2009/09/09

Military reputation

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I had once a conversation about war, peace, nations, beer, soccer and women.*

Sometime during that talk I was tempted to offer a rather cliché-laden statement, something along the lines of "Only ignorant people want to wage war against Germans. Nobody wants Germans to go to war. Our last wars were world wars, the world wouldn't survive a Third."

Then I thought twice and didn't say it. That wouldn't have been my statement, but the beer's.

We're not the same Germans as those who waged the world wars.
The French are not the same as those of 1940.
The Israelis aren't the same as in 1973 any more.
The British have little in common with the Brits who controlled an empire.
The Americans are far, far away from their supposedly "golden generation" that mobilized in WW2.

Time, long periods of peace and events change the character of military forces thoroughly. There's some lineage visible and armies keep some characteristics that differentiate them from others, but they don't stay the same at all.
The German Heer (army) had a different face in every decade of its existence, for example.

I know someone who goes around telling people about once a month that this and that country's military isn't the gold standard for military prowess and that nevertheless he doesn't know which military is.
Hey, I don't know either - and I'm sure no-one does.
In fact, I doubt that such a thing, a universal benchmark military, exists. It's much more complicated (and probably was so for centuries). The different military services of different countries could probably be described by a three-dimensional matrix of service-function-degree of competence.

Some armies get hyped up and others get bashed - and both may be completely unjustified.
Those who consider this or that force as especially good usually seem to ignore its shortcomings.

In fact, many strengths seem to have a dark side of the coin.

Strong logistics - thirst for and dependence on supplies
Strong fighter aviation - weak air defence
Superior protection - less use of micro-terrain for cover & concealment
High share of professionals - few infantry, reluctance to risk casualties, few reserves
Good electronics - neglect of basic skills
Heavy combat vehicles - ill-prepared for closed terrains

In the end, supposedly powerful armies with a good track record in some areas often disappointed spectacularly in another arena (Israel: Sinai to Lebanon, USA: Iraqi desert to Iraqi cities, Soviet Union: Nomonhan to Finland, Japan: Malaya to Guadalcanal, France: Northern Italy to Sedan, Germany: Summer of 41 to Winter of 41/42).

Maybe we should get rid of the idea that some armies are good and others are not. Military history suggests that military performance is context-dependent.

Some even unorganized and under-developed (para)military forces can be superior to very sophisticated and rich forces in an arena that suits them well. The notion that a certain army is "weak" can (and often did) lead to a terrible underestimation. Such a (in most extreme cases) one-variable judgment is an oversimplification.


That's a devastating idea for generalist forces that pretend to be powerful on a global scale and in unforeseen scenarios ('global full spectrum dominance blablabla').
The ability to excel in very different scenarios may require to have several significantly different military institutions (even several armies) at hand. It's probably no mere coincidence that the U.S. has Army, Marines, National Guard and at times a discussion about quasi-civilian forces (Barnett et al). That may be in part a consequence of its global entanglement since 1898.

The quite recent emphasis on adaptability, a kind of universally useful trait, may be a step in the right direction. I doubt that bureaucratic monsters (as modern armies are) could ever become highly adaptable, though. Adaptability may be fostered among individual leaders, but probably not as much as an institutional trait. It would at least be quite difficult to create and to maintain.
Adaption also takes time. Violent conflicts become quite expensive if you stumble around at first till you finally find an approach that works (and doesn't necessarily suit your comparative advantages well).


Sven Ortmann

*: And was now unable to resist the temptation of an illustration...
"Military reputation" is excessively difficult to illustrate with symbol pics to loosen up the text wall.
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2 comments:

  1. Okay, the first pic got me slapped in the back of the head by Meine Frau. Thanks for the book referal.

    Generally agree with the argument. Though, now you're going to have fanbois arguing that so and so is the most adaptable and therefor best, y'know.

    I definitely liked the 'war/battles/engagements' are context driven. I've been thinking on that in reference to the Clauswitzian dogma of seeking battles of annihiliation(sorry, my German vocab is *not* up to doing what he actually called them). Some seem to think that that's all you need to do. It would seem to me that it depends on who you're fighting, what you're fighting about, and how the guy you're fighting is structured. Just seeking battle to annihalte an army or two doesn't seem to always give you all the marbles.

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  2. "The soft overcomes the hard; and the weak the strong.": Lao Tzu

    The paradox of things. By the way, love that illustration at the top. When will we have football teams like that...

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