November 27, 2006


Conspicuous Proliferation: a review of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today by Max Boot (William H. McNeill, December 21, 2006, NY Review of Books)

War Made New begins with a crisp introduction, sketching four revolutions in warfare since 1500 around which Max Boot chose to organize his book. It ends in a fog of acronyms for weapons still on the drawing boards, uncertainty about future military revolutions, and "The Danger of Too Much Change—and Too Little." In between Boot found many persuasive things to say about how changes in military technology and management affected the course of European and world history, illustrating each of his military revolutions with detailed accounts of three specific battles or campaigns. [...]

Boot skips over World War I just as he skipped the advances in weaponry and ideological mobilization between 1750 and 1866, although that conflict introduced many new weapons, and raised the intensity of mobilization on the home front to previously unimagined heights. But Boot prefers to make his "Second Industrial Revolution" in military affairs coincide with World War II and emphasizes three innovations—tanks, aircraft carriers, and heavy bombers—by focusing on the defeat of France in 1940, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the American firebombing of Tokyo in 1945.

As always, these narrative chapters are well written and make a good case for the importance of the three new weapons he chose to discuss. At the same time, he recognizes the partiality of his approach, and acknowledges that other innovations—radar, code breaking, amphibious landings, and improvements in older technologies like submarine warfare and industrial production lines—also affected the outcome.

I quite concur with his summing up of "What Produced Victory?" Here are some of his observations:

The Germans outthought their enemies in the interwar period, which is why in 1939–41 the Third Reich was able to outfight the countries of Western and Eastern Europe.... On paper, at least, this gave the Third Reich the potential to compete against the US and USSR.... Japan, too, grabbed a vast empire for itself in Asia that should have given it greater ability to hold its own. Yet by 1942 the US was outproducing all of the Axis states combined. The USSR, too, staged a remarkable recovery...and was soon outproducing Germany....

He continues:

On the whole, however, the Allies pulled off the difficult feat of war management far better than the Axis. Nazi Germany was plagued by the erratic and often irrational decision-making of Adolf Hitler, who fostered an atmosphere of bureaucratic chaos and infighting. While Japan had no single leader of comparable power, it was handicapped by the lack of coordination between its army and navy. The British and Americans, by contrast, set up a Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee that, despite some inevitable friction, capably coordinated their joint war effort....

This underscores a theme running throughout this volume: Having an efficient bureaucracy is the key determinant of whether a country manages to take advantage of a military revolution.... The reason German armies were able to reach the gates of Moscow and Japanese armies the borders of India before being defeated was that the Axis had done a better job of organizing beforethe war. This gave them an important initial advantage that they allowed to slip away through catastrophic miscalculations—which once again goes to show that the early movers in a military revolution are not necessarily the long-term winners.

This last observation strikes me as a useful warning for American policymakers who are dealing with the ongoing "Information Revolution" that Boot dates from the 1990s, which has transformed warfare with high-tech advances such as cruise missiles, computer-guided targeting and navigation systems, and stealth planes invisible to radar. "While much is still murky," he declares, "one impact of the Information Age so far is reasonably clear: Even while decreasing the importance of traditional nation-states, it has given a substantial boost to the American position in relation to that of other states." More particularly, "American weaponry remains at the cutting edge of military developments."

Both seem to miss the point--because the organization of you society determines how effectively you can use whatever weapons, the Islamicists are, like the Communists and Nazis before them, their own worst enemies and not a realistic threat.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2006 11:44 AM

Thankfully for the Allies, political decisions made by the Nazi elite interfered with the German High Command's prosecution of the war. Once the initative was lost at the gates of Moscow, defeat was inevitable.

Japan is different. She never had a chance to prevail against the US. They seriously underestimated the US's capacity to make war.

Posted by: Pete at November 28, 2006 12:09 AM

The German miscalculation demonstrates the error of relying on the enemy's spiritual weakness to compensate for the actor's own material weakness. They compassed war against four fifths of humanity, relying on superior Geist--spirit--to see them through. The Germans talked of Totaler Krieg, but neglected its preparation, relying on bluff.

The Japanese as well as our own Confederates made a similar error. Our present adversaries are likewise so deluded. The Geist-damashii-valor gambit fails because the opposition wakes up and comes around.

We are now playing children's games with those people, letting them hide behind civilians. If and when the matter becomes serious, we will bring that other arm out from behind our back and erase them. Ask the Germans, and the Japanese, and the Confederates.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 28, 2006 4:42 AM

Actually, it demonstrates the truth of it. Nazism was a spiritual failure.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2006 7:38 AM


Germany never had a chance either.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2006 7:39 AM


The good guys don't always win. The German Army was filled with top notch talent at the general officer level. The German Army was outnumbered in every theatre/operation throughout WWII and yet they always inflicted more casualties on their opponents. If Hitler hadn't ordered Guderian to turn Southwest in Sept of '41 to achieve the encirclement of Kiev, he would have easily driven towards Moscow and captured it. At the time Moscow was the nerve center for the Russian railroad system. Without the ability to shift troops north and south through Moscow, Leningrad and the Ukraine could not have held out. The USSR would not have survived a year without Moscow. Japan would have scooped up the pieces in the Far East.

Come the Spring of '42, Britain and the US would have been unable to stop the Wermacht from dominating the Med, and by extension the Middle East. Britain's only choice would have been armistice.

Hitler's biggest blunder was in signing the Axis Powers agreement. This tied him to 1) a completely inept ally who only caused problems(Greece, Albania, North Africa) and 2) to an ally half way around the world who could provide no assistance.

Just because Germany lost, doesn't mean it was inevitable.

Posted by: Pete at November 28, 2006 6:13 PM

There weren't enough Germans to administer all of Europe. The belief they could was crazy. That's why the good guys win. It's also why fighting them was a mistake.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2006 6:26 PM