My Skewed History

A while back I was going through all the books that line my shelves, culling some in order to make room for potential new entrants. Although I am trying to branch out a bit, a lot of the books are on military history, particularly of the WW2 and WW1 vintage (I am trying to read some more light-hearted materials).

One of the main participants in history of that era is of course the Germans and in particular the German General Staff. A lot of the books that had lain unread for a while related to various German military campaigns and biographies of their commanders.

As I sat looking at the stack of books going to various recyclers I started to think about how focusing on that era, and in particular the Germans, is so irrelevant to the world that we face today. I am not talking about war in the abstract or the fact that the Germans were excellent planners and professionals in many dimensions (although not all) which is always relevant, but the fact that today the Germans are such minor players on the world military stage and their past history, so to speak, is totally irrelevant towards future behavior.

I then noticed a news release about Germans being killed in battle… but they were German nationals killed by a drone attack working against coalition forces in the middle east! I realize that this is sensationalistic and under values the hard work and lives lost that the Germans as coalition members have suffered as part of their support in Afghanistan but still it was a jolt.

Here is the oddest thought of all… as Americans we have long made jokes at the expense of the French about their military prowess, with some foundation particularly the WW2 era. But today, which country is more likely to stand up for themselves in a time of crisis and utilize military power – I’d put my money on France, which still has entanglements in Africa and attempts to burn a fierce nationalistic pride, while the Germans de-emphasize national identity in particular a military outlook post WW2.

These books lining my shelves were telling me about the past, but not the future. There are many countries that will drive the future for military purposes, but the Germans aren’t one of them. While today our military is locked in struggles against terrorists and IED’s (as well as a civil war of sorts in Afghanistan) there certainly could be a showdown someday against an armed and organized nation state, whether it is Iran or China. It isn’t that the nation to nation showdowns, which have been pushed to the back burner in our current era, won’t come back – it is just that the players will be very different and while we may have a lot to learn from the past it is unknown how much of the WW2 experience in particular will be valuable for consideration.

I need to start over, and clear the shelves, literally as well as figuratively.

Cross posted at LITGM

11 thoughts on “My Skewed History”

  1. Great thoughts. I have been thinking along similar lines – particularly with the fears that the US will see everything through the lens of WWII and the Cold War.

    WWII was a strange conflict because we could and did seek completely decisive warfare. I think it will be some time that we face an enemy with the combination of material strength and moral repugnance that WWII Germany and Japan possessed, and without the total war which the fear of such a power might prompt, we will probably not achieve similarly total victories.

    Yet the lesson American policymakers seem to draw is that we should always seek the kind of moral clarity and total transformational victories that WWII provided. WWII and the Cold War provided enemies that were seen to be pinnacles of evil, ultimately vastly reduced and arguably, in Germany’s case, wiped off the geopolitical map. We look back to these conflicts because they tell a self-affirming tale.

    But the war on terror is not WWII, or the Cold War. Nor will be the confrontation with China. But we never stop invoking the principles of those struggles. If we are looking to history as our guide, we need to go farther back to find analogies that make sense for today’s issues.

  2. I seem to recall a survey conducted by a Japanese newspaper of Japanese men 18-25 asking them if they would defend Japan if it were invaded. Less than 50% responded in the affirmative.

    Of course, the dramatic reversal of national military prowess is nothing new or unique to Germany or Japan. The Italians, the Hungarians, and the Mongols (to name but a few) all inspired terror and awe in the past. Less so now.

  3. And I recall the Oxford Union affirming the resolution that they would not fight for King and Country.

    without the total war which the fear of such a power might prompt, we will probably not achieve similarly total victories.

    I think you underestimate the reaction of the American people when one of their cities is eliminated by a WMD traced to members of a certain religion. The Americans will roll with the punch, but they will come up punching, even if the Chinese decide to stick by their allies as stupidly as Hitler did. The grapes of wrath will be trampled. I suggest you, and they, read The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America. And remember that the largest ethnic group in America is the Germans.

  4. Mrs Davis I don’t know what your point is. I didn’t say that Americans won’t fight for their country; we are fighting 2 wars now with all volunteers. The point is – what does the WW2 “total war” experience and in particular the German General staff, famous amongst history buffs like me, have to do with the world of today? Not much. If you have a point make it relevant to the post.

  5. The Germans and their wars, and the potential rematch between NATO and the Soviet Union, so completely dominated the 20th Century that we are only now coming out of their shadow.

    I think we can still learn things from the Germans. which British general said “he has not fought the Germans does not know war”?

    But we absolutely need to step back from seeing the industrial era mass warfare of the 20th Century as “normal warfare.” Actually, those wars are the outliers. Protracted, inclusive, messy, small scale wars fought between developed-world armies and other kinds of people, no longer like minor league stuff compared to the big league action against the Germans. This is happening more and more, and will continue to happen.

    That said, my military history collection is still top-heavy with World War II.

    It will be a long time before we can treat it as just another old war. Is the epic of our era, our Peloponnesian War, our Punic War.

    Also, as well known as so much of it is, there is still a lot we do not yet know.

    For example, until recently I had never heard of Wilfrid Freeman. I got my Dad this book. Freeman was instrumental in getting the all metal monoplanes built that won the Battle of Britain. As if that was not enough, he was the key figure inmarrying up the P-51, which was underpowered as initially designed, with the Merlin engine, which led to Allied air supremacy in 1944-45. I only heard about him in an article in the Journal of Military History, by Michaell Howard, that entioned him and cited this book.

    That is just one example. Another important guy was Admiral Ramsay, who was in charge of the Dunkirk evacuation, and the naval phase of Overlord. Again, either is enough for one lifetime. There is a biography in the works about him.

    It goes on and on.

    So, while I agree we need to branch out beyond World War II, there are still fascinating things to learn.

    On the narrow topic of biographies of German Generals, I am a little tired of that. There are all these books about how “great” this or that German was. I am of the opinion that the generals who actually won the war are overdue for more considerion. The Russians and the Americans have commanders no one ever heard of who commanded armies and army groups.

    I have recently been reading Victorian war memoirs, which are free on Google books. M’Ghee’s book about the Opium War is gripping. The two volume autobiography of Garnet Wolseley is so good I could barely put it down. Next up is Lady Sale’s diary of the invasion and disastrous retreat from “A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan: A Firsthand Account by One of the Few Survivors.” Also great, but not particularly military, are Richard Francis Burton’s narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca, and Sir Francis Younghusband’s Heart of a Continent, and Fred Burnaby’s A Ride to Khiva. These guys would get leave from their regiments and go exploring the blank spaces on the maps. You cannot beat this literature, it is simply amazing. And it is much more like the kinds of conflicts we are involved in these days than Kursk or Overlord — thank God!

  6. What a great post.

    As for real-world, add The Law of the Somalis to the list. The German lawyer who wrote it was married to a Somali and part of their tribe. He crafted an ingenious, bordering-on-brilliant method of blending Western jurisprudence with tribal law. I’m not a lawyer but read this obscure title twice through because of its relevance. And relevance is a big deal in the world that lies ahead. Most of what we need to know is out there if we take the time to look.

  7. Sadly, the greatest benefit to studying the methods of a fascist state might be future conflicts with our own, out-of-control Government.

    Knowing how it all appeared to TPTB, in addition to the experience of the insurgents (there’s that word again…) could prove critical knowledge in times to come.

    OTOH, it could just be an interesting intellectual exercise.

    I’m of the opinion that there is almost NO field of historical study that cannot yield valuable lessons for the student.

    After all, humans really don’t ever change much, do we?


  8. I don’t know what your point is. I didn’t say that Americans won’t fight for their country

    It’s pretty obvious that she was responding to the commenter immediately before her.

    If you have a point make it relevant to the post.

    Like Mrs Davis, I am not responding to the original post but to a comment; perhaps my sin is less because I am responding to a comment by the original poster.

    My response is, quit being an ass.

  9. Notable here is that one of the pillars of this posting is in the line: I then noticed a news release about Germans being killed in battle… but they were German nationals killed by a drone attack working against coalition forces in the middle east!

    What goes entirely unmentioned here, and I don’t know if that is intentional, is the interesting moral question of – “what were the names of the Germans?”

    Because I guaran-damn-tee you they weren’t Hans, Joachim, Gerda, and Fritz.

    Try Hassan, Ahmad, Mahmud…. etc.

    So is that relevant to this post, and is it relevant to whatever agency produced that News release.

    Simple answer: We all know that, in a nice fuzzy wuzzy perfect rainbow world, it isn’t.

    And if you want to know what is well and truly happening in this event, and in the world, it damn sure is relevant.

    So go ahead and square that circle.

  10. The point of WW II being our Punic War(s), et al is an excellent one. The serial World Wars, for better or worse will form a foundation to 20th Century history for a millenium (if anyone still studies history by then).

    All conflicts—in fact, all historical events have potential relevance so long as you identify the military, economic, and/or social drivers and thereby apply them to a given current circumstance.
    When speaking to colleagues about responding to an invading/competing larger force, I still use the example of massively outnumbered Scots invading England in the early 14th C., in response to an invading English army. Why stay home and get killed defending readily replaced hovels? Go burn English farms that are more valuable, when everyone that can defend them has left town. No better way to drive an invader—-or, competitor—home than to attack his home base when he’s being inattentive. And, so on. It’s not the technology; it’s not the geopolitics of that moment in time. It’s analyzing human nature, and how human beings respond in a given set of circumstances.

    The only things that will make the massive loss of life in the 20th century wars mean something is to examine them, to determine what happened, how it happened, what worked and what did not—and then apply it to the world of the 21st and eventually 22d century. There will be new despots; there will be new *Great Ideas* that aren’t, like Bolshevism and Naziism; read, learn, and apply.

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