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No End of a Lesson

No End of a Lesson

Mini Teaser: Should American military leaders devote themselves to controlling the chaos let loose by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, or should they prepare for larger and longer term threats?

by Author(s): Thomas Donnelly

The articles in this issue by Andrew Krepinevich and Andrew Bacevich indicate the sharp horns of the dilemma now before American military leaders: should they devote themselves to controlling the chaos let loose by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, or should they prepare for larger and longer term threats?

This dilemma is not dissimilar to that facing the British army and government in the early 1920s. At the end of World War I, the British army could stake a strong claim to be the world's finest fighting force. Its fighting spirit and discipline withstood the trial of four years' trench warfare while the French mutinied. It vanquished the Germans by mastering the war's new weapons, the tank and the airplane; though many of the British senior generals were crude and unimaginative, others, notably Major General Sir Ernest Swinton, were men of critical intelligence. Swinton's "Notes on the Employment of Tanks" began the process whereby the British army solved the problem of the stalemate and slaughter of the trenches. Following the recommendations in a paper written by one of Swinton's disciples, Colonel J.F.C. Fuller, in November 1917 the British Third Army attacked the Germans near Cambrai, combining larger numbers of tanks and aircraft in concert to rip an eight-mile gash in the enemy lines, an unprecedented victory by trench-line standards. The success stunned both sides. Heinz Guderian, the German master of armored warfare, later wrote in his book Achtung--Panzer! of the shock of the British attack at Cambrai. His purpose was polemical, but his prose reflected the collective wisdom of German officers:

"The outposts were taken by surprise when suddenly indistinct black forms could be discerned. They were spitting fire, and under their weight the strong and deep obstacle belt was cracking like matchwood. The alarm was transmitted to the men in the trenches, and the troops hastened to their machine guns and tried to put up a defense. It was all in vain! The tanks appeared not one at a time but in whole lines kilometers in length!...The only alternatives were death or surrender, since nobody could make off to the rear and hope to survive under this fire."

The British, too, were dumbfounded by the results of the attack; they had no reserve to exploit the success and, slowly, the Germans restored their front.

In the immediate postwar era, Fuller and contemporaries such as Basil Liddell-Hart were hailed as prophets of a new age of warfare. Fuller's "Plan 1919" for the defeat of Germany by massed tank forces, dubbed by his biographer, Brian Holden Reid as "the most famous unused plan in military history," won the Royal United Services Institute essay contest in 1919 and marked the beginning of a time of ferment and invention within the British army and the Royal Tank Corps. Fuller likened future tank battles to war at sea, an analogy with a particular appeal to the British. With the publication of Fuller's essay in the rusi journal in May 1920, others began to take up the cause; military journals soon were full of articles on the exciting possibilities offered by the harnessing of the internal combustion engine to military tasks. Liddell Hart, following both Fuller's ideas and plan of action, entered the rusi contest with an essay of his own. He forecast an apocalyptic mechanization of the British army: "Evolution will now become revolution. The tank is likely to swallow the infantryman, the field artilleryman, the engineer and the signaller, while mechanical cavalry will supercede the horseman...."

The true believers soon had their holy church. The permanent establishment of the Royal Tank Corps as an independent arm of the British army in 1923 created a magnet that attracted bright young officers to the cause of revolution. Veterans of the Great War like Charles Broad, Frederick Pile and Percy Hobart contrasted the results of Cambrai and similar tank battles favorably with the bloody Somme offensive of 1916. To progressive military men, the catastrophic casualties produced by trench warfare proved the requirement to return mobility to future battlefields. Tanks would create ruptures in enemy lines that would in turn lead to flanking attacks and eliminate forever the need for suicidal, frontal charges by unprotected infantry.

Despite the creation of the Royal Tank Corps and the growing overseas reputation of Fuller and others, the effort to create a mass of converts within the British army went slowly. Some officers had reasoned doubts about the more extreme claims for the tank; others, particularly the cavalrymen whose first devotion was to the horse, resisted all proselytizing. They agreed with General Sir R.G. Eggerton, who explained the horse's transcendental qualities:

"If we turn to the introduction of mechanical transport into the Army to replace the horse, and look into the faces of individuals who deal with the horse and the faces of the men who deal with the machine, you will see in the latter what I might call almost a lack of intelligence....I consider that the horse has a humanising effect on men, and the longer we can keep horses for artillery and cavalry the better it will be for the Army, because thereby you keep up the high standard of intelligence in the man from his association with the horse."

Beyond the resistance of the army's Colonel Blimps there was the larger resistance of the British public and its penny-pinching government. The fundamental premise underlying Fuller and Liddell Hart's championing of the tank was the assumption that Great Britain must continue to play its traditional role of balancer of European continental powers. In the past, the primary balancing instrument had been the Royal Navy, buttressed by a small regular army, economic strength and continental allies. World War I, revealing the full costs of the continental commitment, weakened all of these, but even more it weakened the British resolve; in February 1933, the Oxford Union voted "in no circumstances [to] fight for its King and Country." Labour pacifists opposed military spending for ideological reasons while Conservatives' desires for a sound economy dictated that both requirements and budgets be kept to a minimum. Appeasement was favored over firmness by both sides, with only a small minority dissenting.

The additional need for sufficient troops to man the outposts of empire put the army in a vise, slowly but surely squeezing funds for new equipment, new training and new thinking. From the high starting point of the early 1920s, the British armored forces went into an uninterrupted period of decline until the eve of World War II. Britain's large fleet of World War I-vintage tanks gradually became obsolescent, and they were not replaced except by the odd prototype. In September 1925, the army conducted the first of a series of peacetime maneuvers to test new concepts of mechanized warfare, and in 1927, through the politicking of Chief of Imperial General Staff Field Marshall Lord George Milne, was able to establish a permanent experimental mechanized force.

Though these tests proved quite promising, and attracted worldwide attention, the British could not capitalize on their early success to build a substantial armored force. The army was a reform-resistant prisoner to its Cardwell regimental system. Named for Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell, the system had been introduced in 1868 explicitly and ingeniously to balance the demands of imperial policing and the continental commitment. Inspired by Prussia's use of reserves in its stunning victories over Denmark and Austria, the Cardwell system provided for two-battalion regiments, one battalion to serve at home and the other abroad. But, as Harold Winton has observed, the home army "remained an amorphous collection of battalions suited only to finding drafts for and rotating with the units overseas, and the mounting of any protracted overseas expedition threw the system out of balance." The British army was designed entirely for imperial constabulary duties. So even as the budget woes eased in the late 1930s, the army's own organization frustrated its attempts at modernization and reform. Milne's successors, General Sir Cyril Deverell, complained:

"We are now proposing to spend very large sums on modern equipment and armament with the object of producing a small but efficient Field Force for warfare in any theatre under modern conditions. So long as the organization of the Army at home remains dependent upon that of the Army overseas, we can do little more than superimpose modern armament on an organization that is not designed for that specific purpose."

The most neglected arm of a neglected army, the Royal Tank Corps became a fractured and fractious community. In this, perhaps, it merely reflected the prickly personalities of its founding fathers; in 1927, Fuller first accepted and then turned down the command of the Experimental Mechanized Force, haughtily declaring to Liddell Hart, "I am by no means overjoyed as it is a first day of creation show and I am not in a position to emulate the Almighty." Also, and perhaps more decisive, Sonia Fuller was not keen on the social duties demanded of a garrison commander's wife. "Boney" Fuller (the nickname referred to his fascination with Napoleon, not his physique) was attracted to exotic ideas; he was a man who cast spells with his friend Alistair Crowley and, upon leaving the army, who joined Oswald Mosely's British fascists. Still, he was hardly the only difficult character among the tank enthusiasts. Hobart was unable to separate personal from professional differences, and Liddell Hart left the army and developed an implacable hatred for its senior leadership, especially General Douglas Haig.

External pressure and internal stress eventually converted the Royal Tank Corps from a college of inspired prophets to an inflexible, doctrinaire organization. Those officers who dissented from within were dealt with most harshly. Deviance from the gospel--which was that the tank was the sole agent of victory on the battlefield and as such must operate alone and independently--was not tolerated. Fanatic devotion to this ideal squandered the army's best chance to develop an armored division. In 1934, Hobart's tank brigade was paired with a mechanized infantry brigade commanded by Brigadier George Lindsay. Lindsay had long recognized both the strengths and weaknesses of the tank, and wished to use the occasion to suggest what a balanced, combined-arms "Mobile Division" might accomplish. But Hobart would brook no challenge to the tank's supremacy, and the exercises were a disaster. Lindsay was blamed, his career effectively ended, and his ideas discredited.

During the late 1930s, the British army's attempts to integrate tanks unraveled altogether. The Royal Tank Corps' faithful advocated armored divisions of more than six hundred tanks, an organization which proved less than agile. The British lead in tank warfare had eroded to the point where, during the German blitzkrieg through France in May 1940, they could contribute only two tank battalions and a small number of lightly armed divisional cavalry regiments. While Guderian lunged through the Ardennes, the British 1st Armoured Division languished in training on Salisbury Plain, in the words of its chief logistician "still more a basis for argument than an instrument of war." Nor, later in the war, did the British army return to sound principles for the employment of tanks. During Operation Goodwood, one of the major efforts to break out of the Normandy beachhead after D-Day, British tanks attacked without supporting infantry and were decimated by German antitank guns.

The road from Cambrai to Caen--the site of Operation Goodwood--marked a retreat from military dominance that had its parallel in Britain's retreat from preeminence in world politics. In the end, the petty squabbles of the prophets of armored warfare or the penury and pacifism of the politicians were mere reflections of the larger confusion over national strategy. The continental commitment, and the burden of military preparedness it entailed, proved too heavy a burden.

Historical parallels are notoriously dubious, but the United States today faces a dilemma not dissimilar to that faced by Great Britain after World War I. On the one hand it has a kind of "continental commitment" in the need to prepare for high-technology conventional warfare of the sort forecast by Krepinevich. And, as Bacevich observes, America refuses to turn its back on the modern, politically correct version of colonial service that goes by the name of UN peacekeeping and peacemaking missions. Moreover, as was true of the earlier British case, the Pentagon does not have the defense budget to do both properly. The only thing left is to discover a new set of extreme ideas, a new set of eccentric and dyspeptic disasters and then to start bickering peevishly and dogmatically over what we should do.

Essay Types: Essay