John J. Pershing
John J. Pershing; drawing by David Levine

The mythology of militarism has had a long and impressively successful run. Ever since the days of Thucydides, wars and battles have been the historian’s traditional delight. Arma virumque cano… Every girl loves a soldier, and every historian has his favorite general. There they prance across the pages of history, the men on horseback in their shining armor, with their waving plumes and their fear-inspiring helmets, as resplendent as those triumphant, larger than life-size portrayals of Louis XIV’s victories which bedazzle us in the halls of the Louvre and the palace of Versailles! War, Treitschke taught us, is the final arbiter of the fate of nations. And it is to its generals that a nation instinctively turns for salvation in its hour of danger or despair, as France turned to Pétain in 1940. Every student knows that the real ruler of Germany after 1916 was Ludendorff; and in our own day we have seen the army step in to “save” the nation from its politicians in Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to name only the most conspicuous cases. It is a tradition with roots in a dim and distant past—and a tradition by no means dead. General LeMay may easily turn out to be a portent, not an anachronism.

The army as the guardian of the nation, the embodiment of its virtues, the defender of its existence: this is the myth, pervasive and persuasive. It is time that it was coolly and critically examined—not to debunk, but to see things as they are, to cut the splendid bedecked and beribboned figures down to life-size. They are not pygmies but they are not supermen, and in a changing world their chief distinguishing characteristic is that they change more slowly than the rest of us. A generation ago, when the greatness of the Great Powers was measured by the number of troops they could put in the field, God was still on the side of the big battalions. The arrival of the H-bomb has changed all this. The “boffin” and the scientist have displaced the strategist and the tactician, and generalship is at a discount. So far as fighting and winning wars is concerned as Vietnam has made only too plain conventional troops and conventional generals are about as effective in the age of the H-bomb as a box of toy soldiers. Which does not mean that the army does not have its uses.

In any case, generalship is an elusive and mysterious quality. As in duty bound, Field-Marshal Montgomery opens his long survey with a summary of the requirements of a good general. All one can say of his precepts is that, abstracted from the intangible quality of personality, they add up to a recipe for losing, just as much as for winning a war. George II’s comment about Wolfe—“Mad, is he? I wish to heavens he would bite some of my other generals!” and Frederick II’s remark about the two mules which had seen forty campaigns, but were still mules, are perhaps the first and last words on generalship. Montgomery, the man in the black beret, addressing his troops from the bonnet of a jeep, makes much of the virtues of personal contact. Wellington, as David Howarth points out, kept his distance. “If once you allow soldiers to express an opinion,” he said a few weeks after Waterloo, “they may on some other occasion hiss instead of cheer.” What is one general’s meat may be another general’s poison.

Nevertheless, just occasionally, as we traverse the history of war, we get a glimpse of what good generalship means. Contrast Wellington’s phlegm, for example—“I don’t like lying awake, it does no good. I make a point never to lie awake”—with the younger Moltke’s neurotic self-questioning. Or consider Marlborough’s forethought in ensuring that a supply of new boots would be awaiting his troops in Bavaria after they had marched halfway across Europe. But phlegm and boots do not add up to success, and there’s the rub. Sun Tzu, writing back in 500 B.C., perhaps put his finger on the only quality that matters in the end—“the quality of decision” which (he says) “is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon.” But who is to say, in advance of events, where courage and decision end and rashness and impetuosity begin? Nothing succeeds like success. Ney with his cuirassiers might have gained the day at Waterloo. He didn’t, and we are left with the question: why? “Why,” to quote Mr. Howarth, “did the French, who had been attacking all the afternoon, suddenly change in the course of ten minutes from an army into a rabble?” The answer, whatever else it may be, does not lie in generalship. At Waterloo, as Field-Marshal Montgomery comments, “it is a nice point as to who made the worst errors—Wellington or Napoleon.”


Field-Marshal Montgomery is too experienced a soldier to minimize the part played by luck—or Providence, as he sometimes calls it—in battle. It was providence that enabled Scipio to defeat Hannibal at Zama in 202 B.C., luck that gave William the victory at Hastings in 1066 A.D., “pure luck” that decided the crucial battle of the Marne in 1914. Historians, as is their wont, have tried to look further. In an age of technology, the machine is king; and the history of warfare—even of primitive warfare—has become the history of technical innovation. It was iron which, by altering the balance of forces on the battlefield, toppled the great empires of the Middle East between 1200 and 1000 B.C.; it was the horseshoe and the stirrup, and less directly the cultivation of alfalfa, permitting the breeding of heavy chargers, which changed the character of warfare, establishing the thousand-year preponderance of cavalry over infantry, which was only shattered at Courtrai in 1302 and Morgarten in 1315. Field-Marshal Montgomery (or perhaps the two young historians who helped him with his book) pays more than passing obeisance to this new trend of military history. Interspersed though it is with plans of campaigns, his book is really the story of the way science and technology, to say nothing of “logistical capacity,” “began to catch up with political imagination.”

For all these reasons, old-fashioned military history in the spirit of Jomini and other classical theoreticians—the painstaking examination of campaigns and battles to find out who made mistakes and why—is on the way out. This is what Engels once described as “sword-bearing scholasticism,” and one reason it is under a cloud—though those who write military history may not all realize it—is the influence of Engels himself and Marx. Today historians are concerned with war as a social and psychological phenomenon. The basic reason is the sterility of the old approach. In practice wars never go according to the rules of strategy. “Critical analysis,” as David Howarth says, may have “an intellectual interest of its own,” like a game of chess; but “it is not the essence of a battle,” and when “armchair critics” pick holes in Ney’s generalship at Waterloo, they forget all too easily that he had five horses shot under him during the afternoon. Wars, it used to be thought, are decided by generals on the battle-field. Few serious historians today would espouse that view. Rather they would agree with Mr. DeWeerd’s verdict on World War I—“it was the big battalions and the productive factories that triumphed.”

This shift in emphasis is evident, in one degree or another, in all the books under review. David Howarth, like Edward M. Coffman, is interested above all in the reactions and relationships of the men who fought, and in the human experience of the thousands and millions caught in the “war machine.” His is a moving book, which in Mr. Howarth’s own words, illuminates “the mystery of military life.” Martin Kitchen’s able study of an army in peacetime throws light on the perennial problem of its relations with the civil power and the civilian population. Harvey DeWeerd and Gordon Wright, on the other hand, are concerned mainly with the impact of total war on the belligerent nations, with industrial mobilization and the home front.

Mr. DeWeerd, it is true, writing in a series entitled “The Wars of the United States,” devotes considerable space—for some tastes perhaps disproportionate space—to strategy and tactics and the deployment of units. But since American troops were engaged in large-scale military operations in World War I only for two months, from September 12 to November 11, 1918—and this after the decisive German setback on August 8—the burden of his story lies rather in his account of the way the United States, starting from “almost complete unpreparedness,” was able to mobilize 4,800,000 men in little more than eighteen months.

For Professor Wright, on the other hand, the significance of the Second World War lies less in its military than in its economic, psychological, and scientific dimensions. “Mass warfare in the industrial age,” he says, “possesses its own powerful impetus, twisting and distorting the political and social institutions of the peoples caught up in the whirlwind.” To the best of my knowledge, Professor Wright’s book is the first attempt to explore this theme comprehensively, with an unusual command of Russian as well as western and German sources. It is a distinguished achievement which conveys a convincing picture of what total war means, or rather what it meant before the H-bomb added a new dimension.

This, we all know, is the century of total war, and anyone not familiar with the process by which war became total will find Field-Marshal Montgomery’s book a reliable guide. It is a long story which carries us back to the familiar turning point in the French Revolution, with its attendant doctrine of “the nation in arms,” and beyond that to the seventeenth century, when “the demands of finance, recruitment and equipment forced governments to interfere increasingly in the lives of their subjects.” We do not need to follow the story, from its beginnings in the days of Gustavus Adolfus of Sweden, “the founder of modern military organization,” to the present. What concerns us rather are its implications; and these are paradoxical, ambivalent, and discomforting. The paradox, put simply, is this: the more mechanized and technical war became, the louder the cry that its conduct must be left to the “experts”; but the more control was left to the experts, the more clearly it emerged that they were unfitted, by training and by temperament, for the ordeal of total war. Perhaps this was only a particular application of Emerson’s prophetic warning: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” But when the things are hardware of the caliber of H-bombs, it is time to stop and ask some pertinent questions.


World War I was the heyday of the experts. It was as an expert that the German Chief of Staff, von Moltke, set the war machine in motion when, overriding the Kaiser, he insisted that any delay or hesitation would dislocate the military timetable. When the United States entered the war in 1917, President Wilson immediately announced his intention “to follow experts in a war of experts.” But who were the experts? Of Pershing, the kindest (or at least the most diplomatic) thing to say is that (in Mr. DeWeerd’s words) he “advanced no important novel strategical or tactical ideas.” Unfortunately the reality is a good deal grimmer. Unwilling or unable to profit from French and British experience, Pershing clung to the discredited doctrine of open warfare, with massed infantry attacks flanked by “the stalking stealthy rifleman,” which was responsible for the appallingly high American casualty rate. He was applying, a little belatedly, the lessons of Gettysburg and Antietam Creek, oblivious to the fact that German machine guns had made those lessons out of date. It is a sobering thought to discover that in the final phase of the American offensive in November 1918 no more than eighteen tanks were available, and that American industry, which produced vast surpluses of useless equipment, built only seventy-nine tanks (according to Mr. Coffman’s figures) during the whole war. It is easy enough to blame the War Department in Washington for this. But it was for the commander in the field to define his priorities, and Pershing’s fluctuated so frequently that logistical planning almost inevitably assumed “an Alice-in-Wonderland aura.”

Pershing was, of course, neither worse nor better than his counterparts on the British and French side, but this, far from mitigating, only underscores the dilemma. The generals, as Churchill wrote, were “content to fight machine-gun bullets with the breasts of gallant men, and think that that was waging war.” Characteristically, it was not the “experts” but a Warsaw banker, I.S. Bloch, who was first to foresee the nature of total war. But Bloch’s warnings were ignored because he was not a professional soldier.

Characteristically again, the only commander in World War I who immediately perceived the revolutionary implications of tank warfare was Sir John Monash, an amateur soldier (by profession an engineer) and, worse still, a Jew. Neither fact is accidental. The army, as Mr. DeWeerd diplomatically says, is “a profession not distinguished for thinking,” and closer acquaintance with the generals only reveals their “naked and tragic mediocrity.” Sometimes, alas, it reveals worse. Pershing himself seems to have spent as much effort on his war within a war with March, the Chief of Staff in Washington, as on fighting the Germans, and his disagreements with Haig and Foch, at the height of the German 1918 offensive, are notorious. Pershing’s determination to create an independent American expeditionary force at all costs, even at the cost of an allied defeat, has won the endorsement of Mr. DeWeerd and most other American military historians. But the fact remains that he was deliberately subordinating military to political ends, and that if, as a result of Pershing’s attitude, the Germans had succeeded in breaking through the Anglo-French front—as many thought they would—his plans for a large independent American army would have been (in Mr. Coffman’s words) “tragically pointless.” The critic who wrote of the generals: “They no longer live for the nation; the nation lives, or rather dies, for them,” was much less cynical than he sounds.

Certainly, the First World War was neither won nor lost by generalship. Rather, in the words of the British official historian, “the result was attrition pure and simple”—an achievement which required scarcely more than the intellect and imagination of Frederick II’s two mules. Nor, for all its panoply of science, was World War II greatly different. Hitler, Gordon Wright reports, once asserted that “modern warfare is above all economic warfare, and the demands of economic warfare must be given priority.” But he singularly failed to live up to his precept. Few aspects of World War II are more remarkable than the reluctance of the Nazis to go over to an economy of total war. In Germany, I once wrote, the years 1939-42 were the years the locusts consumed, and Professor Wright’s account fully confirms my judgment. From 1940 to 1942, for example, British production of tanks, aircraft, and self-propelled guns surpassed that of Germany. The situation in regard to science was much the same. The German general staff clung to the belief that the war could be won by orthodox means, and no attempt was made until too late to organize German talent and resources for anything but ad hoc scientific projects of a short-term sort. In 1940 the general staff ordered the suspension of any program of scientific research that would not produce tangible results within four months, and scientists were drafted into regular units for the impending invasion of Britain. “One reason,” a historian has said, “why Hitler failed is that he was out of date.”

This failure was due also to the character of the German officer corps, which Mr. Kitchen has analyzed. The military, with their special place in German society, tended to look down on the scientists as subordinate technicians, and to neglect their advice. Perhaps this was a consequence of the belief, which the German officer corps cultivated, that what matters in war is character, not brains; perhaps it was due, as Professor Wright suggests, to “the neo-romantic flavor of Nazi doctrine,” its preference for the “subjectively heroic” over the “coldly analytical.” Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that the Germans failed badly in this respect by comparison with their opponents. But in Britain also, soldiers complained that “wars are won with weapons, not with slide rules,” and one officer told Sir Henry Tizard that “he could hardly walk in any direction in this war without tumbling over a scientist who had got in his way.”

No one questions the impact of science and technology on World War II, but we may certainly ask how competent the generals and politicians were in handling the new weapons and techniques. In retrospect, the great strategic bombing offensive, on which the allies pinned their hopes, appears to have been a colossal misdirection of effort. According to Sir Henry Tizard, it hurt Britain more than it hurt Germany, and prolonged rather than shortened the war. Just the same, it was revived, with the same fallacious promises of speedy victory, in Vietnam. Why? Partly, no doubt, because the generals, like Pershing before them, could not learn that conditions had changed (a failure Lord Montgomery describes as the surest “way to disaster”), partly because they did not want to learn. What, after all, would happen to their commands if they did, and to the power and prestige their commands gave them? In this respect, at least, things have not greatly changed since Air Marshal Harris fought with stubborn determination to prove that the Royal Air Force could win the war single-handed and therefore demanded every possible priority for Bomber Command.

And yet, as Gordon Wright points out, the one indisputable result of World War II is that there will never again be another war like World War II. “Lesser” wars, no doubt, there will be, fought with “conventional” weapons, like the war in Vietnam, but always under the shadow of the H-bomb and with the threat of escalation inhibiting the exploitation of conventional weapons and frustrating conventional strategy. What, in these circumstances, is the use of the generals’ vaunted expertise? More than ten years ago Khrushchev predicted, correctly, the demise of the strategic bomber, too vulnerable to rocket attack. The battleship, also, and the aircraft carrier are weapons of the past, so far as nuclear war is concerned. And what are ground forces—the “poor bloody infantry” of World War I—but sitting targets for atomic annihilation? In the thermonuclear age wars are won with slide rules; and with the emergence of the slide rule as arbiter, the military hierarchy in all its gradations has become a vast and expensive anachronism. Lord Montgomery’s concluding pages are the best evidence that generals and generalship have nothing beyond platitudes and pious hopes to contribute to the problems of warfare in the nuclear age. “The art of war,” Field-Marshal Montgomery maintains, “is fundamentally the same today as it was in the days of ancient Greece.” It is a comforting doctrine, justifying the status and privileges of the military in society; but it happens not to be true.

But war is not, and perhaps war never was, the primary purpose of armies. As Lord Montgomery somewhere observes, generals rarely have “the opportunity of practice.” Unfortunately, as the example of Latin America shows, this is no inhibition on militarism. The army may, if need be, provide defense against the foe without; but its daily bread, in the long intervals between fighting, is to maintain the social order within. From 1815 to 1848 and from 1871 to 1914 few armies saw active service; but they justified their existence (as Waldersee, the German Chief of Staff, once ingenuously remarked) by their availability to “shoot down revolutionaries.”

The German officer corps, Mr. Kitchen truly observes, “was as determined to fight the enemy within the Reich as it was to assert Germany’s position in the world.” If he had gone further and written “even more determined,” he would hardly have been wrong. It is, after all, common knowledge that Hindenburg and Groener withdrew their troops in good order from the western front in 1918 in order to have a force to cow the Left and slaughter Spartacists. It is easy to say that German militarism was abnormal, that such things can’t happen here. Perhaps it was abnormal; but with the battle of Chicago fresh in our minds, we had better consider just how abnormal it was. In 1940, after all, much the same thing happened in France. There also Pétain and Weygand, raising the bogey of a communist coup in Paris, compelled the government to sue for peace while they still had troops to quell the “social menace.” Even in democratic England, was there not the famous occasion when General Paget asked rhetorically whether anyone really expected the army to “obey the orders of those dirty swine of politicians”?

It is a cherished dogma of liberal political theory that the armed forces are the “military arm” of the government. I am not sure how easy it would be to substantiate this view historically. In most parts of the world and for most periods of the world’s history, it might be truer to say that the government was “the civilian arm” of the military. Exercitus facit imperatorem. Have we not all learned how the armies of Rome left the frontiers of the empire undefended while they fought to set up emperors who would safeguard their interests and do their will? No sensible person would suggest that we have reached this stage, or anything like it, in this country. But it is also true that the army has its own ideas of what is right and proper and worth defending, and that these ideas have become stronger the more warfare has become charged with ideological motives. Mr. Coffman, for example, shows how American officers in France in 1917 and 1918 were almost as preoccupied with holding Negroes down as they were with fighting Germans, just as the foremost motivation of the German officer corps—even if it meant accepting a limitation on the size of the army—was to keep Jews and Social Democrats out. The French were officially told that “indulgence and familiarity” to Negroes were “matters of grievous concern”; the “cardinal fear of white Americans,” in Mr. Coffman’s words, “was of Negro soldiers associating with French women.” As one Negro officer pertinently remarked, “many of the field officers seemed far more concerned with reminding their Negro subordinates that they were Negroes than they were with having an effective unit that would perform well in combat” against the Germans.

What we have learned from the new sociological approach to military history, of which Mr. Kitchen’s book is a characteristic example, is that we cannot dissociate the mythology of militarism from its social implications. The priority traditionally given to national defense has resulted in the creation of a privileged military establishment, concerned to maintain its own status, impose its own ethos, and defend its own vested interests. It is almost necessarily a highly conservative class, by training, background, and conviction, and one of its main objects in a rapidly changing society is to hold up change. If it were really necessary for the purposes of defense, this is a price we might well feel compelled to pay. Perhaps it was a price we had to pay, so long as war was mainly a question of the deployment of mass armies, requiring the expert training of a professional officer corps. Even then, it is surprising how often, after the “experts” had failed, salvation came from the inspired amateur—witness the famous day in 1917, after the admirals had confessed they had no answer to the German submarine menace, when Lloyd George compelled them, protesting and resisting, to adopt the convoy system. War is too serious a matter to be left to generals—or to admirals either: today more than ever. For today, the H-bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile, sweeping aside the old rules of warfare, have rendered their expertise obsolete and their position in society supererogatory. The mythology of militarism is not only a luxury we cannot afford; it is also a luxury we no longer have to afford.

This Issue

December 19, 1968