Tag Archives: Military History

Russia vs Ukraine: A Realist View–and Don’t Forget The Tsar’s Southwestern Front in 1914

1) Further to this post, (part 2 of it is also based on a piece by Mr Douthat),

Ukraine vs Russia: How Much Success is Too Much Success? Or…

the house conservative at the NY Times “Sunday Review” again sounds precautionary notes–and keep in mind that the main enemy is well to the east. The second part of his article today:

We Can’t Be Ukraine Hawks Forever

…when I read the broader theories of hawkish commentators, their ideas about America’s strategic vision and what kind of endgame we should be seeking in the war, I still find myself baffled by their confidence and absolutism.

For instance, for all their defensive successes, we have not yet established that Ukraine’s military can regain significant amounts of territory in the country’s south and east. Yet we have Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic insisting that only Putin’s defeat and indeed “humiliation” can restore European stability, while elsewhere in the same magazine Casey Michel calls for dismantling the Russian Federation, framed as the “decolonization” of Russia’s remaining empire, as the only policy for lasting peace.

Or again, the United States has currently committed an extraordinary sum to back Ukraine — far more than we spent in foreign aid to Afghanistan in any recent year, for instance — and our support roughly trebles the support offered by the European Union. Yet when this newspaper’s editorial board raised questions about the sustainability of such support, the response from many Ukraine hawks was a furious how dare you — with an emphasis, to quote Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, on Ukraine’s absolute right to fight “until every inch of their territory is free”; America’s strictly “modest” and “advisory” role in Ukrainian decision-making; and the importance of offering Kyiv, if not a blank check, at least a “very very big check with more checks to follow.”

These theories all seem to confuse what is desirable with what is likely, and what is morally ideal with what is strategically achievable [emphasis added]. I have written previously about the risks of nuclear escalation in the event of a Russian military collapse, risks that hawkish theories understate. But given the state of the war right now, the more likely near-future scenario is one where Russian collapse remains a pleasant fancy, the conflict becomes stalemated and frozen, and we have to put our Ukrainian policy on a sustainable footing without removing Putin’s regime or dismantling the Russian empire.

In that scenario, our plan cannot be to keep writing countless checks while tiptoeing modestly around the Ukrainians and letting them dictate the ends to which our guns and weaponry are used. The United States is an embattled global hegemon facing threats more significant than Russia. We are also an internally divided country led by an unpopular president whose majorities may be poised for political collapse. So if Kyiv and Moscow are headed for a multiyear or even multi-decade frozen conflict, we will need to push Ukraine toward its most realistic rather than its most ambitious military strategy. And just as urgently, we will need to shift some of the burden of supporting Kyiv from our own budget to our European allies [emphasis added].

Righteous (and properly felt) disgust over the brutal Russian conduct of the war nonetheless should not lead to emotional rejection–unless the Russians simply collapse–of all efforts to find ways to end the fighting that result in less than a complete defeat for Bad Vlad Putin. Horrid though he be the Russian vozhd is still not Hitler. Nor Stalin. Nor Mao.

Moreover, should Russia somehow end up “humiliated”, it is absurd to think that any new government would be truly conciliatory or democratic. Rather think of Germans lusting for revenge after World War I.

A tweet by the noted strategist and historian, Edward Luttwak:

Plebiscites were held in several contested border regions after World War I.

2) Plus excerpts from the newsletter, TOP SECRET UMBRA, of John Schindler (tweets here), a serious historian of the Italian and Russian/Austrian fronts in World War, as well as an expert on intelligence matters; do read it all:

Military History Repeats in Ukraine

The current Russian advance in Ukraine, driven by artillery, should surprise nobody who’s acquainted with history – in fact, it’s happened before

After initial bloody setbacks, the Russian military is advancing deep in Ukraine. Defenders have acquitted themselves with unexpected grit, blunting initial Russian blows. But eventually weight of shell begins to turn the tide as the attacker’s artillery outnumbers and outguns the defenders. Soon, a debacle looms as retreat threatens to turn into a rout. The high hopes of just weeks before, the victory euphoria seeing Russian forces reeling from heavy blows, slowly turn to doubt, even despair.

It’s the summer of 1914.

Watching battlefield events unfold in Ukraine’s Southeast in recent days, as Russia’s aggression against its neighbor is in its fourth month, it’s difficult for anybody acquainted with that country’s military history not to feel an unsettling sense of déjà vu.

…the Ukraine war has shifted to the country’s Southeast, where Russia made landgrabs in the Donbas in 2014. Here, Moscow is making its move, with the obvious objective of recreating Novorossiya with a land-bridge to Crimea through the devastated city of Mariupol, now in Russian hands after an almost three-month siege that claimed thousands of lives. Such an imperial-throwback concept like rebirthing some facsimile of Novorossiya across southern Ukraine – if extended to Moldova it would economically cripple what’s left of Ukraine by taking away its Black Sea access – makes some strategic and geographic sense and was always the Kremlin’s achievable objective in this war. Now, Putin is doing that.

What happens next cannot be predicted with certainty but Ukraine’s looming defeat in the Southeast paradoxically offers a way to cease the fighting, at least temporarily. Given the economic pain caused by sanctions, which is only getting worse, Putin would be wise to pause his offensives after achieving modest success in the Southeast: at this point, the Kremlin is looking for a win, any win, to sell to the Russian public as justification for the enormous cost in blood and treasure of Putin’s war-of-choice.

Militarily, Russia’s offensive in the Southeast, though plodding, seems to be finally going Moscow’s way. At last, the Russian military is playing to its strengths in firepower. The Kremlin has decided to crush Ukrainian resistance, one punishing artillery barrage at a time…

…Current events in Ukraine eerily resemble summertime military operations in that country, 108 years ago. That was the Battle for Galicia, in today’s Western Ukraine, which was a grave defeat for Austria-Hungary, indeed a setback from which that country’s military never really recovered…

Some of the similarities…are troubling. In 1914, as today, the Russians dealt harshly with civilians in Galicia whom they considered disloyal or dangerous: some were shot outright while many thousands of others, Ukrainian, Poles, and especially Jews, were abducted and dispatched deep into Russia as hostages.

…the continuities between the fight for Ukraine in 1914 and the fight today appear more significant than the differences. Again, a Russian army backed by vast amounts of gunnery is grinding defenders down…

The outcome of the battle for the Donbas may well determine Ukraine’s fate for years to come. Local defeat looms but that need not become strategic defeat: that depends on Kyiv’s military moves right now. Time is the most undervalued aspect of warfighting but also the most difficult to grasp. War invariably develops its own logic. In that sense, war never changes, particularly when it involves Russians.

P.S. For readers seeking more on the Galician campaign of summer 1914 and its decisive impact on European history, I modestly recommend my book on the subject.

And a very good book it is:

This recent post is also relevant:

Why the Russian Army’s Poor Performance in Ukraine (so far)…and Western Armies?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

Going “the way of Latin”: Jack Granatstein on the Quickening Death of Academic Canadian History, especially Military History

(Caption for photo at top of the post: “Curator Lindsey Sharman speaks about Second World War silkscreens, that brightened the living quarters of Canadian soldiers, on display at the Founders’ Gallery at The Military Museums in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.”)

The start and end of a piece (do read it all) at the Hub website by the eminent Canadian historian Jack Granatstein (disclosure: he recruited me to be a blogger and fellow for several years at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, now the Canadian Global Affairs Institute which decided that their new directions did not include me):

Canada is failing to teach its military history

If the present enrolment trends continue, Canadian history will go the way of Latin and disappear

The teaching of Canadian history in the nation’s universities is in trouble. Course enrolments have been and are continuing to fall dramatically and the numbers of history majors have collapsed. This, it is said, is true in all areas of historical study, not least in the history of Canada.

Why? First, there are few jobs for history graduates. A sensible student will opt for business or IT or law where they might even be able to make a living from their studies.

But there are likely many additional reasons and one surely is that historians have been working for decades to turn their discipline away from narrative and towards theory. Narrative tells a factual story while theory posits an abstruse rationale for what did or did not occur. The theorists prevail. Another reason is that the woke Canadian historians, now apparently the majority in the profession, have turned away from national history. The York University history calendar ungrammatically says it all: “Our courses focus on the thematic areas of indigeneity, culture, gender, social, political, environmental and sexuality.”..

Despite…[the] sad situation, graduate students still want to do research on Canadian military history. If they get their PhDs, however, there are no jobs for them as scarcely a university is willing to hire them no matter how capable they may be. If they are lucky, they might get a job in Britain or the United States or here as an archivist or in the policy directorate at National Defence. But they will not likely be teaching because their putative departmental colleagues won’t have them.

…Margaret MacMillan noted in War: How Conflict Shaped Us…[that] we live in a war-weary world, and we need to study war’s causes, its horrors and glories, and its effects on our ancestors and our present lives.4 We need more research, in other words, not removing the study of war from history curricula.It is sadly only the short-sighted prejudices of the tenured historians who prefer to teach their increasingly arcane subjects to the interested few that stop military history from being taught. Soon it won’t matter—if the present enrolment trends continue, Canadian history will go the way of Latin and disappear or at best be attached to another department struggling to survive.

J.L. Granatstein taught Canadian history for 30 years, was director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum, and is the author most recently of Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace (2021).

Two related posts from my time with the CDFAI/CGAI:

Defensive Editing at Globe and Mail: Canadian Military History

Mark Collins – Not Remembering Canada’s Real Post-WW II Military History

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

The Mind of a British Officer very much of the Old School–in World War I and after in Poland

Brief excerpts below from Happy Odyssey, the memoirs of Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, who finished his career as a Lieutenant-General. He loved being a simple soldier and fighting. He had a most eventful career, including being a PoW in Italy 1941-43; managed, with another officer, to escape for a while from a castle prison. His final posting, strangely, was from 1943-47 as the British prime minister’s personal representative to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, the head of Nationalist China (a story on Carton de Wiart here and a photo below).

De Wiart

These excerpts are from this edition:

1) As a brigade commander on the Western Front 1917 (p. 90);

I had known very little of the happenings on the other sectors of the front, and as for technical inventions I knew nothing and was never in the least interested. Tanks had no doubt been the greatest invention of the war, but I had never been lucky with those allotted to me…

Also, at p. 89:

Frankly, I had enjoyed the war…

Despite, amongst other wounds, losing an eye and a hand. Some chap. Got the VC.

2) As head of the British Military Mission to Poland immediately after the war–before he went (p. 92),

I had only a hazy idea as the the whereabouts of Poland [the fellow was quite cosmopolitan, had lived in Belgium as a child, also spent some time in Cairo, and had briefly been at Oxford], but I knew that it was somewhere near Russia and the Bolsheviks were fighting there.

Remember Chamberlain on the 1938 Sudeten Crisis, just before the Munich Conference? A “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing”. Plus ça change, what?

Ironically Carton de Wiart, who left the British Army between the two world wars, lived for the interwar period on an estate in the countryside of eastern Poland in the area of the Pripyat Marshes–now in Belarus/Ukraine; he loved the bird shooting (as a young officer in India he had loathed the country but loved the pig sticking). From July through September 1939 he was again head of the British Military Mission to Poland.

The quote at 1) really does seem to typify the narrow mental view of a great many British Army officers (to the advantage of the Germans in World War II especially). No wonder Montgomery had little faith in the military capacities of many of those he commanded–see the latter part of this earlier post:

How a Good Army Leadership is Created and Works…

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Take that Trump! Grant Beats Lee all along the Front

And Ulysses S. even had compassion for Mexicans, see the end of the post.

First, an American academic with a speciality in national security matters takes on the cult of Robert. E., at the website 1945–excerpts:

Why So Many Historians Look Down on Ulysses S. Grant

By Robert Farley

Last week, former President Donald Trump took the trouble to express his displeasure about the removal from Richmond of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Ironically, the discussion of the memorialization of Lee overshadows to this day the question of what to do with his US Army counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant. Statues of Grant have also been removed, mainly because of the terrible policies his Presidential administration pursued towards Native Americans, but these removals have not gained nearly as much attention because Grant no longer has the cult-like status that remains attached to Lee.

Our question is this: Why would a Republican President devote so much attention to a Confederate general…and so little to the US Army general who won the Civil War?  And of course, this brings to mind the bigger question of why a New York real estate magnate would want to invoke a Virginia aristocrat to appeal to his “working class” base, rather than a Midwesterner of modest means who rose from obscurity to the command of the United States Army, and eventually to the Presidency.

Much has been written elsewhere about the shoddy treatment of Grant by historians of the Dunning School, who resented Grant’s defeat of Lee but especially his pro-Reconstruction policies as President. Denigration of Grant was apparently necessary to the Cult of Lee that developed in the South after Reconstruction ended. Unfortunately, this line of thought remained deeply influential in US education circles for over a century, and even today finds echoes in the rhetoric of President Trump.

Grant has been justly lauded for his sound strategic judgment during the war, although this assessment has often included a backhanded slap at his tactical talents. Grant, the story goes, knew that he could bleed the South dry, and needed no special military talent to do so; he could simply commit the Army of the Potomac to grind down the Army of Northern Virginia and eventually prevail through numbers alone.

The first part of this assessment is sound; Grant had the firmest grip on the strategic situation of the Civil War of anyone apart from Abraham Lincoln. The second part is nonsense. It takes active, aggressive ignorance to ignore Grant’s tactical intelligence at Forts Henry and Donelson, at Vicksburg, at Chattanooga, and in the Overland Campaign that won the war. Generations of historians (many of whom were Southern sympathizers) were willing to be actively, aggressively ignorant but there is no need for us to take their assessments seriously…

After the war, a posthumous cult of personality was attached to Lee, bound tightly with the campaign to restore white supremacy in the Reconstruction South. This cult had little room for Grant, in no small part because Grant was the only President to vigorously pursue Reconstruction and the first to treat blacks as both human and American. And so Grant became simultaneously butcher of the flower of the South and pawn of the Radical Republicans, his military brilliance ignored and his literary genius forgotten [see below].

…politics still matter. There is no reason to prefer Lee to Grant as a military officer, and there is all the reason in the world to prefer Grant to Lee as a human being. The preference for Lee over Grant as an American symbol is inherently suspicious, and indeed almost necessarily damning.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Grant’s memoirs, which I’ve read, are a classic of American and military history–from a review of a new edition published in 2017:

The Civil War rages for most of his book, and Grant proves an exemplary military narrator. He provides context clearly, even after he becomes general in chief, operating on a national scale. He makes his strategy sound like common sense, not genius. We feel his strength of will, from the dreadful first day of Shiloh to the great risk of his Vicksburg operation and beyond. He knew, too, how to shape the reader’s experience. He opens Chapter 50 with these two sentences: “Soon after midnight, May 3d–4th, the Army of the Potomac moved out from its position north of the Rapidan, to start upon that memorable campaign, destined to result in the capture of the Confederate capital and the army defending it. This was not to be accomplished, however, without as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed; not to be consummated in a day, a week, a month or a single season.” He delivers so much dread and anticipation with those words, at just the right place.

Grant’s preface alludes to the fact that he wrote as he was dying cruelly of throat cancer, after a swindler had bankrupted and humiliated him [he wrote the book rapidly, to provide an income for his wife; no pension for a president in those days]. Remarkably, that’s irrelevant to the text, which any writer could count as a triumph…

The edition:

More on one part of Grant’s memoirs:

Grant in Mexico: “One of the most unjust (wars) ever waged”

By Sherman Fleek, USMA HistorianJanuary 31, 201

Grant

One of the remarkable achievements Ulysses S. Grant is known for even today, are his extraordinary accounts of his life published 1885 after his death, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, in two volumes. They are an amazing literary accomplishment but even more so, his candor, honesty and simplicity are breathtaking at times. As a young lieutenant, he formed an opinion about the Mexico-U.S. War 1846-48 that remained with him until his death and echoes down the hall as generations have come and gone.

“For myself,” Grant wrote later about the United States war against Mexico, “I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”..

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Is Forward Deploying the US Navy towards the Western Pacific a Good Thing?

A retired US Naval Reserve captain cannot agree with a retired admiral, a former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO– from “Comment and Discussion” at “Proceedings”, September 2021 (the magazine of the US Naval Institute, scroll down here)

Great Power Competition Requires Theater Deterrence

The Admiral writes that we must be able to “overmatch an opponent” in key theaters, particularly the South China Sea and North Atlantic; additional forces are needed for “zones of concern,” including the Arabian Gulf and eastern Mediterranean.

Given our current naval order of battle, this is not a valid strategy. Our principal power projection platform is the fleet aircraft carrier, and the Navy has only 11. The rule of thumb is one forward, two back, and two in overhaul. We thus have three carriers available at any given time for a presence mission, so—at best—we can concentrate two carriers in one of the key theaters. That is not “sufficient combat power within a given geographic theater . . . to overmatch an opponent,” especially in the South China Sea. Rather, our forces will be hostages to fortune, at risk to the calculations of our enemies, who have the initiative to strike at the time of their choosing.

With the approaching 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it is worth noting that, had the fleet not been forward deployed to Hawaii, the Japanese could not have struck. As Admiral J. O. Richardson argued at the time, the Navy was a greater threat held back and so able to strike at the time and place of its choosing. That is still the appropriate strategy.

­—CAPT Rick Jacobs, USNR (Ret.)

Keep in mind that the Pacific Fleet, at Pearl since 1940, was supposed materially to help deter Japan from going to war outside China; as was the dispatch of the Royal Navy’s Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore in late 1941. See what happened to those two big ships.

A very relevant post, note other ones linked to at end:

Is the US Navy FUBAR vs the PRC in the Western Pacific Maritime Cockpit?

Meanwhile see what the Brits are thinking to deal with having too many eggs in too few baskets:

UK Royal Navy wants a disaggregated fleet that de-couples combat punch from ship platforms

The prospect of that kind of sustained and potentially widespread effort is pushing the Royal Navy in the direction of a disaggregated web of capabilities that isn’t reliant on any given ship staying in the fight…

Which leads to this earlier post,

US Navy, or, it’s the Ordnance/Effects Delivered, not the Vessels/Aircraft Delivering them

which leads to this one:

How about a Boeing P-8A-Based Arsenal Plane to Take On the PRC in the Western Pacific?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

:

Remembering the Indian Military in World War II and the War’s Impact on the Country

Further to this earlier post,

India’s Forgotten Good War

excerpts from a 2019 piece at The Wire by the Indian writer and military historian, K.S. Nair (a twitter friend of mine–see my tweet near the end of this post):

Why the Second World War Remains Relevant for India Today

Indian wartime experience not only contributed to making the country and her institutions what they are today but offers lessons that still have significant validity.

The 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War falls on September 1, 2019. And the next year will see the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. Both will probably be occasions for lengthy recognition and commemorative events across the world. Most countries treat this global war, and their involvement in it, as defining episodes in their history and identity. India does not – as yet.

The Second World War was unequivocally the most pivotal global event in 20th-century history. Its political, economic and social consequences are still being played out today. The formation of the United Nations, and the grant of permanent Security Council membership to five named countries, the victors of that war, make up one set of such consequences.

Another, perhaps unintended, is Indian independence – which the war undoubtedly hastened. Decolonisation was not a given at the beginning of the war. British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill actually saw the preservation of Empire as a war aim. It was US President Franklin Roosevelt who persuaded Churchill to commit to the agreement known as the Atlantic Charter – the terms of which effectively made it impossible for Britain to return to its imperial status quo after the war – and thereby triggered the global wave of 20th-century decolonisations, starting with Indian independence.

Yet, India’s consciousness of the war remains intermittent. The war is one of the best-documented conflicts in world history, but India’s involvement has only recently begun to be studied in depth [emphasis added]. And when acknowledged at all, the focus tends to be on Indian soldiers – of whom there were over 26 lakh [2.6 million] by the end of it.

The war also involved Indian airmen and sailors, in smaller numbers, but effectively transformed the Indian Air Force and Navy even more than the Army. Indian Air Force personnel served in the skies over England and France in the early years of the war, and also in the Middle East and North Africa. Indian naval personnel served in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Also read | Review: Chronicling the Birth of India after the Second World War

In India, meanwhile, there were massive training, airfield-construction and port-development efforts, which completely transformed the dockyards of Bombay, Calcutta, Cochin and Trincomalee – which was, in fact, the primary dockyard for the Madras Presidency – and took the number of airfields in the country from less than a dozen at the start of the war to over 200. Most airports in India today are legacies of that effort.

The war also gave a huge fillip to India’s economy, industrialisation and employment…

Recognition of Indian contribution has improved in the last few years, prompted partly by commemorations and publications around the centenary years of the First World War. But many of them remain Western-oriented in historiography and represent Indian and other colonial participants as hapless victims of imperially-blinkered generals or incompetent government.

Again, the reality is more nuanced. Indians participated in the war for a variety of reasons – sometimes out of economic compulsion. But war service actually opened up opportunities for professional growth and social advancement, both for the then still-tiny Indian middle-class as well as for marginalised groups [emphasis added]. And in the multi-layered complexities of that time, despite the Congress’s non-cooperation through most of the war, many Indian political leaders of the time – up to and including the Mahatma – discreetly encouraged Indian individuals to participate – again for a variety of reasons, both short-term political gains as well as for long-term nation-building. “Their aim,” defence analyst Shashank Joshi observes waspishly, “was not to wind up India’s pre-eminence … but to inherit it.”

…importantly, the war provided frameworks for the incredible diversity of both Indians and other nationalities who came together during the Second World War. There were far-reaching social consequences in matters as simple as the passage of thousands of people of multiple nationalities through the country, and the appearance of women in offices and paid jobs as part of the war effort…

On top of everything else, that was a period of utter ruination of rural economies in India, partly because of the diversion of food to the war effort [see this post: “:The British Raj and The 1943 Bengal Famine: A Crime Against Humanity?“]. How India dealt with all those challenges should be of enduring interest.

There remain ironies around some of the roles India undertook during the Second World War, but on its anniversary, thoughtful Indians, and our government might draw some lessons from how the country confronted those challenges decades ago.

K.S. Nair is the author of around 60 articles on the Indian armed forces, featured in Indian and overseas publications and online. His second book, The Forgotten Few: The Indian Air Force in World War II is due for publication by HarperCollins India at the end of September [now published, I’ve read, see following tweet}.

This is actually the second tweet in this thread:

Another very relevant post:

India: The Raj at War 1939-45 and After

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

The Afghan Way of War and Jaw, Jaw

(Caption for photo at the top of the post: “Members of the Taliban move toward the front line on a tank captured outside of Kabul on Feb. 18, 1995.” Keep in mind that the CIA started supporting the Afghan Mujahideen in July 1979, before the Soviet invasion of the country in December; lots of war, war too in the country.)

Excerpts from the History Dept. at Politico:

Opinion | Why Afghan Forces So Quickly Laid Down Their Arms

Opposing Afghan factions have long negotiated arrangements to stop fighting — something the U.S. either failed to understand or chose to ignore.

Opinion by ANATOL LIEVEN

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of Pakistan: A Hard Country [a review here]. From 1985 to 1998, he worked as a journalist in South Asia, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and covered the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and the southern Caucasus [more on Prof. Lieven here].

In the winter of 1989, as a journalist for the Times of London, I accompanied a group of mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. At one point, a fortified military post became visible on the other side of a valley. As we got closer, the flag flying above it also became visible — the flag of the Afghan Communist state, which the mujahedeen were fighting to overthrow.

“Isn’t that a government post?” I asked my interpreter. “Yes,” he replied. “Can’t they see us?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “Shouldn’t we hide?” I squeaked. “No, no, don’t worry,” he replied reassuringly. “We have an arrangement.”

I remembered this episode three years later, when the Communist state eventually fell to the mujahedeen; six years later, as the Taliban swept across much of Afghanistan; and again this week, as the country collapses in the face of another Taliban assault. Such “arrangements” — in which opposing factions agree not to fight, or even to trade soldiers in exchange for safe passage — are critical to understanding why the Afghan army today has collapsed so quickly (and, for the most part, without violence). The same was true when the Communist state collapsed in 1992, and the practice persisted in many places as the Taliban advanced later in the 1990s.

This dense web of relationships and negotiated arrangements between forces on opposite sides is often opaque to outsiders. Over the past 20 years, U.S. military and intelligence services have generally either not understood or chosen to ignore this dynamic as they sought to paint an optimistic picture of American efforts to build a strong, loyal Afghan army. Hence the Biden administration’s expectation that there would be what during the Vietnam War was called a “decent interval” between U.S. departure and the state’s collapse.

While the coming months and years will reveal what the U.S. government did and didn’t know about the state of Afghan security forces prior to U.S. withdrawal, the speed of the collapse was predictable. That the U.S. government could not foresee — or, perhaps, refused to admit — that beleaguered Afghan forces would continue a long-standing practice of cutting deals with the Taliban illustrates precisely the same naivete with which America has prosecuted the Afghanistan war for years.

The central feature of the past several weeks in Afghanistan has not been fighting. It has been negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan forces, sometimes brokered by local elders…

In Afghanistan, kinship and tribal connections often take precedence over formal political loyalties, or at least create neutral spaces where people from opposite sides can meet and talk…

…It is often not possible for guerrilla forces to hold any significant number of prisoners of war. Small numbers might be held for ransom, but most ordinary soldiers are let go, enlisted in the guerrillas’ own ranks or killed.

Thus, as in medieval Europe, Afghanistan has a tradition to which the Taliban have adhered closely — and which helps explain the speed of their success. The Taliban will summon an enemy garrison to surrender, either at once or after the first assaults. If it does so, the men can either join the besiegers or return home with their personal weapons. To kill them would be seen as shameful. On the other hand, a garrison that fought it out could expect no quarter, a very strong incentive to surrender in good time.

…as described in the Washington Post Sunday [Aug. 15], after the Biden administration declared in April that U.S. forces were withdrawing, “the capitulations began to snowball.”

Afghan society has been described to me as a “permanent conversation.” Alliances shift, and people, families and tribes make rational calculations based on the risk they face. This is not to suggest that Afghans who made such decisions are to blame for doing what they felt to be in their self-interest. The point is that America’s commanders and officials either completely failed to understand these aspects of Afghan reality or failed to report them honestly to U.S. administrations, Congress and the general public.

We can draw a clear line between this lack of understanding and the horrible degree of surprise at the events of the past several days. America didn’t predict this sudden collapse, but it could have and should have — an unfortunately fitting coda to a war effort that has been undermined from the start by a failure to study Afghan realities.

As Harold Macmillan (not Churchill) put it: “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war” (scroll down to “Jaw-Jaw“). A key component of the Afghan way of war.

And a recent post, note “Comments”:

How the US Military (and other Western ones) Blew it in Afghanistan (with UPDATE)

By the way here’s another Afghan reality that almost no-one seems aware of:

UPDATE: Plus a key point by the excellent historian/strategic thinker Edward Luttwak:

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

How the US Military (and other Western ones) Blew it in Afghanistan (with UPDATE)

Trying to get “our” Afghans to fight our kind of war with our equipment and methods. Not it seems a winning formula. Rather relevant as Herat and Kandahar, the third and second biggest cities in the country have fallen to the Taliban on the same day. Kabul looks like soon being encircled; the US and UK are sending in troops to get their diplomatic staff, nationals and Afghans who helped them out (that is those they can get out; it will be telling to see how many Canadian Afghans our government rescues–it’s preparing to dispatch special forces).

From an article at Just Security:

Books Get It Right on Afghanistan

by Jason K. Dempsey

(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series: Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal.)

Many of us passed through Afghanistan like tourists, staying just long enough to fulfill preconceived notions of what we should experience while there, or to become exasperated by the locals for not meeting our expectations. This was true for soldiers and reporters alike.

…there are two new books that seek to make sense of the war. The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley by Wesley Morgan [see here] and Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War by Christopher Kolenda [see here] will both serve as touchpoints for understanding American failures for years to come.

Morgan and Kolenda have very different backgrounds and have written two very different books. Both, however, share the experience of having seen the challenges of Afghanistan, and Kunar particularly, firsthand. Both have also written books that exceed, and sometimes defy, what we expect from war reporters [Morgan] and career Army officers, respectively, and for that we should be grateful.

….[The] political and cultural blindness had further repercussions. Despite the stated importance of training the Afghan forces in official statements from U.S. military leaders, putting together effective Afghan security forces was never taken seriously by the U.S. military [emphasis added]. In Morgan’s book, it’s clear the Afghans fighting on the side of the Americans in the Pech are a target of derision when mentioned at all by U.S. service members, and they see little attention from American units beyond an entrepreneurial captain who takes on the training mission at the tail end of the American presence in the valley. However, it is not at all clear that the Afghan security forces would have been more effective with more attention given the unhelpful way the United States designed the Afghan military.

By trying to create Afghan forces that were a mirror image of the U.S. military, the United States designed a national army for its own country, not Afghanistan [emphasis added]. And instead of accounting for local politics and incentive structures, many U.S. officers assumed that the Afghans should naturally adhere to the chain of command structure that the U.S. military laid out for them and to follow the lead of Americans in tactical and operational decisions. In what should be viewed as a blinding flash of the obvious in retrospect, it takes a political adviser to U.S. military leadership to outline how Afghan commanders weighed the sentiments of local political leaders above those of the American military in pursuing operations in the Waygal in 2013.

How we in the military could miss such cues or, if aware of them, press on with no significant changes to our approach will be the key question for understanding U.S. military failures in Afghanistan. And while Morgan’s book provides an exceptional overview of actions on the ground in Afghanistan, Kolenda’s book, Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War, takes a broader view of the military’s role in American foreign policy dysfunction…

In Zero Sum, Kolenda places the obliviousness of American military units when it comes to local Afghan political dynamics within the larger context of strategic narcissism, whereby the world is judged only in relation to American interests [emphasis added]. He also deftly outlines how the U.S. military’s focus on the goal of “winning decisively” leads, paradoxically, not to clean military victories but, in many ways, guarantees the kinds of quagmires we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Viewed in isolation, it is admirable that the military would seek to “win decisively” – but only if wars were decided primarily by tactical proficiency and set piece conventional battles…Amplifying this dynamic is the fact that execution of American foreign policy tends to fall to bureaucratic silos, with each agency being able to pursue its own strategy – and grade its own performance. This is particularly true for the U.S. military, whose leaders could simultaneously claim the loudest voice in the interagency process while also avoiding responsibility for the overall direction of the war. In the military, we could pursue the kind of war we wanted to fight, and demonstrate progress via tactical operations and a steady increase in the number of enemy fighters killed, without ever being asked – or truly asking ourselves – if those efforts were part of a coherent overall strategy and leading to the successful resolution of the conflict [emphasis added].

…Too often our examination of warfare begins and ends with tales of battlefield heroism. Hearing of the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers, many Americans mistakenly believe that their role as citizens is to offer the obligatory “thank you for your service” and avoid questioning the utility of that service. The opposite is true.

Both Morgan and Kolenda clearly care deeply about the American military and its role in the world, and, with their books, have demonstrated that true respect leads to deep introspection and critical examination, of both policymakers and military leadership alike. That critical examination is the first key step by which the United States can learn from its mistakes and ensure that it pursues a foreign policy that merits the sacrifices and service of its soldiers.

A relevant post, note the role of Pakistan:

Pity the Poor Afghans, or, Who Lost Afghanistan (note UPDATE at end)?

UPDATE: Excerpts from an article at The Atlantic:

What We Got Wrong in Afghanistan

Military officers like me thought we were building a capable Afghan security force. What did we get wrong? Plenty.

By Mike Jason

About the author: Mike Jason retired in 2019 as a U.S. Army colonel, after 24 years on active duty. He commanded combat units in Germany, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

…We did not successfully build the Iraqi and Afghan forces as institutions. We failed to establish the necessary infrastructure that dealt effectively with military education, training, pay systems, career progression, personnel, accountability—all the things that make a professional security force. Rotating teams through tours of six months to a year, we could not resolve the vexing problems facing Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s armies and police [emphasis added]: endemic corruption, plummeting morale, rampant drug use, abysmal maintenance, and inept logistics. We got really good at preparing platoons and companies to conduct raids and operate checkpoints, but little worked behind them. It is telling that today, the best forces in Afghanistan are the special-forces commandos, small teams that perform courageously and magnificently—but despite a supporting institution, not because of one.

If those were things we did poorly or insufficiently, there were other things we should not have done at all—namely, train police. We generally accepted that our ultimate goal of combatting insurgents or terrorists was to turn the fight over to domestic law enforcement. In other words, get to the point where the police could handle threats without fielding the army. (I remember, in Iraq, 2006 was supposed to be the “Year of the Police.” It would be hilarious if not for the incredible cost in blood and treasure—that year was a terrible and deadly one for police across Iraq.) But the United States does not have a national police force, so police training became a task that largely fell to the Army. In Iraq, I oversaw thousands of police, and in Afghanistan, I led a task force that vetted, selected, and fielded nearly 3,000 local police while supporting the Afghan National Police with warrant-based targeting of insurgents. I should make clear that I have zero law-enforcement experience, nor does most of the U.S. military, aside from some National Guard or Reserve troops. (We do have Military Police units, but they serve a unique operational role unlike any of the security forces we tried to build up.) We attempted to bridge this gap by hiring a handful of brave retired police officers and having them serve as technical advisers and trainers alongside U.S. Army troops, but even they could only focus on tactical tasks; they lacked the professional and personal experience to build national institutions and systems. We never had a chance to make policing work. The U.S. military could not overcome our national and institutional lack of experience.

Looking back, we also failed to properly institutionalize advising large-scale conventional forces until far too late. No one was encouraged to take on these duties, either [emphasis added]: To keep moving up, officers such as myself had to rotate through “normal” command assignments as well. The Army tried to change the wording of promotion and selection boards, but the bureaucracy resisted; when we finally formally created Security Force Assistance Brigades in 2018, it was telling that none of the new outfit’s first key leaders had ever cut their teeth on these adviser teams.

…We didn’t send the right people, prepare them well, or reward them afterward. We rotated strangers on tours of up to a year and expected them to build relationships, then replaced them. We were overly optimistic and largely made things up as we went along. We didn’t like oversight or tough questions from Washington, and no one really bothered to hold us accountable anyway. We had no capacity or experience with some of our tasks, and we stumbled.

[In other word’s the US Army’s heart just wasn’t in this type of mission.]

Yet these failings—egregious as they were—make it easy to focus on the armed forces as a scapegoat. In fact, the military, our allies, and our Iraqi and Afghan partners were responding to a lack of coherent policy and strategy…

We didn’t fight a 20-year war in Afghanistan; we fought 20 incoherent wars, one year at a time, without a sense of direction [emphasis added]. The U.S. military can and should be blamed for the collapse of security forces in Afghanistan—I hold us responsible. The current collapse keeps me up at night. In the military, the main effort gets the best resources and the best talent available. For more than 20 years, no matter what was reported, what we read in the headlines, efforts to build and train large-scale conventional security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have mostly been an aimless, ham-fisted acronym soup of trial and error that never became the true main effort, and we are to blame for that [emphasis added]

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Those Thousands of Americans who Volunteered for the Canadian Services in World War II

(Caption for photo at top of the post: “A resident of Roseland, Va., Tom Withers joined the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered the Second World War, and was killed when his Halifax bomber was shot down. Photo by Bomber Command Museum, Nanton, Alta.”)

A fitting topic for a post between the two countries’ national days–from an article at the National Post:

U.S. bill would honour ‘unknown Canadian warriors’ of WWII who were really American

Many of the Americans who volunteered in Canada came unsolicited, but there was a surreptitious recruiting effort as well

Author of the article: Tom Blackwell

According to military recruiters in Ottawa, Leonard Almquist [service record at link] was a “very gentlemanly chap, clean cut, alert and keen to fly.”

And fly he did as a pilot officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) early in the Second World War. Barely a year after joining up — and 10 days before Christmas — the 25-year-old was dead, lost at sea during a bombing run against enemy shipping.

It was a sadly common end for members of allied bomber crews, but one thing made Almquist stand out. He was actually American, a native of Rockford, Ill., who crossed the border to join the war effort two years before his own country entered the conflict.

There were thousands of others like him, their unique role largely lost to history and ignored by U.S. authorities.

But Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman from Ohio [webpage here], is trying to rectify that oversight, introducing for the second time a bill that would award such veterans a congressional gold medal for their service.

It is late-arriving recognition from a country that sometimes forgets Canada played any part in the war [but see Hollywood’s wartime recognition at the post at the end of this one], let alone that it recruited Americans while the U.S. stayed on the sidelines.

Michael Boire, a historian at the Royal Military College, said Canada generally doesn’t give out military medals after the fact, but he approves of Ryan’s gesture.

“I think it’s a great idea to look back on an historical moment and to say ‘We forgot a few people,’” he said. “The level of sacrifice was very high. Almost 900 of those (American) boys were killed in action.”

The bill says at least 12,000 Americans headed north to join either the Canadian or British forces, the bulk of them enlisting in the two countries’ air forces.

Other estimates suggest the total was closer to 15,000, including thousands who enlisted in the army and navy

Many of the Americans who volunteered in Canada came unsolicited, but there was a surreptitious recruiting effort as well.

William Avery “Billy” Bishop, the First World War fighter ace put in charge of bolstering RCAF ranks, joined forces in the task with his American friend Clayton Knight. The resulting Clayton Knight Committees set up offices in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria and other luxury hotels across the U.S.

To ensure they didn’t arouse suspicions that Americans were being enticed to violate neutrality laws, they purported to be recruiting pilots for civilian roles in Canada. In fact, many joined the air force, notes a 2004 article in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association.

And Canadian authorities won tacit approval from the White House to recruit its citizens, wrote author Rachel Lea Heide…

Almquist was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he headed north to join the RCAF, service records at Library and Archives Canada show. He had completed about a year of university and earned a private pilot’s licence.

Flying a Hudson light bomber, the American’s life ended on a Dec. 15, 1941 mission to attack enemy shipping, apparently in the North Sea. Military investigators discovered the graves of two of his crew members in the Netherlands after the war, their bodies having washed ashore and been buried by locals, said a 1948 letter to Almquist’s sister.

His remains, it appears, were never found. But in 1946 the RCAF sent the pilot’s family his operational “wings,” the air force’s symbol of combat experience.

A records officer wrote to the sister that he hoped the emblem would be “a treasured memento of a young life offered on the alter of freedom, in defence of his home and country.”

RCAF Lockheed Hudsons (lots more here) are also featured at the end of the movie noted at this earlier post, note video at end:

The RCAF and WW II: “Captains of the Clouds”

How odd that the only feature movie about the RCAF in World War II was made by Hollywood in 1941.  Scenes in Ottawa!  In colour!  As part of Hollywood’s dastardly plot to get the US into the war…

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Adam Tooze on the Great Russian/Soviet Novelist Vasily Grossman’s two-volume World War II Epic

The start and conclusion of a magnificent assessment and analysis of the Jewish author’s major works. and of the Soviet Union itself, by the eminent historian Adam Tooze; do read the whole piece:

Chartbook #21

Reading Grossman’s Stalingrad and Life and Fate

This newsletter is strong stuff, more Wages of Destruction than regular Chartbook fare. Some of the material is disturbing.

The battle of Stalingrad raged between 23 August 1942 and 2 February 1943 when the last of the German 6th Army surrendered. It cost the Red Army, the Wehrmacht and its allies, the Italian, Romanian and Hungarian forces, a combined total of c 2.5 million casualties, over 1 million of them KIA. It was the end of the last major German offensive on the Eastern Front [well, there was Zitadelle in July 1943 but the resulting Battle of Kursk was a much more limited affair and was rapidly broken off by Hitler after the Allies invaded Sicily], a turning point in the war and, thus, in world history.

In the last couple of months I’ve immersed myself in Vasily Grossman’s two-volume epic about Stalingrad – For a Just Cause (1952) published in English in 2019 as Stalingrad and the sequel Life and Fate (1960) [page references are to these editions], which has long been famous in the West as an account of the war that the Soviet censors tried to suppress. Reading the books back to back was engrossing. It became a habit. A daily need. These aren’t books that it is easy to be “finished” with.

They are war novels. But they are much more than that. They portray a cross section of Soviet society. They offer a meditation on the revolution. They are also novels of ideas, spiked with passages of philosophical reflection and argument. They are made up of a massive collages of vignettes involving a hundred or so characters, stretching from the frontline, to family and work life in the rear areas, the ghettos behind the German lines, the deportation trucks, the gulag, concentration camps and gas chambers.

But it is not the subject matter as such that I want to address here, so much as Grossman’s treatment of time and history at a moment of extreme crisis. I have never read a text that was more complex and fascinating in its rendering of historical actuality and change…

At Stalingrad, the rebellious commune in House 6/1 was erased by a devastating German bombardment. That enables it to be subsumed into the official Soviet narrative as a heroic outpost. Perversely, Krymov, the Commissar who was sent to discipline the outpost is thrown onto the wrong side of power. He finds himself in the Lubyanka under interrogation.

It is there, through Krymov – sleep-deprived, drugged, semi-delirious and beaten to within an inch of his life – that Grossman delivers his verdict on the revolution and its legacy.

“The new age needed only the hide of the Revolution – and this was being flayed off people who were still alive. Those who then slipped into it spoke the language of the Revolution and mimicked its gestures, but their brains, lungs, livers and eyes were utterly different.” 841

His interrogator, Krymov muses, was a new type of Party official “those who had replaced the Old Bolsheviks liquidated or dismissed from their posts in 1937. They were people of a very different stamp. They read new books and they read them in a different way: they didn’t read them, they ‘mugged them up’. They loved and valued material comforts: revolutionary asceticism was alien to them, or, at the very least, not central to their character. They knew no foreign languages, were infatuated with their own Russian-ness – and spoke Russian ungrammatically. Some of them were by no means stupid, but their power seemed to lie not so much in their ideas or intelligence, as in their practical competence and the bourgeois sobriety of all their opinions”. 777

It was a necessary process. “Krymov could understand that both the new and the old cadres were bound together by a great common goal, that this gave rise to many similarities, and that it was unity that mattered, not differences.” 777

But what makes Grossman’s greatness is that he does not shrink from the violent implications of his metaphor: “The hide was being flayed off the still living body of the Revolution so that a new age could slip into it; as for the red, bloody meat, the steaming innards – they were being thrown onto the scrapheap.” 841

If this was a logic that passed over and through people and their bodies, its drivers were not reducible to single individuals either. “Stalin! The great Stalin! Perhaps this man with the iron will had less will than any of them”, Krymov muses. “He was a slave of his time and circumstances, a dutiful, submissive servant of the present day, flinging open the doors before the new age. Yes, yes, yes . . . And those who didn’t bow down before the new age were thrown on the scrapheap.” 842

I confess that I have not read the novels, but I did read A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, based on his notebooks as a journalist covering the war. The cover of Stalingrad:

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman

And a tweet about a relevant book I’ve read:

Related posts:

Stalin’s Willing Executioners

Stalin the Pole-Slayer…Murderer Actually

Reporting on Ukraine’s Holodomor: The good and the very bad about Stalin’s murders

Whether it’s one Person, Thousands or Millions Stalin’s Going to Kill you should he so Choose

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds