A comparison between Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler as national leaders may seem a pointless and even tasteless enterprise, but it yields at least one common characteristic: a stubborn faith in the transforming power of military innovation. Ronald Reagan’s belief that SDI, if properly funded, will produce a space shield that will make the United States invulnerable to nuclear attack seems as strong at the end of his presidency as it was when he first announced it. Hitler’s trust in the power of new and secret devices to reverse his fortunes is well known, and John Keegan tells us that on February 13, 1945, only six weeks before his suicide, he told a visiting doctor, “In no time at all I’m going to start using my victory weapons, and then the war will come to a glorious end.”
Hitler’s wonder weapons never arrived, and SDI may not materialize either, at least in the form that Reagan has imagined it, but the belief that the military balance can be profoundly altered by innovation is, as history tells us, by no means fanciful, although before Hiroshima the changes that it wrought were apt to be gradual and cumulative rather than immediately decisive. The military revolution that enabled Prince Cheng of Ch’in in the years between 246 and 221 BC to destroy six powerful enemies and establish an order that endured substantially for two millennia was the result of that ruler’s skillful exploitation of changes in weaponry, tactics, and logistics that had been evolving during the constant warfare of the previous two centuries. Similarly, the military revolution that enabled Europe to conquer 35 percent of the earth’s surface by the year 1800 was the result, as Geoffrey Parker tells us in his new book, of events set in train when the stalemate between offensive and defensive military capacities that had prevailed at the end of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance was terminated by the invention of powerful new siege guns at the end of the fifteenth century.
Francesco Guicciardini once wrote:
Before the year 1494, wars were protracted, battles bloodless, the methods followed in besieging towns slow and uncertain; and, although artillery was already in use, it was managed with such a lack of skill that it caused little hurt. Hence it came about that the ruler of a state could hardly be dispossessed.
All of this changed in 1494, when Charles VIII of France swept into Italy with an army of 18,000 men and a siege train of at least forty guns, with which he proceeded to batter towns once considered impregnable into submission. “The balls flew so quick,” Guicciardini wrote, “and were impelled with such force, that as much execution was done in a few hours as formerly, in Italy, in the like number of days.”
The reaction of the other principal states to the French success was immediate, and there was a general rush to acquire firearms. But by the operation of that perennial tension between the offensive and the defensive from which, Parker reminds us, strategy and innovation spring, the challenge of firepower was soon answered by improvements in military architecture that diminished, if they did not nullify, the advantages gained by the new siege guns. The defensive system that came to be known as the trace italienne involved the building of geometrically designed fortifications with angled bastions set at intervals to catch the enemy’s infantry in enfilading fire, and moats to keep his artillery at a distance, and casements and ravelins to protect the moats—the result being ingenious but so complicated that readers of Sterne will remember its having permanently bufuddled Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby, who, whenever he tried to tell of his adventures during the siege of Namur, became hopelessly entangled in “the differences and distinctions between the scarp and counterscarp, the glacis and the covered way, the half-moon and the ravelins.”
Since such fortifications were massive in themselves (the town of Antwerp had a seven kilometer enceinte with nine bastions and five monumental gates) and had to be defended by sizable garrisons of trained troops, and since states had also to maintain field armies, both the size and the costs of military establishments increased dramatically. In its time Charles VIII’s army of 18,000 had seemed a formidable force, but by the 1630s the leading states of Europe were maintaining armies in excess of 150,000, and at the end of the seventeenth century there were almost 400,000 French soldiers. The arms race, for that is what it amounted to, created financial problems for all participants, most of all for states that were unpopular abroad and without allies, and hence incapable of supporting their wars by foreign loans. Thus Louis XIV’s France, Peter I’s Russia, and the Cromwellian Republic in England appear to have devoted respectively 75 percent, 85 percent, and 90 percent of their revenues to war and the maintenance of military establishments. This raised the stakes sufficiently to induce the leading powers to extend their enmities beyond Europe’s proper limits, first in the form of naval encounters in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean, and then, as they sought allies or economic advantage, to other continents. Here the results of the revolution in land and sea warfare manifested themselves in the clear superiority of their military methods over those of native tribes and kingdoms and led to their gradual mastery over the Americas, Indonesia, and large tracts of Africa and India before the end of the eighteenth century.
The Military Revolution is a work of superb scholarship, as one would expect from the author of The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, and its 154 pages of text are accompanied by 59 pages of notes and a useful bibliographical guide. The general reader should not, however, allow himself to be daunted by this apparatus criticus, for Parker has written a brisk and engaging account that illuminates virtually every aspect of warfare in this watershed period. He shows, for example, that the composition of armies was so heterogeneous that in one Bavarian regiment in 1644 there were soldiers from sixteen different countries, including fourteen Turks. In his account of how private contractors and entrepreneurs supplied troops in the field, he makes clear the crucial importance of provisioning, which led one observer to say that it was a regular supply of Cheshire cheese and biscuit that enabled General Monck to pacify Scotland in 1654. He reveals the tactical problems of a time when firepower was increasingly dominant, radically altering the ratio between cavalry and infantry in all armies, but when the deadly Highland Charge was still capable of overwhelming troops who were supplied with all the tools of the military revolution, as it did, for example, at Tippermuir and Prestonpans and, for the last time, on the Plains of Abraham.
Parker also tells of failed experiments—like the so-called leather gun, a thin metal barrel bound with rope and encased in tough hides that was invented in Zurich in 1622 and widely adopted, which possessed great mobility but an unfortunate propensity for blowing up after the third round—and successful ones, like the epochal Dutch introduction of the technique of volley fire in 1594. Nor does he neglect the development of techniques to improve the efficiency and discipline of troops under fire, like Maurice of Saxony’s encouragement of the principle of arming forces with weapons of the same size and caliber and his brother John’s role in promoting organized drill.
In his substantial chapter on the course of the military revolution at sea, Parker includes not only an engrossing treatment of the relationship between weaponry and the evolution of the fighting ship from the galley to the frigate but incisive analyses of the factors that determined the outcome of the Battle of Lepanto and the defeat of the Spanish Armada and a description of the development—in the first instance by the Dutch but later, more effectively, by Cromwell’s Republic—of a high seas fleet capable of operating at long range for long periods of time.
Equally impressive, and fascinating in its details, is his account of how their military revolution carried the Europeans to other continents and was the key to their success there—partly, he tells us, because peoples like the Aztecs and the Incas learned, to their dismay, that the white men “fought dirty and (what was worse) fought to kill,” and partly because more formidable opponents in the Muslim lands and India, while possessing firearms and a knowledge of siege warfare, were handicapped in various ways when it came to combat with their new antagonists. Thus the Ottoman army, which was quick to adopt Western military technology, seems always to have suffered from a tendency to prefer huge and unwieldy artillery, whereas the Western armies were more intent upon increasing the number and mobility of their guns. When conducting sieges, the Ottomans also neglected to build siege-works to protect their army against attempts at relief, a mistake that cost them dearly at Vienna in 1683, and in general they suffered from metallurgical inferiority, so that their guns were brittle and unsafe, as was demonstrated at Lepanto. Indian armies had the same deficiencies and also, because they were always aggregations of individual warriors rather than of articulated fighting units, were at a disadvantage, even when in superior numbers, when opposed by European armies that had profited from the tactical innovations of the military revolution.
The changes that took place in warfare between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were so extensive that many of those who benefited from them were inclined to believe that nothing was to be gained from the study of the past, and Parker quotes Sir Roger Williams as writing in 1590 that Alexander, Caesar, Scipio, and Hannibal were doubtless “the worthiest and famoust warriors that ever were” but that their example had little relevance to the modern age. This was an opinion that disregarded the fact that war in general changes with greater pace and intensity than the technique and ethos of command, a point that John Keegan makes in justification of his decision, in studying the latter, to compare the Duke of Wellington, who in his early career was one of those who carried to India the innovations that Geoffrey Parker has described, with Alexander the Great, and both of them, in turn, with Ulysses S. Grant and Adolf Hitler, who lived in times affected by other military revolutions.
All four men, in Keegan’s view, represent types of heroic leadership, “aggressive, invasive, exemplary, risk-taking.” All of them, because of their ambitions or their responsibilities, had to test themselves, he writes in a fine sentence, “on the open field, when armies clash face to face in the grip of those terrible unities of time, place and action,” and to prove their “powers of anticipation, flexibility, quick-thinking, patience, spatial perception, thrift and prodigality of resources, physical courage, and moral strength.” And all four were compelled also to sustain their followers’ faith in their heroism, by letting them know of themselves what they needed to know for that purpose and concealing what they did not need to know and should not have known behind the mask of command.
Most of Keegan’s book is given over to thorough and perceptive analyses of the personality and achievement, the combat technique and use of staff, and the style of leadership of his four protagonists, each chapter providing striking descriptions of them at critical moments in their careers: Alexander at Gaugamela in 331 BC, the battle that destroyed the Persian Empire of Darius, Wellington at Waterloo, Grant at Shiloh, Hitler discussing the crisis of Stalingrad with Zeitzler, the army chief of staff, and Jodl, the operations chief of the OKW, at his headquarters at Rastenburg in December 1942.
These chapters reveal some surprising similarities and contrasts, of which not the least striking is the affinity between Alexander, whom Keegan regards as the closest approximation of the heroic ideal, and Hitler, whom he sees as a classic example of the false-heroic style of leadership. The two leaders resembled each other not only in the overvaulting nature of their ambitions, which, because they combined in their persons both supreme military and supreme political power, were subject to no external control, but also in the essential meaninglessness of their achievements. What Keegan says of Alexander applies equally to the German Führer: “He destroyed much and created little or nothing.” Both men were intensely self-centered, a fact adequately illustrated by the nature of their staffs, which were really no staffs at all, but in Alexander’s case gatherings of companions for the sake of storytelling, demonstrations of agility and strength, music-making, and drinking, and, in Hitler’s, captive audiences for the Führer’s endless monologues about subjects remote from the business at hand.
In military matters, there was little to choose between them in courage, Hitler having proved himself a brave soldier in the First World War and, except for two notable crises de nerfs in 1940, being generally decisive, unfaltering, and willing to take great risks until almost the end, and Alexander bearing the evidence of his personal courage on his body, for, as he said once in a speech to his army, he had been struck by almost every weapon available to an enemy—sword, lance, dart, arrow, and catapult missile—several times grievously and once, during the siege of Multan in India in 325 BC, almost fatally, when an arrow penetrated his breastplate and entered his lung.
It is more difficult to compare them with respect to the higher arts of war. Both clearly possessed undeniable strategical gifts, as Hitler demonstrated in the campaigns of 1940 and as Alexander showed in his decision after the battle of the Granicus to deal with the Persian Mediterranean fleet not by naval battle but by destroying its coastal bases, a decision that Keegan compares with MacArthur’s scheme at the beginning of the war in the South Pacific to outflank Japan’s naval advantage by seizing stepping stones to the north and leaving the other Japanese bases to wither on the vine. Hitler also had an instinct for modernity and innovation, in weaponry and tactics. On the other hand, Alexander seems to have been more prudent in the management of his human resources, a sphere in which Manstein found Hitler most deficient, and to have possessed greater psychological understanding of the enemy. Keegan points out that Alexander’s command technique had two elements:
first, the belief that the enemy would, if the signs were read aright, betray where he most feared attack, thereby signalling a psychological vulnerability that was more important than any imagined physical frailty; second, the determination to place himself at the head of the culminating attack at that point.
Hitler’s judgment in such matters was not so sure, and he often assumed weaknesses where none existed.
Perhaps their greatest similarity was their theatricality, which was the most important component of their respective masks of command. In Alexander’s case this was manifested in his conspicuous battlefield dress (a burnished helmet with snowy white plumes, an iron gorget set with fine jewels, a magnificent cloak covering his quilted body armor, and, for the moment of assault, the horse Bucephalus), as well as in his prebattle oratory, in his frequent staging of games and spectacles and coups de theatre, like the cutting of the Gordian knot, and in the careful observance of ritual and magic—the daily sacrifice to the gods, the visit to the shrine of the God Ammon at Siwah, the sedulous effort to identify himself with the hero Hercules—which, in the eyes of his credulous soldiery, surrounded him with a nimbus of divinity.
Hitler’s theatrical gifts are well known, and, during the Second World War, when he could not provide the kind of exemplary leadership that was Alexander’s hallmark but lived in remote headquarters, isolated from danger, they became essential to the maintenance of his authority. Always a superb propagandist, the Führer used propaganda now to persuade his soldiers that he was one of them, invoking his title to heroic leadership by recalling his travail and his wounds in the trenches in 1914–1918, describing how, although only “a simple German soldier,” he had succeeded by fanatical will in uniting the nation and freeing it from the shackles of the Versailles Treaty, and claiming that he and they were now engaged in the same fight and exposed to the same dangers as they waged war for the greatness of their people. “Shameless though Hitler’s manipulation of the heroic value system was,” Keegan writes, “its effectiveness was borne out by results. The German army of 1945, unlike that of 1918, fought unquestioningly to the end.”
Such gifts of theatricality were viewed with contempt by Wellington and with indifference by Grant. The duke, the “antihero” in Keegan’s classification, despised his great antagonist Napoleon for his false heroics and his “harangues” to his soldiers and regarded his appearing in their midst and calling individual soldiers by name as nothing more than contrived trickery. Wellington never made speeches to his troops and rarely spoke to them at all, unless to issue commands, which were always the reverse of grandiloquent, being cast in single words or phrases. In contrast to Alexander, who was a king, and Napoleon, who, he once said, never got over the “narrowness of his early prospects,” Wellington was a gentleman, perhaps the most perfect embodiment of the gentlemanly ideal, Keegan says, with its values of “reticence, sensitivity, unself-seeking, personal discipline and sobriety in dress, conduct and speech, all married to total self-assurance.”
It is interesting to speculate about what Wellington would have thought of Grant, who was not a gentleman and certainly did not look like one, with his whiskers and slouch hat, his rough, and not overly clean, private’s coat, his battered boots, and the cloud of cigar smoke that surrounded him. He would probably, at the very least, have approved of the American general’s taciturnity, which was even greater than his own, his dislike of ostentation, and his refusal to make speeches of any kind. In neither, it may be noted, did this lack of theatricality weaken their authority in any way. As Wellington rode through the maelstrom of battle, an excited whisper of “Here he comes!” preceded him, and Keegan writes of Grant that he was greeted by a democratic soldiery with “familiar reverence.”
In battle, Wellington accepted risks almost as great as Alexander’s. He led no charges against enemy lines, but he was always on the field, well within the range of enemy fire, constantly riding from point to point, studying the enemy dispositions, dispatching written orders to his own units as they changed, ceaselessly looking for an advantage and seizing it without delay when it appeared. He supervised all aspects of the battle, for he was not disposed to the delegation of power, and his armies were always small enough and his front short enough to make his technique of command an effective one. Grant’s “unheroic leadership” (in Keegan’s phrase) was based on the knowledge that war had changed in fundamental ways since Wellington’s day and that the business of commanding generals was not to allow themselves to be shot at (Grant was careful, whenever possible, to stay out of the zone of fire) but to learn the skills and devise and apply the techniques that would direct the movement of large armies on the widening fronts and the expanding theaters of modern battle.
Grant’s great gifts were an almost intuitive understanding of topography (maps, one of his staff officers said, seemed to become indelibly printed on his brain), appropriate delegation of authority to subordinate commanders by means of precisely written directives, the employment of the telegraph for the collection and dissemination of information, and the skillful use of rivers and railroads to enhance strategical mobility. In addition, although he hated the shedding of blood, he was, in contrast to some of the political generals with whom Abraham Lincoln was burdened, a fighter, and one who believed in carrying the fight to the enemy. His most original contribution to the winning of the Civil War was his demonstration that an army could fight successfully without a base by living off the enemy, a daring conception that violated the maxims of the textbooks.
In an interesting concluding chapter, Keegan points out that heroic leadership has lost all meaning in our time, and that
an inactive leader, one who does nothing, sets no striking example, says nothing stirring, rewards no more than he punishes, insists above all in being different from the mass in his modesty, prudence and rationality…is the sort of leader the nuclear world needs, even if it does not know that it wants him.
But the shadow of conflict still hangs over the world, and even the kind of leader whom Keegan describes here might be called upon to make decisions of frightening import. If that happened, the postheroic leader would find himself confronted with the problem of acquiring the particular knowledge about the enemy’s strength, whereabouts, capabilities, and intentions that a rational decision requires.
This was difficult enough in Grant’s time. By Hitler’s, industrial technologies had increased the volume of intelligence beyond the ability of any single leader to digest it. And this situation is much more frightening today, when the speed with which even a government supplied with the best staffs in the world can collate and digest information and decide how to act upon it tends to be overborne in time of crisis by the constantly quickening velocity of events and the speed of computerized responses to them in the form of military alerts and dispositions. Even the most determined nonheroic leadership would be capable, therefore, of making decisions pregnant with disaster unless a way were found to decelerate the velocities of events and automatic response that force leadership toward ill-considered action. It is this that leads Keegan in his final pages to describe Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative as a potentially effective decelerating agency, “an enormously hope-giving initiative, if it is seen, as it properly should be, as a mechanism to procure not total defense but relative delay.” But SDI seems somewhat less hope-giving when Keegan spells out his meaning. He is no believer in its ever being able to function as a missileproof astrodome, and all he is really saying is that, if nuclear war comes, the presence of SDI mechanisms on both sides might screen out enough missiles to leave time for rational calculation and reconsideration on the part of the antagonists and, perhaps, termination of hostilities short of mutual destruction. It takes a very determined optimist to find much comfort in that prospect.
If Keegan’s book sounds at times like a series of variations on Clausewitz’s famous chapter “On Military Genius,” Edward N. Luttwak’s Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace is clearly influenced by the same author’s chapter “Friction in War.” “Everything in war is very simple,” the German theorist wrote, “but the simplest thing is difficult.” This is an example of what W.S. Gilbert, in The Pirates of Penzance, called a most ingenious paradox, and paradox is the key that Luttwak uses to unlock the secrets of modern strategy. “The large claim I advance here,” he writes in his introduction, “is that strategy does not merely entail this or that paradoxical proposition, contradictory and yet recognized as valid, but rather that the entire realm of strategy is pervaded by a paradoxical logic of its own, standing against the ordinary linear logic by which we live in all other spheres of life.”
Conflict between nations is, on this view, the realm of antithesis and contradiction, in which a course of action cannot persist indefinitely without changing into its opposite and in which opposites join and sometimes change places. There are culminating points in the triumphant careers of victorious armies, beyond which their difficulties begin to nullify their achievements (the Korean War supplies several examples of this); and there are defensive actions that, persisted in unwisely, perhaps from considerations of national morale, are successful at the cost of future failures (as was true of Verdun). What Robert Burns said of the best laid schemes of mice and men is perfectly exemplified in time of war, when offensive actions confound the logic of their planners by releasing unexpected energies in the enemy and producing results like those of the Allied bombing offensive against Germany in the Second World War, which, Luttwak writes, ended with “a totally unforeseen, unexpected, and inevitably paradoxical correlation between the tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany and the volume of German war production.”
In military strategy, as Winston Churchill once said, “all things are always on the move simultaneously,” and one must learn to anticipate the unexpected reaction or rejoinder, particularly in the nuclear age, when so much is at stake. With reference to the ongoing debate about the feasibility of defending Western Europe with high-tech nonnuclear weapons, Luttwak explains the necessity of such prevision by writing:
If the strength of Alliance nonnuclear forces is increased beyond the culminating point of a defense that can stop intrusions and a less than all-out offensive, the result would be to weaken dissuasion, by undercutting the credibility of battlefield nuclear use.
Moreover, if nonnuclear forces are increased to much higher levels in order to make the use of nuclear weapons unnecessary, this would not avoid nuclear warfare but merely encourage the other side to resort to it in the case of hostilities.
A good part of Luttwak’s book is given over to a discussion of the various dimensions of a nation’s war effort, which he sees as taking place on different levels. The “technical” level concerns the interplay of specific weapons and counter-weapons; and there are, so far as the scope of the fighting is concerned, the “tactical,” “operational,” and “theater” levels. They all interact with one another and, on the level of grand strategy, with the political and material aspects of the general conflict. Here again we are in the kingdom of paradox. It does not follow, for example, that innovation, whether in the form of technical fertility or operational virtuosity, necessarily enhances the chances of victory in war. It is true that the introduction of the bayonet in the French army in the seventeenth century, which increased firepower by allowing units to dispense with pikemen, had positive results at every level of war, largely because it necessitated no changes in tactics, operational methods, theater strategies, or prior regimental organization.
More often than not, however, innovation at one level encounters interference, or effects disruption, at the next. In the Franco-Prussian War, the mitrailleuse, which might have made the difference between defeat and victory, was prevented from doing so because it had been accepted without field exercises and tactical debate and was consequently used not as a machine gun but as a field piece in artillery reserve and had no perceptible effect on the war’s outcome. Similarly, during the war in North Africa, Erwin Rommel’s brilliant successes at the operational level contributed more, because of the reaction they provoked from the Allies, to the ultimate success of Allied grand strategy than they did to Germany’s, to which they were, indeed, largely irrelevant, if not harmful because of their drain on resources from more crucial theaters.
Even when harmony reigns among all levels of a nation’s war effort, it may be offset by political error at the level of grand strategy. Hitler’s initial triumphs in the Second World War, which were derived from systematic preparations for war and the superior competence of his armies, came to nothing because of his diplomatic maladroitness and his fatal decision to declare war upon the United States. In contrast, the North Vietnamese won their war by realizing instinctively that the longer the conflict lasted, the more consistently would American operational successes tend to become self-defeating and the greater would their own chances be, provided they could maintain an adequate degree of competence at the tactical and operational levels, of wearing down the American will to continue the fight by diplomacy and propaganda.
All of this is interesting enough but hardly seems to justify Luttwak’s statement, at the end of this provocative essay, that
the frequent appeals heard in public life for a “coherent” or “consistent” national strategy are not merely vacuous but actually misleading. They suggest that the policies of each department should be tightly coordinated into a national policy that is logical in commonsense terms, whereas in strategy only policies that are seemingly contradictory can circumvent the self-defeating effect of the paradoxical logic.
It seems more likely that such appeals are really suggesting that it might be a good idea to return to what John Keegan called a leadership of prudence and rationality. Luttwak himself admits that it would be hard for democratic leaders to follow policies that could be branded as illogical and contradictory, and wonders how such policies could be explained to the electorate, as they would have to be, “through the adverse medium of commonsense discourse.” His concern about this is well founded, for Americans are already becoming increasingly tired of being told by government officials that policies to which they raise reasoned objections are justified by higher wisdom. In any case, it seems likely that he underestimates the power of common-sense logic to deal with complicated matters. After all, a nation that has learned to live with Murphy’s Law and, during the Vietnam War, ruefully recognized the wisdom of the slogan “Let’s say we won and go home” may not be wholly incapable of understanding the paradoxes of strategy.
April 28, 1988