Sunday, May 15, 2005

Curmudgeonly Humbuggerism

VDH has come up with a string of articles taking on the supposedly entrenched prejudices prevalent in the academy recently, of which the two most recent can be found here and here.

I'm afraid I find both pieces rather weak overall, though not entirely lacking in good things. Remembering World War 2 especially overeggs the pudding with a string of assertions that seem to me overblown, even in the cause of making a point:

In the last few years, new books and articles have argued for a complete rethinking of the war. The only consistent theme in this various second-guessing was a diminution of the American contribution and suspicion of our very motives.

I would very much like to know which specific examples VDH is thinking of. On the matter of motives I personally take the view (with which I don't doubt VDH would agree) that the forces of the United States and the British Empire have so far emerged relatively unscathed as, at least in Big Picture terms, pretty solidly the Good Guys. VDH, of course, is prone to paint Allied warmaking as a form of unalloyed moral crusade. In reality, of course, Allied actions (including decisions to go to war) were a happy admixture of geopolitics and sound ethics, the former being rather more important than the latter. In making this point I do not feel that I am guilty of impugning Anglo-American motivations or war aims.

On the matter of the American contribution, it is, of course important not to understate it (though as a Brit, I've lost count of the number of times that American commentators have acted as though the United Kingdom's role in the war was nothing more than acting as a handy geographic aircraft carrier for American forces). The United States took on a role similar to that of Britain in the Napoleonic Wars, as financier, supplier and global logistician, all the while contributing very large amounts of troops (relatively far more than the British in the Napoleonic conflict) to to the main theatres of operations. On the other hand, the revised look at the Soviet contribution to the war, led from the front by US Army Colonel David Glantz (that noted pinko...) is largely welcome.

That being said, the Anglo-Americans waged a global war well beyond the capability of the Soviet Union.

True, but somewhat lacking in context. The Anglo-American alliance was a predominantly seapower coalition, whereas the Soviet forces represented a quintessential land power, which was required to meet and defeat the enemy's main military force in its own sphere of operations.

They invaded North Africa, took Sicily, and landed in Italy, in addition to fighting a massive land war in central Europe.

It is worth pointing out that most of these little adventures were opposed vigorously by US strategists and were seen - perhaps not without justification - as the result of a British obsession with prancing around on the fringes looking for "soft underbellies" and "indirect approaches". In fact - echoing US strategists in the Great War who thought exactly the same way - American strategic thinkers largely believed that there was only one real catfight that mattered, namely the "massive land war in central Europe". By their own lights, the key theatre of operations was by definition the Soviet front, where the Nazis main land force concentration was met and systematically gutted.

We had fewer casualties than did the Russians because we fought more wisely, were better equipped...

Really? Really? Hmm. I think the notion that the US as a whole fought its ground wars more wisely than the USSR is at least debatable. While the recent interest in the apparent brilliance of Soviet operational art (the genesis of which lies, not with subversive, hemp-pantalooned 60s throwbacks but with soldier-scholars largely drawn from the ranks of the US armed forces) may be somewhat (and only somewhat) overblown (as was much of the American obsession with the wonders of German military prowess in the 1980s) it is difficult to argue that the US (or the British) were notably better with the exception of aerial ground support. Certainly the evidence offered by books such as John Ellis's Brute Force, Max Hastings' Armageddon, Michael Doubler's Closing with the Enemy et al do not note a significant degree of glory in this matter. VDH also fails to note that the Soviet Union fought a main front land war on a significantly greater scale than that of the Anglo-Americans, for a significantly longer time, in an atmosphere of mutual genocidal intent (or something close to it). This as much as Allied skill helps to account for the relatively low incidence of dead British and Americans (even so this is a relative judgement - by summer 1944, the United Kingdom had exhausted its manpower and was literally fighting with the last army it had access to and while the US was able to make good its losses, US strategists were expressing significant concern regarding the ability of American ground forces to hold up if transferred from the European theatre of operations to the Pacific following the defeat of Germany), though it can be little doubted that Anglo-American officers were significantly more mindful of their mens' lives than their Soviet counterparts.

Revisionism holds a strange attraction for the winners of World War II. American textbooks discuss World War II as if a Patton, Le May, or Nimitz did not exist, as if the war was essentially the Japanese internment and Hiroshima.


Similarly, the British have monthly debates on the immorality of their bombing Hamburg and Dresden.

Unless I keep suffering monthly grand mal seizures that prevent me from taking part or being aware of their existence, I'm pretty sure this is not the case. In fact, recent historiography largely follows the trend of arguing that the attack did have a broad military utility and was not simply an instance of terror bombing. Dresden self-flagellation peaked with David Irving. These days the "debates on the immorality" of Dresden largely consist of the Germans going "we are victims too!" and the British pointing and laughing and sending wave after wave of football fans to recreate the raid in city centres across continental Europe.

So leisured American academics tell us that Iwo Jima was unnecessary, if not a racist campaign, that Hiroshima had little military value but instead was a strategic ploy to impress Stalin, and that the GI was racist, undisciplined, and reliant only on money and material largess.

I don't intend to pass judgement on Iwo Jima, though it seems to me to be a legitimate debate in which military historians, whether of the leisured variety or otherwise, may indulge. On the matter of reliance on money and material laresse I am uncertain of whether VDH is referring to it as a motivation to fight (in which case I would agree that this is nonsense, though I have yet to encounter an historian who has made this claim) or whether he mentions it in the form of the substitution of weight of materiel and domestic productive power for tactical skill. If VDH means the latter and considers this scurrilous I would again note that the bulk of modern scholarship (produced by the likes of West Point instructor Lt Col Michael Doubler, Reagan administration alumnus Colin Gray and noted scrupulous hardass and former USAF officer Williamson Murray) is against him, heart rending though that may be.

On the racism issue, the issue of the GI (and British Tommy) worldview in the Pacific is certainly contentious. However, I would argue that first and foremost it is far from academically barren and is a worthy topic for investigation and second of all that its impact on the Big Picture (ie. whether we can legitimately call ourselves the Good Guys or whatnot) is extremely limited. Of course, the leading examiner of this sort of thing is John Dower. I would be prepared to bet a pound to a penny that Dower is a pretty classic lefty, but his work is perfectly respectable and is widely acknowledged as honest . Certainly it demonstrates greater academic rigour than work by, say... let me pluck a name completely at random out of the ether here... Stephen Ambrose. It should not, repeat, not be seen as somehow "definitive" - see the alternative interpretations put forward by John Lynn in his superb "Battle: A History of Combat and Culture". But it is legit and the academic debate is the better for it. It is also worth checking out Yuki Tanaka's Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, which notes (though with perhaps dubious context) the widespread incidence of rape committed by US and Australian troops against Japanese civilians , in contrast to their relatively restrained behaviour in other theatres (curiously, British and Indian troops were documented as being much less inclined to rape, quite why I'm not sure [national stereotypes, extra bromide in the tea...]).

So much for the particulars, which I feel are weak. In fairness, VDH rallies toward the end:

There are ... disturbing things about the current revisionism that transcend the human need to question orthodoxy.

I think this is a fair point to a degree. The problem is that virtually all the particulars VDH provides to support this claim are heavily flawed at best and he casts his net far too wide. Ultimately, his argument boils down the fact that Gunther Grass, some Dutch people and an unnamed Swede are idiots. This is an eminently defensible thesis (in fact I may make note of it for when I'm casting about for something to cover in my dissertation...) but the flim-flam that is used to tart it up is not.

Earlier in the article, VDH attacks the collective historical contortions of such places as Russia and the PRC, but it seems to me that in too many ways he wishes the West (or, at least, the Anglo-American West) would take a similar line (though with somewhat more justification). Unlike many contemporary thinkers, I see value in collective memory, even if flawed and I an content that there exist illusions that are, in fact, eminently necessary. But ultimately this is a political not an academic argument. VDH seeks to employ history as a rough (very rough) guide to the present and this is an honourable and useful pursuit. Unfortunately, the two articles I've cited do not, in my view, showcase the dual roles of academic and advocate in a particularly harmonious light.


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