, the Italian front unleashed forces and beliefs that have twisted Italian politics ever since.

Communism Works

War in the East was one of those wargames that sent me across town to the local library so that I could grab a stack of books on the Eastern Front. I finally finished off the last of them, Leningrad 1941: The Blockade by Dmitri Pavlov, yesterday morning. In many ways it was the most unexpected of the books I read, because so much of its subject was both new (t0 me) and uniquely presented.

Pavlov was a Party bureaucrat who helped managed the distribution of food supplies to the Leningrad Front during the German blockade following Operation Barbarossa. His book is, in some ways, nothing more than a simple report on the food situation in Leningrad during the siege. He describes the city’s pre-blockade food consumption and supplies, the impact of the German advance, the rations provided during the siege, and finally how the city was resupplied by water and, after Lake Ladoga froze, by ice.

The book is full of tables and detailed calorie counts. Just from a mechanical standpoint, the work of maintaining a defensive force and a large civilian population during a near-total encirclement makes for fascinating reading. The type of things I don’t really think about, like how much food an office worker needs to sustain himself as opposed to a front line soldier as opposed to a longshoreman. This was the stuff of life and death in Leningrad as Pavlov and the Soviet officials he worked with cut rations to the bone.

But it’s also an amazing story of endurance and ingenuity, and one of the threads running through Pavlov’s account is a nostalgia for this brief moment when the ideals of the Revolution were manifested in the people, soldiers, and government of Leningrad. He describes how, as the food supply dwindled, researchers in Leningrad were furiously trying to find new ways to stretch the food supply. He goes into detail on how the loaf of bread was reinvented with other grains and low-quality food products, and then reinvented again with cellulose once the other grains ran out.

While Pavlov is no naif (he describes how ration-card fraud required some brutal measures and regulations that were often unintentionally, unavoidably cruel), he is struck by how often the siege brought out the best in people. Order never broke down, even when things were at their most desperate. He draws pictures of starving people holding down a man who attempts to start a bread riot, or standing guard over an overturned bread truck in the dead of a winter night until the authorities can collect the shipment. He frankly admits that when the road over Lake Ladoga first started running, theft was rampant on the part of the drivers and loaders. The operation was so haphazard, the packing materials of such poor quality, and the pace so fast that there was literally no way to police the supply line. But after a week or so, as drivers realized just how desperate things were in Leningrad, supply loss stopped almost entirely.

The suffering on display is also astonishing. During a chapter simply titled, “Hunger”, Pavlov writes:

Cold had settled down to stay in the unheated apartments of the city. Remorselessly it froze the exhausted people. Dystrophy and cold sent 11,085 people to their graves during November, the first to fall under death’s scythe being the old men.

…More and more adults and children died every day. First a person’s arms and legs grew weak, then his body became numb, the numbness gradually approached the heart, gripped it as in a vise, and then the end came.

Death overtook people anywhere. As he walked along the street, a man might fall and not get up. People would go to bed at home and not rise again. Often death would come suddenly as men worked at their machines.

Since public transportation was not operating, burial was a special problem. The dead were usually carried on sleds without coffins. Two or three relatives or close friends would haul the sled along the seemingly endless streets, often losing strength and abandoning the deceased halfway to the cemetary, leaving to the authorities the task of dispoising of the body. …There was not strength enough to dig into the deeply frozen earth. Civil defense crews would blast the ground to make mass graves, into which they would lay tens and sometimes hundreds of bodies without even knowing the names of those they buried.

–May the dead forgive the living who could not, under those desperate conditions, perform the last ceremonies due honest, laborious lives.

Over 600,000 people died of starvation-related causes during the blockade.

Victory Is a Poor Advisor

Throughout the Franco-Prussian War, you can see cracks appearing in the German military that will break open in World War I, with disastrous results. For one thing, Prussian officers were never quite as good as they believed themselves to be. At their best, Prussian officers were bold yet prudent leaders who trusted their own judgment and operated in a system that gave them the freedom to exercise it.

But virtue easily curdles into vice. At the operational level, the Franco-Prussian War offers several striking examples of Prussian officers exceeding or disregarding their orders at the expense of the larger war effort. Some maneuvers early in the war were completely ruined by army and corps commanders following their own instincts without considering the larger plan. They could fixate on maintaining contact with the enemy, even when contact was to be avoided. Time and again, German officers bit off more than they could chew, saved only by the overwhelming superiority of their artillery and the passivity of the French commanders.

Flash-forward to 1914, and the same problems crop up again. Where the Schlieffen plan absolutely required a soft German defense in the center, the German commander there (Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria) went on the counterattack after the disastrous French attacks at the outset of the war. With a firmer commander in charge, like Moltke the Elder, someone might have protected the Schlieffen plan from this kind of rashness. But in 1914, Moltke’s less-capable nephew was running the show, and he deferred to the judgment of his local commanders. So he allowed reinforcements to be siphoned into a costly sideshow on the left flank, one that ended up shortening Allied lines and helping them concentrate closer to Paris.

Or there is the fate of the German right wing, where von Kluck decided to go for a shallow encirclement of the Allied armies, rather than the deeper encirclement envisioned by the Schlieffen Plan. It was an understandable decision, but it was something that should have come from above. Yet again, the commander on site changed the agenda for the larger army, and this time he cost the right wing its cohesion at the crucial moment.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is the desire for warriors to interpret victory as the result of moral virtues. Wawro paints a portrait of French and German strategists who looked at the battles of 1870 (and Prussia’s 1866 war with Austria) and saw the results of offensive spirit and boldness. In the French case, it’s somewhat more understandable. What did the Germans have that the French didn’t? Commanders who seized the initiative, marching to the sound of guns and feeling out enemy positions until a weak point could be discovered. But they’d also had better, longer-range artillery.

Dash and courage had been uselesss in the face of long-range rifle fire from prepared positions. Almost every major battle of the Franco-Prussian war follows the same three-act structure: German troops assail French positions and are cut down in droves, the French hold position while German reinforcements and artillery support arrives, and finally the French positions crack under the weight of firepower and lack of reinforcements.

But without that artillery support? German numbers had been useless, and so had the training and skill of their men. But in the wake of the war, German strategists under-played the role artillery had played in the victory and exaggerated the contributions of doctrine and courage.

War exercises the fascination of the trial by combat, an equalizer where the best warriors would triumph. But as often as not, its not martial prowess that makes the difference. The Prussians survived their own mistakes because better guns were able to massacre Frenchmen from safe ranges. But who wants to give victory to the engineers who designed a better tool for killing? Where is the glory in a gunner sitting behind friendly lines, winning a war by slamming shells into a breech? Meanwhile, the valorous are cut down from hundreds of yards away, and the stout-hearted massacred in their trenches by an enemy they can’t hit back.

But that’s war, especially in the modern age.  It’s dangerous to believe it’s something more than that. But winners always want to read deeper into their victories, to see a triumph of will in a triumph of brute strength.

Wawro quotes a caution from Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse to a victorious German nation, which reminded them that, “nations tend to slip on the blood they have shed. Victory is a poor advisor.” But Germany’s right-wing elements never did listen to another. They saw German greatness reflected in the military victories of 1877 and 1870, and didn’t realize how much those victories owed to circumstances. The confidence of 1870 grew into the arrogance of 1914-18 and finally the madness of 1941, as Germany was taught and re-taught that 1871 had been an ending as much as a beginning.

Learning the Wrong Lessons

I’m in the last couple chapters of Geoffrey Wawro’s The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871, and right now the Prussians are trying to deal with their catastrophic success at Sedan. Having accidentally shattered Napoleon III’s government along with his armies, the Prussians find themselves trying to negotiate a peace with a shaky provisional government that is held hostage by Parisian extremists.

But the story of the Franco-Prussian War is crucial to understanding what would happen to France in the first half of the 20th century. Back when I was reading Tuchman’s The Guns of August, I found it baffling that the French were so ill-prepared for what the new war would look like. Tuchman places heavy emphasis on the French military’s pseudo-religious devotion to the concept of elan and the offensive a outrance that nearly lost them the war in the first month. But what she doesn’t fully explain is the degree to which this was an understandable, even rational response to the debacle in 1870. And of course, the decisions that led to the French collapse in 1940 were themselves understandable and rational responses to the events of WWI.

According to Wawro, the French army in 1870 was in bad shape. The officer corps was moribund, and both the commissioned and enlisted ranks were packed full of dead wood. But in spite of all the deficiencies of French training and discipline, that’s not really what appeared to cost the French the war. Those problems certainly contributed, but the larger problem that Wawro finds in 1870 is a deadly lack of initiative at almost every level of command.

For instance, the manpower disparity between the French and the Prussians meant that time worked against the French. The French had a large standing army but no real reserves which they could mobilize. What they had at the start would have to win the war. By comparison, the peacetime Prussian army was a skeleton and nervous system onto which the mobilization of the reserve forces would pack muscle and flesh. Once that process completed, it was a force to be reckoned with. But it was vulnerable at the start of a conflict.

So France’s hope in 1870 would be to deliver some brutal blows in Germany before numbers could begin to tell. But that’s not what happened. The French army really had no agreed-upon leadership and no war plan. So they basically milled around the border, delaying any kind of offensive action while the Prussians mobilized. Then, they started looking for a good place from which to defend themselves from the Prussians’ superior numbers. But from that point on, the French would always be at a strategic disadvantage, at constant risk of being encircled and destroyed.

Even then, however, there were opportunities for success. The Prussian armies had to disperse as they advanced, which created chances for the French to isolate and destroy Prussian units. Thanks to a few missteps by Prussian officers, and some smart selections of defensive terrain on the part of French generals, the French had some golden opportunities to crush Prussian detachments. But time and again, the French would turn back a few Prussian attacks, then sit in place while Prussian reinforcements arrived to change the balance.

Finally, on the tactical level, the French had the advantage of a much better rifle, the Chassepot. It had a dominating range advantage over the Prussian rifle, and French infantry enjoyed a great reputation for marksmanship. And indeed, the Chassepot exacted a murderous toll. But rather than switching over to the offensive and counterattacking after Prussian troops had been stopped cold and slaughtered, French units would remain behind cover while the Prussian brought up artillery to blast them out. Had the French just been more aggressive, even locally, they could have set Prussian units to rout and thrown their battle plans into disarray.

But strategically, operationally, and tactically, the French army remained passive while the Prussians destroyed it. So with that background, it’s easier to understand why the French were wedded to the offensive when World War I broke out. They’d spent over thirty years correcting the caution and hesitancy that undid them in 1870, but at the cost of taking a hard look at the likely effects of long range, heavy artillery and the machine gun. To take steps in developing tactics appropriate to a battlefield dominated by big guns and machine guns would be to start encouraging exactly the kind of defensive, static thinking that resulted in defeat in 1870.

By the same token, the French army suffered stupefying casualties due to its failure to to prepare for the attrition warfare of WWI. So they spent 20 years refining their capacity to wage defensive warfare efficiently, led by a general (Petain) who had been traumatized by the sucking wound of Verdun, where a failure to maintain and defend the city’s old strongholds drastically increased casualties. The response, in one form, was the Maginot Line. In another, it was the French belief that tanks would be relegated to a supporting role in warfare, helping troops break through local defenses and preventing the same.

History buffs often talk about the lessons of history and its predictive powers. But if you look at it another way, it misleads as often as it informs. History predicts just about everything that could happen, which is why you can’t really use it to predict anything. The French drew a lot of lessons from each war with the Germans, and dutifully went about trying to prevent a repetition of old mistakes. In doing that, they managed to make new ones.

One Move Behind – The Problem with Mechanized Warfare

Last week’s Three Moves Ahead was probably the most enjoyable one I’ve done in awhile, in part because it gave me a rare opportunity to get into a really detailed, nuts-and-bolts conversation about wargames and how they model certain aspects of warfare. The catalyst for this discussion was Achtung Panzer, but we ended up going in a lot of different directions, and there were a lot of discussion points that we didn’t quite hit.

Anyway, one subject we touched on but didn’t really address is the problems that arise when wargames attempt to model mechanized warfare. My feeling is that, generally, wargames flub mechanized warfare, and I don’t know whether this is a failure of game design or a problem of the subject making for lousy game design.

When I talk about mechanized warfare, I’m not talking about tanks, nor am I talking about infantry being driven to the front aboard trucks. I am talking  about the kind of combat that occurs when you have all these elements present in the combat zone at once.

It’s different from combined arms tactics. Classically, combined-arms meant employing artillery or ranged units, infantry, and cavalry in conjunction with one another. The “arms” were distinct from one another. Wargames don’t have much trouble translating these tactics into a rock-paper-scissors formula. Cavalry can devastate unprotected artillery, but get torn to pieces by prepared infantry. Infantry can slug it out with other infantry, but are vulnerable to artillery and cavalry assaults against unprotected flanks. These are straightforward combinations, and readily lend themselves to game mechanics.

In World War II, it all starts getting very blurry. The most powerful artillery is no longer physically present on the battlefield: fire missions are called in to distant batteries and there is nothing you can do about it. Cavalry have vanished, but now you have tanks that can move rapidly… but hit more like field artillery, and are impervious to most weapons.

Field artillery is now represented by the mortar and the antitank gun. But the mortar lacks the clear-cut advantages that the field artillery or archers of earlier eras enjoyed. The AT gun exists to kill armored vehicles, but has a multitude of serious vulnerabilities. It is worthless against infantry and exceedingly vulnerable to tanks, as it can’t move and tanks can engage it at range.

Infantry still fight like infantry, but can sometimes move like cavalry aboard vehicles. They are only useful against armor in specific cases: ambushes, forest fighting, and street fighting. But in any kind of open country, they don’t stand a chance against tanks and assault guns.

See what I mean about things getting blurry? Also, consider this: from the close of the 17th century to the end of the 19th, the type of combined arms warfare I described above remained largely unchanged on the battlefield. Technology and developments in military thought may have revolutionized how armies were raised and moved, but the battlefield was still a place of field artillery, cavalry, and infantry. Western nations spent over two centuries fighting roughly similar sorts of battles.

World War I overturned that order, and left more questions than answers at its close. In the space of 20 years, the great powers had to figure out what lessons they were taking away from the Great War, and then put them into practice. As it turned out, the Germans were about the only people who drew the right conclusions. The French put too much faith in fixed defenses but, more importantly, they never realized that armor could be employed as a separate arm rather than as a support weapon. The Soviet Army, and its doctrine, were devastated by the purges. With the exception of tank design, they spent the entire war playing catch-up to the Germans. The American tank program never came close matching the Germans on the battlefield. The Sherman delivered victory through its numbers and its reliability, neither of which are as important in a wargame scenario as they are on the strategic level.

If you accurately model all this stuff, is the end result a satisfying game? It’s one thing to model fighting in hedgerows and streets, where the terrain itself kind of acts to balance all the units, but when the maps open up a bit and units can see for hundreds of meters… suddenly tanks start to look a little daunting.

It’s not that there aren’t countermeasures. Tanks are incredibly vulnerable to other tanks and antitank guns, for instance. But that’s a problem right there: once these units engage one another, the kills will happen very quickly. Especially since most anti-tank weapons were designed to blow through whatever armor was protecting the target.

Which means that all too often, either through mismanagement or bad luck, somebody ends up with the last armored units on the battlefield, and the other guy has nothing to do but hope his infantry can somehow ambush the damned things. If you have a 25 turn wargame scenario where you have to take an objective, and you have lost all your armor by turn 10 and your opponent still has a tank or two left, you are almost certainly screwed. The enemy tanks can just sit on the objective, and you have no choice but to march into their machine guns and cannon, hoping for a fluke.

Realistic? Probably. Once an armored assault loses its armor, there isn’t much assaulting that can still happen. But it makes for a lousy gameplay experience. If you’re playing a game that lets you select your units, then, it usually pays to stack up on the armor. If the game forces you to make do with whatever a scenario grants each side, then you inevitably end up with no-win situations.

My broader point is this: the lethality of units on the battlefield has increased exponentially since the end of the Age of Rifles, and greater lethality makes for worse gaming. Why have so few post-WW2 conflicts proved to be rich fodder for gaming? Because WW2 is the last war where units could meet one another on the battlefield and not immediately tear each other to pieces, and even toward the end of that war things are getting iffy. When you’ve got tanks firing shells that rarely miss and almost always penetrate the target, you’re dealing with the kind of one-hit kill situation that gamers hate in every genre. How important are maneuver and tactics when all that work can be undone by a tank or a gunner that sees you first?

The Decline of American Statesmanship

The first great book I’ve read this year is George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Despite being almost 1000 pages, Colony to Superpower provides a fast-paced yet thorough tour of American foreign policy since Independence that shows the areas where different policies form a coherent whole, and where foreign policy has undergone major discontinuities. By the end of it, I felt like I had been introduced to my own country.

Herring takes a decidedly unsentimental look at many the myths promulgated by the triumphalist tradition in American historiography, but he doesn’t descend into the bitterness and anger that mark A People’s History of the United States. If Herring is bothered by the injustice and ruthless self-interest that have often characterized American policy, he goes to pains to understand and explain how the principals perceived their own actions and how those unfair policies may have benefited the country. What does bother Herring is the self-satisfaction and forgetfulness that run rampant through the American narrative. The United States is a sometime villain and sometime hero, and usually something in between. Yet it insists on depicting itself as more principled and a greater force for good than any other nation.

This is not new information, but seeing the history of American foreign policy puts a sharp point on it. While the plight of the Native American tribes is well-documented and regretted, the United States has done a much poorer job coming to terms with its predations against Spain, its outright assault on Mexico while that country was in its infancy, and its constant meddling in Caribbean and Latin American affairs. The chapter on the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War was the saddest of any save the last. When you consider how often Americans take a snide and condescending attitude to our “backwards” and “corrupt” hemispheric neighbors, it’s horrifying that the U.S. has never really accepted responsibility for the corrupting and retarding influence it exerted on them.

However, the most profound shift in the book came with the end of WWII and the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Prior to Roosevelt’s death, U.S. foreign policy seemed mostly effective and level-headed. There were administrations who managed foreign affairs in a ham-handed and vicious manner, but the responsible caretakers of U.S. interests were quick to reassert themselves. They conducted themselves professionally abroad, and tended to have a high regard for the processes of diplomacy. The high-water mark seemed to come with Franklin Roosevelt, who did an admirable job of curbing U.S. adventurism within the hemisphere while coming to an early understanding of the threat posed by Hitler. As Herring himself points out, FDR may have used a lot of underhanded and deceptive tactics to bring the U.S. into the war against Germany prior to 1941, but Hitler’s Germany stands as an exceptional case if ever there was one.

The problem, Herring says, is that FDR’s successors used his methods for their own purposes, which were never as noble. Even worse, the country seemed to lose its sense of balance after his death. Herring demonstrates that there was a profound and abrupt reactionary tilt to American policy almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death. Although Roosevelt was as capable as anyone at acting decisively, he was also the sort of man to make decisions in a calm, pragmatic fashion. Truman and the foreign policy team that coalesced around him were not.

Whatever FDR would have done about the Soviet Union’s burgeoning imperialism in Eastern Europe, it probably would have been handled more gracefully than Truman’s instantaneous bellicosity. From the day he assumed the office, Truman took a hard, threatening line against the Soviets that only served to stoke their suspicions that the U.S. was an enemy. Furthermore, Truman’s doctrine of containment placed the United States squarely on the wrong side of history during the retreat of the colonial powers, serving to alienate beyond hope the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and most of Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, he demolished the role of the State Department by creating the National Security Council. American foreign policy, once the domain of diplomatic professionals, would be dominated from then on by a growing class of “defense intellectuals” and military officers.

It is also true that the Cold War bred a cycle of hysteria that afflicts the country to this day. The Republicans and Democrats routinely labeled one another as “soft” on communism, squelching any dissent regarding core assumptions of American policy and only disagreeing about how extreme the U.S. response should be. And so Kennedy took office already boxed in by the anti-Communist rhetoric he used to attack Richard Nixon, and Johnson would commit himself to Vietnam in order to guard his right flank during the 1964 election. Now, terrorism plays the part of communism in the national discourse, with the same effects on policy discussions.

One of the ultimate lessons of From Colony to Superpower, and one of its most troubling conclusions, is that the United States has not been able to debate security policy rationally since 1945. As its economic and military power have increased, the capability and sophistication of its foreign policy apparatus and its polity have diminished, to the point where the latter have begun to destroy the former.