Questions & Answers
This page provides an online forum to discuss military history and foreign policy. You can use the form on the right to send me questions on foreign policy or military matters, past and present, that concern you—or write comments of your own. I’ll reply to all questions and comments by email and reproduce and answer those that have general interest.
Below are answers to military and foreign policy questions of general interest. Use the form on the right to submit your own questions or comments. Bevin will reply to your questions and comments by email.
- The Killing of Osama bin Laden and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
- Warfare and the Three Kinds of People
- Questions about the War in North Africa, Russia, and England
- More on the South's "missed opportunities"
- The mistakes Hitler made invading the Soviet Union
- What if Jackson had crossed the Susquehanna?
- Comments on the American Civil War, Especially Gettysburg
- Barbarossa, German Generals, and the American Civil War
- Would the U.S. have used the A-bomb against Germany?
- Sonshi.com Interview
- All's fair in war
- Historical opinion influenced by hindsight?
- Could an invasion of Britain have succeeded in 1940?
- Were intercepts crucial to Rommel’s success in Africa?
- Can terrorists operate like true guerrillas?
The Killing of Osama bin Laden and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
Q. Dear Bevin: Do you think that the assassination of Osama bin Laden [May 1-2, 2011] as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have forestalled more terrorist attacks on the U.S.? Additionally, why can't the U.S. military come up with a solution to IEDs? We have technologies, innovators, and inventors which and who should be able to neutralize this threat to our military, wouldn't you agree? Why haven't we neutralized this threat yet? Sincerely, John McLarty.
A. Dear John: I think the counterterrorism actions within the U.S. and in Europe have done more to stop terrorist attacks than the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Iraq war had nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with President Bush's desire to remove Saddam Hussein. We were sold a bill of goods about Iraq by the Bush administration. The Afghanistan war ousted the Taliban from power and drove al Qaeda across the border into Pakistan (and to points elsewhere, like Yemen). In that respect, we have definitely weakened al Qaeda, though we have not destroyed it. But the Taliban are getting stronger, especially because the Karzai regime is so completely corrupt that it offers no alternative. The problem of IEDs is basically insoluble, so long as Western troops use on-road vehicles for their operations. It is impossible to armor vehicles to a sufficient degree to make them safe from bombs and also capable of moving. The Abrams tank, for example, uses about a hundred times as much fuel as a truck to cover the same distance. A moving fortress, in other words, is not the answer to guerrilla warfare. It is essentially a defensive device, and cannot get at the root of resistance. In a larger sense, no guerrilla movement can be defeated so long as it has resolute leadership and the support of at least a substantial part of the native population. Mao Zedong stated the principle quick simply back in the 1930s: guerrillas can always disappear into a sympathetic population like "fishes" in "water." We must therefore ask ourselves, what are we doing in Afghanistan? What will we gain? Al Qaeda is essentially gone from the country. The Taliban merely want power to reinstate their oppressive government. I do not think it is in American interests to protect a corrupt regime that is robbing the West blind in order to keep an oppressive regime from regaining power. Both are horrible, but neither provides any gain for the United States. We should have learned from the Vietnam War that we cannot win a guerrilla war, and we should withdraw. Regards, Bevin Alexander.
Q. Dear Bevin: Thanks for the very thoughtful reply. My thinking on the IEDs is as follows. In one of your books, you mention how the German discovered their 88s were excellent tank destroyers.
I believe we have inventors in this country who could discover how to detonate these devices using radio waves, cell phone waves or laser beams or whatever safely and from a distance. We already have bomb sensing, bomb sniffing devices that we could couple with these waves or beams to safely explode these devices.
Or we could use a tanks in manner similar to the Second World War Allied tanks that had flails attached to them to explode mines-although these new tanks could send out a variety of beams as suggested above, or have a variety of devices to detonate the IEDs.
We could use innovation and invention, just like the Germans did with their 88s and the British did with radar.
In addition, I think you are right in a number of ways. We should maintain a much smaller "conventional" military while simultaneously developing small, highly mobile, highly trained and superbly trained counter terrorist and counter guerrilla units- like the one that removed Bin Laden.
The problem here is two-fold: lots of economic/political self interest, which would create resistance; and lots of conventional thinking in the military and Congress.
I have read and reread your book How Great Generals Win. I have also read Lost Victories twice. Just last week, my wife and I visited Appomattox. I plan to visit other Civil Wars sites in the near future.
Regardless, thank you kindly for the insightful and cogent reply. Regards, John.
A. Dear John: I entirely agree with you that improved technology can reduce the effects of IEDs. But any improvements in that direction will reinforce the American military's approach to battle---using the roads to concentrate weapons and men on a target. If the enemy knows that we will approach by roads, he not only can target these roads, but his main forces can avoid them. Guerrilla forces withdraw into inaccessible or difficult terrain that cannot be reached by tanks or Bradley fighting vehicles. In Afghanistan our forces can quickly overrun any area they wish. The enemy withdraws. The American occupiers then are subjected to numerous pinprick attacks, on outposts, vehicles bringing up supplies, supply points, vehicle repair stations, etc. Americans are forced to disperse to protect these points. This not only makes them passive (that is, defensive), but also exposes isolated units to concentrated enemy attacks. If for example an American force of 500 men is dispersed into eight or ten outposts or stations, an enemy force of 100 men can overwhelm any post it decides to attack. If, on the other hand, the American force is kept concentrated at a single point, it forfeits control of all other locales in the region. The possession of vastly superior weapons and vehicles might bring victory in conventional warfare, but not in guerrilla warfare. I thank you very much for your comments about my books. An author always hopes he can find such an observant and perceptive reader as you. Regards. Bevin.
Q. Dear Bevin: Thanks. I am trying conceptualize the type of anti-guerrilla units needed. How would they engage the enemy? Would they be dropped in by helicopter at night? Would they parachute in at night? Would they use motorcycles or ATVs? Would they travel in on foot? Stealth is the key.
As you point out, one of the main issues is the conventional military thinking which ties the soldiers to roads, vehicles, and heavy firepower. You also point out, in one of your books as does B.H Liddell-Hart in one of his, that Sherman solved this problem during the Civil War, by deploying shields of skirmishers, in front of his advancing multiple columns-his multiple branches.
He thereby solved part of his problem of being tied to railroads, roads and supply lines. Additionally, as you point out, he allowed his troops to forage, thereby solving the rest of his supply problem.
Is this what you are proposing here? Multiply columns, marching on foot or ATV, shielded by skirmishers, thereby not dependent on roads, tanks or Bradley fighting vehicles? Fast striking, small, well-armed units, going after multiple targets, rather than occupying bases and territory, which would as much as practical, always be on the offensive-going after the guerrillas and not allowing them time to rest, re-equip, and re-deploy; not allowing the guerrillas a chance to recuperate?
Back to the conceptualization. How would the anti-guerilla units be armed? Rifles-naturally. One or two or more .50 caliber sniper rifles or a variety of sniper rifles? Light machine guns(Squad automatic weapons?). One or two heavy machine guns? Shoulder-held anti-tank/anti-aircraft/bunker busting weapons? Mortars?
How they would they be supported militarily and logistically, since they would pretty much be off the grid? By fighter bombers? By helicopter or parachute drops of supplies and ammo or would they forage
How would they be extracted? What would they do with their wounded?
Very fascinating. Thanks. Regards. John.
A. Dear John: We already possess a wonderfully efficient model of the kind of army we need for the future. It is the Navy Seals team that took out Osama bin Laden. Special Forces teams that move largely by helicopter can descend on enemy positions with complete surprise. The weapons modern infantry carry are extremely lethal---not just automatic weapons, but rocket-propelled grenades, and strikes by attack helicopters and other aircraft called in directly on targets. I have been advocating such a new army for a long time. The best outline I know was produced in a 2000 Rand Corporation study, Swarming and the Future of Conflict, written by David Ronfeldt and an old friend of mine, John Arquilla, a professor at the navy's Postgraduate School at Monterey, California. I examine the whole concept in my book, How Wars Are Won, on pages 14-20. My essential idea (shared by Arquilla and Ronfeldt as well as Special Forces) is to divide the army into small combat teams that can move in an instant and can concentrate on a target from all directions. We do not any longer need a large army. We need a small, highly trained army of experts. If you will go to my website www.bevinalexander.com and click Commentary on the navigation bar at the top of the home page, you will come to testimony on the subject I made on April 2, 2009, before a House subcommittee on terrorism. Regards, Bevin.
September 2011<< Back to top
Warfare and the Three Kinds of People
Dear Bevin: I enjoyed your comments on the Korean War on the History Channel. You certainly are not afraid of the truth. But what do you think of this: the majority of troops coming down to attack the U.S. Army in Korea were perhaps Manchurians. Some 300,000 Manchurians who had fought for the Japanese and were held in re-education camps might have been the fighters that poured over the border. (They were right there; moving hundreds of thousands of troops from China through Manchuria, would have been spotted by U.S. intelligence). A few U.S. generals said, “Oh, we can beat these Chinese laundry guys,” and they might have done so if the foe had been Chinese. Manchurians, however, are strategic offensive thinkers; Chinese are not strategic thinkers. A fast-paced, strategic, offensive attack would be new in Chinese military annals but in line with historical Manchurian tactics. My bet is the 8th Army and X Corps were beaten by Manchurians. What do you think? Sincerely yours, William Stark.
Dear William: I’m sure there were many Manchurians in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who fought in Korea, but I do not believe they constituted a majority. This certainly was the case as the war went on, when China brought in additional troops. My book, Korea: The First War We Lost, contains references on page 304 that two field armies were used by the Chinese in Korea initially: the Fourth Field Army and the Third Field Army. The Fourth Field Army’s permanent home was Manchuria, and it doubtless contained the largest numbers of Manchurians. The Third Field Army came from farther south, and probably contained few. By the way, I take issue with you that the Chinese are not strategic thinkers. The greatest strategic thinker we have on the written record—superior to any theoretical thinker in the West—was Sun Tzu, a Chinese general who lived around 400 b.c. Sincerely yours, Bevin.
Dear Bevin: If you look at the Nomonhan Incident in 1939, you'll find Mongols and Soviets teamed up to do the Red Cloak; that is, to slip in troops and equipment secretly in order to surprise the enemy. The People’s Liberation Army did the Red Cloak at the Yalu River 1950 as well, a Soviet trick. Several hundred thousand troops secretly entered into North Korean to fight the U.S. Army.
The Soviets did the Red Cloak tactic several times in World War II. In 1945 they did it Manchuria and Korea, and in a very short time overran the Japanese forces, taking 900,000 prisoners. The Japanese military seems never to have understood why the Soviet-Mongol forces beat them in 1939, or again in 1945 (one Japanese writer, Mikiso Hane, calls this the “self delusion Kwantung army, that didn’t learn anything”). The Japanese forces at Nomonhan had to make a truce to avoid further defeat. So, one wonders how the Soviet-Mongol forces beat the Japanese roundly and quickly twice? Why did it take the U.S. Army such a long and horrific war in the Pacific campaign against the same forces? What do you think? William.
Dear William: I’ve printed below a short narrative about the Nomonhon incident that I pulled off chapter 17 of my book on China (which is on my website under the heading China). There was a decided difference in fighting a highly mobile army like that of the Soviets on treeless, almost barren terrain, and fighting Japanese soldiers holding coral atolls and tropical islands in the Pacific. Winning these battles required amphibious invasions and inch-by-inch advances over extremely difficult terrain. Japanese armor was inferior and could not stand up against Soviet armor, which was very good. In short, the Japanese were fighting a war in Outer Mongolia they couldn’t win. The odds for them on the islands of the Pacific were much better.
During the spring and summer of 1939 Japan received another heavy blow from another quarter: the Soviet Union. In June, the Japanese Kwantung army decided to launch a probe into Russia's satellite Outer Mongolia to enforce Japan's claim to a frontier about twenty miles west of where the Russians and Mongolians said it ran. The locality was Nomonhan, at the easterly "nose" of Outer Mongolia that pokes into Manchuria. In May a Japanese regiment crossed into the disputed territory and quickly ran into a large Mongolian force, supported by Soviet tanks and planes. The Mongols nearly wiped out the Japanese regiment. This incensed the Kwantung army command and it sent 15,000 troops, supported by fast Japanese fighter-bombers, into the region. The Japanese force made quick progress and occupied all of the disputed territory and more. The Soviets now moved up about 300 aircraft and 350 tanks, far more armor than the Japanese could assemble. On August 20, under General Georgi K. Zhukov, they launched a major counteroffensive behind massive artillery and armor concentrations and air attacks. They virtually destroyed the Japanese 23rd Division, which found few places to hide on the flinty, treeless battlefield. Only direct orders from Tokyo prevented the Kwantung army from turning its entire strength against the Russians and thereby precipitating a major war. The Japanese lost 18,000 men and over a hundred warplanes. Most shocking was the fact that the Japanese units suffered casualties of 73 percent. The Japanese withdrew, licked their wounds and began to ponder on the frightening difference between fighting the poorly equipped Chinese and a modern mechanized army. Sincerely yours, Bevin.
Dear Bevin: Nice to hear from you and glad you are interested in my theories. Actually some Mongolians and Manchurians might spot what I have been saying right off. Americans, though, have been taught that all people are absolutely the same, and that anything to the contrary is politically incorrect. But, whereas people are equal, they are not the same. Mongols saw that and viewed game and humans in the same light. They used their knowledge of hunting to their advantage. The Mongols as hunters (keen observers) spotted the Chinese weaknesses a long time ago, even before the Chin Dynasty in 300 b.c. They saw that in warfare the Chinese were generally unable to move quickly and be observant at the same time, and that they were passive, generally defensive, and slow to react.
So the tactic the Mongols used over and over was to make a cavalry charge, feign a retreat, get the enemy moving, and then suddenly charge on the flanks and counterattack. When you add shock to motion and lack of awareness, you have Chinese by the tens of thousands in a kind of brain lock, frozen, and easy to defeat. Bear in mind that Genghis Khan normally fought with only 40,000 cavalry against 100,000 to 120,000 Sung or Chin fighters.
One training exercise the Mongols carried out was the yearly hunt; the idea being to chase down the enemy to wipe him out after a victory. This hunt emphasized the visual (future) process and planning what you did after a battle. It is reported that the Mongols killed 25 million Chinese during this period.
Asked how to deal with war, Chinese leaders said one should avoid war, use diplomacy, and, if necessary, employ tricks such as assassinations of opposing leaders. When asked the same question on war, Genghis Khan is reported to have replied only what the Mongols did after the battle---victory being a given: ride the enemy’s horses and sleep with his women (a visually oriented, future focused concept).
There are three modalities: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. People generally have one primary modality and one secondary. In a nutshell, the West is generally visual, Asia auditory, and Africa and the Middle East, kinesthetic. Linked to modality is cognition: Jean Piaget’s four levels of cognition are: level 1 sensorimotor ages 0-1, sense and movement; level 2 preoperational ages 2-6/8, creative, magical, language learning, not logical; level 3 concrete operational ages 9-11/12, thinking dichotomous, black and white, no shades of gray and games and rules important; and level 4, formal operational or adult thinking: concepts, sequence, and logic (plus what is missing in Asia: synthesis, hypothesis, future thinking, and activation). Kinesthetic people are prone to stasis at level 2, auditory people to stasis at level 3, but visual people rarely experience stasis and are neurally wired for change. Chinese and Chinese-Thais (auditories) are named “Me First” by linguist John Hinds. I call kinesthetics “Me Only” and visuals “Other”. “Me Only” people are self-absorbed and have internal rather than external awareness.
I did an extensive modality test on Thai university students who came out 90 percent half auditory and half kinesthetic for primary and only 10 percent visual. I immediately changed my normal U.S.-oriented teaching tactics, and this led to a great improvement. For a comparison in the U.S. my students were 80 percent visual and 20 percent auditory or kinesthetic.
Another clue to the difference in modality is that Thais use English in political science textbooks for level 4 cognition terms like contingency, ramification, and scenario (as these concepts are new to the Thai language).
Historically auditory groups with their sense of social organization and balance created the first agriculturally based great civilizations. The kinesthetic people were and are more common to tropical areas of the world such as Africa and southeast Asia.
Kinesthetics make up 15 percent of the U.S. population. These “Me Only” people struggle with most kinds of visual or auditory society, especially in education, past their stasis at ages 6-8. They do, however, produce the best solitary warriors. They also do well in natural sciences and engineering. In the past these people often used one warrior against another to settle tribal disputes. In American history there were the Dog Soldiers---Indians who wore a cloak and staked it to the ground in battles (so they could not run away, no matter what happened). This is the kinesthetic way. It is manifested in an individual duel or a charging mob. The suicide bombers in the Middle East today are an example of one-person warfare. Strategy and analysis are not inherent in this modality.
The Mongols have long been famous for their visual ability. Persian scribes at Genghis Khan's camp commented on this capability. Mongols memorized enormous tracts of land before a battle. The Chinese, on the other hand, had no real idea where they were at any given moment on the battlefield. They did not have the same visual references as the Mongols, and were in an inner reality (“Me First”) whereas Mongols were in an outer visually reality (“Other”).
The horse was one of the final elements in forming the Mongol warrior—for speed (and its consequence, the capacity to change) can stimulate the visual mind. The horse and speed increased the strategic potential of the Mongols. On the steppes one needed an outer awareness to survive in the barren or featureless terrain. Mongols were said to be able to spot a deer or a man a mile away. They also had a powerful composite bow that had a range of 300 yards. A final aspect is the concomitant use of future planning. It took thinking ahead to survive the long winters: storage of food, fuel, and the like. All these elements mixed together create a strategic offensive way of thinking that beat most armies of the day.
The Chinese were group-organized to cope with winter with mass storage of the grain and other food from their agricultural systems. In southeast Asia, fruit and vegetables grew all year around and the people had no reason to plan extensively.
Put all this Mongolian knowledge of terrain, future thinking, and equestrian life style together with their hunter mentality, and you have the Eastern visual warrior. It was not just Genghis Khan as a lone military strategist who mattered, although his plans were studied by Rommel and Patton in World War II. He could send any of his generals off to do battle alone, because they possessed the basic requirement: the visually strategic mind of the hunter. After Genghis, the Mongols continued their conquests—of India by Akbar, a Mogul (Islamic Mongol), and areas of the Middle East by Tamerlane.
The Chinese never learned how to counter the simple Mongol tactics because they resisted changing tactics (since they were stuck in modal cognitive stasis), and were unable to understand enemy strategy. This was very auditory thinking. On the other hand, the Mongols were able to change quickly.
When they first encountered the Burmese, for example, their horses bolted upon seeing charging elephants. The Mongols lost the first encounter. At the second encounter, however, they tied their horses to trees, and opened up an archery barrage on the elephants. The wounded elephants turned, trying to get away, and charged the Burmese who fled. The Mongols immediately figured out how to fight elephants, but the Burmese (and Chinese) never learned how to fight Mongols.
During Kublai Khan’s time as emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, the Chinese used the gunpowder they had invented for firecrackers, whereas the Mongols adopted gunpowder to fuel rockets. By the time they invaded Japan, the Mongols had devised a kind of grenade. Thus, one sees change as a format for Mongol fighting, but no change (stasis) for the Chinese. Change is part of the visual modality.
Europe developed in a different way. About 70-80 percent of the people of the West today—Europeans and North Americans—are visual. Germanic visual tribes overran Europe. They were the counterparts in the West of the Mongol visual warriors in the East. These visual barbarians came to dominate Europe, something the Mongols were unable to do in China. The Germanic peoples came from northern areas and, like the people of the steppes, were hunters. They had evolved to a visual modality in their hunting and fighting. The Goths, Burgundians, Alans, and others took over the West as conquerors and tribute seekers.
At the fall of Rome 450 a.d., there was an intense search for food. When Rome ended and its legions disappeared, trade ended, and that ended grain supplies from Africa. There was a critical food shortage across the former Roman Empire. The barbarians from their many generations in the forests often suffered from hunger, and now vigorously sought land. Unlike the small numbers of Mongols who invaded China, hundreds of thousands of Germanic peoples overran Europe. They eliminated foes, assimilated others, and became the majority population of today’s Western Europe. Their modality predominates today.
After the fall of Rome, the tribes carved out the territories and the barbarian societies evolved into feudalism. The barbarian potential in Europe was increased after 900 a.d. when the Vikings commenced their violent invasions. These warriors were eventually incorporated into Europe. Then the 11th century Crusades offered a new opportunity to continue the warrior life style of war and looting. Barbarian aggressive dominance has always been latent in Europe: it came to life with the discovery of the New World and the vast opportunities this opened for colonization and conquest. William.
Dear William: Your theory of offensive warriors as opposed to defensive farmers and townsmen is most riveting. I believe you have discovered distinct differences in the way some peoples view warfare. I’d like to advance a few ideas that may perhaps explain these differences. The Mongols inherited a long tradition of offensive warfare on the steppes of Eurasia. There were two elements to this kind of warfare---mobility and a truly effective weapon. Mobility came with the development, somewhere around 900 b.c., or possibly a bit earlier, of horses large and strong enough for men to ride. This transformed the steppe, making it easier to control and to move herds of sheep, goats, etc., upon which the steppe people depended for survival, and also giving them mobility on a continental scale. The weapon they adopted was the compound bow, which could easily penetrate armor, but was short enough to be wielded by men on horseback. This combination of cavalry and a truly decisive weapon turned the steppe peoples into potential world conquerors.
The steppe horsemen, in a number of violent invasions, burst out of their heartland upon the civilizations around the periphery of Eurasia. Around 1200 a.d., a military genius, Genghis Khan, unified the Mongol tribes and started on a career of conquest. Genghis inherited the offensive wisdom handed down by the steppe tribesmen for the past two thousand years, and combined it with the most effective cavalry army ever created. The civilizations around the steppe heartland developed an essentially defensive strategy to protect their riches. Thus the concept of walled cities and infantry armies took precedence. These two separate and distinct processes created the situation you describe. You seem to maintain that these differences resulted in peoples with different outlooks or ways of thinking. Perhaps you are right. Regards, Bevin.
Dear Bevin: Sun Tzu constitutes one kind of strategy. It starts with diplomacy to avoid war, then goes to clever things such as sneak attacks and ways to trick the enemy. These aspects can be used in war, but the system is essentially defensive. The Mongols frequently defeated Chinese armies in the Sung times. Mongol armies of 40,000 men defeated Chinese armies with over 100,000 men consistently using offensive strategy. The Chinese of the 1300s and the Japanese of World War II looked to Sun Tzu as part of their strategy of war. This didn't work in the past for offense, and it didn't work in the 1940s. Again, an auditory society is in stasis and is resistant to change. The same with the kinesthetic world, i.e., the Middle East. They are both essentially defensive.
If you read Roman (auditory) ideas on warfare, you will find a tone similar to that of Sun Tzu: clever action, diplomacy first, assassination, etc., but nothing on offensive strategy. Both the Roman and the Chinese armies had similar goals of protecting commerce, ensuring contracts, and defending their territories. They both had walls to keep back the barbarians (Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and the Great Wall of China).
Thus, Attila the Hun and others who carried on offensive war with cavalry caused serious problems to Rome. On the one hand, you have Chinese and Romans coming up with large, trained armies from a sedentary base. But opposing them were Germanic or Mongol peoples who were hunters imbued with an offensive strategy. These hunters analyzed the enemy as they would game, and knew exactly how to defeat them. In other words, they studied their foes prior to battle. But the same was not done by the Chinese or Japanese. This modality is self absorbed and not aware of “Other”. In fact, at Nomonhan the Japanese had cartoons of the Russians looking like monkeys. So, Sun Tzu was fine for Chinese fighting each other or similar modality people like the Japanese, but not against Mongols or Russians.
Although the same tactics were used over and over, the Chinese never learned how to counter them. They weren’t able to do so, because they were locked in a cognitive, social, cultural stasis.
The original human modality was most likely 90 percent kinesthetic, 5 percent visual, and 5 percent auditory. At the beginning of human history, some early kinesthetic bands wandered from the tropics to cooler climes. Eventually some learned to farm. With more food sources, a larger number of people could live in one area. The main factor in an agricultural society thus became sociability and the auditory modality. Suitable mates where those who showed auditory traits---sociability, ability to organize, and balanced behavior. Kinesthetics went back to the jungles and visuals continued going north to hunt. A few severe winters on the steppes would take the non-visuals out of the gene pool.
The farmers were community oriented and developed the first large civilizations. In time, auditory people constituted the dominant modality in China with hundreds of millions of people. However, there was an interesting split between a large number of kinesthetics, generally farmers, who were Taoists, and merchant auditories, who were Confucionists. (To catch up with the West, the 20th century Chinese ironically adapted Karl Marx’s auditory ideas of the state, although he referred to them in The Communist Manifesto as xenophobic barbarians.)
So, to make it simple, let’s say the first people were gatherers (savages), some become farmers or merchants (civilized), and some became hunters (barbarians).
For warfare the Mongols were merit oriented. Each general had to prove himself. On the other hand, in the 13th century the Chinese commanders bought or inherited their positions. In some areas of Asia today much the same is true for high offices, the police, and the army. Some buy a position or advance through nepotism or privilege and class. Ability has seldom anything to do with rank. In fact, the first reaction among Asian military leaders might be to curtail a general who showed too much ability. William.
Dear William: I am quite fascinated with your theory. In my book on the Korean War, I inadvertently, and without realizing it, stepped into the differences you describe. I commented (page 5) that the Mongol method of attack was based on their method of hunting, and Genghis Khan trained his armies by means of a great hunt each winter. The concept was to envelop the game, not allowing a single animal to escape. I then noted that the North Koreans adopted a similar double-envelopment strategy to defeat the South Koreans (page 4), with the aim of one division sweeping down the west coast and another down the east coat, with Pusan in the south as the ultimate target. But in the event, the plan misfired badly. The division on the east got mired in the Taebaek Mountains and in meeting South Korean resistance. The division on the west met scarcely any opposition, and had a clear shot for Pusan. But the commander spent priceless days occupying all of the ports of southwestern Korea. This unnecessary tour delayed the division long enough for the U.S. 8th Army to block the advance (pages 108-10). The behavior of the North Koreans bears out what you are saying about the cognition level of sedentary peoples. Likewise, your comments about the Mongols using feigned retreat not only deceived the Chinese but also the Arabs and Persians and the Europeans (see my book, How Great Generals Win, which has a chapter devoted to the Mongol conquests). However, this is not entirely a case of two separate kinds of minds. For the Chinese, unlike the North Koreans, followed Sun Tzu in his admonition to "strike into vacuities"---that is, into undefended space---in a number of cases in Korea. For example, when they did not encounter opposition, they sometimes marched entire regiments in column formation deep into American or South Korean positions, not deploying for battle until they met resistance. I will admit, however, that most of these deep penetrations took place in the early stages of the Chinese intervention, and the troops may have been largely Manchurian at that time. Bevin
Dear Bevin: You are quite right that you came right upon the general idea of offensive Mongol-type warfare writing about Korea. You hit it right on the head. There was the hunting training for after the battle (a visual idea right there and notice, future oriented). What I have done is to expand the concepts, and tag them into cognition and modality terms to understand them better. Of course, the depth of detail depends on the audience. You were wondering why people might view warfare differently, and my point is that they view not only war differently, but also culture, life, and personal experience. In the end the predominant modality will shape the entire culture. The West is visual, Asia largely auditory, and the Arab-African world largely kinesthetic.
About striking into vacuities, the Mongols once took three years marching two armies through different areas to the west toward Muslim forces without any battle. Their use of space and time was unique. The Mongols had scouts and cartographers on hand as terrain detail was very important to them for quick maneuvers and changes. The Chinese, however, were never aware of what area they occupied in the same regard, so it was almost a vacuous use of space.
The quick tactics and strategies that defeated the U.S. 8th Army in Korea were probably, then, more Manchurian than Chinese or North Korean. Manchurians in the past fought and thought very much the way Mongols did. On top of that, as I stated before, 300,000 Manchus had been in the Japanese Army, many of them in cavalry units. It would be a stroke of genius for Mao Zedong to let them loose on the U.S. forces. No doubt there were Chinese commissars but, as you pointed out, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Korea had no officer corps.
Chinese infantry do not act unless someone “tells” them what to do. That is a clue right there. When you see the documentaries of the PLA forces running in attacking, I suspect you are seeing mainly Manchurians not Chinese. A clue is movement and thinking. If Mao had sent Chinese into Korea initially, they would have probably lost. The Chinese would have gone into defensive bunkers or done Japanese banzai-style charges, and would have been slaughtered as they have been for thousands of years.
Auditory Asians either tell or are told. That is how they experience reality. This leads to a balanced social life with conformity being important as well as status. You will find the hierarchies and each rank “telling” and the lower rank “listening.” They have societies that do not generally believe what they see, but what they are told by a superior. You can imagine this process on the battlefield. The 21st century continues the clash of modalities. William.
Dear Bevin: I read your talk on Stonewall Jackson [it is reproduced in the Commentary section of this website under the heading “The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson”] and imagine that it will get the folks out of their chairs. Pretty bold stuff. And a lot of contrafactual hypothesis, which is something I like. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee sound like very auditory leaders. Your clues to an auditory are level 3 cognition: everything black or white, passive, defensive, stasis oriented, and very resistive to change. Auditory people have not the slightest idea they are wrong in their concrete operational thinking. If you observe this modality further, you will find they are “Me First”, more interested in their own interests at times than even a military final victory. They have surprising problems interfacing with day-to-day reality from a visual point of view. The South, I suspect, had people in military leadership who were from high status backgrounds, and not from the merit based Mongol type selection. You see the same thing in Europe even into World War II where the British were trying to find aristocrats to run the army instead of field experienced officers.
The idea of the convergent assault [discussed in the talk on Jackson] makes sense if the holding, fixing force is general army and the second force shock troops. One suspects the Mongols had unusual success as the entire army was a shock force: light and heavy cavalry.
The Jackson talk is very interesting in all the strategies that were made or not made. Your kind of thinking gives a unique insight into history and warfare.
A comment I get is, “If visuals were such good fighters, why did the U.S. Army have such a difficult time in the Pacific, in Korea, and in Vietnam? The answer is that the army has the potential but, unlike the barbarian ancestors of 500 a.d., it is no longer visually activated, as were hunters. The armed forces did not know the enemy in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. Imagine the hundreds of thousands in Singapore and the Philippines who surrendered to the Japanese, thinking they were doing to get some European-style treatment! With the all-are-equal thinking, there is no need to study the enemy, to know who the enemy is. This has lead to huge problems, especially with U.S. forces fighting in Asia. The Japanese were stunned at the Westerners surrendering. The surprises were on both sides.
But then we had Sergeant Alvin York in World War I and Audie Murphy in World War II, farm boys and hunters who went after the enemy and became heroes. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union with Vasily Zaytsev, another farm boy and hunter. These fellows were like one-man armies. Hence, sedentary life can take the edge off the warrior. An ancient rule of war is the following: know your game, know your enemy. William.
Dear William: I will contemplate Lee and Davis as auditory leaders. The key to Southern leadership was that it was almost wholly aristocratic. Landed gentry. Straight out of class-obsessed England. That's why Davis and Lee got to the top. They were in the ruling class. Stonewall Jackson was not. Merit had little to do with appointments. Jackson would never have been the senior commander in the Confederate army. No matter how successful. So that fits precisely with what you say. Bevin.
Dear Bevin: Regarding contrafactual hypothesis, I discuss this in my book on the Thais. I found Thais use “if” as in the when sense. “If you go to the store, buy me a book.” Which is also, “When you go to the store, buy me a book.” But when you go to things like, If she went to the store, what would she buy? it is beyond the capability of some grammars. If you go beyond what-is-going-to-happen reality, like buying a book to things that may not happen, might not happen or, better, might not have happened, the Thais are lost. It is not in the language. The Japanese say they can achieve the same concepts by pasting structures together. But when you get to “If Caesar had been born in Mexico, he would have been an Aztec leader,” they are stymied. Thais are a peasant-based society. It is nonsense to them to think about things that didn't happen or might not happen and are thus hypothetical.
In Indonesia it was more extreme. Every time I tried to say "if..." they would stop me. No ifs. In the end I suspect parts of Asia might not have hypothetical thinking in the language (and culture). Some grammar structures like the conditional, conditional perfect and subjunctive moods are simply not there. Imagine this in the area of combat. There are ideas and planning that cannot be conceptualized in some languages. These are things we take for granted in the West. The linguist John Hinds noted that Thais in conversation did not really listen to each other and, instead of hypotactic conversation shifts (follow-ups), went to paratactic shifts (“Me First”) that had nothing to do with what the other person had just said. In this kind of talk, conclusions are rarely reached. Drawing a conclusion, though, is frequently employed in Western conversation, and is a clue to level 4 adult thinking. So, modality and cognition differences have always been there and are more conclusive when seen on a battlefield.
I could immediately sense that Lee and Davis were auditory by just a glimpse of their behavior. What you say about the aristocracy and Jackson is a setting for defeat right there. Whenever this happens, there is going to be a defeat unless one is fighting savages. The Visigoths, Alans, and Burgundians in 450 a.d. were merit oriented. Feudalism, though, seems to have taken offensive military leaders out of the picture except for unusual occasions. In fact, completely unable to plan visually, Lee’s frontal assaults are right out of the South Pacific with the Japanese doing the banzai charge. The Japanese really could not come up with a strategic counter offense.
Barbaric times mean visual war leaders. But as a culture becomes “civilized,” it falls into the hands of the organizers (auditories), who dominate not only commerce but many areas of the U.S. academic world today.
I am glad that you have gotten the idea of modality and warfare. I must say I have a few genius auditory Ph.D. friends who have for years been unable to grasp even the basics of modality and who return to the same discussions over and over. In spite of IQ and education, they cannot understand even the most obvious cases, especially in a synthesized, logical, and sequential manner. Instead of saying “Yes, and...” to a talk on strategy, they will say, “Yes, but..” because their minds will be going backwards to counter cases, negative, defensive, and rarely forward to an idea or a new thought. Kinesthetic people, however, recognize themselves quickly in modality and have understanding. They are not good at changing, but they get the point.
Thus, an understanding of modality differences, cognition levels, and stasis opens the way to comprehending the past, warfare, religions, philosophy, education, and the variations of human civilization. The visual West is now globally dominant. It is time to reactivate the hunter visual awareness---not for conquest---but for understanding of the non-visual world. The lack of awareness in the U.S. in particular, where most observers tend to see all people as the same, while superimposing visual culture and values on others, has been counterproductive and tragic. This thinking stems from a puerile “I am the measure of all things,” a facile and simplistic world view. It should be apparent at this point that it is impossible to force Afghans and Iraqis, for example, to break their kinesthetic stasis abruptly and become “just like folks from Nebraska.”
Americans abroad constantly go into denial and rationalize about how Third World non-visual cultures are “okay” when they are not. Not having a clue about the enemy, though, in a series of terrible wars has been frightening and costly. Straying from objective reality is a kind of psychosis in progress. As Elias Canetti, the Nobel laureate, said, the world (West) completely left reality (1950s).
It is time to open our eyes again and get back to reality. The same choices have there since Socratic times: idealism (visual) or relativism (kinesthetic). That is, we have the choice of going forward into a new world of Platonic inspired ideals and ethical change, or back into Nietzsche’s world of savagery, slavery, and war. William.
July 2009<< Back to top
Questions about the War in North Africa, Russia, and England
Q. Dear Bevin: I take the honor to say that you are one of my favorite historians. I have four questions to ask dealing with the Battle of the Atlantic, Rommel’s supply lines, the rewards that could be brought should Rommel have succeeded in North Africa, and Rommel’s performance in Tunisia. First, I found particularly interesting your explanation of Erich Raeder’s proposal to Hitler of an indirect approach against Britain. I believe you mentioned that if Hitler had seized French North West Africa, the Kriegsmarine might have used the bases there for operations against the British convoy route adjacent to the continent going from the Pacific colonies to Britain. However, I am not really able to see the difference that the occupation of said naval bases would have made: didn’t most of the vital supplies come from the U.S. across the North Atlantic, and not from the Pacific? Second, wouldn’t it have been very difficult to supply these bases in Northwest Africa with supplies for the U-boats? As you mentioned, Hitler had the idea of capturing the Azores, but it would have been very difficult to supply them. Although the bases in Northwest Africa could be supplied by land, wouldn’t it have been just as hard? I suppose that the lack of roads and railroads would have made this a great logistical challenge. In fact, Rommel had the same problems across much shorter distances in North Africa.
This brings me to my second question. I have been reading about the importance of Malta against Rommel’s supply lines. I am aware, mostly thanks to your work, that Rommel had great supply problems. However, what was Malta’s role in it? It surely was a great obstacle for the convoys to Libya, and it caused many supplies to be lost at sea. In fact, even you suggested the Germans should have taken Malta. Now, here is where I get stuck: even without Malta, couldn’t the British attack Rommel’s supply lines by air and sea from their bases in Egypt? And what about the limited capacity of the few ports available to Rommel? Tripoli could not handle all the supplies Rommel needed per month, nor could Tobruk. And wouldnt it have been very difficult to get the supplies to Rommel’s front lines because of the lack of roads, rail roads, and German air superiority? It is very difficult for me to imagine Rommel with an unmolested supply line.
You also suggested that if Rommel was given the forces necessary to take Egypt and the Middle East, he could have taken the oil fields in the Caucasus region denying the oil to the Russians, thus greatly weakening them. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it have been very difficult to traverse the Caucasus mountains? Wouldn’t the mountains have been very easy to defend even by the largely untrained and disorganized Soviet forces? And wouldn’t theSsoviets have been relieved by the lend-lease act, thus receiving oil form the U.S.?
One last question: Erwin Rommel was an expert on mountain warfare due to his experiences during the Great War. Why did he experience such defeats in Tunisia? He applied desert tactics to a terrain he should have known how to use to his advantage. Had he forgotten mountain warfare? Or was he too depressed, sick, and exhausted to continue commanding as efficiently as he used to? Fernando Torrealba.
A. Dear Fernando: Since you’ve asked me a ton of questions, I'll try to answer them quickly and to the point.
1) Cutting the Atlantic supply lines. If the Germans had occupied French North Africa, they would have controlled the sea approaches to Dakar in Senegal. Yes, it would have been difficult to supply Dakar by land, because of the intervening Sahara Desert. But not impossible. But supply ships could have run along the coast to Dakar. Aircraft could have moved personnel.
2) Importance of the South Atlantic route. It’s true that Britain came to rely on the U.S. for supplies, but it also had enormous traffic with South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and India, not to speak of Egypt, which the British could not supply through the Mediterranean, because of the Axis. Therefore, passage through the South Atlantic was very important.
3) Importance of Malta. These islands lay directly on the supply line between Italy and Libya. It was insane of Hitler to seize Crete, which had little importance strategically, and to refuse to seize Malta, which was vital to maintaining an army in Africa. In 1940 and early 1941, however, British air and submarine bases on Malta were not strong, and the Germans could have shipped over four panzer divisions and supplied them, even with the existence of Malta. Once four panzer divisions were in Africa, they could easily have swept over the Suez Canal and on into the Middle East. Closure of Suez would have forced the Royal Navy out of the eastern Mediterranean, since it could not have been supplied. Occupation of Egypt would have left French North Africa completely isolated (it was anyway), and the Germans could have occupied it easily. German forces then could have moved by land from the south against Spanish Morocco, which then occupied a strip along the northern coast opposite Gibraltar. The Spanish would not have dared to deny the Germans access to Spanish Morocco because the Germans could easily have invaded Spain from France. Therefore, German aircraft and subs could have closed the Strait of Gibraltar. This would have forced the Royal Navy to abandon the western Mediterranean and Malta (which then couldn’t have been supplied). So an actual attack on Malta would have been avoided.
4) Attack of Caucasus from the south. Yes, the mountains would have posed a barrier, but by concentrating on a single pass and breaking through, a path would have been opened for the panzers. This is the nature of mountain warfare: break a path and get through. This, for example, is how the U.S. 1st Marine and Army 7th Division got from the Chosin Reservoir through the Chinese mountain barriers to the sea in December 1950. See my book, Korea: The First War We Lost, for details. The technique goes at least back to Xenophon and the march of the 10,000 Greeks to the sea.
5) Rommel in Tunisia. Rommel knew exactly how to break through the mountains at Kasserine. The reason he didn’t win was because the Italian supreme command refused to allow him to drive straight to Tebessa, and then go north. They required a move closer to the front, which drove straight into Allied reserves. Bevin Alexander.
Q. Dear Bevin: I have been reading your answers to some questions about the Russian front. It is my understanding that you suggest Hitler should have concentrated most of his efforts on Moscow in order to succeed on a headlong attack. However, if he had done that, wouldn’t Army Group Center’s flanks have been threatened, especially from attacks from the Ukraine region? And once he had taken Moscow wouldn’t then the Soviet forces stationed in the Ukraine threaten Army Group Centers rear? Fernando Torrealba.
A. Dear Fernando: The distances between the fronts were far too great for the Russians to have attempted the kind of flanking movement you suggest in 1941. This was especially true because by the fall the Russian armies had virtually melted away because Joseph Stalin had placed practically the whole Red Army on the frontier. The Germans were able to harvest huge masses of Russian soldiers by swinging around them and closing them into caldrons. Read that part of my book on the German strategy in Russia. Bevin Alexander.
Q. Dear Bevin: I know I have asked you several questions already, but there are still a few things unclear in my mind. First, what would you say was the major factor that prevented the Luftwaffe from defeating the RAF? Second: I have read your response to a question about Germany’s chances of succeeding should operation Sea Lion have taken place. In it you say that the Luftwaffe could have operated similarly to how they operated in Holland (capturing airfields so as to bring supplies and reinforcements). However, John Mosier, in "The Blitzkrieg Myth" says that the German transport fleet had suffered great casualties during the assault on Holland due to enemy high quality (or at least "decent" quality) anti-aircraft guns and that this would have made operation Sea Lion impossible. He also suggests that Germany’s losses of its naval transport fleet during the Norwegian campaign would have made Sea Lion even harder to achieve. Do you agree with Mosier’s statement? Had Germany recovered from its losses to both air and naval transport fleets? Or were these losses irrelevant? Third, was there any way the Kriegsmarine could have won the battle of the Atlantic? Fourth, when did the Germans start to experience fuel shortages? Were these shortages due to Allied bombing? (It is worthy to note that John Mosier in "The Blitzkrieg Myth", and I personally concur with him, says that Germany began experiencing serious fuel shortages after the Soviets had captured the Ploesti oil fields, and that the Allied air bombing contributed very little to it despite its intensity. Do you also agree with this statement?
I once again thank you immensely for your time. Fernando Torrealba.
A. Dear Fernando: The first great mistake of Adolf Hitler was his failure to capture the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium. He could easily have done this if he had not stopped the panzers. This would have created an immense bargaining chip that Hitler could have used to force the British to make peace (without invasion): end the war and get your soldiers back. This was the single stupidest decision that Hitler ever made. As for Sea Lion: the BEF had come back to England, but it had virtually no weapons. It would have found it extremely difficult to defend against a determined aerial invasion. Although there were lots of plans by the German navy to move troops and equipment by barge, etc. over the narrow seas, the most likely method of making an initial lodgment in England would have been by air, as happened in Holland. This, therefore, required the Luftwaffe to achieve air supremacy over the skies of England. If Hitler had not diverted the Luftwaffe to terror bombings of London and other cities in September 1940, the Luftwaffe could have eliminated the RAF sector stations of southeast England, which were vital for control of the air. The RAF had lost a quarter of its pilots by September 1940, and a couple more weeks of Luftwaffe attacks on the sector stations would have virtually eliminated the RAF. Read my book on this point. I’m not impressed with any figures that show the Junkers 52 aircraft as being in short supply. Anyway, only one or two airports need to have been seized, and not many transports would have been needed. Troops and equipment could have been ferried into captured airports in relays. This is how it was done on Crete, very successfully.
German fuel shortages: The Germans kept Ploesti open until the late stages of the war, but they were relying on manufactured fuel before this. There was adequate fuel almost to the end, as demonstrated by the immense force employed in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Fuel was a definite limitation for the Germans for much of the war, but was not crippling. Bevin Alexander.
July 2009<< Back to top
More on the South's "missed opportunities"
Q. Dear Bevin: Your responses to my "missed opportunities" question (Q&A April 2009) were fascinating. The "opportunity" of Spring 1862 is, in a way, the one most "radical" and therefore, it is not surprising that a very conventional politician like Jefferson Davis would not go for it. It takes an adventurous soul to stand on the defensive in front of the capital with, say, 50,000 troops, and free up the remaining forces to join Jackson for a move into Maryland and beyond. In fact, 50,000 would have been more than adequate because of the advantages of the defense plus the advantage of time, i.e. Jackson moving north would have robbed McClellan of the time he would have needed to either lay siege to Richmond or to capture Petersburg (probably his best option) and isolate the capital. Lincoln would have almost certainly required McClellan's return to face Jackson. And just as Lee had the inside track in June, he would have had the same inside track to join Jackson in May, and without all the casualties of the Seven Days attacks. When one looks at the other "lost victories," there are a few thoughts that pop to mind. Cedar Mountain and Second Bull Run were both great opportunities for a rare "victory of annihilation" as Pope could have been trapped. Such victories would have been devastating to the Northern morale, but probably not fatal as the Army of the Potomac would have remained and represented to most Northerners the Union's "main army." I do think Longstreet/Lee could have attacked a few hours earlier at Manassas and destroyed Pope, an opinion you seem to share. I've read so many accounts where Longstreet is praised for his actions at that battle but I just don't see it. After Manassas is an opportunity we've discussed before, a move east of Frederick, perhaps even to the Baltimore area would have placed great pressure on McClellan to attack. I do believe the ragged condition ofthe Confederate army post-Manassas would have been a negative factor. A less ambitious move, but better than the plan Lee pursued, might have been for Lee to remain in the Bull Run area and for Jackson to move via the Valley and take Harpers Ferry, another victory on top of the Second Bull Run victory with very little cost, and in a position to do more damage. I can't imagine McClellan stirring from the D.C. area to thwart such a move, especially with Lee lurking close by. The potential of a victory of annihilation at Chancellorsville hinges on whether one thinks Jackson could have pressed on through the night and cut Hooker off from the United States Ford. You seem to think he could have. I'm not as convinced as it looks like Reynolds and others were in a position to throw up a line and at least slow Jackson down while others regrouped. But I'd be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on this. And, of course, I'm still playing around with ideas for "what could have been" in June/July of 1863 had a Jackson strategy been pursued rather than Lee's "battle strategy." An intriguing topic. I've only been pondering it for 40 years, ha! As always, I look forward to your thoughts. Regards, Gary Lester.
A. Dear Gary: In answer to your most interesting and incisive comments, let me summarize the immense intellectual concepts that Stonewall Jackson possessed, for they were the only means available to the South to win. In other words, there was precisely one brain in the Confederacy that had figured out a successful strategy, and this brain occupied a subordinate place in the hierarchy of power. At the summit were two persons of quite inadequate imagination, Jefferson Davis, who was fixated on a passive, defensive posture that had no possibility of success if Abraham Lincoln insisted on pursuing the war (and Davis could have figured out easily that he would do so), and Robert E. Lee, who was an extremely aggressive, pugnacious leader with only one concept of how to win—headlong assault against a defended line. There is no evidence that Lee ever understood the consequences of the Minié-ball rifle (with a range four times that of the Mexican War smoothbore musket), or that he appreciated field fortifications (and thus defense). The experience of the stone fence along the sunken road at Fredericksburg in December 1862 has been cited as the moment he recognized the vital significance of field fortifications (it definitely had that effect on Longstreet), but this did not affect Lee’s headlong assault obsession, as shown at Gettysburg. Therefore, the ideas of Stonewall Jackson were the only means available to the South. He saw at least as early as the Shenandoah Valley campaign that he could easily outmaneuver the Union forces, and could defeat in detail isolated portions of these forces. He also saw that Union commanders were ignorant of or at least indifferent to threats to their flanks and rear. John Pope, of course, was notoriously so, but this was a general failing of commanders on both sides. Jackson saw, therefore, that the means to victory were sweeps either around the flanks (as he proposed along the Rapidan River to drive Pope against the river or the Blue Ridge to the west), or to make deep strategic moves on the Union rear supply line (as he did at Manassas). Lee never understood either of these moves fully, and didn’t exploit them properly. Jackson also had come to see that any force solidly emplaced on the defensive could stop any frontal attack. He certainly drew this conclusion from the Seven Days, but he was surely becoming aware of it after the severe difficulty he had winning the battle of Port Republic. Therefore, he placed his corps in a defensive position at Groveton. It is astonishing that Lee—despite his fixations—did not see the spectacular advantage he possessed the instant he arrived at Gainesville on the left flank of Pope’s army as it was attacking Jackson at Groveton. But he did not. The Confederate attack should have been made shortly after Lee arrived at Gainesville around noon on the first day, not at the end of the second day of Second Manassas. This inability of Lee to see the opportunities that Jackson presented to him is the real story of the Civil War. When I look at the missed chances, one after another, I am astonished. But then I am equally astonished that Adolf Hitler did not see that he could have won the war in a single blow by capturing the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in May 1940! But, as the noted military writer Theodore Ayrault Dodge wrote in 1904: “The maxims of war are but a meaningless page to him who cannot apply them.” Gotta go. Will continue our discussion later. Regards, Bevin Alexander.
June 2009<< Back to top
The mistakes Hitler made invading the Soviet Union
Q. Dear Bevin: I hope you’re doing well. As you know, Minsk and even Smolensk fell to the Germans in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa. On the other hand, Kiev held out until September 16. I know that Stalin had the major bulk of his armies in the Ukraine. However, something is unclear to me. Did Hitler make a serious effort to capture Kiev early in the war, or choose to bypass the city instead? Rather than create Army Group North, should Hitler have assigned Panzer Group 4 to Army Group South, giving Army Group South two Panzer Groups instead of one?
In my view, Hitler’s best strategy for Operation Barbarossa was to capture Kiev as quickly as possible utilizing two panzer groups, switch those panzer groups to Army Group Center, then drive to Moscow with all four panzer groups, capturing Moscow and finishing the year by taking Gorki on the Volga. 1941 should have ended with Moscow taken and Germany controlling the Volga North and Northwest of Gorki.
Then, in 1942, Hitler could have created an Army Group North with one panzer group to capture Leningrad. His other three panzer groups could have been assigned to sweep south along the Volga all the way to the Caspian Sea, eliminating most of the remaining resistance and preventing any remaining Russian armies from escaping East across the Volga. By the end of 1942, the war would have been won.
I would appreciate your views on this and what Germany might have done to capture Kiev more quickly.
Sincerely, Bryan Norton
A. Dear Bryan: Good to hear from you again! Yes, your suggested strategy would have been far better than the one Hitler chose. The alternative strategy that chief of staff Franz Halder and army commander Walter von Brauchitsch advocated was a drive concentrated on Moscow. This would have been easier than a drive concentrated on the Ukraine. There was an all-weather road from the Polish frontier through Minsk and Smolensk straight to Moscow (the Moscow “Rollbahn” or “runway”). Also, if the Germans could have captured Moscow in the fall before the Rasputitsa (or the rainy season, literally the “time without roads”), the central transportation node of Russia would have been in their hands. This would have separated the forces on the north and the forces in the south, making it impossible for them to cooperate. Then in 1942 the Germans could have concentrated on the Ukraine and the oilfields of the Caucasus and along the Caspian Sea. It was a divide-and-conquer strategy, but Hitler would have none of it. He insisted on dividing his forces to seize three widely distant objectives, all in the summer and fall of 1941: Leningrad, Moscow, and the Ukraine (with an intended advance at least into the upper reaches of the Caucasus). This was impossible because German strength was insufficient. The capture of Kiev actually was the decision that lost the war for Hitler. The two panzer groups aimed at Moscow had eliminated practically all opposition in the early weeks, and could have driven on to Moscow with little left to stop them. But Hitler saw the chance to create a giant caldron enclosing Russian troops east of Kiev and demanded that Heinz Guderian’s panzer group be diverted south to help create it. This stopped the drive on Moscow. It resulted in the largest capture of an enemy force in world history, but it delayed the advance on Moscow so much that, when it was resumed, the Russians (and the weather) were able to stop it. If you get a chance, look at my chapters on the subject in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II. It covers the concept in detail. I hope this quick overview is enough to answer your questions. If not, drop me a note. Hope you’re well! Regards, Bevin.
Q. Dear Bevin: Thank you for your speedy response. I enjoyed reading your summation of where Hitler went wrong. The thing I am really curious to know is how you would have organized Germany’s armies in preparation for Operation Barbarossa (assuming that you inherited the situation in early 1941.) For example, how many army groups would you create and how would you distribute the panzer groups and the infantry? Would you ignore Leningrad and the Ukraine and concentrate everything in Army Group Center? I don’t need a long answer, but I appreciate your thoughts.
By the way, I am enjoying re-reading your book How Hitler Could Have Won World War II. It is a prized part of my collection. Sincerely, Bryan Norton
A. Dear Bryan:If I had been responsible for Germany’s advancement in 1940-41, I would have sent panzers into North Africa to seize the Suez Canal and drive into the Middle East, just as I wrote in my book on Hitler. This would have placed German forces within easy striking distance of the Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus and along the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Joseph Stalin would have been forced to do anything Hitler wanted to avoid losing his oil and the capacity to fight a modern war. This was the correct strategy, and would have cost minuscule German lives and treasure. However, if I had been told to defeat the Soviet Union by the headlong method that Hitler insisted upon in 1941, I would have sent a small holding force with only a single panzer division and a couple of infantry divisions toward Leningrad (which had no strategic significance whatsoever), and a larger holding force of one panzer group (less the division sent toward Leningrad) and a couple German armies (plus the Hungarians and Romanians) into the Ukraine. I would have concentrated three panzer groups and three armies (not two and two, as was actually done) on the drive to Moscow. Since Stalin concentrated more of his forces on the Ukrainian front, the drive toward Moscow would have been a strike of strength against weakness. It would have gained Moscow before the rainy season, and would have given Hitler victory. Thank goodness Adolf Hitler had no strategic sense in the least, because his original dispositions, plus the mad decision to create a Kiev caldron, lost him the war! Regards, Bevin.
May 2009<< Back to top
What if Jackson had crossed the Susquehanna?
Q. Dear Bevin: Regarding your description of a Jackson-inspired move across the Susquehanna and against Philadelpia—could you discuss what you think the immediate response of the Union would have been—either in the Fall of '62 or the Summer of '63?
I'm particularly curious as to how you would respond to arguments that the Confederate army would have, at some point, been confronted by the presence of the Union army—either before or after reaching Philly—and would have been forced to take the offensive since they had no practical line of supply to draw on. To put it differently, would not Lee/Jackson have had to fight an offensive battle at some point—if only to return south against a Union army positioned to block their retreat? Gary Lester.
A. Dear Gary: The outstanding Confederate artillery commander Porter Alexander pointed out that the Confederates needed to fight only a single battle on Northern soil. Such a battle would be decisive, and another would not be necessary. This was proved at Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia carried sufficient ammunition for one such battle (as was demonstrated at Gettysburg), and General Lee was confident that he could bring up more ammunition from Virginia by cavalry escort, if need be. The only other imperative was food, and there was much more food in the Amish and Mennonite regions of Pennsylvania than in ravaged Virginia. This was also proved after Gettysburg, when the Confederate army, held up by high water on the Potomac, was delayed for a number of days crossing back into Virginia, yet it was still able to forage for sufficient food in a region much less productive than the York-Lancaster Pennsylvania Dutch area. Lee actually abandoned his supply line back to Virginia as soon as he moved north in 1863, proof that he was finding adequate supplies in Pennsylvania. Somewhere on the road to Philadelphia, the Confederate army had only to establish a solid defensive position, with at least one open flank, and wait for the Union army to attack. The Union army was certain to lose, as, in fact, the Confederate army lost when it attacked at Gettysburg. The defeat of an attacking force was a foregone conclusion in 1863 because of the Miníe-ball rifle, the 12-pounder Napoleon cannon firing canister, and field fortifications (not used in 1862), and was still virtually certain in 1862 (as evidenced by the failure of Union assaults at Antietam). The Union army would have been required to attack, not only because of the insistence of Abraham Lincoln, but because a failure to attack would permit Lee’s army to move on to Philadelphia and cut the north-south railway corridor. This would effectively have ended the Northern war effort. Therefore, the conditions for a Southern victory were assured as soon as Stonewall Jackson realized (in the Seven Days) that any frontal attack by either side was almost certain to result in defeat. This fact was not plain to the other commanders on either side, but it was most definitely plain to Jackson. That is why he set up the battle at Groveton (at Second Manassas) in the fashion he did---to induce John Pope to attack, knowing he would lose. I hope this answers your questions. If not, please drop me another note. Sincerely yours, Bevin Alexander.
Q. Dear Bevin: Thanks so much for your analysis—I have all your Civil War-related books (plus Great Generals and How America…) and have enjoyed them all immensely!
It’s interesting that you began with Porter Alexander as I almost included a quote from him in my initial question—what did he mean by his comment(don’t have the exact reference handy so I’m paraphrasing) that like a rock thrown in the air, the Army of North Viriginia went north knowing that sooner or later it would have to return south? I have always taken that to be mean that Porter thought the northern incursion was ultimately fruitless as the ANV could not sustain itself once a Northern army approached and caused Lee to gather his troops in a stationary location. I do note the Williamsport situation seems to demonstrate that a stationary force could gather adequate supplies for a week or more . . . but what would keep a Meade from simply “waiting out” a ANV sitting somewhere in Pennsylvania for several weeks or longer . . . other than political pressure to attack?
Understand, I’m not disputing your contentions—I agree with them—but I’m trying to strengthen “the case” in my own head.
Another example—if the South could establish a position in the North and await attack—would it have been possible in 62 for Lee to cross the Potomac and gather his troops on South Mountain . . . or better yet, somewhere closer to Baltimore….and await McClellan’s attack? I certainly see the desire to begin on the defense with an open flank, receive attack and then launch a counter offensive thru that open flank. I’m just having difficulty being sure that the North wouldn’t have established their own defensive postion(either in '62 or '63), used their cavalry to reduce the area Lee could freely draw supplies from . . . and wait out the ANV.
For years . . . even before becoming aquainted with your works, I have envisioned a '63 campaign where Lee simply continued on the movement across the Susquehanna set prior to the 29th. I continue to wonder—much as you have stated in your works—that his best course of action was to take Harrisburg and then on to Philadelphia. (You might find it of interest to know that when I had the opportunity to chat with Newt Gingrich about his Civil War books, he waved away such a notion by saying that the “Lee had no pontoons and couldn’t have crossed the river.” Although I’ve been frustrated in trying to get hard evidence, it is my belief that the Susquehanna was easily fordable in numerous locations between Wrightville and Harrisburg—am I correct?
Again, after years of pondering these scenarios, I so much appreciate your writings and insights…and the opportunity to share these thoughts and ask questions of someone such as yourself with obvious expertise. Thanks again …and I eagerly await your responses. Gary Lester.
A. Dear Gary: My goodness! I didn’t expect so quick and so astute a response! Let me try to answer your questions.
Newt Gingrich’s comment first: I wonder whether Mr. Gingrich has ever seen the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg? I have. Lots of rocks and easy passage there. It would have been easy to ford the river, even if the bridges there had been blown (and they were not and not likely to be). Good grief! The Confederate army forded the Potomac River numerous times! It’s a much bigger river than the Susquehanna at Harrisburg. Even downstream at Wrightsville. No Civil War army could be held up for long by an Eastern river.
The key observation of Porter Alexander about the 1863 campaign is that no Union army could prevail against the Army of Northern Virginia if all of its corps were up and in place. That was what he and James Longstreet were pleading with Lee to do—to keep all the army together and to stand on the defensive. They had absorbed Jackson’s teachings, even though Lee had not. So the idea that he foresaw a Southern defeat in 1863 is incorrect.
The idea that Union general Meade could have “waited out” the Confederate army is also invalid. If Meade had refused to attack, all Lee would have had to do was to move off. Meade could not have stopped him. If Meade had blocked access to Philadelphia, Lee could have attacked Washington. Not an option! Lincoln insisted throughout the war that the Union army always must be between the Army of Northern Virginia and the capital. If Meade, as per orders, had blocked access to Washington, Lee could have attacked Philadelphia. So there was no possibility whatsoever of the Union army stopping the Confederate army by any passive means.
You are entirely correct that Lee should have stationed his army northeast of Frederick (and not moved west across South Mountain into the Cumberland Valley) in 1862. This is precisely what Jackson tried to convince Lee to do at the commanders’ conference at Frederick, but failed to do so. Jackson saw that if the Confederate army paused north or east of Frederick, it would threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. None of these places could be lost by the Union. Therefore, the Union army would have been obliged to attack. It was the same situation as would have been the case if Lee had followed Jackson’s proposals in 1863: the Union army would have been obliged to attack to prevent Lee’s capture of Philadelphia. For that matter the same conditions would have applied if Lee had simply taken up a defensive position around Carlisle, Pennsylvania (west of Harrisburg), in 1863. From there, Lee could have struck for Washington, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. This would have been intolerable for the Union, and Meade would have been forced to attack at Carlisle—and lose. If Meade had not attacked, and just waited, Lee could have moved on any city not blocked by the Union army. If Meade had divided his army to protect all three cities, Lee’s army could have shattered any one of the three Union segments. Not an option!
In summary, Jackson had seen clearly a way to victory when he surveyed the horrible results of the Seven Days in 1862 and realized that frontal attacks were bound to fail. This gave the South the keys to victory. Unfortunately for the South, he could not open the eyes of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee.
It’s been a pleasure corresponding with you! I hope this answers all your questions.
Sincerely yours, Bevin Alexander.
Q. Dear Bevin: Outstanding! I truly appreciate your taking the time to give such detailed thoughts. Please keep up the great work you are doing. Have you ever considered a “what if” book about the “invasion that should have happened”? For years, I’ve played with the idea of such a book with a title like “Had Stonewall Lived” . . . however, you are obviously the person to do such a work. Sign me up for the first copy!
Thanks again, Gary Lester.
A. Dear Gary: Many thanks for your kind thoughts. I’m currently working on a book on the 1940 campaign in the West that defeated France. I’ll think about your “what if” proposal. Regards, Bevin.
April 2009<< Back to top
Comments on the American Civil War, Especially Gettysburg
Q. Dear Bevin: Regarding Ulysses S. Grant, I must preface my remarks with the disclaimer that I am admittedly an unbalanced fan of his. Having said that, I did not feel you said much at all about Grant in your book [How the South Could Have Won the Civil War] whereas, next to Stonewall Jackson, you seemed to have the greater praise for William Tecumseh Sherman. If I remember correctly—a big if, you must allow—both Sherman and Jackson get high marks from you for, regarding tactics, relying on maneuver and surprise rather than frontal assaults. Grant, as everybody knows, kept ramming his bloodied head (or, more properly, those of his famously numerous troops) into the brick wall of Lee's defenses–John Clifford Pemberton's too, I might as well admit [in the Vicksburg campaign].
But, in the case of the Overland Campaign [in Virginia in 1864] at least, I would argue that Grant's frontal assaults were born of strategic concerns and not of tactical ones and that from a strategical perspective his decisions were, for the most part, correct and ultimately effective. It must be remembered that he was by that time commanding all Union armies and had just set in motion the first truly all-encompassing coordinated strategy for winning the war. What he was doing here in Virginia was only a part of a larger campaign and his choice of tactics against Lee were guided by two principle strategic concerns:
First, Sherman's rampage in Georgia was the centerpiece of Grant's overall strategy and, in Virginia, he needed to keep Lee so occupied as to prevent him from rendering any aid to Johnston. Keeping Lee busy meant attacking him so that he could ill afford to part with any of his now rapidly dwindling Army of Northern Virginia, thanks, again, to Grant. As to maneuver, his four sidesteps from the Wilderness to Petersburg ought to draw some praise, I think. They were bold and risky and he got away with them four times in a row, ultimately drawing Lee into his trap. What began as "...wherever he [Lee] goes there will you [Meade] go" turned into Lee having to follow Grant around—to his ultimate demise. And, irony of ironies, don't you think that if Lee had shown the same kind of daring on July 2nd at Gettysburg and sidestepped to the left [south] of Meade, as Longstreet begged him to do, well, we might all be speaking Southern today?
Second, as the spring and summer of 1864 began to wear on and Lincoln slid down to where Bush is today, it became clear that whereas Grant had to win something, Lee had only to not lose. This political concern also forced Grant's hand.
Which brings to mind something I did want to ask you about another way the South might have won the war: do you think it possible that if Jefferson Davis had not replaced Joe Johnston with John Bell Hood, the former might have held Sherman the Hun back long enough to get McClellan elected? He would have had to hold out another four months. Your thoughts?
If I remember correctly—again, that big if—your scenarios about how the South could have won the war seem all to have involved Lee and Jackson's exploits here in the East. Granted that if Jackson the Hun could have sacked D.C. after First Bull Run and carried away Messrs. Lincoln, Seward and Chase to Richmond in chains, all those soft-spined people in the North may well have become so disheartened as to give up the game before it had been fairly begun. However, that was still awfully early and there were still some pretty large armies forming out west which may have saved a little hope for a later day. But your point is well taken and clearly Davis ought to have cut Stonewall loose.
However, after that point in the war, it seems to me that we can't overlook the importance of what was happening in the West. Within months of First Bull Run good news for the North was beginning to drift back over the Appalachians and within just a few months more my hero was beginning his odyssey down the Mississippi Valley and into the heartland. That, along with Lincoln and Gideon Welles's blockade brought Winfield Scott's 'anaconda' [plan] to life, which began squeezing the breath out of the CSA. Of course, there were still all those soft spines back there in the North.
Well, this has been a lot of fun for me. I thoroughly enjoyed your book and will feel honored to hear from you. Tony Germani.
A. Dear Tony: I am delighted to respond to your message. I’ll try to address your arguments one at a time:
Grant as a commander. I hope I made clear that Grant’s dogged persistence pushed Lee into a hopeless position once he had gained Petersburg and locked Lee into a siege operation which he could never win. But I am primarily a strategist, and I believe Grant could have achieved this far, far more easily if he had combined his direct attack on Lee in the Wilderness with a flank attack up the James River to Petersburg (I mean a strong offensive under a good commander, not the weak effort by Beast Butler, who was a military incompetent). This would have taken advantage of Union superiority in numbers and forced Lee to divide his army. The result would likely have been as effective as the result of the Overland Campaign, and could have been achieved with only a fraction of the casualties. I do not think Grant’s attacks in Virginia aided Sherman’s attacks in Georgia. Joe Johnston had a perfectly adequate army in Georgia. If he had repeatedly broken Sherman’s railway line back to Chattanooga (and to Louisville), he could had hobbled Sherman’s advance. The problem was not shortage of Rebel troops, but Johnston’s incapacity to use them wisely. Lee meanwhile was focused on defending Virginia and was uninterested in dispatching any of his troops to another theater. After he had been locked up at Petersburg, he told one of his officers—-who asked why he didn’t evacuate Richmond and institute a war of movement—-that, if he did so, he would be a traitor to his government. My major complaint with Grant is his inability to see any way of defeating Lee except by frontal assault. My strongest evidence is the message he sent to Sherman once Sherman had reached the sea at Savannah in late 1864. He wanted Sherman to abandon the spectacular strategic position he had gained in the Confederate rear and to bring all of his infantry to Virginia by ship and join Grant in a direct assault against Lee’s fortifications.
Replacing Joe Johnston. I think President Davis could scarcely have found a worse replacement for Johnston than John Bell Hood, who had learned virtually nothing in three years of war, and who nearly destroyed the Confederate army in frontal assaults. But I also believe Johnston was a hopelessly ineffective commander, and would have lost Atlanta, just the same as Hood did. His entire strategy was to defend a line in front of the Union army. All Sherman had to do was to sweep around this line. He did this repeatedly from Dalton to Atlanta. Sherman’s flanking movements had driven the Confederacy into a hopeless strategic position by the summer of 1864. The fatal mistake of Johnston was his failure to stop Sherman while he was still vulnerable in north Georgia. The only chance remaining was to pull the Rebel army entirely away from a defensive posture and to institute a war of movement. There remained a brief window of opportunity. Sherman needed several weeks to build up sufficient supplies for the 60,000 men he kept to drive on Savannah or Charleston. If the railway back to Nashville and Louisville had been cut before this happened, Sherman could still have been hobbled. Once this force was supplied, however, there was no hope left. Sherman saw that he could cut himself loose from the railway, and could get supplies quicker by advancing on Savannah or Charleston. I doubt if any commander Davis might have appointed could have rectified this situation. There was no Confederate commander (after Jackson) who could have conducted such a war of movement. (The best exemplar of this strategy was Frederick the Great, who didn’t win but kept his army in play between the French, Austrians, and Russians in the Seven Years War 1756-63.)
Capturing Washington. Jackson’s idea of an invasion of the North did not contemplate sacking Washington. He would merely have cut the single railroad line leading into the city from the north by way of Baltimore. This would have stopped delivery of food and other supplies to the capital, and would have forced its evacuation by Lincoln’s government. Jackson planned to keep the eastern railway corridor severed. This, along with threatening Northern factories and occupying Northern cities (Philadelphia was the key), would have eliminated any possibility of the North pursuing a war against the South. Since 92 percent of all Northern industry was located between Baltimore and New Hampshire along this eastern rail corridor, the North could not have produced campaigns in the West any more than it could have produced campaigns in the East.
I hope this has explained my positions and I hope also that I have answered your questions. Bevin.
Q. Dear Bevin: Thanks so much for your reply. You are providing insights I have not entertained before. A few questions remain however:
On Grant: It seems your strategy and his are quite in alignment except for his choice of a commander for that move up the James. But can he really be blamed for Butler? All I have ever read on that subject was that Butler, as a war Democrat and political general was untouchable—that is until after Lincoln was safely re-elected. Once he demonstrated his amazing prowess at Fort Fisher however, then Grant was able to send him packing back into his primary career. Butler was the senior general in the area. Could Grant have done otherwise? (Though this does raise the question—couldn't he have found someone else to head up that first Fort Fisher expedition? By then Grant probably should have known better.)
On Johnston: You're not the first historian I've read who was less than enthusiastic about Joe Johnston. You're the second. There may be many others however. I'm simply not that well read. The other, writing about the Vicksburg campaign, felt Johnston did less than nothing to help out Pemberton and stops little short of calling him cowardly. From my humble perch, I'm not sure I can see where he did do much other than to get out of Grant's way. But what I find strange is that no less an authority than Sherman himself, backed up by Grant I believe, thought Johnston to be the South's best general and I think Sherman had great praise for how Johnston defended against him. Any light you have to shed on that would be appreciated. Your thoughts on what Johnston should have done, however, make a lot of sense to me. Getting into Sherman's rear and upsetting his supply line may have sounded a bit risky as it would have left the door to Atlanta wide open. But it was precisely the same strategy which shut down Grant's first 'overland' campaign—to Vicksburg in 1862, that is.
On capturing Washington: Forgive me. This is where my memory of your arguments in the book had failed me...and I couldn't agree with you more. I don't think the North could have or would have recovered from such havoc as entertained by Jackson. The problem is, I think, that such a strategy would have been a virtual denial of the corporate self image of the CSA and would never have been contemplated by anyone other than such a radical as Stonewall. It would have violated the purity of their cause which was a simple desire to be 'free' and left alone, not to invade someone else's turf. (Although, as I recall, I don't think it would have been difficult to entice them to invade Cuba, for example, in quest of more territory for their burgeoning peculiar institution. But that's different.) Tony Germani.
A. Dear Tony: Good to hear from you! Ill try to answer your questions in order.
Grant as supreme commander. Lincoln gave Grant command of all U.S. forces, so of course he could have replaced Beast Butler. Political generals like Butler could not be easily shunted aside, but Grant could have named him commander of a smaller force assigned a lesser target, allowing a better general to command a direct strike up the James River valley with the main force.
Johnston as commander. Joe Johnston did not enjoy high regard as a commander even during the war. He himself recognized this, saying that his replacement by R.E. Lee after the battle of Seven Pines would be good for the Confederacy because it would ease President Davis’s rancor against him. You’ll remember that Johnston refused to tell Davis of his military plans (fearing they would leak), and carried on a running dispute with Davis because he had not been named the senior general in Confederate service. Porter Alexander wrote that Johnston fought only one offensive battle (Seven Pines) and he mismanaged it grossly. And the historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge criticized him as “dilatory.” I cannot fathom why Sherman praised Johnston, except possibly as an indirect way of complimenting himself for overcoming a strong competitor. Johnston performed miserably against Grant at Jackson in the Vicksburg campaign, and made all the wrong strategic decisions in the Atlanta campaign.
The South’s strategy. I agree with you that the strategy insisted on by President Davis was the single greatest cause for Confederate defeat. He took the attitude that the South would only defend itself and not attack the North. You can actually see this preserved in bronze on the Jeff Davis (or Confederate States) monument at Monument Avenue and Davis Street in Richmond. The key element of this monument is a quote from Davis that the South simply wanted to be left alone. This was fatal, because it meant that Davis rejected all of Jackson’s proposals for invasion (as well as the much more tentative proposals Johnston made in the fall of 1861 and the spring of 1862). I hope this answers your questions. Bevin.
Q. Dear Bevin: Thanks again. I never knew about that quote on Davis's monument. Interesting. How about that for hanging on by the fingernails to the glorious lost cause—etched rather permanently in bronze? "...if people could've only let me alone..."
A question or two regarding Longstreet—-I have read that he may have been the only general on either side who really understood the necessary changes in tactics which were occasioned by improvements in the technology of war (the rifle in particular). I feel certain you would add Jackson to that short list, but beyond that, any thoughts on this?
Also, I have always thought that Longstreet's suggestion to Lee at Gettysburg about moving to the right [south], getting between Meade and D.C, and forcing Meade out in the open was the best option the Confederates had there—especially after the second day when they had Stuart back. I know there were risks involved but attacking headlong into the center of the Union line across a wide open field a mile long doesn't even suggest the concept risk at all—rather a dead certainty, if I may be forgiven a dark pun. Your thoughts on this as well? Tony Germani.
A. Dear Tony: Longstreet absorbed some of Stonewall Jackson concepts, most particularly his idea that the Confederates should stand on the defensive, not attack (which was Lee’s fatal fetish). He did not fully absorb the other part of Jackson’s concept, that, once the Union forces had been stopped by a strong defense, the Rebels should go over immediately to the attack, around the enemy flank. But, yes, you are entirely correct in your analysis of Gettysburg. An immense amount of documentation is available about the huge dispute between Lee and Longstreet on the first and second days of the battle especially. Longstreet’s idea of simply moving to the south would have ousted the Federals from Cemetery Hill and Ridge and changed the entire outcome of the war. There is a fascinating comment that Abner Doubleday made in his book that reinforces this point. I include it in my book in note 28 on page 308. When George G. Meade arrived at Cemetery Hill just before midnight on the July1, 1863, he thought the battle site was terrible. He saw what Longstreet had seen: the position was hopeless if the Confederates moved to the south to block him from Washington. Lincoln would never countenance a Confederate army between the main Union army and the capital. The fact that Lee did not see this, despite Longstreet’s many arguments, shows his profound lack of strategic capacity (and perhaps his extreme belligerence). Bevin.
Q. Dear Bevin: Putting myself in Meade's shoes, couldn't he have rained fire and brimstone down upon the Army of Northern Virginia in any attempted move south—especially from the Round Tops—had he been of a mind to? I'm thinking that the nice road now running through the Confederate positions on Seminary Ridge wasn't there seven score and five years ago and that Lee's army would have had to move along the Emmitsburg Road, much closer to Union gunners and pickets. Lee would have had to go at night and quietly, leaving deceptive campfires burning etc. But if I were Meade and aware of the open road on my left, couldn't I have been watchful for such a move by my adversary and done something about it? Of course, that raises the question of having to divert resources from my right and center which would be dearly needed on the next day as hindsight might have told him, were it available, but couldn't he have made some moves to be in readiness for such a possibility? Your thoughts? Also, getting into Lee's mind—who on the night of the July 2, 1863, would have been getting into Meade's—could he have been thinking the same thoughts? And may not these concerns have made him cautious about Longstreet's suggestion? Nevertheless, I think Longstreet was right and that he was unfairly treated thereafter in the South as the goat of Gettysburg for not trying harder. At Gettysburg, Lee was right about one thing: when he said, "It is all my fault." Not Longstreet's. Tony Germani.
A. Dear Tony: When Meade arrived on Cemetery Hill just before midnight on July 1, 1863, his entire goal was to construct a defensive position that could withstand Confederate attacks. This would have prevented him from moving fast to counter a Rebel move south. Keep in mind as well that the Union army was in chaotic shape. Parts of it were still frantically marching to Gettysburg. There were several small roads and farm lanes available for the Confederates to move south without detection. Indeed, Longstreet used these lanes on July 2 to assemble his corps on the south. But even if a large part of the Confederate army did move onto the Emmitsburg Road to march south, it would have been impossible for Meade to have stopped them. The Union army was emplaced on Cemetery Hill and Ridge. Even if it had started to move at once, it would have still been following behind the Rebel army. In other words, it could not have blocked a Southern move south. Likewise, there would have been insufficient time to occupy the Round Tops, cut down trees, and drag up cannons to interdict any southward movement of the Confederates. Even if, by some chance, cannons had been placed on the Round Tops, they could never have prevented passage of Lee’s army through the wooded landscape. Keep in mind that gunners in those days had to see the targets at which they were firing. Indirect fire and forward artillery observers came only at the turn of the twentieth century. Cavalry might have interfered with such a movement, but, even before J.E.B. Stuart arrived from Carlisle with the main body of Confederate cavalry, Albert G. Jenkins’s 1,600-man cavalry brigade was on hand to deflect any such effort. In general, any military movement that starts first steals a march on the enemy. This is because the enemy must determine by patrols or other intelligence exactly where this movement is headed, and whether the discerned movement is merely a screen to shield a different and more dangerous movement elsewhere. This takes time, during which time the movement continues and during which time no counter movement is possible. Bevin.
July 2008<< Back to top
Barbarossa, German Generals, and the American Civil War
Q. Dear Bevin: Evan Mawdsley in his well researched book "Thunder in the East" (Hodder Arnold, 2005) has written that "Hitler's pause at Smolensk, his transfer of forces to the flanks, were the result of several factors. But they all come back to the essence of the Barbarossa fallacy—that the Red Army would be destroyed on the frontier."(p. 71.) This is agreement with your own assessment in chapter 8 of "How Hitler Could Have Won WW2". He concludes from this that Hitler's leadership was not a critical factor in the failure of German war aims in Russia, but was due rather to the magnitude of the task they faced, and which was underestimated by both Hitler and his generals.
To what extent would you go along with Mawdsley's assertion that "Even if Manstein or some other field marshal had been given sole command of the eastern theater, it would have made little difference"? (p. 204.) Mawdsley also points out that Hitler's decisions up until the end of 1942 were bold and risky, but after Stalingrad, El Alamein, and the Torch landings in North Africa, he became cautious and indecisive. To what extent therefore, do you think Hitler's subsequent military errors were the result of Germany losing the war and not the cause? Regards Charles Russell.
A. Dear Charles: Very good to hear from you! I am always fascinated with your provocative and incisive questions. Sorry I haven't replied sooner. I'm in the midst of writing a new book on the strategy of the American Civil War, and only just came up for air.
I think Evan Mawdsley is entirely correct that Germany bit off far more than it could chew when it invaded the Soviet Union. I say this in my book. However, I do think Germany could have achieved far more than it did if it had concentrated on a drive to Moscow and not split its forces into three separate, unsupported campaigns (north, center, south). German intelligence had already shown that Stalin had committed a blunder of stupendous proportions by lining up virtually his whole army along the frontier, so all the Germans had to do was to punch through at selected places and swing around the Russian troops and form caldrons. This opened up a fabulous opportunity—one known before June 22, 1941—offering the Germans options as to the overall strategy.
I think this is where Hitler's baleful influence was destructive to Germany's success. The generals around him at the time pressed for emphasis on Moscow, not the other two fronts. If a campaign focused on Moscow had been conducted, the Soviets' northern and southern theaters would have been divided and unable to cooperate. Thus, this would have given Germany on a strategic level the same sort of central position that Napoleon was seeking when he sent Marshal Ney to seize Quatre Bras in 1815—dividing the British army at Brussels from the Prussian army at Namur.
As it was, the caldron battles destroyed so many Soviet forces and the panzers were so successful that, even though only a third of German strength was concentrated on Moscow, the Germans in late summer had an almost clear road to the city. That, of course, is when Hitler in his madness diverted the two panzer groups north and south, thus ending any chance of capturing the city (or winning the war). I also agree with Mawdsley that Hitler was bold until the disaster at Stalingrad.
I separate the Russian campaign from North Africa, however. Hitler was obsessed with Russia, and never saw the war on any grand strategic level. He sent most of his resources to Russia, and never gave Rommel more than token forces. So, although it's true that he did not want to take chances in North Africa, I think the principal reason was that he always saw that theater as a holding action, not as a place where he could reach a decision. There is a fascinating question about the Mediterranean that was raised by Kurt Student, the commander of the paratroops who seized Crete in 1941—that the cost of this operation was so much greater than Hitler had anticipated that he shied away from adventures in the region thereafter. I don't really think this is true. I think Hitler never saw opportunities in the Mediterranean. He told Wilhelm von Thoma in 1940 he could spare only one panzer division for Africa, because all he wanted to do there was keep Mussolini in the war! Regards, Bevin Alexander.
Q. Dear Bevin: Thank you for your insightful reply to my email. I am pleased to hear that you are writing a book on the American Civil War in which it is most interesting to evaluate what effects the varied personalities of the generals—the flair and dash of Lee, the caution of McClellan, or the persistence of Grant—had on events.
With respect to Barbarossa, Mawdsley argues that Liddell Hart's influential analysis, based on talks with German generals after the war, that Hitler made a serious blunder in not pressing ahead with an attack on Moscow in early August, is wrong. He points out that by 30 September when the advance on Moscow began, German Army Group Center had been reinforced by the 4th Panzer Group and the Luftwaffe's 8th Air Corps. Its flanks were no longer threatened, its supply position had greatly improved, panzer divisions had been refitted, and infantry divisions moving on foot were able to catch up with the panzer and motorized divisions. Also the Russians were by then distracted by the Kiev disaster, and were forced to send reserves there, while Timoshenko's Western Army Group had been drained by the second phase of the battle of Smolensk. Magenheimer in "Hitler's War" (Cassell, 1998) who has reached a similar conclusion, writes "it is highly questionable whether there was any chance of success for Colonel General Halder's plan to advance on Moscow in mid-August against a still unbroken enemy, knowing that the northern and southern flanks of Army Group Center were unprotected, and without any strategic reserves." (p. 89.)
It is also noteworthy that Hitler's stand-fast order after the Wehrmacht's defeat in the battle of Moscow in December 1941 saved it from a complete rout. With respect to the Stalingrad blunder, Mawdsley points out that German Army Intelligence falsely assumed, as they had done in 1941 that the Red Army could not launch a serious counter offensive and goes on to say, "Although Hitler is rightly to blame for some of the final decisions, the German High Command especially Halder and Bock - endorsed the early concept of the campaign, and did not begin to worry until the Wehrmacht stalled at Stalingrad. Here Paulus let himself be drawn into street fighting. The German 6th Army was cut up and immobilized. Paulus failed to leave enough of a mobile reserve. When the Soviet breakthrough began on 19 November, he reacted slowly and passively. Above all he compliantly accepted Hitler's orders not to attempt a breakout to the west with his army." (p. 166.)
In the light of all these wrong decisions by German generals and German Army Intelligence, to what extent do you think they were motivated after the war to place all of the blame for failure on Hitler, and mislead war historians like Liddell Hart? Regards, Charles Russell.
A. Dear Charles: Sorry I've taken so long to respond to your message. I've been writing a chapter on the American Civil War (Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign) and it has wiped out nearly everything else.
Sure, I agree that all of the German generals tried to lay the blame for all of their mistakes on Hitler. That's an occupational hazard. There's a wonderful series of four volumes on the Civil War put out by Century magazine in the 1880s (Battles and Leaders)that solicited the commanders on both sides of the war to write about the campaigns. It is a remarkable source because every one of the generals points out in agonizing detail how he was right and the other guys were wrong. Whatever awful happened was caused by somebody else ’ s mistakes.
My view about Russia in 1941 is that the road to Moscow was open after the caldron battles, and the mistake in not driving on to Moscow was primarily because Hitler diverted panzers north and south. Heinz Guderian (who of course is also protecting his own reputation) in Panzer Leader nevertheless gives a pretty convincing case for this argument. As for the 1942 campaign, I do not blame the German generals for the disaster. True all of them supported the drive. But what destroyed the possibility of success was Hitler ’ s insistence on turning the primary focus and power on Stalingrad instead of the oilfields of the Caucasus. This is what cost him the war. Regards, Bevin Alexander.
Q. Dear Bevin: While it is so, that losing generals tend to blame the other guy for their failures, John Mosier in "The Blitzkrieg Myth" (Perennial 2004) has also noted that the other guy's "success breeds jealousy and hatred. Rommel, whom Montgomery overcame on the battlefield and then proceeded to drive back across North Africa, is scathing in his assessment of his adversary." (p. 164.) According to Mosier's figures Montgomery had over 150,000 infantry and Rommel 100,000 which is less than the 3:1 advantage recommended by theorists for mounting a direct frontal attack on a well-defended position, where no flank attack is possible. To add to Montgomery's difficulty, a large proportion of his army was inexperienced in combat. But when things went wrong he was flexible enough to change his tactics during the battle.
While Rommel's criticism of Montgomery is understandable, far less so is the near hysterical abuse heaped on him by British military theorists. Among their many criticisms was that he was dull, unimaginative, systematic, ultra cautious, and above all slow, especially in his pursuit of Rommel's defeated army. A few analysists did concede that Rommel's engineers were masters in the art of delaying tactics using mines and booby traps, that armies suffer exhaustion after the strain of battle, and Eisenhower's forces to the west were in a much better position to obtain supplies and reinforcements. Mosier's explanation for the antipathy towards Montgomery expressed by British military theorists, was because he refused to conform to their theories, particularly those of J.F.C. Fuller. An explanation put forward by others is that, despite the ultimate success of his flanking strategy in Normandy in 1944, his bombast infuriated impatient allied commanders, when he failed to deliver on his unrealistic prediction for the early capture of Caen.
To what extent do you think that the assessment of Montgomery by German generals, British military theorists, and his overbearing manner may have resulted in his being underrated as a general? Regards Charles Russell.
A. Dear Charles: I'm afraid I fall into the category of Montgomery bashers. My main objection to him was that he chose frontal attacks in nearly all cases, that he was obsessed with "tidying up the battlefield" and with assembling overwhelming power before he struck, and that, when he did move, he did so with agonizing slowness. Rommel actually depended on Montgomery's snail-like pace to give him time to disengage in February 1943 and turn on the Americans at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. I must admit, however, that I was especially turned off by the know-it-all tone in his autobiography. Egos have done in other generals before Montgomery—McClellan's focus on himself and nothing else in the American Civil War contributed much to his downfall. Come to think of it, McClellan had all the bad habits of Montgomery—never wanting to let his forces go until everything was perfect, and a fatal hesitation to move. Yet for all his bad press Montgomery did wonders for the morale and confidence of the British army, and for that the world should be eternally grateful. Regards, Bevin Alexander.<< Back to top
Would the U.S. have used the A-bomb against Germany?
The following is the response of Carey Peck to a dialogue between him and Bevin Alexander over which way the war against Germany might have gone—if Adolf Hitler had taken advantage of his strategic opportunities, and if he had not challenged the United States directly by declaring war shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Carey Peck’s conclusion was that the United States would eventually have been drawn into war with Germany, and if so we would have used nuclear weapons against them.
Dear Bevin: It was remarkable and gratifying to receive your response. Thank you.
I agree the German attack on Russia fatally weakened their overall effort, as did their declaration of war against us. Empires usually fall due to a suicidal foreign policy. That is Toynbee's judgment. The Third Reich followed the pattern. The historical question is, then, would Hitler have declared war against the U.S. in any case? This goes into psychology and national Zeitgeist, but Germany's history and actions suggest yes.
You are right that it would have been difficult for the U.S. to pull the atomic trigger against a European state—even Hitler's Reich. There is an element of culture here, and also perhaps racism. Nobody really knew Hiroshima and Nagasaki so nobody really cared. They were targets. Kyoto, a city renowned for its temples, was spared—an exemption made easier because it never was a major industrial target. Could we have deployed a nuclear weapon against Berlin or Munich? Well, we were accomplishing the same end through conventional means. The RAF and USAF equaled the effects of an atomic attack in massed raids on Dresden (the most brutal example) and Hamburg. The center of virtually every large German city was laid waste. There is a large hill outside of Berlin called Der Teufelberg which was created by the rubble scraped from the streets and lots of the city and deposited onto what was once a forest. The bones of tens of thousands rest there as well. Each of those death lists equaled Nagasaki. I'd say that was a good start, and suggests that in a closer drawn contest we would have been prepared to hit harder.
Here's my thinking. If Hitler owned the Continent—and I do not think he ever had the cross-Channel logistical or naval heft to mount a successful invasion—but if the war had been even more desperately close-fought, maybe we would have waited. We might have played for time. However, if Hitler was attacking England, especially if he was getting ashore, then all bets would be off. Blood is thicker than any scruple in that regard.
Thank you again for your response. It has made me think about destiny and the workings of history.
March 2, 2006
The following is an interview conducted on January 9, 2006 by Sonshi.com, the largest website for Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Click the link below to read the entire interview which covers military strategy, Sun Tzu, the Civil War, the Korean War, great military leaders, and current foreign affairs.
Sonshi.com: Your expertise is in military strategy. In layman’s language, what exactly is “strategy” to you, and how does it relate to warfare?
Alexander: Strategy is primarily the art of the general, and refers most appropriately to the plan behind a whole campaign or war. The word is drawn from the Greek strategos, which means general. Tactics, on the other hand refers to the methods for winning victories on the battlefield or in close combat.Read the entire Sonshi interview >> << Back to top
All's fair in war
Q. Dear Bevin: Military theorist Hans Magenheimer has described general Montgomery as an unimaginative, mediocre leader, while Von Runstedt described him as overcautious, habit ridden, and systematic, whose victory at El Alamein was entirely due to his big advantage in men and materiel. Interestingly, they never criticise general Ritchie, who had much in common with Lord Cardigan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade. Montgomery won this famous battle because he applied the cold hard military logic of using maximum force at the point of decision. The implied criticism that he only won because he enjoyed 'unfair' advantage is relevant to a sporting but not surely to a military one. Some English theorists maintain that he should have used more venturesome (read risky) tactics, presumably to have given Rommel a bit more of a sporting chance, like a gallant cricket captain making a sporting declaration. Montgomery never played cricket. What they also overlook is the fact that Rommel enjoyed the counterbalancing advantage of defence over attack, on a location ideally suited to defence, and that the history of combat is full of examples of a weaker force defying the odds, and beating one much more powerful in both men and materiel, due to the skill of the leader. Midway is a good example from WW2. Rommel failed to emulate the feats of many great commanders of the past, Alexander of Greece, King Robert Bruce, Henry V, Wolfe, Clive and many many more, who won against overwhelming odds. The concept of war as a species of sporting contest appears to have reached its peak during the conflict in the Crimea. For example Lord Raglan refused to listen to information from a Russian deserter, the use of which he regarded as unethical and giving 'unfair' advantage. Spying in general was looked upon as devious and despicable. That this kind of attitude still prevailed to some degree in WW2 is revealed in the case of Lord Portal, who scotched a plan by Special Operations Executive (SOE) to ambush a particularly troublesome Luftwaffe bomber crew. Portal's reason was that could not associate himself with 'assassins'. My question to you, Bevin, is to what extent do you think the concept of war as a species of sport, has, and perhaps still does permeate, at a deeper level, the thinking of military theorists? Charles Russell.
A. Dear Charles: I'm always fascinated by your insights! Whenever anyone speaks of fairness in war, I'm reminded of the famous comment of Stonewall Jackson as he was withdrawing south in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in spring 1862.
A Union cavalry regiment broke through the scattered ranks of the Confederate rear guard, and rode hard up the Valley Pike until it struck a Virginia regiment, which had halted to receive the charge with massed volleys. As if they had ridden into a trip wire, the Union horsemen were shattered, saddles emptied, the horses going down screaming. All but one Union rider was killed or captured. That night talking to Stonewall Jackson, a Virginia colonel expressed regret for having to deal so harshly with such gallantry. Jackson replied: “Colonel, why did you say you saw those Federal soldiers fall with regret?” The colonel answered that he admired their valor, and hated to have to slaughter such brave men. Jackson responded: “No, shoot them all. I do not wish them to be brave.”
I have never had much sympathy for the idea of giving the enemy a "sporting chance." I've never complained about Bernard Montgomery's use of overwhelming force. My complaint is that he was insufferably slow and cautious, and that he applied his great force in the most obvious headlong way. This cost the lives of many more soldiers than necessary, and allowed Rommel, for example, to get clean away from El Alamein. Also Rommel was so certain that Montgomery would move with his customary slowness that he confidently turned his back on 8th Army and struck the Americans at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in early February 1943.
Your comment about Lord Raglan refusing to listen to the information from a Russian deserter in the Crimean War reminds me of Henry L. Stimson, U.S. secretary of state in President Herbert Hoover’s administration (1929-33). Stimson dismantled the State Department's office that broke the codes of foreign radio transmissions on the ground that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail." We are at the moment involved in a huge flap in the United States about something quite the reverse of Stimson's "gentlemanly" attitude: secret tapping of the phone conversations of some Americans by the National Security Agency to locate terrorist plots.
To answer your question, however, I think there is a deep human feeling that fairness is important, that taking advantage is the mark of a cad. This explains why many people see warfare as a sporting event. This attitude, for example, lies at the heart of the contempt regular soldiers have always held for guerrilla warriors. Guerrillas don't fight fair. They sneak up on their enemies. Not sporting. Reminds me of a wonderful comment by a British historian writing about the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1941. He complained that the Japanese didn't come down the roads in the way they should have, but slipped off into the jungles and set up roadblocks in the rear that stopped British soldiers, who quite properly had remained on the roads. His implication was that the British lost because the Japanese unfairly violated the rules of war.
I think the other way. I subscribe to the old adage that all's fair in love and war. I'm at the moment writing a new book on the American Civil War. The Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, insisted that the South's position was only to defend itself against northern aggression. He refused to carry the war to the North, as Stonewall Jackson and several other Confederate generals proposed. That is why the South lost. Not because of greater northern power, but because Davis saw himself as a lofty defender, not as a conqueror.
January 4, 2006
Historical opinion influenced by hindsight?
Q. Dear Bevin: After rereading your outstanding account of the German campaign in Russia, I am now convinced that Hitler's blunders in that campaign were categorically different from those made during the campaign in the west, which as I see it, only came to be called “blunders” with the benefit of hindsight. Hitler's decisions in the conduct of the war in the east exhibited the classic hallmark of the incompetent leader, namely that of refusal even to listen to the advice of, or utilise the superior skills of, anyone below him in military rank. He totally lacked the true humility of really great men. The halt order at Dunkirk on the other hand, can, without the benefit of hindsight, be viewed as a logical military procedure, as to whether the next stage of the campaign was to be a move north, or a move south to central France. The decision has to be seen in view of the fact that the Germans did not even consider the possibility of a sea evacuation. Gort himself had not envisaged it and neither had Churchill. Its success was partly due to the swift decision- making of the British Military Command, in organising a strong defence around Dunkirk during the brief two-day respite of the halt order. Similarly, the blunder of ordering the bombing of London during the Battle of Britain was not due to Hitler's or Göring's incompetence, but rather to that of the German Intelligence Service, who persistently grossly overestimated the number of British fighter planes destroyed during the battle. The bombing of London on September 7 was therefore ordered on the erroneous premise that Fighter Command had already been defeated,and the next logical stage, in the conduct of the air war, was to follow the precepts of Douhet. Do you think, in view of these facts, that the controversy over the Dunkirk halt order and the bombing of London commencing September 7, indicates how difficult it is for opinion not to be influenced by hindsight? Regards, Charles Russell.
A. Dear Charles: I would go further than your conclusion—that opinion is influenced by hindsight—and say that judgments on the spot and at the time are also influenced by a vast number of factors—intelligence reports, personal attitudes, the weather, what mood the boss is in, etc. It's difficult in hindsight to conclude which of these factors were the deciding ones and which were chaff blowing in the wind. We are seeing this element played out in maddening fashion in the U.S. today in the argument over what the intelligence estimates about going into Iraq really said, and who really got to see them. Some congressmen and senators are saying they didn't see all of them. The Bush administration says they could have if they had wanted to. This chaotic argument is after the fact. In the actual midst of all great military endeavors there is a myriad of factors that affect decisions. After the fact we can find any number of statements, reports, or opinions made at the time and we can conclude that these were crucial in determining events. But it's not necessarily so. The national intelligence estimate just prior to our going into Iraq listed the possibility of guerrilla or partisan resistance. It was one statement in a 38-page document. The Bush administration discounted this possibility and the invasion went in. Afterward, the CIA (since it was being hammered for loudly claiming there were weapons of mass destruction when there were none) pointed to this warning in the intelligence estimate as proof that they had predicted an insurgency in Iraq. My conclusion from this, and the conclusion of a lot of other observers here in the U.S., is that the CIA stuck this statement in to cover their tails. It's an old bureaucratic tactic to list all eventualities. It was not by any means the main thrust of the estimate at the time. In light of this contemporary mess about Iraq, and my experience in running down sources for my books, I'm hesitant to seize on any one report, fact, event, or opinion made at the time and conclude that it was the decisive factor that led to an outcome. Accordingly, in regard to the Battle of Britain, I tend to go along with the mainstream view that the Luftwaffe erroneously had concluded that RAF losses were so great in the August 23–September 6 period that a change of focus to London was possible. Yet, as I say in my book, Adolf Hitler's anger at a RAF raid on Berlin seems to have played a major role in this decision. On the other hand, the Luftwaffe probably did not know the true extent of the RAF weakness—one-fourth of the pilots were dead or wounded—and thus did not realize it should have continued its effort to eliminate Fighter Command. Which of these, if any, was the deciding factor? I don't think we can know for certain. We see the past through a glass darkly.
December 12, 2005
Could an invasion of Britain have succeeded in 1940?
Q. Dear Bevin: I have just finished reading your book, How Hitler Could Have Won World War II, and found it to be one of the best books on WWII. I would have liked to have read how you would have analyzed the interesting hypothetical question of whether Operation Sea Lion could have succeeded had the Luftwaffe defeated RAF Fighter Command. Heinz Magenheimer in his book, Hitler’s War (Cassell 2002) says no, contrary to the historical consensus. To support his view he quotes Admiral [Karl] Dönitz as follows (page 36): “Even if Germany had managed to achieve clear and incontestable air superiority over large areas of England by mid-September, the invasion would still have remained a risky operation. First, given the advanced time of the year the weather must have played an important role. Second, a mass air assault would have been launched against the invasion fleet not only by the remaining British fighters, but also by bombers. Third, Britain held a trump card in the superior strength of her fleet, which would have been despatched immediately, regardless of risk, against German invasion forces.” This analysis seems to be supported by the complete failure of the invasion flotilla against Crete. Magenheimer goes on to point out that the invasion fleet would have had to contend with mines, shore batteries, and difficulties getting tanks ashore. In addition Britain by September was better prepared than is generally realized with 15 divisions of professional infantry, numerous militias, 3 armoured divisions, and 900 artillery pieces. In view of this, is it possible that the consensus view that Operation Sea Lion would have been a walkover had the Luftwaffe won the Battle of Britain, in fact wrong? Charles Russell.
A. Dear Charles: Your question (and Heinz Magenheimer’s thesis) raise fascinating points. Before addressing the military problems, I think we must wonder whether Hitler was ever truly sincere about invading Britain. If you’ll check my book (page 45), you’ll note that he had already started planning to invade Russiabefore the Battle of Britain was even launched. The evidence is strong that he believed Britain would “come to its senses,” and make peace (in other words, he was clueless as to what motivated the British people—they never would have joined Hitler’s new world order). There’s evidence for Hitler’s misjudgment of the British because he said a number of times that the Soviet Union was Britain’s “continental dagger” (see page 2), and once it was destroyed Britain would give in. This, of course, was nonsense. Churchill was relying on the United States, not the Soviet Union. Having said all this, Hitler still may have launched an invasion if the Luftwaffe had actually gained air superiority over Britain, because he understood the disadvantages of a defiant power in his rear. I agree with Magenheimer that the Royal Navy would have sacrificed itself against any sea armada the Germans launched across the narrow seas, and that this would have caused immense problems for the Germans. But I do not think that Crete proves an invasion of Britain would have failed—quite the contrary. Crete shows the German ability to adjust to unexpected reverses. When the naval strike against Crete failed (at about the same time that the parachute assault also was about to fail because of British resistance), the Germans reinforced the one partially successful portion of their assault (against part of the airfield at Maleme, and heights south of it), and began feeding in troops and equipment by air. I believe an air assault against southern England would have succeeded (provided, of course, the Germans had achieved air superiority), because the British (unlike on Crete) could not predict precisely where a strike would occur, and could not be waiting for it as they were for the Crete invasion. In the air invasion of Holland, for example, the Germans very astutely seized airfields which they then used to bring in an air-landing division + supplies. In Holland they also seized bridges, so the 9 th Panzer Division coming from Germany could reach them, and end resistance. The Germans would probably have exercised the same logic if they had invaded England—this time seizing a southern port and the approaches to it, so any ships that could get in would have a haven. I believe the Germans could have sustained their forces long enough by air in Britain to have gotten in artillery and tanks, and build an ironclad bastion. They most certainly did this in Tunisia in late 1942 after the Allies landed in North Africa, and when they were much weaker relatively than they were in 1940. The distances between Italy-Sicily and Tunisia were greater than the distances between the Continent and England. The critical and most difficult problem in any invasion, of course, was to get enough heavy weapons to England to stop British tanks. The 50mm German antitank gun could have been ferried by air. (The infantry Panzerfaust antitank rocket launcher had not been developed in 1940). But the 50mm gun could not stop the Matildas. The primary task for the Germans, therefore, was to ferry in by ship or barge enough 88mm antiaircraft guns (the best tank killers) to blunt any British armored thrust. Yes, it would have been one whale of a fight! But the story of Tunisia in somewhat parallel circumstances makes me believe they could have pulled it off. I’d love to hear your comments.
November 8, 2005
Were intercepts crucial to Rommel’s success in Africa?
Q. Dear Bevin: I read the part in your book [How Wars Are Won] discussing Rommel and his use of the center position in Tunisia. This made me think of a book I had recently read about codes and ciphers, Secret Warfare by Bruce Norman. In it, Mr. Norman demonstrates that Rommel had extremely good intelligence. For a year, Sept. 1941 to Autumn 1942, Rommel’s intelligence people, with the aid of a stolen codebook, were able to translate every message from the Allies. The author states, “Without it (the intelligence), it is doubtful whether he, the Desert Fox, the man always uncannily in the right place at the right time, would ever have gained his phenomenal reputation. “ I’d be interested to hear your comments on how the impact of this intelligence affects your perception of Rommel’s abilities. Sincerely, Anthony Priest
A. Dear Anthony: Thanks for your message. I've not read Bruce Norman's book, but I know a little about Rommel's intelligence service and that it contributed greatly to his operations. I don't think it was the deciding factor, however. The situation in Libya-Egypt in 1941-1942 was plainly evident to Rommel—that is, a flank on the desert south that could always be turned by armor + a hesitant, slow-to-move leadership on the British side. The combination meant that Rommel could strike whenever he had finagled a few more guns and tanks from a reluctant Hitler. The story of the War in the Desert is that of an offensive by Rommel whenever he built up a tiny reserve of strength. Intelligence intercepts were of tremendous importance, yes, because they gave a good picture of British plans and activities. But they were not decisive. For example, in the Gazala battles leading up to Alamein in spring and summer of 1942, the boldness of Rommel in the face of known British dispositions is what makes this such a fascinating campaign. In other words, Rommel characteristically knew what he was facing (either because of intercepts or from the pure logic of what the British usually did and what they had to do). Rommel then struck hard and with extreme audacity at the weakest point he could locate. To illustrate, in the initial stages of this campaign, when he rounded the southernmost British bastion at Bir Hacheim, and then struck northeast, Rommel may or may not have known from intercepts that the British armor was spread all over the map—but he could have deduced this would be the case on the evidence of previous British actions. You might be interested in reading Chapter 13 in my book, How Hitler Could Have Won World War II (New York: Crown, 2000), which covers this campaign. I hope this will be of some help to you.
November 2, 2005
Can terrorists operate like true guerrillas?
Q. Dear Bevin: We discussed why you think terrorists are not able to be as successful as guerrillas; but what happens when they collaborate with guerrillas? Are they then able to "swim like fish in a pond"? In other words do the guerrillas provide the terrorists with the ability to blend in among the masses? Lastly, in light of your distinction between the two groups, why would guerrillas partner with terrorists if the aims of the terrorist are "irrational" or "unobtainable"? Cedric Muhammad.
A. Dear Cedric: The question, first, of whether terrorists can swim with guerrillas inside the water of the people. Answer, only if and so long as they reflect the goals of the guerrillas themselves. But in Iraq there is a substantial union of purpose between the al Qaeda terrorists and the guerrillas. The guerrillas are trying to prevent a stable successor government being established in Iraq. The terrorists want to harm Americans in any way they can. Thus the two have a common purpose. The guerrilla movement is largely limited to the Sunni triangle (Baghdad-Falluja-Tikrit), and within this area there are enough Sunni supporters of Saddam Hussein that individuals can emerge from the population, do their damage, then slip back into the population with some assurance of safety. But you must keep in mind that the ultimate aims of al Qaeda terrorists and Saddam Sunnis are different, and the terrorists' support base accordingly is fragile. Of course, it is much stronger in the Sunni triangle than it is in, say, New York City! That's why, in my opinion, the terrorists are going to Baghdad. They can strike at Americans and they can be reasonably protected…The guerrillas want to drive out the Americans and prevent an Iraqi government that would reject Sunni (or Baathist) control of the country. Thus the aims of the terrorists in Iraq are not "irrational" to the guerrillas. This juncture of the goals of both groups causes me to believe that there is little to distinguish terrorists and guerrillas at the moment in Iraq. The situation is similar, but not identical, to the situation in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. In Afghanistan, the aim of the Taliban to take over and reorder the country in their own image was supported by al Qaeda, since both pushed extreme fundamentalist goals. Therefore, the Taliban supported al Qaeda and vice versa. In Iraq the Baathists are secular Muslims, and will endure the al Qaeda terrorists only so long as they can use them to drive out the Americans. If that ever happened (and I do not believe it will), then the Baathists would make short work of the terrorists. Hope this answers your question.
November 2, 2005