This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
“Why do people have a fixation with the German military when they haven’t won a war since 1871?” —Tom Clancy
I’ve always been interested in the German military, especially the Wehrmacht of World War II. As a young boy, I recall building many models, not just German Panther and Tiger tanks, but famous Luftwaffe planes as well. True, I built American tanks and planes, Shermans and Thunderbolts and Mustangs, but the German models always seemed “cooler,” a little more exotic, a little more predatory. And the German military, to my adolescent imagination, seemed admirably tough and aggressive: hard-fighting, thoroughly professional, hanging on against long odds, especially against the same hordes of “godless communists” that I knew we Americans were then facing down in the Cold War.
Later, of course, a little knowledge about the nightmare of Nazism and the Holocaust went a long way toward destroying my admiration for the Wehrmacht, but—to be completely honest—a residue of grudging respect still survives: I no longer have my models, but I still have many of the Ballantine illustrated war books I bought as a young boy for a buck or two, and which often celebrated the achievements of the German military, with titles like Panzer Division, or Afrika Korps, or even Waffen SS.
As the Bible says, we are meant to put aside childish things as we grow to adulthood, and an uninformed fascination with the militaria and regalia of the Third Reich was certainly one of these. But when I entered Air Force ROTC in 1981, and later on active duty in 1985, I was surprised, even pleased, to discover that so many members of the US military shared my interest in the German military. To cite just one example, as a cadet at Field Training in 1983 (and later at Squadron Officer School in 1992), I participated in what was known as “Project X.” As cadets, we came to know of it in whispers: “Tomorrow we’re doing ‘Project X’: It’s really tough …”
A problem-solving leadership exercise, Project X consisted of several scenarios and associated tasks. Working in small groups, you were expected to solve these while working against the clock. What made the project exciting and more than busy-work, like the endless marching or shining of shoes or waxing of floors, was that it was based on German methods of developing and instilling small-unit leadership, teamwork, and adaptability. If it worked for the Germans, the “finest soldiers in the world” during World War II, it was good enough for us, or so most of us concluded (including me).
Project X was just one rather routine manifestation of the American military’s fascination with German methods and the German military mystique. As I began teaching military history to cadets at the Air Force Academy in 1990, I quickly became familiar with a flourishing “Cult of Clausewitz.” So ubiquitous was Carl von Clausewitz and his book On War that it seemed as if we Americans had never produced our own military theorists. I grew familiar with the way Auftragstaktik (the idea of maximizing flexibility and initiative at the lowest tactical levels) was regularly extolled. So prevalent did Clausewitz and Auftragstaktik become that, in the 1980s and 1990s, American military thinking seemed reducible to the idea that “war is a continuation of politics” and a belief that victory went to the side that empowered its “strategic corporals.”
War as a Creative Act
The American military’s fascination with German military methods and modes of thinking raises many questions. In retrospect, what disturbs me most is that the military swallowed the Clausewitzian/German notion of war as a dialectical or creative art, one in which well-trained and highly-motivated leaders can impose their will on events.
In this notional construct, war became not destructive, but constructive. It became not the last resort of kings, but the preferred recourse of “creative” warlords who demonstrated their mastery of it by cultivating such qualities as flexibility, adaptability, and quickness. One aimed to get inside the enemy’s “decision cycle,” the so-called OODA loop—the Air Force’s version of Auftragstaktik—while at the same time cultivating a “warrior ethos” within a tight-knit professional army that was to stand above, and also separate from, ordinary citizens.
This idolization of the German military was a telling manifestation of a growing militarism within an American society which remained remarkably oblivious to the slow strangulation of its citizen-soldier ideal. At the same time, the American military began to glorify a new generation of warrior-leaders by a selective reading of its past. Old “Blood and Guts” himself, the warrior-leader George S. Patton—the commander as artist-creator-genius—was celebrated; Omar N. Bradley—the bespectacled GI general and reluctant soldier-citizen—was neglected. Not coincidentally, a new vision of the battlefield emerged in which the US military aimed, without the slightest sense of irony, for “total situational awareness” and “full spectrum dominance,” goals that, if attained, promised commanders the almost god-like ability to master the “storm of steel,” to calm the waves, to command the air.
In the process, any sense of war as thoroughly unpredictable and enormously wasteful was lost. In this infatuation with German military prowess, which the political scientist John Mearsheimer memorably described as “Wehrmacht penis envy,” we celebrated our ability to Blitzkrieg our enemies—which promised rapid, decisive victories that would be largely bloodless (at least for us). In 1991, a decisively quick victory in the Desert Storm campaign of the first Gulf War was the proof, or so it seemed then, that a successful “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA in military parlance, was underway.
Forgotten, however, was this: the German Blitzkrieg of World War II ended with Germany’s “third empire” thoroughly thrashed by opponents who continued to fight even when the odds seemed longest.
What a remarkable, not to say bizarre, turnabout! The army and country the US had soundly beaten in two world wars (with a lot of help from allies, including, of course, those godless communists of the Soviet Union in the second one) had become a beacon for the US military after Vietnam. To use a sports analogy, it was as if a Major League Baseball franchise, in seeking to win the World Series, decided to model itself not on the New York Yankees but rather on the Chicago Cubs.
The New Masters of Blitzkrieg
Busts of Clausewitz reside in places of honor today at both the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and the National War College in Washington, D.C. Clausewitz was a complex writer, and his vision of war was both dense and rich, defying easy simplification. But that hasn’t stopped the US military from simplifying him. Ask the average officer about Clausewitz, and he’ll mention “war as the continuation of politics” and maybe something about “the fog and friction of war”—and that’s about it. What’s really meant by this rendition of Clausewitz for Dummies is that, though warfare may seem extreme, it’s really a perfectly sensible form of violent political discourse between nation-states.
Such an officer may grudgingly admit that, thanks to fog and friction, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” What he’s secretly thinking, however, is that it won’t matter at all, not given the US military’s “mastery” of Auftragstaktik, achieved in part through next-generation weaponry that provides both “total situational awareness” and a decisive, war-winning edge.
No wonder that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld were so eager to go to war in Iraq in 2003. They saw themselves as the new masters of Blitzkrieg, the new warlords (or “Vulcans” to use a term popular back then), the inheritors of the best methods of German military efficiency.
This belief, this faith, in German-style total victory through relentless military proficiency is best captured in Max Boot’s gushing tribute to the US military, published soon after Bush’s self-congratulatory and self-adulatory “Mission Accomplished” speech in May 2003. For Boot, America’s victory in Iraq had to “rank as one of the signal achievements in military history.” In his words:
“Previously, the gold standard of operational excellence had been the German blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France in 1940. The Germans managed to conquer France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in just 44 days, at a cost of ‘only’ 27,000 dead soldiers. The United States and Britain took just 26 days to conquer Iraq (a country 80 percent of the size of France), at a cost of 161 dead, making fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison.”
How likely is it that future military historians will celebrate General Tommy Franks and elevate him above the “incompetent” Rommel and Guderian? Such praise, even then, was more than fatuous. It was absurd.
Throughout our history, many Americans, especially frontline combat veterans, have known the hell of real war. It’s one big reason why, historically speaking, we’ve traditionally been reluctant to keep a large standing military. But the Cold War, containment, and our own fetishizing of the German Wehrmacht changed everything. We began to see war not as a human-made disaster but as a creative science and art. We began to seek “force multipliers” and total victory achieved through an almost Prussian mania for military excellence.
Reeling from a seemingly inexplicable and unimaginable defeat in Vietnam, the officer corps used Clausewitz to crawl out of its collective fog. By reading him selectively and reaffirming our own faith in military professionalism and precision weaponry, we tricked ourselves into believing that we had attained mastery over warfare. We believed we had tamed the dogs of war; we believed we had conquered Bellona, that we could make the goddess of war do our bidding.
We forgot that Clausewitz compared war not only to politics but to a game of cards. Call it the ultimate high-stakes poker match. Even the player with the best cards, the highest stack of chips, doesn’t always win. Guile and endurance matter. So too does nerve, even luck. And having a home-table advantage doesn’t hurt either.
None of that seemed to matter to a US military that aped the German military, while over-hyping its abilities and successes. The result? A so-called “new American way of war” that was simply a desiccated version of the old German one, which had produced nothing but catastrophic defeat for Germany in both 1918 and 1945—and disaster for Europe as well.
Just Ask the Germans
Precisely because that disaster did not befall us, precisely because we emerged triumphant from two world wars, we became both too enamored with the decisiveness of war, and too dismissive of our own unique strength. For our strength was not military élan or cutting-edge weaponry or tactical finesse (these were German “strengths”), but rather the dedication, the generosity, even the occasional ineptitude, of our citizen-soldiers. Their spirit was unbreakable precisely because they—a truly democratic citizen army—were dedicated to defeating a repellently evil empire that reveled fanatically in its own combat vigor.
Looking back on my youthful infatuation with the German Wehrmacht, I recognize a boy’s misguided enthusiasm for military hardness and toughness. I recognize as well the seductiveness of reducing the chaos of war to “shock and awe” Blitzkrieg and warrior empowerment. What amazes me, however, is how this astonishingly selective and adolescent view of war—with its fetish for lightning results, achieved by elevating and empowering a new generation of warlords, warriors, and advanced weaponry—came to dominate mainstream American military thinking after the frustrations of Vietnam.
Unlike a devastated and demoralized Germany after its defeats, we decided not to devalue war as an instrument of policy after our defeat, but rather to embrace it. Clasping Clausewitz to our collective breasts, we marched forward seeking new decisive victories. Yet, like our role models the Germans of World War II, we found victory to be both elusive and illusive.
So, I have a message for my younger self: put aside those menacing models of German tanks and planes. Forget those glowing accounts of Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Dismiss Blitzkrieg from your childish mind. There is no lightning war, America. There never was. And if you won’t take my word for it, just ask the Germans.