Streetwise Professor

January 16, 2019

Don’t Bother Me With the Facts! I Have a Narrative I Need to Flog!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:20 pm

US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell recently tweeted that the Trump administration had been tougher on Russia than any of its predecessors. The reflexive anti-Trumpers wouldn’t stand for this. Not for a second.

NYT columnist Bret Stephens leaped into the lists to tilt at Ambassador Grenell:

And let’s play no word games about the difference between USSR and “Russia.” Putin’s Russia is the USSR reborn under the exact same management.

That’s what’s called “projection”, Bret, for you are playing word games by transmogrifying Putin’s Russia into the USSR.

Today’s Russia “is the USSR reborn” only in Putin’s wildest dreams. By any objective measure, Russia today pales in comparison to the USSR as a threat to the US (or the West generally). From 1945 through 1991, the Soviets had millions of men and thousands of tanks poised on the borders of western Europe. Today the men do not exist and the tanks are rusting away in storage–and all are hundreds of miles to the east of the Elbe. The Soviet Union had a very credible navy: Russia’s navy is back from the utter decrepitude of the 1990s and early 2000s, but is still a pale shadow of what it was under Admiral Gorshkov. Whereas the Soviet Union posed an extreme conventional threat to the US and the west, Russia poses no threat at all.

Oh, by the way Bret–where is Putin’s Warsaw Pact? Oh, that’s right–they are all Nato members.

The USSR was also a formidable ideological adversary, and its ideology was aggressive and expansionist. Especially prior to the 1980s, the Soviet ideology had substantial international appeal, especially in the Third World. The Cold War was as much intellectual and ideological, as it was military and economic.

Putin tries on new ideologies like a teenage girl tries on new clothes. But his ideological fashion choices are primarily for domestic political effect, and have no appeal outside Russia’s borders. Zero. Zip. This is in large part because most of Putin’s ideologies are nationalist and insular. His embrace of Russian Orthodoxy is a particularly telling in this regard. It only has very limited appeal even within Russia, and none whatsoever outside it.

Russia is not an ideological nation. It is a kleptocratic regime.

Yes, Putin laments the demise of the USSR. But his efforts to rebuild it are pathetic in the extreme. In his nearly 20 years in power, his efforts to reconstitute the USSR have succeeded in reclaiming–wait for it–Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and some rather decrepit bits of Ukraine. These are the offal of the USSR. He is now putting the squeeze on Belarus–but Lukashenko has no desire to go back to the Soviet Union.

And even these “accomplishments” have succeeded primarily in isolating Russia, with one of the consequences being economic stagnation that leaves Russia even further behind the US in the wellsprings of military power. After a brief splurge in defense spending, the realities of Russia’s parlous economic condition have forced Putin to cut back again, and announce new weapons with great fanfare–but not to produce them in meaningful numbers. Potemkin revisited.

In sum, Putin’s Russia is at best a pitiful simulacrum of the USSR. To equate the two, as Stephens does, is beyond farcical.

So after dispensing with Stephens’ sleight-of-hand turning 2019 Russia into 1979 USSR, let’s evaluate Ambassador Grenell’s statement on the merits, administration by administration post-USSR.

The Clinton administration was all in propping up Yeltsin. When Yeltsin shelled the Duma in 1993, Clinton said: “I guess we’ve just got to pull up our socks and back Ol’ Boris again.” When Yeltsin was in grave peril of losing the 1996 election, Clinton said: “I know that means we’ve got to stop short of giving a nominating speech for the guy. But we’ve got to go all the way in helping in every other respect.” (Can anyone say “interfering in an election”? I knew you could.) The Clinton administration also supported Russian policy in Chechnya.

Bush II famously gazed into Putin’s eyes, and his administration got on rather well with Russia. Even the 2008 invasion of Georgia did not trigger a vigorous response.

And Obama. Where to begin? Of course there’s the Reset, complete with Hillary grinning like a buffoon standing next to Lavrov, holding an idiotic button (mislabeled in Russian, no less). Then there was Obama paling around with Medvedev–they were burger buddies, remember? Oh–can’t forget the hot mike statement that Medvedev should tell Vladimir to be patient, as Obama would have more flexibility after the 2012 election. In the 2012 campaign, Obama mocked Romney saying that Russia was a threat.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Putin smelled weakness, and that his peak aggressive phase occurred during the Obama administration.

Obama’s response was 90 percent petulance and condescension about Putin not following the arc of historical progress, and 10 percent rather ineffectual measures.

It is against this standard–not that of Cold Warriors facing an existential threat–that the Trump administration should be measured. And as Grenell said, by this standard Trump has indeed been far more robust. He has provided Ukraine with weapons (which Obama steadfastly refused to do). He has embarked on rebuilding the US military. He has implemented more vigorous sanctions than the Obama administration. And the US military smoked 200+ Russians who tried to throw their weight around against US forces in Syria.

Further, look at other news involving Grenell. The Germans are in apoplexy over Grenell’s threat to sanction any company that cooperated with the Nordstream II pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Europe. Merkel’s party spokeswoman huffed: “The American ambassador operates in a, shall I say, somewhat unusual diplomatic manner. He’s shown that not only through this letter [on Nord Stream 2 sanctions] but also from when he took office.”

And this is not a new thing. Trump has been bashing Nordstream since he took office–and the Germans have been reacting with outrage every time.

Trump’s notorious criticism of Nato is also hardly pro-Russian. His main criticism is that Nato countries–especially Germany–don’t do enough to counter Russia, but expect the US to do it for them.

This is not a hard call. The Trump administration has objectively been far harder on Russia than its predecessors–including most notably its immediate predecessor, whom people like Bret Stephens now lavish praise on. It isn’t even close. To claim that US policy towards the USSR is the appropriate yardstick by with to measure US policy towards the decrepit, dissolute successor state of Russia requires breathtaking intellectual dishonesty. But Bret Stephens is obviously up to the task

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

January 7, 2019

Lost in Space? Some Musings on the Economics of an Independent Space Force

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:30 pm

One of the Trump administration’s (and really, Trump is the one pushing it) more interesting ideas is the creation of an independent military “space force” as a separate service branch, co-equal with the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy. Given that this proposal gores many, many political oxen inside the military and without, it’s hard to get an objective viewpoint. Everyone’s opinion is colored by their vested interest.

I have no answer as to whether it’s a good idea or not. But I do have some thoughts on the appropriate framework that could contribute to a more objective evaluation. Specifically, transactions cost economics and property rights economics (and organizational economics, which has some overlap with these) address issues of how formal organizational structure, and the ownership and control of assets, can affect the allocation of resources, for better or worse. And that is the issue here: can a reorganization involving the creation of a new entity that has control rights over assets heretofore controlled by other entities improve the allocation of defense resources?

I mused on this topic long ago, but have never really pursued it in a serious way. But I’ll muse some more given the newfound topicality.

It’s useful to divide the analysis into two parts. First, how does organizational structure, and in particular the assignment of rights of control over existing assets (e.g., artillery pieces, aircraft), affect military effectiveness and combat power? Second, how does organizational structure affect the choices regarding which assets to invest in?

With respect to the first issue, over the centuries militaries have devoted considerable effort and thought to organizational charts, and the allocation of control rights over military hardware and military units. Some simple examples: should each division have its own artillery, with all guns being under division control, or should some guns be assigned to battalions subject to control at a higher level (e.g., corps, army)?; should all tanks be concentrated in armored divisions, or should infantry divisions also have organic tank units?; should submarines be employed in support of fleets, or operate independently?

As with all resource allocation decisions, there are trade-offs, and militaries have struggled with these. There has been experimentation. There has been success and failure. Changes in technology have necessitated changes in organization, because the nature of specific weapons systems may affect the trade-offs. These are arguments that never end, as the incessant reorganizations of militaries (e.g., the U.S. Army’s recent shift to a brigade-based structure) demonstrate.

A couple of transactions cost economics insights. First, most decisions regarding the use of military assets are made subject to severe temporal specificity. If I am under attack, I need fire support NOW. Moreover, it may be the case that even in a large military only a few resources are available to provide that support. Temporal specificity creates transactions costs that can impede the allocation of resources to their highest value use.

Second, trade is unlikely to be a viable option, especially given temporal specificity. “Hey. I need some artillery support on my position right now. Can you give me an offer on what that will cost me?” Yeah–that works. The prospects for spot exchange are almost non-existent, and intertemporal exchange is unlikely because (a) timelines are short (for a variety of reasons), making end game problems acute, and (b) potential parties to an exchange are unlikely to be interacting repeatedly over time with reciprocal needs.

Since voluntary exchange is out (except in very unusual circumstances) resources need to be allocated by authority. Which makes issues of organization and the allocation of authority (control rights) paramount.

With respect to space assets, the case for a space force relates to the fact that many space assets (a) offer value to air, naval, and ground forces, and (b) there are economies of scale and scope. Having each service invest in its own space assets likely sacrifices scale and scope economies, but eliminates the need for inter-service bargaining over access to these assets, and reallocation of these assets in response to shifting military needs.

Allocating space assets to one existing branch (e.g., the Air Force) would facilitate exploitation of scale and scope economies, but would require inter-service bargaining to permit the non-controlling service to get access. A specialized space force permits exploitation of scale and scope economies, but also necessitates inter-service bargaining. The key question here is whether a specialized force would have better incentives than an operational force. For example, the Air Force might favor itself over other services when deciding how to utilize space assets, whereas a separate space force would not be as parochial.

With respect to the second issue–which assets are procured–the impact of organization on the Congressional procurement process is paramount.

The services are highly politicized organizations, and certain specializations within a service may exercise disproportionate influence. For example, the “fighter mafia” in the Air Force is legendary. As another example, in the pre-WWII U.S. Navy, battleship admirals held sway. These factions within a service may warp and stifle the development of new technologies, new doctrines, or investment decisions: the stultifying effect of the dominant infantry branch within the pre-WWII U.S. Army on the development of armored forces (both hardware and doctrine) is an example.

Creation of a separate force that invests in assets provided by the other branches would tend to undermine the power that any faction in a particular branch could exercise. The branches would have to form coalitions to influence Congressional funding decisions. But the creation of a new entity with its own vested service interest and its own ability to influence Congress could prove problematic as well.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the Air Force, beliefs that nuclear weapons made most conventional forces–including conventional air arms–obsolete, led the Air Force to try to persuade Congress to slash spending on conventional forces in order to focus on strategic forces, especially bombers. This led to the “Revolt of the Admirals.” It also led the Navy and even the Army to invest in nuclear capabilities in order to claim strategic relevance and maintain their share of the budget. These investments were almost certainly wasteful, and would not have been made but for the independent Air Force’s influence.

Perhaps the most important historical example that could shed some light on the desirability of an independent space force is the creation of a separate Air Force in 1947, and the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966, in which the Army ceded to the Air Force control over all fixed wing aircraft.

The effects of this reorganization were probably beneficial overall, but there certainly were problematic effects. In particular, it almost certainly attenuated the Air Force’s incentives to provide ground support, and resulted in the Army investing excessively in rotary wing aircraft (i.e., attack helicopters) to provide it.

Perhaps a better idea would have been to create a separate strategic air wing (first including strategic bombers, then strategic bombers and ICBMs, as well as air superiority fighters), and permit the Army to operate tactical aircraft for ground support. This was essentially what was done in in the immediate aftermath of WWII, with the creation within the Army Air Force of a Strategic Air Command, a Tactical Air Command, and an Air Defense Command.

The Marine Corps, and to some degree the Navy, provide a model. Each operate their own fixed wing air services, specialized to provide the kinds of air power each needs. Marine air is relentlessly focused on providing close air support. The Marine operational commander has control over these assets, and does not have to haggle with another service to get them. Moreover, the Marines’ acquisition decisions (notably the division between fixed and rotary wing aircraft) are oriented towards getting the optimal mix for the specific mission.

I have only touched upon some of the relevant considerations–there are no doubt others I have missed. Moreover, I have given only superficial attention even to the issues I raise. But this should be sufficient to show just how complicated this issue is. Organizational decisions, such as the creation of a separate space force, will have profound implications for how military resources are allocated, and what resources will be invested in in the first place. Crucially, the assets in question cannot be allocated by markets or the price system, so it is not a question of organization v. market, but the form of the organization(s). Further, military assets are complex, long-lived (and becoming more so–note that B-52s may be operational for more than a century), and can be extraordinarily specialized and hence specific (in the TCE meaning of that term). Technology is incredibly dynamic, and needs shift dramatically over time as new threats emerge. This all means that organization and the allocation of control rights matter. A lot.

And perhaps most importantly, organizational choices will be made in a politicized environment, and will affect political bargaining in the future. This will inevitably distort current choices (e.g., whether a space force will be created in the first place, what assets it will control) and future choices as well. It also makes it very difficult to sort through the debate on the topic, because everybody involved is a political player with its own political interests.

That makes it all the more important to establish a relatively objective and rigorous intellectual framework in which to analyze these questions. I think that transactions costs economics and property rights economics hold out great promise as the basis for such a framework.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 29, 2018

Is the Withdrawal From Syria a Bitter Pill for Jacksonians to Swallow? I Think Not

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:02 pm

I admire the work of Walter Russell Mead a great deal. I especially admire his identification of Jacksonians as a uniquely American political community, and his respectful and understanding treatment thereof, which is in stark contrast to the treatment given them by the sneering classes. I was therefore surprised by his recent column, which in my view completely misreads how Jacksonian America will respond to Trump’s decision to leave Syria and (perhaps–there are conflicting accounts) draw down forces in Afghanistan.

It’s fair to say that I was among the first (along with Mead) to identify Jacksonians as Trump’s core constituency, so I think I have some insight as to how they will react to his decision. And I think that Mead is off-base here:

That harmony may soon sour. Mr. Trump’s decisions on Syria and Afghanistan risk a rift between the president and his Jacksonian supporters and provide a way for some in the GOP to break with the president without losing their own populist credentials. The betrayal of the Kurds, the benefits to Iran of American withdrawal, the tilt toward an Islamist and anti-Israel Turkey, and the purrs of satisfaction emanating from the Kremlin are all bitter pills for Jacksonians to swallow.

Of the two wings of the GOP populist movement, the Jacksonians are the stronger and, from a political standpoint, the more essential. The GOP base is more hawkish than isolationist, and from jihadist terrorism to Russian and Chinese revisionism, today’s world is full of threats that alarm Jacksonian populists and lead them to support a strong military and a forward-leaning foreign policy.


Neoconservatives tried and failed to rally GOP foreign-policy hawks against Donald Trump. Should Jacksonians turn against him, they are likely to pose a much more formidable threat.

Where does Mead go wrong? Well, in part by forgetting some of the key attributes of Jacksonians that he identified about 25 years ago. One is the Jacksonian way of war. He noted that Jacksonians are reluctant to engage in foreign wars, but when they do they favor the massive application of brutal force to achieve rapid and total victory. Kill a lot of people, destroy a lot of stuff, and go home.

The wars in Syria and Afghanistan are the antithesis of this. Jacksonians were on board for the initial action in Afghanistan, oh so long ago. The US went in hard, employed all elements of its national power (except nuclear), and achieved what appeared to be a decisive and rapid victory. Then came 17 years of grinding, inconclusive combat. There is no prospect of a decisive outcome there. Similarly in Syria, the Jacksonian objective–destroying ISIS–has been largely achieved, and it is decidedly un-Jacksonian to get involved in a protracted Game of Thrones where there are no obvious good guys, and indeed, pretty much everybody is a bad guy by Jacksonian lights.

Insofar as allies are concerned, there is absolutely no cultural affinity between American allies in Syria or Afghanistan and Jacksonians, and as Mead noted, Jacksonianism is a peculiarly cultural, as opposed to intellectual, mindset. Further, as Mead also noted, Jacksonians despise corruption, and it is hard to imagine more corrupt societies and polities than Afghanistan and the Middle East. The tendency of our allies in both regions to turn their guns on American soldiers in “green on blue” attacks only confirms deep misgivings that our ostensible allies are not honorable people–and honor is a preeminent value among Jacksonians.

Jacksonians support wars that smite American enemies, and redeem American honor. Wars to build up nations with profoundly alien cultures that appear incapable of becoming stable polities, let alone ones that are grateful for American sacrifice on their behalf–not so much.

The Kurds may be something of an exception, but Jacksonian America has never shown much interest in them, despite the US’s long involvement with the Kurds in Iraq in particular. It is sad, but nonetheless true, that the US has sacrificed Kurdish interests on many occasions in the last 30 years. All without eliciting a peep from Jacksonian America. Why should now be any different?

Further, if they learn more about the Kurds, Jacksonians will realize that it is hardly a black-and-white picture. Yes, the Kurds have fought against ISIS, and fought well (as is their wont), but this is a matter of survival. But the long-running Kurdish fight with Turkey, led as it is by hard-core communists and socialists, and using as it does terrorist methods, will not garner sympathy from Jacksonians. They are not likely to be enamored with Erdogan’s Turkey either, but given the lack of a clear good guy that appeals to Jacksonian sympathies and sentiments, the likely response is to be to hell with them all, that’s not our fight.

Insofar as Iran is concerned, Trump has been sufficiently aggressive in going after the mullahs to counter any concern that he is soft on those who shout “death to America.” There are hardly purrs of satisfaction emanating from Tehran.

Similarly, Trump has been far more aggressive with respect to China, and even Russia, than his predecessors. Russian crowing about Syria stands in sharp contrast with their incessant bitching about everything else Trump has done, so despite the media’s and the Democrat’s and the anti-Trumpers’ insane claims that Trump is Putin’s pawn Jacksonians will not be fooled.

If anything, Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is focusing on the big adversaries where it matters, rather than frittering away American lives and treasure where it doesn’t. That is, they realize that Trump is hawkish where it counts, is not isolationist, and is working to rebuild the military. Against these big things, Syria is a trifling matter.

So, pace Dr. Mead, I don’t think that Trump need to have any concern that his most important constituency will find his recent decisions on Syria and (perhaps) Afghanistan a “bitter pill to swallow.” They are more likely to conclude that he has his priorities right. Furthermore, they are sure to notice that the people who are screaming the loudest about Trump’s decision are people they despise and who despise them in return. The louder that the Bill Kristols and Max Boots squeal, the more Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is doing the right thing.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 22, 2018

Given the Realm at Stake, Why Play This Game of Thrones?

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 2:57 pm

The most recent shrieking emanating from DC and its various satrapies is the result of Trump’s decision to exit Syria and draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that the US will leave there too in due course. The conventional wisdom is almost universally against him, and as usual, the conventional wisdom is flat wrong.

In evaluating any policy or operation, the first question to answer is: what is the objective? In Syria, is it a limited one–the defeat of the rump of ISIS? Or is it a more grandiose, geopolitical one–to control the outcome of the Syrian civil war and determine who rules there?

Trump has made it clear that his objective is limited and tactical. He has apparently decided that although ISIS has not been extirpated in Syria, it has been so attrited that its remaining enemies can contain it, or finish it off. And there is a Machiavellian aspect to that: why not let American adversaries, Russia and Iran, spend their blood and treasure dealing with the dead enders that remain? You wanted Syria, Vlad–have at it!

The conventional wisdom embraces the more grandiose objective. Perhaps this is purely self-aggrandizement, and lets them resume their college dorm games of Risk for real. Issues of motive aside, it is beyond cavil that those who want the US to remain in Syria, and indeed, to become more heavily involved there want to commit the country to being a player in a Game of Thrones that puts the fictional version to shame.

And that is why the conventional wisdom is wrong. For what does the survivor who sits on the throne rule over? A country that was a largely irrelevant shithole even before seven years of internecine warfare that utterly wrecked and largely depopulated a nation that was already pitifully poor and weak before the war began.

Congratulations Bashar! Congratulations Vladimir! Congratulations Ali! Behold the spoils of your victory! And indeed, spoiled is the right word for it.

And again, from a Machiavellian perspective, tell me why it isn’t smart for the US to let Russia and Iran plow resources into rebuilding a devastated nation? If they do so, these are resources they can’t use against the US elsewhere. Furthermore, even if Russia gains a presence in the country over the longer term, it is an isolated and completely unsupportable outpost that (a) could not provide a base for power projection in the event of a real great power struggle, and (b) could be cut off and destroyed in a trice by the US. Let the Russians put their very limited resources into a strategic dead end.

As for the Iranians, yes, their presence in Syria poses a challenge to Israel. But (a) I am highly confident that the Israelis can handle it, and (b) it’s far cheaper for the US to support their efforts to do so with material support for the Israeli military. And just as is the case for Russia, for Iran Syria would be utterly unsupportable in the event of a real confrontation between Iran and Israel.

The principle of economy of force–something that the policy “elite” in DC appears never to have heard of–applies here. One implication of the principle is that you should concentrate your resources in decisive sectors, and not fritter them away in peripheral ones. For the US, Syria is on the periphery of the periphery. In any geopolitical contest with Russia and Iran, our resources are far better deployed elsewhere.

What’s more, despite the obsession of the foreign policy elite with Russia and Iran, they are secondary challengers to the US. China is far more important, and poses a far more serious challenge. Throwing military resources into Syria is to waste them in a peripheral theater of a secondary conflict.

When I first read of Trump’s decision, I turned to a friend and said: “I wonder what this means for Afghanistan.” And indeed, hard on the heels of the Syria announcement the administration stated that it would draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that US involvement there would wind down fairly quickly.

All of the considerations that make Syria a strategic backwater for the US apply with greater force in Afghanistan. The country has spent over 17 years, the lives and bodies of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and Marines, and trillions of dollars on a country that is the poster child for shitholes. Yes, it was the refuge of a particular terrorist threat 17+ years ago. And yes, if we leave it will likely continue to be the cockpit of vicious civil war. Just like it has for the past two plus millennia. It was barely tractable for Alexander, and the British and Russia found it utterly intractable in their 19th and 20th century wars there. We’ve arguably done better, but not much. And again: what’s “winning,” and since the demise of the Silk Road, what in Afghanistan has been worth winning?

The war in Afghanistan has proved a sisyphean task. Sisyphus didn’t have a choice: the gods condemned him to roll the rock up the hill, only to watch it roll down again. The US has been engaged in that futile task by choice, and Trump has evidently decided that he doesn’t want to be Sisyphus anymore. (My skepticism about US involvement in Afghanistan also dates to years ago–as indicated by this post from almost exactly 9 years ago.)

One of the administration’s most important, and largely ignored, decisions has been to reorient US efforts away from conflicts against terrorism in isolated, poor, and peripheral places towards recapitalizing the military for peer conflict against China and Russia. This is the right choice, and long, long overdue. (I wrote a post in 2007 that expressed concerns about prioritizing anti-terror over conventional warfare capability.)

Alas, God will not restore the years the locusts have eaten in the Hindu Kush or on the Euphrates. But sunk costs are sunk. Looking to the future, the right strategic choice is to continue the pivot away from peripheral conflicts to focus on central ones.

And these costs are not purely monetary. Last night, due to a travel nightmare, I ended up returning to Houston on a flight that landed at 0230. On the plane were a half dozen young Marines heading home for the holidays. There were also two men, in their late-20s or early-30s, with prosthetic legs. They almost certainly lost them to IEDs in some godforsaken corner of the Middle East or Central Asia. With Trump’s decision in mind, I thought: what is the point of turning more young men like the fit and hearty 19 or 20 year old Marines into mutilated 30 year olds in places like Afghanistan and Syria? I certainly can’t see one.

I’m not a peacenick or a pacifist, by any means. But I understand the horrible cost of war, and fervently believe that it should only be spend on good causes that advance American interests. I cannot say with any conviction that this is the case in Syria, or in Afghanistan, 17 years after 911. Indeed, I can say the opposite with very strong conviction.

At the risk of stooping to ad hominem argument, I would make one more point. Look at the “elite” who is damning Trump’s decision in Syria. What great accomplishment–let alone accomplishments plural–can they take responsibility for? The last 27 years–at least–of American foreign policy has been an unbroken litany of bipartisan failure. The people who scream the loudest now were the architects of these failures. Not only have they not been held accountable, they do not even have the grace or maturity to admit their failures. Instead, they choose to damn someone who refuses to double down on them.

The biggest downside of Trump’s decision is that it apparently caused Secretary of Defense Mattis to resign. I hold General Mattis in the highest esteem, and believe that if he could no longer serve the president in good conscience, he did the right thing by resigning. But if he decided that Syria and Afghanistan were (metaphorically) the hills to die on, for the reasons outlined above I respectfully but strongly disagree.

My major regret at Mattis’ departure is again completely different than the conventional wisdom spouting elite’s. They lament the loss of an opposition voice within the administration. I cringe for reasons closely related to my reason for supporting a major pivot in US policy: I think that Mattis was the best person to oversee the reorientation of the Pentagon from counterinsurgency to main force conflict. We desperately need to improve the procurement process. We desperately need to focus on improving the quality and number of high end systems, and raising the availability of those systems we have: the operational availability of aircraft and combat units is shockingly low, and Mattis has prioritized increasing them. He has made progress, and I fear that a change at the Pentagon will put this progress, and the prospect for further progress, at risk.

Listening with dismay at the cacophony of criticism from the same old, failed, and tired “elite” reminds me of Einstein’s (alleged) definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. The “elite” is invested in the same thing, and changing the same thing is a not so implicit rebuke for their failures. Until they can explain–which I know they cannot–why doing the same thing has led to such wonderful outcomes in the past quarter century, they should STFU and let somebody else try something different.

Description

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 30, 2018

The Most Tragic Day of a Tragic War

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 9:19 pm
The American Civil War was an extremely grim conflict from first to last, but few–if any–days of that war were as grim as 30 November, 1864.  On that bleak day, John Bell Hood launched his Confederate Army of Tennessee in an assault over 1.5 miles of open ground against a larger force of steely Union veterans behind strong entrenchments.  The result was predictable–to all but Hood, apparently: an epic slaughter of some of the finest infantry of that or any war.

The battle is known–to the extent it is known, which is too little–for the deaths of six Confederate generals, namely Cleburne (not of Texas, but for whom a town in the state is named because a brigade of Texans served under his command), Carter, Granbury (of Texas, and commander of that Texas brigade, for whom a Lone Star town is named), Strahl, Gist, and Adams.  Seven other brigade or division commanders were wounded.   No other battle took such a toll on general officers.

Officer casualties at Franklin were horrible, but the carnage in the ranks was almost as bad.  Many excellent formations were nearly obliterated.

Case in point: the storied Missouri Brigade.  Arguably the best combat unit in the western theater, and arguably of the entire war, the brigade went into the battle with 696 men, of whom 419 (over 60 percent) were rendered hors du combat.  53 out of 56 officers–think about that for a minute, 95 percent–went down.  Although a pathetic remnant of the brigade tramped on to Nashville, to participate in the defeat there, for all intents and purposes the finest unit in the Army of Tennessee was wrecked beyond repair.

In some respects it is invidious to single out a particular brigade: virtually every Confederate formation was ravaged.

Virtually nowhere did the Confederates penetrate the Union entrenchments. General Adams made it literally half-way: he attempted to leap his horse over the rampart, only to have his horse–and himself–riddled by bullets in the attempt.  Adams was found dead on his horse, which had its forelegs on the Union side of the parapet, and the hind legs on the Confederate side.

The one exception was in Cleburne’s and Brown’s sector near the Cotton Gin and Carter House.  A blunder had resulted in two small Federal brigades (Conrad’s and Lane’s) of Wagner’s IV Corps division remaining several hundred yards in front of the main Union line, holding a thinly-manned rudimentary set of earthworks.  These men were overwhelmed by the assault of the two Confederate divisions and they broke for the rear, as sensible men will.   A cry went up from the Confederate lines: “Shoot them in the back! Follow them into the works!” And they did.  The defenders of the main line were hesitant to fire because Lane’s and Conrad’s men were in the way, and thus the Confederates were largely spared from the withering volleys that stopped their comrades on their right and left in their tracks, allowing Cleburne’s and Brown’s men to surge over the works.

But only for a short while.  Wagner’s third brigade, under Emerson Opdyke (which contained the 2d Board of Trade regiment, the 88th Illinois, by the way), launched a frenzied counterattack that resulted in hand-to-hand fighting around the Carter House (which stands today, along with outbuildings that still exhibit hundreds of bullet holes).  Supported by troops that had been driven from the works (including the 1st Board of Trade Regiment, AKA the 72nd Illinois), Opdyke drove back the Confederates.

But not far.  The rebels congregated in the ditch on the outside of the Union lines.  Because that was the safest place: to recross the field would have been suicidal.

For the next several hours, in the darkness of the late-autumn day, the contending forces slaughtered each other at point-blank range.  General Strahl was shot handing loaded muskets to his men.  Carried to the rear, he was shot in the neck and fatally wounded in the field beyond the ditch.  Men would thrust their muskets over the parapet one-handed, and discharge them into the seething mass on the other side.  Soldiers launched bayoneted rifles like spears into the masses on the other side of the line. Some became frenzied, and jumped on top of the works, only to be shot down.  By late in the evening, the ditch in front of the works was a crawling mass of wounded men, intermixed with the dead.

There is nothing like it in the Civil War.  Pickett’s Charge was similar in terms of numbers, and ground crossed, and ultimate result, but when the Confederates were repulsed, they withdrew.  That fight did not drag on for hours at point-blank range.  The carnage at Franklin did.

In the end, exhaustion caused the fight to ebb away, just as the lives of hundreds of men were ebbing away.  The Union army had bought the time to rebuild the bridges over the Harpeth River necessary to continue their retreat to Nashville, and stole away in the night.  The Confederates were too tired, and too bloodied, even to notice, let alone to try to stop them.

This was truly one of the great tragedies of a War full of them.  In a conflict full of futile and pointless assaults, Franklin stands out for futility and pointlessness.  The Union army ended up exactly where it would have if the battle had never been fought.  But a third of the 23,000 Confederates who made the assault were killed (around 1750) or wounded (5500).  The casualty rates were even higher in Cleburne’s and Brown’s divisions.  60 of 100 regimental commanders went down.

The Federals suffered about 2400 casualties, of whom 1100 (primarily in Conrad’s and Lane’s brigades)  were captured.  Only battles like Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor resulted in a similar disproportionate loss on the contending sides.

So why did this tragedy occur?  It clearly is the responsibility of one man: John Bell Hood.  I agree with (the General’s distant relation) Stephen Hood’s debunking of Wiley Sword’s claim that Hood’s judgment was warped by his reliance on laudanum to ease the pain of his horrific wounds (an arm crippled at Gettysburg, a leg lost almost at the hip at Chickamauga).   Accounts make it clear that Hood was outraged that his subordinates had let the Union army escape a trap at Spring Hill (to the south of Franklin), and this almost certainly dominated his thinking and made an attack seem to be the only option.  It has also been argued that Hood wanted to punish his army for its failure at Spring Hill, but I tend to doubt this interpretation.  He was mad (“as wrathy as a rattlesnake” in the words of one witness) at seeing what he considered to be a Jacksonian stroke come to naught, almost certainly exhausted, and predisposed to aggressiveness.  A deadly combination for the hardy and valiant men under his command.

Franklin illustrates like few battles the incredible deadliness of veteran soldiers by that stage of the war.  Whereas the brutal losses of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns had made Army of the Potomac regiments shadows of their former selves, re-manned with draftees with dubious combat effectiveness (as illustrated by battles like Ream’s Station), western Union regiments had seen extensive combat experience, but still had a strong core of veteran soldiers.

The Army of Tennessee had suffered in battle after battle (Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, the battles around Atlanta) but although these losses led to shrunken ranks, those who remained were lethally effective and brave beyond measure.  Veterans that they were, they were certainly under no illusions about their prospects as they stepped off from Winstead Hill for the long trudge to the Union lines at Franklin.  But forlorn hope or no, they attacked with a will.  Awesome is the only word for it.

Unfortunately, the field where these men underwent their agonies is largely unpreserved.  All of the trenches are gone.  The site of the climax of the battle around the Cotton Gin was scarred by a Domino’s Pizza for years.  Fortunately, preservationists have acquired that property, razed the structures, and have created a small park there, including a monument to Cleburne.  The Carter House exists, and preservationists are painstakingly buying property around it in an attempt to create a larger commemorative space.  But most of the Union line to the right and left was covered by pleasant suburban houses years ago.

Carnton Plantation, where the bodies of 4 of the slain generals were laid out after the battle, is still exists.  A Confederate cemetery is located on the grounds–one of the largest at any Civil War battlefield.  The fields around Carnton, where the Confederate right stepped off, are undeveloped, but the target of their assault is suburbia.

Although you can’t experience Franklin in the same way as you can Antietam, or Chickamauga, or Shiloh, or Gettysburg, perhaps that’s for the best.  Bucolic scenes with granite monuments cannot possibly convey the experience of those men who were sacrificed without prospect or purpose 154 years ago today.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 29, 2018

The Incident in the Kerch Strait: Validating Existing Lines of Conflict, Rather Than Portending a Forcible Shift in Those Lines

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:45 pm
The big news over the weekend was the Russian firing on, ramming of, and seizure of several Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to transit the Kerch Strait.  Most of the news coverage has been hopelessly inept, especially with regards to the background and legalities.  This piece from Defense News is the most coherent and thorough that I’ve read.

My quick take is that given international maritime law and the 2003 Russia-Ukraine agreement on the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is right de jure–especially in light of the fact that no major nation acknowledges Russia’s seizure of Crimea.  But Russia has the upper hand de facto.  As the expression goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law.  Russia has seized possession of both sides of the Strait, and has the military force to enforce that possession.  And it did.

Russian justifications for their actions are risible.  But their explanations of so many actions are risible.  That may be the point: “we say this bullshit that you know is bullshit and we know is bullshit to let you know we don’t give a shit what you think.”

As the Defense News article states, Ukrainian naval vessels had transited the Kerch Strait in late-September without Russian reaction.  But this time it was different.

Why?

Presumably in part because the September foray embarrassed the Russians, who have been ratcheting up interference with civilian vessels since that happened.  Moreover, as many have suggested, Putin may be looking to bolster his patriotic bona fides.  He certainly can’t be doing it to attract international favor, because the opposite has happened.

This raises an interesting thought: if Putin really thinks he needs a domestic political boost so badly that he is willing to draw international opprobrium (note that Trump canceled a meeting with him at the G-20 over this) to get it, what does that say about his domestic political position? Or at least his concerns about it.  A tsar confident in his domestic standing wouldn’t feel it necessary to incur the cost of such a provocation.

Not that the cost is likely to be that high.  The Germans, in typical fashion, harrumphed about how horrible this is, but in the same breath said “Nordstream 2 is a go!”  But the episode probably makes any sanctions relief even less likely.

Revealed preference suggests two alternatives: (a) Putin figured that sanctions relief was extremely remote in any event, so the cost wasn’t that high, or (b) Putin actually doesn’t mind sanctions despite their evident toll on the Russian economy.  With regards to (b), note that sanctions often work to the advantage of those in power (e.g., Saddam, the Mullahs).  Pieces like this suggest that might be a real possibility.

What was Ukrainian president Poroshenko’s rationale?  He was likely appealing to his domestic audience, although a humiliating capture of a part of Ukraine’s pitiful remnant of a fleet hardly seems calculated to boost his re-election prospects.  Perhaps he was hoping for this very outcome, in the expectation that it would lead western countries to rally to Ukraine’s defense.  If so, he’s rather clueless.  It’s not as if the US and EU are unaware of Russia’s continuing predation against Ukraine: they’ve clearly acquiesced to the current status quo of frozen conflict, and the events in the Kerch Strait will not change that.  Poroshenko likely threw away a few ships and a couple of dozen sailors for nothing.

But in some respects, this is not surprising.  The Ukrainians are the Sovok Palestinians: they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and routinely self-inflict gaping wounds.

His declaration of martial law in parts of the country in the aftermath is highly weird, and raises questions about his real motives.

Does the incident portend a renewed Russian military assault on Ukraine?  I doubt it: it is more of an enforcement of existing redlines, rather than drawing new borders.  If the cost of bashing around a tugboat and a few minor combatants is bearable, the cost of a major move on the ground is a different matter altogether.

So the upshot is something like this.  The incident will not result in substantial increases in help for Ukraine.  It deepens and cements Russia’s isolation.  It is unlikely to portend a major escalation in the conflict.  In other words, it confirms and reinforces the status quo of a frozen conflict, rather than representing a new phase in the war.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 8, 2018

To Bad the Drydock Sank, Instead of the Carrier It Was Lifting

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:17 pm
A week ago Russia lost its largest drydock, while it was towing the country’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.   This is amusing, though not surprising: “The cause of the accident was reportedly an electrical malfunction that left the pumps in the dry dock’s ballast tanks stuck on, causing it to sink rapidly.”

The Kuznetsov was itself damaged, when a crane from the drydock toppled onto the carrier’s deck.

All things considered, the Russians would have been much better off had the Kusnetsov plunged to the bottom, rather than the drydock.  The drydock is actually potentially useful.  The carrier is a near hulk that is more trouble than justified by its military value, which to a first order approximation is zero.

I will take credit for being one of the first to point out the comical fact that the Kusnetsov always sailed with a salvage craft–a towboat–bobbing along in its wake.  Prudent precaution, you say? Never leave home without one?  Well, no other aircraft carrier in the world needs to take this precaution.

The Russians will reportedly attempt to raise the drydock, although as the linked article points out it may have been damaged by the sinking.   And if the electronics were dodgy before, think what months/years under frigid seawater will do to them.  The Russians will also apparently continue with refurbishing the Kuznetsov, although this is already running over time and over budget.

Hey, if they want to burn money, who am I to stop them?  Better for the US that they waste resources on this rather pathetic vessel than put it into something actually useful.

It’s not August, but Russia has been suffering an August-like autumn.  And no, I don’t mean the weather: I mean the fact that for years August was regularly marked by major accidents in Russia.  In addition to the Kuznetsov/drydock fiasco, recent weeks have seen the failure of the manned Soyuz launch.  The failure has been blamed on a sensor damaged during installation:

“The reason for the abnormal separation … was due to a deformation of the stem of the contact separation sensor…,” Skorobogatov told reporters.

“It has been proven, fully confirmed that this happened specifically because of this sensor, and that could only have happened during the package’s assembly at the Baikonur cosmodrome,” he said.

I can imagine the conversation: “What do you mean it doesn’t fit, Boris?  Get a bigger hammer!”

Further, four bridges have collapsed in Russia since September.

In brief, Russia remains a shambolic place.   The gap between Putin’s chest-thumping and reality is as wide as ever.  The hamster wheel keeps spinning.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

October 27, 2018

When You Strike at a King, You Must Kill Him

Filed under: Military,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:44 pm
Ralph Waldo Emerson penned those lines in a letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes more than 150 years ago: in the last 27 months, a latter day sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has put them into practice.  In the aftermath of the July, 2016 coup that failed to topple him, Erdogan has ruthlessly cracked down on anyone he or his minions even suspected were involved in, or even supported, the coup.  The military and civil service have been purged, and Turkey lives in fear.  Anyone with the even remote ties to the Gulenists whom Erdogan believes were behind the coup is at risk of losing his/her job, and even his/her liberty.  People struck at Erdogan, failed to kill him, and he is taking his revenge.

Today, Erdogan is taking advantage of the Khashoggi killing to strike at a monarch–in this case, an actual monarch, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (and by extension, his father, King Salman).  One wonders if Erdogan is paying proper heed to Emerson’s warning, or whether he is merely an arrogant chancer who is failing to recognize that MBS will respond as ruthlessly to an existential threat as Erdogan did to his own.

Erdogan imagines himself the leader of world Islam, and views this as his chance to strike at his main rival for that distinction.  Indeed, MBS (or his creatures) committed a blunder by killing Khashoggi, and on Turkish soil no less.  But despite this blunder, Erdogan’s success is far from certain.

Turkey is only months past a near collapse of its currency, and its economy: only a climb down in the Brunson conflict with the US bought Erdogan some breathing room. (At the cost of considerable ridicule within Turkey, I might add, given Erdogan’s boasts that he would NEVER let the American pastor go.)  But the fundamentals that led to the crisis over the summer–not merely huge debts, unfavorable foreign balances, and most notably, Erdogan’s impetuosity, arrogance, and economic idiocy–remain.  Turkey is still divided.  Although Erdogan won an election that effectively granted him an imperial presidency, it was by a narrow margin.  Turkey’s position in Syria is problematic.  And crucially, its relationship with the US is still fraught.

If Erdogan truly tries to go so far as to threaten MBS’s and King Salman’s preeminent position in Saudi Arabia, MBS will have no compunction about responding in kind.  And they have weapons at their disposal.  No not military–there is no common frontier, and regardless, the Saudis have proven themselves to be militarily inept (something KSA shares with most Arab militaries).  But economic?–Definitely.  It is well within Saudi capability to launch a speculative attack on the lira.  And the KSA has other financial weapons it can wield.

Indeed, the Khashoggi affair shows how ruthless the Saudis can be when confronted by even a rather trivial challenge.  Think of how they will respond if they really feel threatened.   Turkey’s currency and economy are an Achilles Heel that they could readily strike.

Further, the United States could squash Turkey financially like an overripe grape.  Even modest US measures, like tariffs on Turkish metal imports into the US, greatly exacerbated the swoon in the TRY–think of what would happen if Trump really put his mind to it.  This is not something that the US would want to do, given that Turkey is a Nato member, and has some strategic value to the US.  But KSA has strategic value too, arguably greater than Turkey’s, and if Erdogan overplays his hand with Saudi Arabia, and/or continues to be a pain on issues like the US support for Syrian Kurdish forces, Trump could bring a world of hurt onto Turkey and Erdogan.

So Erdogan must tread very carefully indeed, and keep Emerson’s injunction in mind.  And what are his odds of knocking off MBS, or even damaging him all that severely?  Not great, given the nature of the Saudi regime, MBS’s obvious willingness to use all measures necessary against internal opponents (who can disappear with far less attention than Khashoggi did in Istanbul), and its economic and geopolitical leverage.

But one should never underestimate Erdogan’s arrogance.  Given this arrogance, it is quite possible that he will ignore Emerson, overplay his hand, and be the ultimate loser in this Game of Thrones.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

October 15, 2018

The Media on Trump on Lee: Don’t Trust, But Verify

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 11:08 am
The latest media Trump freakout derives from his statement during a campaign rally in Ohio last week that Robert E. Lee was “a great general.”  Since every Confederate is beyond the pale 153 years after the end of the Civil War, any praise of any Confederate is deemed evidence of racism.

As we’ll see, that spare characterization of Trump’s remarks was grotesquely misleading.  But hit pause on that for a moment, and just consider the objective truth of the part of the statement that was reported.  (Does truth even matter any more?)  There is little doubt that Lee displayed excellent generalship and leadership at the operational level.  Some of his campaigns–Second Manassas and Chancellorsville in particular–are justifiably renowned as examples of a smaller force defeating a larger one through maneuver.  His defense during the Overland Campaign was also laudable. Other campaigns–notably Gettysburg–were less creditable: but no modern general (not even Napoleon pre-Waterloo) was uniformly successful in campaign or battle.  The main objections to his generalship were that his operational success was not achieved pursuant to a broader strategic vision, and relatedly, that his tactical methods produced casualties that the Confederacy could not afford.  (Indeed, the casualties at his greatest victory–Chancellorsville–cast some shade on the achievement.)

Further note that acknowledging that someone was a great general does not imply an endorsement of the cause for which he fought.  Were Manstein and Rommel great generals?  Yes–much to the world’s cost.  Similarly, Zhukov.  The greatest generals in world history–Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon–drowned their worlds in blood in their pursuit of grandeur.  Alas, one of the tragedies of history is that generalship exhibits some correlation with the depravity of the cause in which it is employed.  (This raises interesting questions regarding causation.)

So even if Trump said only what was widely reported, the facts were on his side.  But what was reported was not all he said.  Here are his remarks in full:

But maybe someday he will. It also gave you a general, who was incredible. He drank a little bit too much. You know who I’m talking about, right? So Robert E. Lee was a great general. And Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia. He couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee. He was going crazy. I don’t know if you know this story. But Robert E. Lee was winning battle after battle after battle. And Abraham Lincoln came home, he said, “I can’t beat Robert E. Lee.”  And he had all of his generals, they looked great, they were the top of their class at West Point. They were the greatest people. There’s only one problem — they didn’t know how the hell to win. They didn’t know how to fight. They didn’t know how. And one day, it was looking really bad. And Lincoln just said, you — hardly knew his name — and they said, don’t take him. He’s got a drinking problem. And Lincoln said, I don’t care what problem he has, you guys aren’t winning. And his name was Grant. General Grant. And he went in and he knocked the hell out of everyone. And you know the story. They said to Lincoln, you can’t use him anymore. He’s an alcoholic. And Lincoln said, I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic. Frankly, give me six or seven more just like him. He started to win. Grant really did. He had a serious problem. Serious drinking problem. But, man, was he a good general. And he’s finally being recognized as a great general. But Lincoln had almost developed a phobia, because he was having a hard time with a true great fighter and a great general, Robert E. Lee. But Grant figured it out, and Grant is a great general, and Grant came from right here.

So in a campaign rally in Ohio, Trump was praising Ohioans–a staple of stump rhetoric.  One Ohioan he praised was Ulysses S. Grant.  In the process of praising Grant, he touted the generalship of Grant’s most famous foe–Robert E. Lee.  This wasn’t about Lee, except indirectly.

Trump employed a standard rhetorical technique: he enhanced the achievements of the person he was praising by emphasizing the personal obstacles he had overcome (in Grant’s case, alcohol) and the brilliance and strength of the enemies that he vanquished (here, Lee).  Would David have become a legendary figure had he felled Irving, the Philistine Dwarf, instead of Goliath, the Philistine Giant?  Er, obviously not.  Nor would Grant have been as famous if he had vanquished Benjamin Huger or Leonidas Polk or any of the many non-entities that achieved general rank in the Confederacy.  (Indeed, one reason to question Lee’s brilliance is that his victories were won against a parade of incompetents.)  But beating Lee is a true accomplishment.

But the media ignored this in its haste to find another charge to add to the Trump indictment, and to further the narrative that he makes racist appeals to the Confederacy.   Indeed, some media couldn’t satisfy its frenzy by stopping merely at ripping a sentence fragment out of context: NBC falsely enhanced the narrative by claiming that Trump had said that Lee was “incredible.”   Actually, that is a classic case of projection: It is NBC, and the rest of the media that ran with the “Lee is great” meme that lacks credibility.

Yet they whine when he blasts them for spreading “fake news.”  Here’s a thought: if you don’t want Trump to accuse you of spreading false news, don’t spread false news!

If there’s anything objectionable in Trump’s remark, it is the first part of that rhetorical technique: Trump arguably exaggerated seriously Grant’s alcohol problem, at least as of the time of the Civil War.  There is still much debate over whether and when and how much Grant consumed alcohol.  Many of the reports of his abuse of liquor were insinuations by nasty backbiters (e.g., Henry Hallack) that exploited the reputation Grant developed in the 1850s while marooned at Fort Humboldt in California.  There is no credible report that he was impaired at any time in the conduct of his duties 1861-1865.

And as Lincoln said when those backbiters criticized Grant: “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”  For Grant carried out one, and arguably two, of the greatest campaigns of maneuver in the Civil War.  The Vicksburg campaign, in fact, is one of the most brilliant campaigns in modern military history anywhere.  The crossing of the James in June, 1864 was also operationally brilliant, though barren of results due to the blundering of the generals in charge of carrying the attacks at Petersburg home–and arguably due as well to the exhaustion and casualties and loss of aggressiveness brought on by the relentless grinding of the Overland Campaign of the prior 5 weeks.

Further, Grant excelled Lee in that his operational successes all advanced broader strategic goals.  By March, 1864 Grant had responsibility for Northern grand strategy, and seized the opportunity with a relish, whereas Lee invariably avoided this responsibility.  Although the frictions of war–notably the incompetence of Franz Sigel, Benjamin Butler, and Nathaniel Banks–prevented the immediate consummation of Grant’s strategic vision, its breadth and flexibility eventually led to its success.  (There is some similarity between the fate of Grant’s strategic plan and his grand tactical scheme at Chattanooga in November, 1863.  Neither scheme worked according to plan, but since neither was dependent on the success of any single element, the failure of one or two aspects of the plans did not preclude their ultimate success.)

This sorry episode illustrates yet again what should by now be obvious.  If the media reports anything about Trump, modify Reagan’s famous remark about the USSR: don’t trust, but verify.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

October 7, 2018

The Apotheosis of an American Army: The Meuse-Argonne, 100 Years Ago

Filed under: History,Military — cpirrong @ 4:38 pm
The next few days are the centennial of some of the bloodiest fighting in the history of the American army.  The Lost Battalion underwent its horrific ordeal 2-8 October, 1918.  On 8 October, one of the 82nd Division soldiers who attacked in the desperate effort to rescue Major Whittlesey and his men–Corporal Alvin York–killed an estimated 25 Germans and captured 132 more.  On 7 October, John Barkley clambered into an abandoned tank and used its machine gun to beat back several German counterattacks.  On 12 October, Samuel Woodfill took out several German machine gun nests with expert marksmanship, and out of ammunition, dispatched two Germans with a pickaxe.

All of these men (two from the Lost Battalion) won the Medal of Honor.  I could go on.  Forty-three American soldiers won the MoH in action in the first two weeks of October, 1918.

If you read the medal citations, you will find that most of them were for single-handed attacks on German machine gun positions.  Yes, machine guns were major killers on the Western Front, but the Meuse-Argonne was different than say, the Somme, or the Chemin de Dames, where Allied armies attacked established trench lines in fairly open terrain.  Instead of extensive linear trench lines, the German positions in the Argonne Forest and the more open terrain to the east consisted of a dense thicket of machine gun nests.  The terrain was appalling.  Much of it was heavily wooded, cut by dense ravines.   The Americans had to crawl their way through it, yard-by-yard, taking out nest after nest, all the while subject not just to the fire from chattering Maxim guns, but to horrific shelling of high explosive, shrapnel, and gas from German guns posted on the high ground to the north and east.

Most of the American units in the initial waves had not been blooded before.  For instance, the 77th Division (in which the Lost Battalion served) and the 82nd Division (York’s) were rookies.  They had to learn the hard way, through bitter experience against an experienced foe fighting from prepared positions.

The inexperience showed initial phases of the  American assault.  Although the pivot that the 1st Army made from its attack on the St. Mihiel salient to the east to the Meuse-Argonne sector to the north and west was truly marvelous–and under-appreciated–the attack itself was beset by all of the problems of World War I offensive action, compounded by American greenness and a stubborn refusal to learn from bitter British and French experience.  American artillery support was inadequate.  The logistics–admittedly made difficult enough to start with by the wretched state of the roads–were botched.  American tactics, inspired by General Pershing’s belief in “open warfare” and the primacy of the offensive (heedless of the horrific fate of the French operating on the same beliefs in 1915 and 1917) were suicidal.

Yet the Americans learned quickly–by necessity.  It was adapt, or die.  Adaptation, combined with an almost preternatural self-confidence and aggressive spirit, ultimately prevailed.

Even as early at the battles of late-May/early-July 1918 (Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, Soissons) the Germans were taken aback by the aggressiveness of the Americans in the offense and their stubbornness in the defense.  “The Americans kill everything” wrote a shocked German grenadier.  “They showed a bestial brutality.”

Yes, tens-of-thousands of Americans leaked to the rear during Meuse-Argonne, but hundreds of thousands stuck it out–often sticking their bayonets in German bellies, as if to confirm the grenadier’s assessment.

World War I was a ghastly combination of inept leadership (often overwhelmed by the mismatch between the defense and offense) and individual courage.  Though the US army came late to the war, its experience from 26 September-11 November 2018 re-enacted this same combination.   And in the end, the incredible bravery and tenacity of the American soldier–farm boys and cowboys and immigrant slum dwellers alike–prevailed, and dealt the Germans body blows from which they reeled, and in the end, from which they could not recover.

But today, the centennial is passing almost completely unnoticed.  Where else but here are you reading about it?

In the aftermath of the war, the federal government, and many state governments, erected large monuments commemorating American service in the war.  Although the remains of most of the tens-of-thousands slain in the Meuse-Argonne were brought home, many thousands more were interred in large cemeteries,  most notably the Aisne-Marne Cemetery to the west of Rheims, and the Romagne Cemetery to the east.  The monuments are truly epic in scale–the US erected nothing comparable in the aftermath of WWII.  The cemeteries are immense–Romagne is larger than the cemetery at Omaha Beach.

Yet these places are almost forgotten and unvisited today.*  Located in an isolated pocket of France, commemorating a war that is largely outside of the consciousness of modern Americans (for whom even WWII is a vague memory), few Americans see them, either on purpose or by accident.

The isolation and loneliness makes them truly haunting places.  I visited the Argonne battlefields with my dad in June, 2010.  We were alone everywhere.  We seldom saw even a car on the road as we wound our way across the Argonne, from the ravine to where the Lost Battalion bled to Chatel-Chéhéry where Alvin York started his advance to Montfaucon and Romagne where the Americans clawed for yards day after day, to the Heights of the Meuse from where German guns ruthlessly pounded the Americans.  The monuments and cemeteries were inhabited only by the ghosts.

In many ways, America came of age in the Meuse-Argonne, but today those who fought in that epic battle are not just forgotten–they have never even been known by most Americans.  So please, take a moment in these October days to remember, and pay tribute to, men who do not deserve the oblivion to which an easily distracted nation has consigned them.

*But fortunately, not abandoned.  The American Battle Monuments Commission has done a marvelous job  of maintaining and preserving these testaments to the bravery of American soldiers.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress