pageok
pageok
pageok
[Max Boot (guest-blogging), October 31, 2006 at 8:05am] Trackbacks
A Democratic Advantage?

Part Two of excerpts from War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today, by Max Boot:

Taking advantage of major innovations usually requires what James Q. Wilson calls a "change-oriented personality"--someone like John Hawkins, Gustavus Adolphus, or Curtis LeMay who is not afraid to shake up conventional ways of doing things. Fundamental changes can be preached from the outside but seldom imposed by civilians on a professional military. Consider the lack of success that J.F.C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart had in the 1930s preaching the gospel of armored warfare to the British army.

The most successful innovators have tended to be people like Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (chief of the Prussian General Staff during the 19th Century Wars of German Unification), Admiral William Moffett (father of American naval aviation in the 1920s), General Hap Arnold (chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II), and General Heinz Guderian (the blitzkrieg pioneer): insiders not outsiders. At best, civilians can play a supporting role in aiding military mavericks against their bureaucratic foes, though popular accounts tend to overstate the influence of flamboyant rebels such as Billy Mitchell.

Western states have been the most successful military innovators over the past 500 years. Having a relatively liberal political and intellectual climate, of the kind that the West developed toward the end of the Middle Ages, helps to create an atmosphere in which innovation can flourish. The Soviet Union's lack of freedom ultimately sabotaged its attempts to keep pace in the Information Age, just as the lack of freedom in Spain and France made it difficult for them to keep pace in a naval arms race with first the Netherlands and then Britain.

But we should be wary of simple-minded democratic triumphalism. History has offered many examples of autocratic states that proved more adept than their democratic rivals at exploiting military revolutions. The success of the Prussian/German armed forces between 1864-1942 and of the Japanese between 1895-1942 shows how well even autocratic systems can innovate. All that is required is some degree of openness to change, a commitment to meritocracy, and an ability to critically examine one's own mistakes—all disciplines in which the illiberal German General Staff excelled. In fact, most democracies, which tend to be less militaristic than autocracies, face a disadvantage in taking advantage of military innovations because they are less inclined to be generous to their armed forces in peacetime: a problem that plagued all of the nations of the West during the 1930s.

Nor is there much evidence to suggest that soldiers fight better for a democracy than for a dictatorship. Man for man, the Wehrmacht was probably the most formidable fighting force in the world until at least 1943, if not later. German soldiers were even known for showing more initiative than the soldiers of democratic France, Britain, and America. Meanwhile, Soviet soldiers stoically endured privations and casualties far beyond anything suffered by their Western allies.

But if democracies do not have an advantage in creating formidable war machines, they do seem to have an intrinsic edge in figuring out how to use them. Autocracies tend to run amok because of the lack of internal checks and balances. Philip II, Gustavus Adolphus, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Wilhelm II, Hitler—they all built superb militaries but ultimately led their nations into ruinous wars. They had no sense of limits, and no other politician was strong enough to stop them. Their tactics may have been superb, but their grand strategy was lousy, the best examples being Napoleon's and Hitler's foolhardy invasions of Russia. Democracies sometimes overreach too (witness the Boer, Algerian, and Vietnam Wars), but they tend to avoid the worst traps because they have a more consensual style of decision-making.

The key to successful innovation, whether for a dictatorship or a democracy, is having an effective bureaucracy. This was the chief advantage enjoyed by Elizabeth I over Philip II in the Battle of the Spanish Armada (1588), Emperor Meiji over Czar Nicholas II at the Battle of Tsushima (1905), Adolf Hitler over Édouard Daladier in the Battle of France (1940), and the two George Bushes over Saddam Hussein. Prussia's secret weapon in the 19th century was not the needle gun or the railroad or the telegraph. It was the general staff, which figured out how to utilize these innovations.

Bureaucracies are so important because, as War Made New has repeatedly stressed, the realization of a Revolution in Military Affairs requires far more than simply revolutionary technology. It also requires revolutions in organization, doctrine, training, and personnel. That is what the Swedes achieved in the early 17th century when they crafted mixed-arms formations made up of pikemen and musketeers, what the Prussians achieved in the mid-19th century when they figured out how to rapidly mobilize and move large numbers of riflemen by railroad, what the Japanese achieved in the 1930s when they decided to group aircraft carriers together in strike groups, and what the Americans achieved in the 1980s when they integrated smart bombs, sensors, stealth, and professional soldiers in the AirLand Battle doctrine.

Bureaucratic innovation can seldom be limited to the military alone because armed forces are always a reflection, however refracted, of the broader society. Each military epoch comes with its own distinctive system of governance. The rise of the Gunpowder Age fostered the growth of absolute monarchies. The First and Second Industrial Ages fostered giant welfare and warfare states. The Information Age is leading to a more decentralized, flatter form of government and the rise of more powerful non-governmental groups. States that fail to keep up with these transformations risk getting run over by those that do.

In lieu of the right bureaucratic structures, the possession of modern weaponry is of dubious utility, as the states of the modern Middle East have found out. No matter how great the Arab preponderance in men and materiel—and against Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 their advantage appeared, on paper at least, to be insuperable—they have continuously contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The armies of Russia and the United States were far more competent, but in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Vietnam and Iraq, they, too, found themselves stymied by smaller, poorer adversaries, largely because their armed forces were not properly configured for counter-guerrilla warfare. This does not mean that modern military hardware is useless—only that by itself it is not enough to guarantee victory against a clever, determined adversary. When combined with the right organization, doctrine, training, leadership, etc., however, sophisticated weaponry can confer a decided advantage even in battling irregular foes.

Next: the danger of too little change--and too much.

Jeek:
The key to successful innovation, whether for a dictatorship or a democracy, is having an effective bureaucracy. This was the chief advantage enjoyed by Elizabeth I over Philip II in the Battle of the Spanish Armada (1588), Emperor Meiji over Czar Nicholas II at the Battle of Tsushima (1905), Adolf Hitler over Édouard Daladier in the Battle of France (1940), and the two George Bushes over Saddam Hussein.

Hmmmm. I am dubious that Elizabeth had an "effective bureaucracy". I have trouble thinking of this as the key to English victory in the Armada campaign.

The Nazi bureaucracy is regarded as notoriously INeffective. Hitler deliberately encouraged infighting and duplication of effort in order to cement his power as "The Decider" over the squabbling factions.

As for Bush I and II vs. Saddam, the US would have trounced Iraq both times no matter what kind of bureaucracy we had.
10.31.2006 10:55am
hey (mail):
I'm not exactly sure how the Boer war is a good example of overstretch. The Boers were subdued, the Brits still in charge, but the victory was limited by the demographic realities and the enlightened rules under which the Brits operated. To prevent the Afrikaners from later gaining control of a democratic (for whites) South Africa would have required mass executions or deportments on a Communist or Nazi scale.

The Quebecois, beaten for 150 years at that point, were still an uncontrollable rabble that posed drastic problems for the mobilisation of Canadian forces to fight the Boers. This has been repeated in their opposition to WWI, WWII, and every single military operation since then. By not eliminating or transferring conquered populations, the Brits set up an unending problem, 250 years after the fact as the unassimilated ethnic rejectionists derail Canadian foreign policy. English Canada is a strong supporter of American and British intervention (despite whaat the media claims) and has only been kept to the sidelines by a militantly pacifist (oxymoronic, but very true, think ANSWER but with more insistent riots and terrorists) ethnic minority.

What does this mean? Our cultural virtues are our own enemies in the struggle for peace and liberty.
10.31.2006 11:12am
Dylanfa (mail) (www):
Jeek, my head also exploded over that same paragraph for the Bush vs. Saddam comparison. Two of these things are not like the others. At all.

But while my copy of "To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World" is lent out, I believe the beginnings of the bureacracy that supported the early Royal Navy were under Elizabeth I, although it probably wasn't much more than a central paymaster and supplier. Everyone else was operating off an adhocracy, however.
10.31.2006 11:47am
te:
Is it just me or is anyone else a little wary of military analysis by people who primary battlefield experience was writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal?
10.31.2006 12:41pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Man for man, the Wehrmacht was probably the most formidable fighting force in the world until at least 1943, if not later.

Try much later, like May 6, 1945. What is amazing is that the Germans were able to put up a fight until the very last day of the war against at least the Russians. Of course in the west they had finally started to surrender en masse.

For all of you who think that fighting according to the Geneva Conventions is for pansies how the war in Europe was fought in the west and the east could offer a better example of why to follow the rules. There is no doubt that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lives were saved in western Europe because of the way we treated German captives. They were much more likely to surrender than they were in the east where they would fight to the death against the Russians knowing that there was no point in surrendering. As late as the end of April of 1945, German units around Berlin were trying to break through the Russian lines just so they could surrender to the Americans west of the city.
10.31.2006 1:17pm
Tom Holsinger (mail):
Jeek,

The German General Staff in particular, and the German ground forces in general, were extremely effective bureaucracies. But they lacked effective civilian oversight and control. "War is too important to be left to the generals" - Clemanceau.

Check out the three volume series, "Military Effectiveness", edited by Alan Millett and Williamson Murray, on World War One, World War Two and the interwar years. Here is a link to volume 1 (they're all out of print, regretably - the series is superb):

Military Effectiveness, Vol. 1: The First World War (Mershon Center Series on International Security and Foreign Policy) (Paperback)
10.31.2006 1:52pm
Jeek:
I believe the beginnings of the bureacracy that supported the early Royal Navy were under Elizabeth I, although it probably wasn't much more than a central paymaster and supplier. Everyone else was operating off an adhocracy, however.

While it is true that the Elizabethan navy had a bureaucracy - and probably even a better bureaucracy than the Spanish had - I am skeptical that this represented a decisively meaningful edge for the English. The Elizabethan navy, like the Elizabethan state, was administratively anemic. English success had at least as much to do with private enterprise as government bureaucracy. =)
10.31.2006 1:58pm
Jeek:
The German General Staff in particular, and the German ground forces in general, were extremely effective bureaucracies.

The audit of war suggests otherwise. True, the German military bureaucracy was good at producing tactically and (often but not always) operationally effective ground troops. However, the German military bureaucracy had decisively important weaknesses in the realms of intelligence, logistics, mobilization, and the provision of sound strategic advice to the civilian leadership. On the whole, during World War II, the Americans, British, and Soviets were better served by their military bureaucracies than were the Germans by theirs, even discounting the relative resource disparities.
10.31.2006 2:09pm
Tom Holsinger (mail):
Jeek,

You just described the military parts of the difference between fighting and war. The Germans were so focused on tactical and operational combat effectiveness that they lost sight of the non-combat aspects.
10.31.2006 2:47pm
dejapooh (mail):
How is a military configured for counter-guerrilla warfare? What does that mean?
10.31.2006 5:23pm
Eric R:
Dejapooh, that question is answered well in Mr. Boot's excellent book Savage Wars of Peace.

A simplification of the idea is that the large heavy formations popular for WWIII type scenarios of huge armies clashing are not effective at fighting guerillas.
10.31.2006 7:11pm
Eric R:
If I remember correctly, Savage Wars of Peace argues convincingly that Special Forces type units adept in the local culture, customs, and language, working to target guerrillas are much more effective.
10.31.2006 7:17pm