Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rating General Marshall

General George Catlett Marshall was the US Army Chief of Staff from the day Hitler invaded Poland to the end of World War Two. He followed that with stints as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence, which gave him at least equal public recognition, and, in the case of the Marshall Plan for economic aid to postwar Europe, possibly greater acclaim. But he never commanded a single soldier in combat. So can he be a great general?

Marshall was from an old Virginian family that considered itself middle class. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1901. He had postings around the US and the Philippines until sent to France in 1917, where he was a planner for both training and operations. He moved to Pershing’s headquarters to plan operations, including the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and develop an intimate relationship with the army’s demigod that was to help propel him to a rank partly invented for him. (One of the reasons the Americans adopted the term ‘General of the Army’ instead of using the universally accepted term, was because they didn’t want their first five star army officer to be called Field-Marshall Marshall.)

He switched between staff appointments and commanding barracks – usually for training commands - for most of the interwar period, but was jumped from a one star Brigadier to a four star General between June 30 and September 1 1939 (July and August were spent as a two star Major-General), to take over as Army Chief of Staff. This sort of promotion is unheard of in most other peacetime armies, and presumably either reflected superhuman abilities, or the right connections. Various biographers have suggested either alternative, with some suggesting it needed both.

As a result he was the only Allied Chief of Staff to hold office not just for the period that the US was in the Second World War, but for its entire length. Some of his biographers have used this to claim that he was therefore a greatly superior and greatly more experienced military leader than any of the others members of the CCOS. (Forest Pogue in his magisterial book Organizer of Victory – based on the title Churchill assigned to Marshall – said: “1943… Marshall was more than ever the pre-eminent figure on the military scene both at home and abroad… fast becoming first among equals in… CCOS meetings… the only one of the CCOS to have held his position since the day war in Europe began… more experience than any other military leader in finding resources for his own forces and America’s allies, for dealing with members of Congress, the President, and the general public.

This is an interesting interpretation of what makes a great general when compared to someone like the British CIGS Alan Brooke, who successfully commanded both corps and armies in battle, and army groups in the front line facing invasion, before becoming the professional head of the wartime service, where all but his worst enemies admired his undoubted abilities. I have always wondered what qualities of generalship some biographers put above practical experience in leading troops in combat? Indeed Marshall was certainly the most experienced Bureaucrat of the CCOS (possibly explaining why he got on so well with the equally bureaucratic Field Marshal Dill), but the pre-eminent ‘General’? Not as I understand the term.

So let us analyse the parts of his generalship.

He never led troops in battle, so there is considerable difficulty assessing his abilities compared to others in many regards. But some things can be said.

Personally he was a picture of Robustness for a staff officer, though he never had the stress of field operations. He was an immensely impressive Character, though he never had the chance to demonstrate whether he would be able to inspire troops at the front. He had considerable Humanity, though many would argue that his treatment of individual soldiers as simply replacement parts of a complex machine was not something to be proud of. He had great Spirit, but again never the chance to demonstrate he could infuse it into his troops. All these things appear positive, if un-measurable in combat.

Now for the negatives.

We can judge his Common Sense by what he tried to achieve, and how he responded to failure. Many of the training systems this so-called ‘training-expert’ set up, particularly the Individual Replacement System, were quite disastrous. His refusal to change the system cannot be considered a positive. When Brooke complained in North Africa of the inadequate training of American troops, particularly replacements, Marshall’s frustrated response was “at least they learn”, which was missing the point that the untrained replacements died in vast numbers through not getting a chance to learn. By the end of the war many American units were a weakened conglomeration of tired experienced survivors who were close to breaking (if not actively deserted in their tens of thousands), mixed in with constant levies of poorly trained cannon fodder with a very short life expectancy – often only two or three days. Most of the failures of the common soldier in the American Army in the Second World War can be traced directly to this system.

His ability as a Mentor is also deeply questionable. He managed to pick at least as many failures as successes amongst the generals he appointed to high office, with particular examples like Fredendall (of whom he said “One of the best”… “I like that man, you can see determination all over his face”…); and Lucas, failing miserably in battle. Many of his other choices were highly questionable (Clark and Hodges will be other posts), and some like Lee (Eisenhower’s logistics commander in France and another post), were indefensible. He, like Auchinleck, showed a distressing willingness to stick by proven failures, and to refuse to dismiss them no matter what. At the very best he was only average in this category.

Because he never led troops, ever, his Operational abilities can only be judged on what we can gather from his suggestions and orders to others. What they reveal is a man too far removed from the realities of the front line.

Planning, like training, was supposed to be a specialty of Marshall’s, and indeed here he deserves the greatest praise. He converted an army of a few hundred thousand into a force of 8 million, and more or less made it work. Unfortunately the bureaucratic achievement is somewhat undermined by the practical results. The plan had been for over 200 divisions, not the 90 he finished with. The plan had been for a brilliant inter-operability of troops, not the frantic conversions to plug gaps that became necessary in France. The plan had been for the best equipment, not to make the barely adequate stuff available in 1942 (tanks and anti-tank guns spring to mind here) hang on in service until it was completely outclassed. The plan was to create an unsurpassed military force, not a barely average one reliant on willingness to take almost unlimited casualties to make gains. As a mastermind of expansion, Marshall was excellent: but the devil is in the detail, and the detail looks decidedly less impressive.

Logistics is an area where Americans pride themselves. Pity Marshall never understood it very well. Not in terms of producing the correct equipment, and not in terms of improving the speed and reliability of its transport. Certainly he (and Roosevelt) created vast quantities of materials, but a surprising amount of American production was obsolete even as it was being produced. The British had an excuse for continuing to produce 2 pounder anti-tank guns instead of the 6 pounder replacements they knew were needed in 1940 and 1941… they were facing imminent invasion. The Americans had no excuse for producing tens of thousands of outdated tanks and aircraft in 1943, and 1944, which just went into storage. The P39 Airocobra for instance, supposedly an air superiority fighter, had been declared obsolete by the British for European operations even before Pearl Harbour, and thereafter was used in Europe largely as ground attack aircraft by minor allies like co-belligerent Italy, Poland and even Portugal. It was nonetheless kept in production until July 1944, with a large number of the planes produced being crated and stored (though about a third went to the Russians who actually had a combat environment that suited them). Certainly GI’s watching ‘Tommy-Cooker’ British Sherman’s - at least equipped with 17 pounders that could stop any German tank - had reason to wonder why they were still using ‘Ronson-lighter’ Sherman’s, with short barreled 75mm guns that fired shells that bounced off. Marshall got a huge force into action with a lot of equipment. Pity so much of the force and the equipment was sub-standard.

More importantly Marshall never really understood the significance of opening the Mediterranean, no matter how often the shipping figures were shown to him. This theoretically could be considered a single minded, if misguided, pursuit of the most direct approach to attacking Germany from Britain: until one remembers that he was just as keen on getting supplies to China along the most lengthy and difficult supply line in the world. The lack of consistency implies that this was another area he failed to understand very well.

Topography and Movement. Again, the American military is very big on map-reading. Marshall was very big on it himself, and rightly pointed out that mountainous Italy was hardly a ‘soft underbelly’. (Though Churchill of course meant politically not geographically.) Yet his other efforts at long distance map reading from Washington are somewhat dubious. He was against British plans to invade North Africa through ports further into the Med because he preferred the ‘safer’ Atlantic Coast. (Luckily the normal swell which would have ruined the Morroccan attack was quite that particular day). Why he felt that troops who needed the ‘safety’ of distance from the Axis in North Africa, would be better suited to a head on attack on veteran German forces in France, is a mystery. Yet in both North Africa and France he then planned nice straight lines of attack in complete disregard of terrain. He argued against a campaign in mountainous northern Italy, and then supported Eisenhower’s plan to advance into the forests and mountains of Southern Germany instead of along the North Sea coastal plain. Then consider his favoured ‘hump’ route for supplies to China. There is little to demonstrate that he had above average understanding of topography or movement.

Tactics. Again, Marshall never commanded troops in battle, but he did suggest lots of ideas to his field commanders, so we can get some idea of his grasp of tactics. The best revelations are probably in the book ‘Dear General’ which runs through Eisenhower’s correspondence with his mentor. The editor himself comments that Eisenhower starts as a supplicant, but gradually grows more willing to argue with his mentor. By the end there is a feeling of exasperation from Ike when Marshall suggests clearly ridiculous things like dropping an airborne corps into France far from the chance of possible relief. Combined with his clear failure to understand the problems of invasions, we cannot rate Marshall’s tactical understanding very high.

Combined Operations are actually a particular problem for Marshall. The great proponent of an invasion in 1942 or 1943 admits in1944 that apparently a worldwide lack of Landing Ship - Tanks might be an issue (while commenting that he had hardly heard of the things a year ago).

Marshall scores somewhat better in Command abilities, but again there is always the suggestion that his Olympian perspective from Washington is far too remote from the realities at the front. He was a firm believer in good clear instructions, and his Clarity can only be admired when it comes to administrative matters. (When it comes to what he would like to happen on the battlefield however, some of his more optimistic orders to Eisenhower and Stillwell sound about as convincing as Hitler’s orders to von Paulus at Stalingrad.)

He was excellent at Delegation within the Pentagon, and no underling ever doubted that attempting to stretch or thwart his orders would bring down the wrath of God. Good people were encouraged, bad disciplined. But again there are questionable examples such as letting his administrative generals get away with unsavoury behaviour like bugging British officers they didn’t like. More worryingly, it is clear that he let distance affect his control. Again, it is unlikely General ‘Jesus-Christ-Himself’ Lee would have got away with a quarter of what he did in France if Marshall had been close enough to see what was happening. In fact this is the most concerning part of his delegation. Why didn’t any of his own people, in his own hierarchy, tell him what was going on. Or why did he ignore any who did? How much did he ignore feedback that didn’t meet his preconceptions?
There is no doubt that Marshall was excellent at relations with his political master, as long as you only include Roosevelt on that list. It is not clear that he ever understood that in the sort of coalition he was in, the political masters of the CCOS included the Prime Minister of the equal partner. (Having said that, Dill was better at relations with Roosevelt than with Churchill too: but then Roosevelt rarely actually consulted or really listened the way Churchill interacted with his generals.)

Marcshall also tried quite hard to be good at Relations with allies and other services. Certainly he was outstandingly superior to Admiral King in this regard, though the somewhat junior Chief of the Army Air Force, General Arnold, was even better. Yet he expressed constant frustration with others - British, French, Poles, even Canadians - for not seeing things his way. Eventually he let this frustration overflow into ignoring requests that he didn’t feel were important, and encouraging Eisenhower and MacArthur to do as they saw fit regardless of the opinions of his fellow CCOS, or of their host governments.

Perhaps this would have been reasonable, had Marshall demonstrated that his Strategic sense was superior to that of his Allies. But he never showed much in the way of ability in this regard. His frustration with his allies came down to the fact that he simply wanted to invade Germany by the shortest route as quickly as possible. He wanted to hit the northern French beaches in 1942, or at least 1943, and always believed that anything else was a frustrating diversion. He never agreed with clearing North Africa first. He never desired to go to the effort of knocking Italy (and her large army and navy) out of the war. He never understood the implications of clearing the Mediterranean on Allied shipping and troop movements. He never believed that there was any need to tie down dozens of good German divisions in Italy, the Balkans and Southern France. He never understood that Allies arriving over beaches in France could not possibly build up faster than Germans arriving by train (unless the German army was weakened and their communications shattered – something certainly beyond Allied ability in 1942 and probably also in 1943). He never agreed that American troops might need a little battle hardening in nice remote locations like North Africa or Sicily or Italy before facing the Germans in an attempted rampage across northern France. He never acknowledged the many failures of these troops (and some of his handpicked generals) in North Africa and Italy. He never even recognized that he simply was not sending enough troops towards Europe fast enough to make an earlier invasion anything but an assault against superior numbers. (Though he contributed to this by his constant collusion with King that if France was not going to be invaded right now, they could put off new forces so they could do more in the Pacific.) He supported Eisenhower’s ‘broad front’ strategy in France, even after the German army collapsed and a Blitzkrieg was a genuine alternative.

He believed in the value of the Chinese, regardless of all evidence. He trusted the Russians, regardless of all evidence. He opposed Churchill’s first attempt to save the Greek islands, and was unhappy about the second, successful attempt, to save Greece itself from the communists. He agreed with Eisenhower’s decision not to advance to Berlin, or even into Czechoslovakia. He supported the planned invasion of Japan even though he knew that the Japanese wanted to surrender. He agreed to the decision to drop the Atomic bombs, possibly mainly because he had finally realized that the Russians were untrustworthy.

Here we overlap into the realm of Geopolitics, and this is definitely one of Marshall’s weak areas. He apparently believed wars were for military victory, not to achieve political goals. He seemed to honestly think that once the enemies were defeated, the Allies would have a nice chat and agree to things. He was dragged kicking and screaming behind British moves to save Greece and Trieste and Denmark, and managed to prevent them saving Czechoslovakia. He then went to post war China and almost single handedly (according to McCarthy and even – much to Marshall’s shock - Eisenhower), handed over China to the Communists – leading to a domino chain in North Korea, Vietnam and Burma, and a long civil war in Malaya. In fact Marshall’s contribution to the postwar strategic situation was more to provide a firm foundation for the Cold War, rather than to contribute to a new Golden Age. That is as true when he was Secretary of State or Secretary of Defence as when he was COS.

The summary of all this would suggest that Marshall was a good administrator, but not a good general. I suppose it is possible that had he remained a two star and commanded a division or corps early in the war before progressing to three star - preferably under a particularly good mentor - he might have developed into a reasonable army commander, but this seems doubtful. He simply lacked Operational skills across the board. He certainly failed to understand equipment requirements. His correct place was certainly as a staff officer, and here he was certainly one of the best of the war. The mistake (common to most armies) was in thinking that a good staff officer makes a good executive commander. (See Churchill appointing Dill, Dill appointing Percival, Canadian PM King appointing Crerar, Stalin appointing Voroshilov, or Togo appointing Mutaguchi.)

Marshall was an impressive man of great character, but probably lacked the skills to have made a good frontline leader. He was a brilliant administrator and bureaucrat, possibly the ideal person to expand an army: but not a good CIC, and certainly needed someone to over-rule his stubbornness on such disastrous decisions as the Individual Replacement System and mass production of outdated equipment. He was a very poor choice to help design global strategy, and Brooke was probably right to wish he had the vainglorious MacArthur (who he considered to be both strategically and geopolitically excellent) in Washington instead. Marshall’s limited military viewpoint missed the whole point of why nations fight wars, with dire consequences for future generations.

In summary Marshall is in the same category as Dill. A great man, a noble man, a brave man, but completely out of his depth in the wrong job. Marshall, as the strategic voice of the United States, failed completely either to shorten the war (his personal goal), or to leave the world better placed for peace afterwards (the goal of a truly professional national military commander).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Integration - why national attitudes change over time.

Yet another commentator recently boasted about the superiority of the American integration experience for new immigrants. The point they made is that, theoretically at least, immigrants come to a better life, and are therefore delighted to be integrated. Strangely I remember reading similar comments by European commentators writing 60 years ago, and we can all see where that led. So is it a genuine claim?

One of the presentations my company does for school groups is called 'Three Medieval Cultures', and compares the Medieval experiences of the Latin’s (Western Europe), the Muslims, and the Japanese. Theoretically this is pretty easy, because they all have easily defined Classical, Medieval, and Modern periods in their cultures. In practice direct comparison is almost impossible, because the Medieval periods are at such different times that they hardly overlap at all.

For the Latin’s, the Medieval period of their history goes approximately from the fall of Rome in 476 AD, to the rise of the printing press that turbocharged the Renaissance in the 1440’s – about a thousand years. For the Japanese, it is probably from the rise of the Shogunate in 1192 to the Meiji restoration in 1867 – about 700 years. For the Muslims it is possibly from end of the Sultanate in 998 to the ‘retirement’ of the feudal Sipahi class of cavalrymen in 1828 – though it would be fair to argue that large parts of the Muslim world may well still be feudal.

The affect of these disparate dates is a serious of lovely quotes that reveal very little. In the mid C9th for instance, Arab geographer Ibn Khordadbeh referred to Europe as a source of: “eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, glue, sables and swords” and not much more. He was a classical Muslim scholar - at the peak of their cultural attainments - looking at the Dark Ages in the West. Nine hundred years later Western traders – well into their Modern period - were making similar comments about the Medieval Muslim cultures they were passing on their way to Medieval Japan.

Which just goes to show that comparisons between national outlooks should probably pay a little attention to where they are in their national, and nationalistic, cycles.

I am a proponent of the idea that modern Empires have not so much ‘collapsed’ as been abandoned by voters unwilling to pay their costs. For all that the British Empire was weakened by the Great War, careful modern assessments reveal that it was making major economic comebacks in the interwar period. In which case the argument of the economic historians that it was too weakened by the Second World War to hold on to Empire seems a bit hindsight driven. (I will do a more detailed post on this later.)

In fact the postwar British Labour government was intent on abandoning Empire ASAP, and was heartily supported by the majority of the voters. (Which led to the indecent haste of abandoning not only cultures more or less ready for independence in the ongoing pattern of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, India, Ceylon, Malaya, Singapore, Malta, etc; but also cultures not nearly ready for it like Burma, Zimbabwe, Aden, Palestine, and many other violent and repressive states that have spent their time since as nasty dictatorships indulging in ethnic cleansing.) Despite what bad economic historians might think, this was at least as much political preference as it was economic necessity.

The comparison is easy to see. The United States left Korea half occupied largely because the cost of a full liberation was too high - economically and politically. A few years later the United States walked out on a war it probably could have won in Vietnam, because the voters would no longer stand for it. More recently it has taken lies about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to get the voters to allow the removal of some of the nastier dictators and repressive regimes of human history in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact the voter apathy is so great that there is virtually no chance of an intervention even to stop the bloodbaths of ethnic cleansing throughout Africa. (The Balkans may have been a last gasp of American willingness to do something just because it was ‘right’.)

Western Imperialism certainly had it’s faults, but it did stomp pretty firmly on Thuggee and Slavery and Headhunting asd Sati. Pity that the moral superiority that allowed the average voter to support such measures has evolved into a squeamish-ness that argues that people should be allowed to repress women and indulge in genital mutilation, child rape and ethnic cleansing if that is a traditional part of their - obviously equally valuable - culture.

So I can see very clear parallels between the attitudes towards ‘imperial adventures’ amongst modern Americans as there were amongst postwar (or even interwar) Briton’s. Which makes me suspect that the United States might be due for a rude awakening on it’s approach to ‘integration’ as well.

Europe has spent the last sixty years decrying its traditions. Nationalism is out. Patriotism is out. Duty to help the less fortunate is way out… if they are foreign at least. Instead there is a namby-pamby pastiche of feel-good phrases about multicultural futures and all-inclusive societies. The end effect of which appears to be that new Immigrant children can’t find anything of their new host society to be proud of, or even interested in. Instead they turn back to their cultures of origin for inspiration, with the effect that second and third generation Muslims in Europe are far more radical, and far less integrated, than their parents who have actually experienced the systems they were escaping. The results do not look good for social cohesion in the future.

The United States might like to think it is different, but the reality is that although it was a century behind the rest of the trends in the West at the start of last century, it is catching up rapidly. The US was one of the last Western states to abandon slavery. The US was the last (non-Nazi) Western State to try and claim a right to conquor land from its neighbours – both ‘natives’, and European imports like Canada and Mexico. (I will discount those states fighting over historical border disputes like France and Germany over Alsace-Lorraine in the Great War). The US was also a late starter in overseas imperialism, only getting seriously into it with the occupation of Hawaii, the forced treaties on Japan and China, and the conquest of Spanish possessions Central America’s and Asia. The US was one of the very last to give all citizens the vote (as long as you don’t count Puerto-Ricans as citizens in which case it still hasn’t).

All these things came well behind the patterns of Western states in Europe, or even of other planted Western colonies like Canada and Australia. But each time gap has been shorter. And the psychological component of the ‘Imperial Overstretch’ gap has been shortest of all. It lasted only a few decades between the triumphalism of America making the world safe for democracy in 1945, and it’s first failure at the fall of Saigon. By Gulf-War 1 in 1991, the Americans wanted other people to pay for them to fight. A decade later they were unwilling to go at all without a ‘coalition of the willing’. By now, the names Zimbabwe, Somalia and Darfur are carefully avoided in Congress.

How far behind these developments can a social integration problem be? All the European nations were excellent social integrators when they were in their colonial frontier periods. Look at the lovely fusion of Norman nobles with Anglo-Saxon and then Welsh and Scottish peoples in Britain. (It would be fair to say the Irish never integrated into Britain properly… Signs don’t look too promising for Irish integration in Europe just at the moment either…) Look at the disparate tribes and settlers who now make up the French, German, Spanish and even Polish states. Lots of land and lots of opportunity leads to lots of integration. But the stresses of population density and lack of opportunity have the same affect on modern Europe as they did in the time of overpopulation before the Great Famine and Black Death that halved the European population in the fourteenth century. (Allowing another round of ‘integration’ to be achieved.) Then look at the nationalism and violence and ethnic cleansing that follows many a financial crisis brought on by overpopulation and lack of opportunity. (Consider the timing of the various Pogroms against the Jews in parts of Europe.)

The United States still has a few frontiers in places like Alaska, but pretty much only in the way that Britain could export the restless younger sons to the Empire in the 1800’s. Places like California are not far behind New York in their path to European density and lack of opportunity for unskilled newcomers. The days of the average illiterate refugee making their fortunes, are a long way behind the US in states like New Hampshire or Pennsylvania. Lack of opportunity alone will cramp the integration dream.

More importantly though, the US has been advancing along the path to an ideal small ‘s’ socialist state quite quickly. (See Obama’s Healthcare plan.) With that has come the whole baggage of an intellectual and educational class more disparaging of American culture than supportive of it. They have not yet achieved the dominance they have in more ‘advanced’ cultures like Europe and the other Dominions, but they are not far off it. Inevitably the new immigrants are going to start getting the same educational experience of ‘what is there to be proud of’ as those in Europe. It may not be common in the US yet, but it is already the dominant position in certain Democrat voting states.

Fortunately the vast majority of new immigrants are apparently arriving in non-Democrat voting states. (Or perhaps there is a cause and effect here… consider voting patterns over time and look which states have moved from Democrat to Republican… hmm…) Places like Texas are moving forward precisely because they still consider themselves to be frontier economies, and are acting as though such ‘integrate by opportunity’ rules are still applicable. By contrast to the states who are trying to legislate an ‘equality’ based on fanciful ideas (and in a way that emphasises the advantages of NOT integrating), there is a chance that states like Texas can hold the dysfunctional integration tide back a bit longer.

On the other hand I heard just today a very good and entertaining talk by a Marxist (yes there are still people who call themselves that!) called Terry Eagleton (a Professor, naturally... of English Literature, unsuprisingly...) on radio. He made the delightful comment that listening to Americans go on about ‘God and Country’ (in their best impersonation of a pompous Victorian middle class English twat) just makes jaded Europeans stare at their shoes and hope it will stop soon.

If historical patterns are anything to go by, it probably will.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rating General Dill

Field Marshall Sir John Dill commanded a corps in France during the phoney war, and was then recalled to be assistant CIGS (Chief of Imperial General Staff) just before the German Blitzkreig. He took over as CIGS after Dunkirk, and spent a turbulent year and a half as Churchill’s senior army adviser during the period of the war when Britain and her Commonwealth and Empire had no other allies, and Britain herself was facing invasion. Later he became the head of the British delegation to the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCOS) in Washington, until his death from illness later in the war. He was one of the most important figures in Allied policy making from mid 1940 to 1944, and no major decision during that period was made without his input.

Dill was greatly admired by many in the British army, and even such luminaries as his successor General Alan Brooke considered him to have one of the best minds in the business. His contribution to Allied co-ordination was unsurpassed, and he became the foundation that made the CCOS work reasonably well during 1942 and 1943. (I would argue that it was fairly dysfunctional by 1944, and almost completely unable to agree on anything of moment by 1945.) He was respected, even loved by the American Chiefs of Staff, who were the pallbearers at his funeral. Marshall was shocked by his death, and never communicated as well with his allies, or even his fellow American Chiefs of Staff, after the loss of Dill’s influence as a linchpin to the co-operative process. (He was also the secret supplier to Marshall of copies of Roosevelt’s communications with Churchill, information that was usually a surprise – often an unpalatable one - to Marshall and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

He was a scholar, a gentleman, a great mind, a huge contributor to Allied victory, and a generally impressive human being. But he was not a particularly great general.

Between the wars he had been a brilliant staff officer, but that rarely makes for a good battlefield leader. Between the wars he had been a superlative head of the Staff College, and an excellent mentor of future generals, but he was considerably less successful as a mentor of his field commanders after he became CIGS. Between the wars he had proven a good judge of talented officers, but as CIGS he repeatedly appointed officers who were not the best candidates available. Before the war he had been considered and excellent strategist, but as CIGS he made some of the worst strategic mistakes of the war. As a communicator and negotiator with allies he was quite excellent, but he was less successful at communicating with his own government, and hopeless with Churchill in particular. In short, he failed in many of his most important tasks of a general, and particularly of a head of the army.

Dill was a frontline commander, but only during the Phoney war. He never got the chance to lead his corps into battle, and never held another active command thereafter. We cannot be sure that he would have been a poor battlefield leader, but we can point to the general negativity of his overall approach as a corps commander, and compare him un-favourably to more active and positive leaders of the time. Despite him commanding the cream of the professional British divisions in 1st corps, his training and exercises regime looks less impressive compared to that of Brooke’s 2nd corps. It is probable that he would have been a calm leader in a crisis, and a good planner. It is less likely that he would have been quick to react to crisis, and frankly hard to imagine that he could be inspiring to his troops. Much as fellow generals loved him for his private qualities, the average soldier would have found him mild, cerebral, and ultimately remote… hardly an inspirational leader.

As CIGS he failed to master either his army, or his relationship with his political masters. Both aspects can possibly be fairly described using Churchill’s description of him as ‘Dill-Dally’. He took over from the clearly unsuited General Ironside at the time of Dunkirk, but although he was clearly intellectually superior, he was to prove not greatly superior as a leader. He was perhaps lucky that his main field commanders, the redoubtable Brooke as CIC home (read anti-invasion) forces, and the impressive Wavell in the Middle East: were hardly needful of his assistance. However it is notable that he had not chosen them himself, and that he failed to smooth their communications with Churchill. The generals he did choose for higher command were possibly not so impressive. He was the one who chose Percival for Malaya for instance, on the completely incorrect premise that a good staff officer would cover the deficiencies of inadequate troops.

The most dire of his inputs to the war effort however, was probably the decision to abandon the successful campaign in North Africa in favour of a disastrous mission to Greece. Admittedly Churchill had been a keen advocate before sending Dill and Eden to look at the situation on the ground, but Churchill’s final communications insisted that the risk should not be taken unless it was clearly going to be effective. The Greek leadership and generals were definitely against the idea, but an unfortunate death at the top level allowed Dill and Eden to carry the new Greek leader with them in their excitement, and the fateful decision was made.

Theoretically the idea of commitment to supporting an ally fighting against the Axis was a noble cause. There is certainly an argument that abandoning yet another ally without attempting to help them would not help the war effort and the attitude of prospective future allies. However the simple fact of the situation is that the North African campaign had destroyed much of the Italian army, and certainly undermined the will of the remainder to resist. Brooke wrote scornfully in his diary about failing to finish one job before rushing off to another. Just imagine if North Africa had been cleared in 1941 rather than 1943? Would Singapore have fallen? Would Italy have dropped out of the war in 1942? Would the clearing of Mediterranean shipping routes – saving millions of tons of shipping via the longer routes around Africa - have vastly sped the war? Would the invasion of France have happened in 1943? Would the combined Anglo-American fleet, not needed in the Med, and now operating from Singapore, have defeated the Japanese navy in 1943 or 1944? Would the war have been over quicker and less painfully? (Another sample by-product is that Rommel had landed in Libya with only a single battalion of German troops at the time that the British were planning their final conquest… Rommel a POW in 1941!) Aren’t ‘what if’s’ fun?

By the end of 1941 Churchill had lost faith in ‘Dilly-Dally’ and replaced him with Brooke, who was to be a much more impressive CIGS. Unfortunately Pearl Harbour happened almost immediately, and Brooke managed to save Dill from exile to India by convincing Churchill to use him as Britain’s representative to the Americans.

Many have been impressed by Dill as the linchpin of the CCOS, and he certainly did a spectacular job of herding such disparate elements as Brooke, Marshall, King, Pound, Churchill and Roosevelt, in approximately the same direction. But I would not go so far as to use the hackneyed phrase “no one else could have done it” which is so loosely applied to many generals who were clearly not uniquely gifted. In fact I would go so far as to suggest that Brooke probably regretted his suggestion of Dill as soon as he realized the implications.

Churchill and Dill agreed to a CCOS, which would be based in Washington. Brooke was scathing, and described this as “selling our birthright”. The fact that Dill, through his own efforts, more or less made it work, for a while, is not enough to call the result a success. (When I was studying my MBA I liked to quote from the CCOS records as an example of how NOT to run a planning committee.) Any discussion of the efforts of the CCOS concentrates on the endless battles over policy. Any assessment of the results admits to half-baked compromises. Any objective analysis should note that by 1944 the process had broken down to the point where separate wars were being run in different theatres with little regard to common strategy. (The Pacific was an American War. The South Pacific was MacArthurs baby – even his Australian hosts were not getting any say. India/Burma was all British. China was just a mess. The Mediterranean was pretty much a British game – even the US general Clarke realized he needed British support to buck his American superiors. In France Eisenhower was supposed to be an Allied commander, but by late 1944 he was ignoring anyone but Marshall, and a dying Roosevelt enabled Marshall to ignore his British ‘allies’.) Ultimately the CCOS was not a pretty sight. Ultimately the half-baked post war ‘peace’, with Eastern Europe behind an Iron Curtain and China and Burma on their way to Communist takeover, with endless other wars in Asia and the Middle East ahead, was a result of this approach.

As another ‘what if’, let us look at the alternative to Dill in America. The most likely candidate to be Churchill’s (and therefore the British Chiefs of Staffs’) representative to Roosevelt and the American Joint Chiefs would have been Admiral Mountbatten. A similarly charming and incisive deal-maker. Just as impressive to the Americans, but far more junior to the British. As head of mission, he would have been brilliant, but certainly that mission would not have been considered a CCOS. As a linchpin between the two nations he would have achieved quite different results to those of Dill, but probably not inferior ones. In fact, in the game of politics Mountbatten was head, shoulders, knees and toes above Dill. He could, and did, wrap Churchill and Roosevelt, and Marshall and even King, around his little finger during the course of the war. It is fascinating to imagine how the world would have looked had Churchill chosen his preferred candidate for such a role, instead of reluctantly accepting Brooke’s insistence on using Dill. (It is fascinating to wonder if Brooke later wistfully considered the same thing?)

I would go so far as to suggest that Dill’s greatest failure was on the CCOS. Certainly he was the linchpin that held it together as long as it more or less functioned, and certainly his death pretty much ended its effectiveness. But without his initial input and availability, it would probably not have been attempted in that form. Without his constant toil, different solutions would have had to be found. Without his compromises, less frustrations would have been felt by both sides. Without his narrow focus, a more broadly based strategy might have been possible. Instead of the ultimate in Chateau-Generalship from the back-seat barrackers in Washington, each front would have had a specific goal agreed between the allies, with specific tasks assigned and a specific Allied Chief of Staff put in charge. Without Dill muddying the waters, the Allies might have had to agree a proper strategy. Debates would have been resolved, rather than drag on for year after year until all trust had been lost, and until all willingness to co-operate completely vanished. (Consider Eisenhower’s attitude to the British demand to save Prague, Wavell’s attitude to American pressure over Indian independence, or King’s attitude to anyone not USN in the Pacific.)

Dill was an impressive person, of great integrity, and with great commitment. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he worked himself to death trying to make the CCOS work. Unfortunately it might be fair to say that he killed himself feeding the cuckoo that was disrupting the nest. Within a few months all his efforts seemed as ashes to world strategy and agreement between the Allies. (Within months King refused to talk to anyone, and Admiral Cunningham - British naval representative - had to resort to calling a full meeting of the CCOS just to get into his presence. Soon after that, with Roosevelt dying, even a full meeting was not reaching agreement over points of dispute, and Marshall was telling Eisenhower to ignore all input from any of the other ‘Allies’.)

Dill never had a chance to demonstrate his battlefield abilities, but that may have been a good thing. He never impressed as CIGS, and almost certainly deserved being sacked for the disasters of North Africa, Greece, and Malaya, which he put in train. He gave his all into attempting to make something workable of a fundamentally flawed CCOS, and left behind a mortally wounded hybrid. The total input of this brave and noble man into the Allied war effort was possibly almost completely negative, even after he became just a cog in the Allied machine. When he was an executive himself, as CIGS, he failed dismally.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Rating General Claude Auchinleck

General (later Field Marshall) Sir Claude Auchinleck (see the link for a comprehensive career outline) is one of the most interesting generals of the Second World War. Many of his devotees would claim he is one of the most under-rated. But he is an excellent example of why it is difficult to assume that just because a general is good at one level, he can also be good at another. In fact he is the classic example of a general who excelled at two widely separate levels of command, while failing miserably at the intermediate levels.

Auchinleck followed the classic route to high command of British generals. Military family; graduated into Indian Army just before the Great War; fought through the war in difficult and challenging roles; came out highly respected, held staff appointments and studied and later taught at Staff Colleges; received his first important independent command in the late thirties, etc. The main difference being that his Great War experience was in the wildly fluctuating campaigns in modern Iraq, with their vastly different highs and lows to anything experienced in trench warfare. He started and finished the war involved in mobile warfare, even if he fought trench campaigns in the middle.

In World War Two he had the unique distinction of being the only Indian Army officer called to England to command an entirely British corps. He led it in the brief campaign in Norway without having a chance to demonstrate much that was either good or bad in the way of his own abilities. He then commanded a corps, and later an entire ‘Command’ in Southern England during the Nazi invasion scare, before returning to India to become CIC.

His energetic reaction to the Iraqi crisis brought him to the attention of Churchill just as Wavell was demonstrating increased exhaustion in the Middle East command, and the decision to swap the two commanders is another example of Churchill’s flying by the seat of his pants approach. (And another example of the poor influence that General Dill had on developments during his tenure as CIGS – the abandonment of the victorious campaign in North Africa, the disaster of the Greek campaign, the foolish appointment of Percival to the vital Malayan command, and this decision - all being standouts. But Dill will be another post.)

Auchinleck did some brilliant work in the North African campaign. Foremost amongst his efforts was that he twice fought Rommel’s army to a standstill, despite each time taking over what looked like a defeated army at the last minute to achieve such stunning results. Indeed his Tactical ability during Crusader and First Alamein is the foundation for the claims that he was an extraordinary battlefield general. In that sense at least, his supporters are right to think that he stood well above the vast majority of more famous Allied commanders from later in the war. Certainly men like Marshall and Dill, Eisenhower and Wavell, Bradley and Alexander, Clarke and Cunningham, etc: didn’t have more than a fraction of his battlefield sense. He was certainly one of the pre-eminent army commanders of the war. Rommel himself despaired of outmanoeuvring or outfighting someone of his ability, even after having stripped his predecessors in those battles of their numerical superiority. Auchinleck was the embodiment of Robustness, Character, Humanity and Spirit. His Topography, Movement, Tactics and Combined Operations were apparently superior even to Rommel’s. He was unarguably a first class battlefield general.

Unfortunately it was not his job to be a battlefield general. He was in the Middle East to be the commander in chief, not to fight in the field. More importantly, the only reason he had to take over the army in the field twice, was because the men he had appointed to command it had failed… twice. General Cunningham, despite having demonstrated ability in the East African campaign against the Italians in Ethiopia, proved himself exhausted during Operation Crusader, and had to be replaced when he effectively had a mental collapse. Possibly Auchinleck could not have expected such a collapse, but it does reveal a poor choice … regardless of the reason.

The successor Auchinlek appointed to command the Western Desert army - after winning the battle himself - was a relatively junior staff officer with no battlefield command experience of large formations. He was actually inferior in rank to his corps commanders. Ritchie was not a bad general, just a bad appointment at this particular time. Certainly Auchinleck did not help him with the lack of Clarity of his instructions. (In fact the CIGS, Alanbrooke, was furious at how Auchinleck ‘damaged’ Ritchie’s progression, and brought him home after his sacking to learn the corps command position properly. He was later to serve in the invasion of France and Germany as a very good corps commander.) Ritchie’s inexperience and lack of control of his sub-commanders made him fairly easy pickings for Rommel’s next attack. Again Auchinlek stepped in – almost too late – to save the day. But again a bad choice had been revealed.

Some argue that Auchinleck, as an Indian army officer, simply knew too little about his British army contemporaries. This is dubious. The truth is that he was attracted to positive sounding ideas men regardless of the sense of their ideas. His staff officers include Dorman-Smith and Corbett, both of whom fizzed with ideas, and both of whom were considered completely unsound (if not actually insane) by most of their contemporaries. Poor Delegation. The problem was he stayed loyal to people even after they had proved they needed replacing, and apparently relied on his own abilities to save the situation if required. Poor Command technique. Perhaps that might have been better if he was a more involved Mentor of those he was working with, but repeated failures suggest that this was not one of his strengths either.

In addition his attraction to new experimental ideas meant that he was constantly undermining the advances made by his troops in training and technique by splitting them into ‘Jock columns’ to stir the enemy up. Undoubtedly the jock columns worked, but perhaps in the same way that Wingate’s Chindits worked later, with too much effort, and far too much cost to regular units, while achieving marginal results against the enemy. Poor Common-Sense?

Sacking Auchinlek as CIC Middle East was one of Churchill’s better decisions. (As was finally dividing the vast Middle Eastern theatre into a North African and a Persia/Iraq command to face different German threat axis.) But appointing him to return as CIC India a year later was an even better decision.

The key element to Auchinleck was that he was respected, even loved, by most who knew him. The Indian army as a whole trusted him completely, and would work for him better than for probably anyone else. Even Indian politicians respected him immensely, which is why it is possibly unfortunate that Wavell was left as Viceroy struggling with the independence issues, when Auchinleck might have done so much better in controlling the disparate personalities in Indian politics.

The fascinating thing is that Auchinleck was successful as a battlefield general, but only because he was unsuccessful as a theatre commander. By contrast he was also fabulously successful as CIC of the Indian army, and probably would have been at least as successful at a higher level.

So was he a successful general?

The answer of course is both Yes and No. He was a brilliant general, who failed his duties at the crucial moment. His Command weaknesses caused him to make decisions which lengthened the war in the Middle East, and the fact that his Operational strengths allowed him to recover at least part of the situation does not reverse this decision. He failed in his appointed task at his appointed level.

Perhaps Auchinleck is an example of what Alanbrooke meant when he said that it was unfortunate that too many generals had been pushed too far too fast, and had suffered the consequences? Perhaps Auchinleck would have benefitted from a slower maturity under someone like Brooke, and could have developed his undoubted brilliance into an actual ability at higher command in the field. Perhaps he could have taken control of Burma and fought with his usual brilliance – and charmed the Chinese and Americans with his usual brilliance (Stilwell liked him… Stillwell?) Perhaps he would have been even better than Slim. His admirers think he would have been even better commanding D-Day than Montgomery or Eisenhower. Perhaps… We will never know.

All that we can say is that Auchinleck could have been one of the greatest Allied generals of the war, if he had been given other roles. Unfortunately his personality was not suited to making the best of the roles he was given. So we must judge him by what he actually did. Which means that the most important assessment we can make of him is to rank him as a failure as a theatre commander.

Such a decision seems unjust. ‘The Auk’ was truly a very great man. Declaring him a failure seems unforgiveable. As Churchill said when he had to sack him, “like shooting a magnificent stag”.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Failures of Democracy: Greece and Britain

It is amusing to see the ‘birthplace’ of democracy suffering the inevitable effects of untrammelled democracy, as Greek unions and citizens are riot in the streets against the effects of several decades of their own votes.

Socialism has a lot to answer for in the last century, and it would be fair to suggest that the economies that led the world a century ago but are in trouble now have suffered the effects of far too many socialist governments in the intervening period. (Note: I am in favour of certain small ‘s’ socialist ideals like universal medicine, but completely opposed to big ‘S’ Socialism that suggests that you should not only rely on the government, but that you are incapable of managing yourself without government supervision. “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you”, is not a joke by accident.)

Greece has spent most of the decades since the war with terrible governments buying their way into power by promising that the national credit card is unlimited. The result is one of the biggest and least effective government bureaucracies in the world, with a vast number of useless drones being paid to retire early after having achieved virtually nothing of real value. Meanwhile the average citizen has been showered with vastly overpriced and very poorly delivered social services, which would probably have achieved far more and cost only a fraction as much if the government had put them out to tender. On top of that a 14 month per annum pension (bonuses for Christmas and Easter) means that many retired people are being given more money than they were earning when they worked. Talk about a runaway train.

Thus the petrol bomb throwers are reaping the rewards of their own stupidity, but fortunately under a Socialist government that has long since convinced them that they bear no responsibility for their own decisions. (I hope that government is enjoying the fruits of their labours.) Once again the Roman adage of ‘bread and circuses’ being the only interests of the unwashed masses has been thoroughly demonstrated.

Of course the original version of democracy achieved almost equally stupid results without the input of the unwashed. Socrates was condemned to death by the democracy of the Polis, ie by the votes of the small percentage of the total population who were free male citizens.

Theoretically a democracy based on a small number of citizens with a similar mindset should be more stable than a democracy based on the great unwashed. To get the vote in an ancient Greek Polis you needed to be a free rich citizen who contributed to the three pillars of citizenship – farming, fighting and participation in politics – otherwise you were literally an ‘idiotes’. At the very least the fact that this boys club was of rich slave owners, with the same education and social obligations and from the same class, should have seen some commonality of purpose.

Socrates becoming a martyr to democracy , even to an aristocratic democracy, just goes to show that ‘a mob has an IQ equivalent to that of its dumbest member divided by the number of the crowd’, is also not a joke by accident. Democracy is inherently unstable. That is the nature of the human animal. Expanding the franchise to include the uneducated and illiterate and downright stupid does not improve that situation.

Which is not to say that democracy should not be part of a governmental system. The more complex the engine, the more necessary a safety valve is. Just don’t think that the entire engine can be designed around the device for letting off steam. Just because it makes a lot of noise, doesn’t mean it is actually more important than the moving parts.

The ideal government will include a democratic component, just as it will include a non democratic component based on special interests groups like those appointed to protect state rights (Senate), or appointed representatives of top minds (House of Lords), or any other special interest groups that work for your nation (Councils of Tribal Chiefs for instance). If you want the system to last, it will also include some hereditary component (perhaps along the lines of Malaysia’s choosing a prince form one of the 9 princely families), but that is another story.

The ideal government will not rely on domination by untrammelled democracy. Certainly not for long…

It might be fun to suggest that Britain probably had a far more stable government before the House of Lords lost its right to block supply in 1912. Certainly Australian examples show that the abandonment of the Upper House by Queensland because it was ‘undemocratic’ led to a long series of governmental disaster and gerrymander. More recently Gordon Brown was actually suggesting that it would be ‘superior’ to replace the group of brilliant minds appointed to the House of Lords from all the best people in science, industry, charity, arts, the union movement, etc, with another bunch of party hacks handpicked in smoke filled rooms by vested party interests. (I head Jon Faine on ABC radio today being quite excited about such ‘reform’.)

The British elections are going on as I write, and it is reported that up to 25% of votes are postal votes. Safeguards against rorting are practically non-existent. Corruption on a scale Mugabe could be proud of has already been demonstrated. Not that it necessarily counts all that much to the result. If all three major parties get exactly 33.3% of the vote, that will give Labour far more seats than the Conservatives, who will themselves have far more seats than the Lib-Dems. In fact Labour can win (as it did last time) with far less than half the votes. Hurray for democracy.

I think that if the GFC (global financial crisis for the uninitiated… how did we ever survive without TLA’s – Three Letter Acronym’s!) demonstrates anything, it is that the current fad for unfettered democracy is as obsolete as Aristocratic Hegemony, Divine Right of Kings, or Communism. Frankly unfettered democracy has failed far more spectacularly (and with far more casualties and victims), than any other system of government ever devised. The next stage of human government will no doubt contain elements of democracy, but will not pretend that a stable government can be built on democracy alone.

As a starting point, there will have to be a return to the understanding that a vote is a privilege, not a right. Certainly the idea that turning a magic age automatically gives you a say has to go. I personally like the idea that you have to demonstrate you put others above your own interest (national service or feeding the homeless) is a good start, but I see nothing wrong with a requirement to be a contributing taxpayer or some other version of weeding out those who are a danger to stability. The requirement should be achievable for anyone who wants it, but without the stupidity of requiring it from those who don’t value it (or understand it).

Secondly there will have to be a re-balancing of the parliamentary structures to return more power to vested interests… ie to those who make the world tick. I frankly find it ridiculous that we pretend that this is not how it works anyway. The fact that Washington contains 60+ lobbyists for each Congressman, and that their tax code has ‘exemptions’ for campaign contributors all the way down to individual businesses in various districts: just means that the democratic element of the system has been corrupted by the devaluing of the proper place for such influences. A special interest Senate or House of Lords, no matter how chosen, provides a protective stability to the system that counters the irrationality of the mob.

Thirdly there has to be a recognition that the party structure is not benign. In a genuine democracy people are supposed to vote for their local member, not for the charismatic twatt the party parades on the evening news as their ‘leader’. It is a bit rich for parties to complain that local members can’t change sides on the basis of their principles because they are supposed to be party lackeys. Pretending that the local member should not be responsive to their electorate is horrendous. Find a primary school definition of democracy people!

Finally, there must be a recognition that it is horses for courses. The same solution will not work in every culture. Imposing it just leads to dictatorship, repression, war and genocide. Give up the fantasy of the ideal. Liberal ideals, for all their values, are the foundation of big ‘S” Socialism. By now even the dumbest theorist should be working out where that inevitably leads.

Meanwhile lets hope that the European Union fails to survive the current crisis in anything like it’s current form. It is such a hopeless form of democracy that it is out of the control of its voters, and completely intent on achieving big 'S' socialism across the continent (possibly the world). Greece now is a harbinger of the EU to come. We can look forward to seeing rioters and petrol bombers outside the European parliament at some point in the future. (Not too distant if the German voters have their say on the Greek 'bailout'.) Self-righteousness has its own rewards. Hurray for 'democracy'.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Scoring the Generals

For my amusement I have begun assessing various generals according to their Personal, Operational and Command skills (using terms taken from the best half dozen theoreticians going back to Ancient China).
Personal Characteristics - Robustness, Character, Humanity, Spirit, Common Sense, Mentoring
Operational Characteristics - Planning, Logistics, Topography, Movement, Tactics, Combined Operations
Command Characteristics - Clarity of Orders, Strategy, Propaganda, Delegation, Relations with Allies/Media/Politicians, Geopolitical understanding.

Comparing the abilities of generals of different ranks and responsibilities is not easy. It is, for instance, only possible to assess the tactical skills of a desk warrior like Marshall by analysing his tactical suggestions to Eisenhower or the CCOS; while there is no other way than inference to analyse the geopolitical skills of the vast majority of division commanders who served in the larger army groups rather than in theatres of independent operation. A general might perform superbly commanding a division despite almost no Command abilities, as long as his Personal skills are sufficient – the New Zealander Freyburg might be a prime example. Whereas some very respected members of the various COS committees had dismal Personal skills – Admiral King springs to mind.

Perhaps the most efficient description of good generalship is actually taken from Oliver Werner’s book about admirals ‘Command at Sea’. His succinct description of the best quality of command is: “always it is taken for granted that the leader knows his business from top to bottom, and will not throw lives away” (italics added).

Examples of skills versus ranks….

One of the most interesting ways to compare this distinction, is to take a few officers and consider where their relative strengths and weaknesses worked for their countries. For the purpose of this exercise I will refer to my own national force, the Australian army, which was big enough to make a huge difference to the outcome of the war (deployed and/or fighting in most of the key campaigns in Britain, North Africa, Greece, the Middle East, Malaya, East Indies, Ceylon, Australia, New Guinea, the South West Pacific, and Borneo), while small enough to allow assessment of a few key characters.

It is relatively easy to name a few characters from the Australian army, and draw attention to their differing abilities. For our sample we will use generals Vasey, Herring, Lavarack and Blamey.

Major General George Alan Vasey was one of the most effective divisional commanders of the war, but had almost certainly reached the limit of his ability in that role. Despite being a rare full time professional soldier in a largely militia based army, he was a literally stunning example of Australian coloqualism in action. (Leaving more than one senior general temporarily speechless with his trademark greeting “How are you, you dear old bastard”). Vasey was an ideal brigadier, and an excellent divisional tactician. He was loved, indeed practically worshipped, by his men, and nearly worked himself to death in the process of leading his troops. His personal skills were outstanding, but his Operational skills were no more than average, while the less said of his Command skills the better.

Vasey had the great fortune to be a brigadier where his personal skills could be of greatest value, in the difficult retreats from Greece, from Crete, and in the operations in Syria. He was then recalled to Australia, and eventually did his best work leading the superb 7th division through much of the New Guinea campaign. Perhaps if the latter had involved more open terrain for maneouvre, his Operational limits may have been betrayed, but in the jungles he was an ideal commander, and he had the ‘fortune’ to die in harness before having the chance to attempt to lead a corps – a role he would probably not have enjoyed, and one very likely beyond his ability.

Lieutenant-General the Honourable Sir Edmund Herring by contrast was the ideal corps commander, and possibly had the ability to lead an army. Certainly his command in New Guinea, which started as a mere subset of his corps duties, quickly involved complexities forcing the official recognition that his corps role was the junior partner.

Herring, a militia officer, was probably the ideal Australian to command in a situation where difficult allies - and even the most friendly and co-operative officers working under MacArthur could not avoid being difficult to work with – had to be integrated into a smoothly functional team. His Personal skills were so relaxed as to give the impression of weakness of purpose – until he needed to reveal the steel determination underneath. His Operational skills, with the notable exception of combined operations, were perhaps weaker than was ideal for a corps commander: but they were more than compensated by his Command abilities. Particularly the relations and strategy components of his diverse theatre.

Yet the most commonly agreed point by both friend and enemy of Herring (and the splintered world of regular versus militia officer in the Australian army made factional fighting unhappily recurrent), was that he was ‘more comfortable’ under direction, than in independent command. As he himself was happy to point out, he was most comfortable and productive when he could drop in each evening on his boss General Blamey, and discuss progress and requirements. After Blamey moved his headquarters, and more particularly after another level of command was interposed between them, Herring was never as comfortable or productive. In fact he happily left the army in 1944 to take up a position as Supreme Court Judge (his interwar background had been much more as a barrister than a militia officer).

Herring probably could have made a good army commander in a tightly run theatre. He would have been uncomfortable with anything more.

By contrast General Sir John Lavarack was a purely professional soldier. Unlike the majority of Australia’s top comanders, who came through the part time Militia officer system (less modern ‘reserve’ units, and closer to the older American model of state based ‘well ordered militia’ or perhaps to the even older British ‘trained bands’); Lavarack went through the entire interwar period as a professional soldier, completing all the important imperial staff courses, and holding many of the top staff positions in the Australian military forces.

It is a surprise to most foreigners to realise that Australian divisions and corps were rarely commanded by professional soldiers. The militia officers were all decorated veterans of the great war, and all spent considerable periods interwar in militia training and staff exercises. However they all held other permanent jobs as civil servants, police officials, barristers, engineers and the like. The division, and jealousy, between militia and professional officers was one of the banes of Australia’s wartime command performance. Nonetheless the decision to staff Australia’s expeditionary forces with militia commanders and professional chiefs of staff had a certain logic. The professional officers had done the staff courses and were highly experienced organisers. The militia commanders were the ones who had spent their careers working with the troops.

Lavarack is perhaps the clearest example of the problems of the crossover. Undoubtedly one of the finest professional officers, he went to the Middle-East as Chief of Staff to the commander of the Australian 6th division (the later Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey). Despite this, Lavarack managed to appear at many crucial points as a field commander.

After Rommel’s first shocking attack broke the weak British forces in Libya, it was Lavarack who – as temporary commander of the Australian troops not deployed to the ill fated Greek campaign – took responsibility for rounding up and organising the grab bag of troops which later fought the memorable siege of Tobruk. After Japan’s stunning attack in the Far East, it was Lavarack who was designated the Australian corps commander to command the divisions being rushed back from the Middle East. Initially it was his brief to take over the position in Malaya. By the time of his arrival the discussion was the defence of Java. His conclusion was that the East Indies were already a lost cause, and that the troops would be better placed in Australia. At which point Lavarack was appointed commander of 1st Australian Army, the pivotal concentration of divisions deployed to defend Australia’s north-eastern frontiers against the ever nearing possibility of Japanese invasion.

Lavarack never actually commanded troops in battle during the Second World War. So we cannot tell whether he was really up to the job or not. In fact every Australian division, or corps, or later army, that did actually see combat, was commanded by a militia officer. And yet it is telling that Lavarack was the man called on to assess and re-organise the situation each time it was felt that a steady hand was urgently needed. It is interesting to speculate whether he would have been the automatic selection for the New Guinea Corps had it been realised that the Japanese had neither the intention, or the logistic resources, to invade Australia. However with the new and inexperienced Australian government in panicked meltdown, it is clear that he was chosen for the key command position.

What we can say about Lavarack, is that he always came through. As Chief of Staff to Australian forces in the Middles East he was excellent. As the field commander who reacted swiftly and competently to the crisis at Tobruk he was inspiring. As the corps commander designated for the forces to be deployed against the Japanese in Malaya or Java, he was calm; considered; and not afraid to present findings, and insist on redeployments, which he must have known would cause a political storm between the Allied governments. As an army commander in Australia, his influence on a stretched and flustered defense force was as invaluable as on a weak and fearful government. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that his total effect on Australia’s military strength, planning, deployment, and operations, during the war was second to none.

Yet what we cannot say about Lavarack was how good he was in battle. All the evidence suggests he would at least have been calm, and quite able to analyse situations and deal with events smoothly and efficiently. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Lavarack was never close enough to combat command to more than inhale the aroma.

It is my belief that Lavarack could have been good. Very good. He had the experience of command. He had the experience of failure and defeat. He had the experience of coping with disaster and overcoming the odds. There is no doubt that he would have made a better divisional commander than Gordon-Bennett (discussed in a later post); or a better corps commander that Herring (discussed above). He certainly had the potential to be one of the best army commanders of the war. But he never led troops in combat, and all we can really say is that he was a man of great if somewhat unproven potential.

Which brings us to the later Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey. Certainly Australia’s most controversial soldier.

Blamey was appointed Divisional commander of the first division sent to the Middle East, and soon after Corps commander when a second division arrived, despite the fact that it was almost universally accepted that his Operational skills were out of date (he had spent most of the Great War as a staff officer, and most of the interwar period as a Police Commissioner). Nonetheless the Australian government had divined – possibly correctly – that he was the best choice to deal with the role of an independent force commander within the British Commonwealth coalition. This was despite the fact that Blamey’s Personal abilities were none too outstanding. He was vain, often petty, a notorious thrower of drunken parties, and had had to resign from the position of Commissioner of Victorian Police when caught out telling lies (admittedly lies designed to protect the reputation of the police – if that helps in any way). So in effect the Australian government was valuing his political skills over either his personal or military abilities.

Blamey had the fortune to only once command as a corps leader in action, where he was separately reported as having either handled the withdrawal from Greece competently; or, by his enemies, of suffering a partial collapse under the pressure. His reputation was not helped when he saved a seat on an evacuation flight for his son, and this was the final straw which caused an irreparable split with his BGS (who he later sacked as a corps commander in New Guinea under controversial circumstances). He was thereafter appointed as deputy CIC Middle East under Wavell and then Auchinleck, where he performed quite well in representing his countries interests in difficult circumstances – including insisting on the withdrawal of the 9th division from Tobruk when it was becoming tired.

When recalled to Australia to be CIC Australian army, and then CIC land forces for the SWP under MacArthur, he was again being chosen for his political skills. The new Labor government had no real understanding of military affairs (Prime Minister Curtin later admitting that “in my ignorance of military affairs I believed that the CIC of the army should be at the front”), but knew that good relations in coalition warfare were vital. They therefore overlooked more traditional, and able, generals like Lavarack – a professional soldier who had been Chief of Army Staff in the late thirties and a successful corps commander in the Middle East and army commander in Australia: and Robertson – another professional who led a brigade in the Middle East, a Division in Australia, a Corps in the South West Pacific, and then the Biritsh Commonwealth Occupation forces in Japan and Korea after the war. The professional soldiers were left with the troops, while the amateur was appointed to the political roles.

Blamey made the mistake of effectively attempting to be both Army COS, which entailed responsibilities in the Australian rear areas like Melbourne and Sydney; and army CIC, which required him to be at forward headquarters in Brisbane. His lot was made more difficult by his assigned role as CIC ground forces for the SWP area, a role which MacArthur never had any intention of letting him fill. (MacArthur specifically requested senior American generals to outrank the - lets face it – far more experienced Australian ones, and then insisted on maintaining direct control of American ‘task forces’ anyway).

There is little doubt that Blamey was probably better for the position of CIC ground forces than any other Australian general. He had the experience and the ability to play MacArthurs game. Thus the fact that his Operational abilities were below par was not nearly as important as the fact that his Command abilities were mostly, mostly, up to the weight of the job.

However his Personal qualities here let him down. He attempted to control too much because he believed it was in his, and everyone else’s best interests: not because it actually was. Split between his rear area and operational duties, he was easily out-manouvred, and eventually sidelined, by a MacArthur who had anyway achieved a frankly ridiculous control of the ignorant and incompetent Australian Labor government. Blamey was forced to spend months in New Guinea, not because he believed he had a role there, or that the generals there were in any way incapable: but simply because MacArthur had convinced Curtin’s government to push him out on a limb. As Blamey commented to one of his officers “Canberra has lost it.”

In the end Blamey was completely frozen out of most of his roles by MacArthur, and only did more damage to his cause by belatedly trying to arrange to switch the Australian forces back to British control for combined operations in the East Indies. He had come to realise that MacArthur would have no Australian forces in his all American shows anyway, but the Curtin government had effectively replaced the input of their entire military hierarchy by the simple expedient of letting MacArthur ‘advise’ them of everything they should be doing.

So Blamey can be regarded as a man whose proper role was at the higher end of the generals spectrum. He was not suited to divisional command, and his corps and army command roles were not convincing. He was at his best as deputy commander of coalition forces, whether in the British coalition in the Middle East, or the American/Australian one in SWP. In fact it was only his personal weaknesses and fear of competition that allowed him to undermine this role by attempting to control the entire Australian army, and it’s rear areas, at the same time. Had he been willing to leave this function to a more suitable officer like the real COS Sturdee, he could have concentrated on the function he was actually best suited for. There is no doubt that he had great success in co-ordinating operations in the New Guinea campaigns, and in getting a functional co-operation between Australian and American forces. Although it is unlikely that a man like MacArthur would ever have let him really take control of land forces in the area, and the Australian Labor government was putty in MacArthurs hands, it is largely his own personal weaknesses which prevented him from being in a position to try.

Perhaps one of the professional generals like Lavarack ro Rowell might have had a better chance at guiding the government, but it seems doubtful. Certainly they might have divided duties more effectively, but that might just have played further into MacArthurs hands. Certainly other generals might have done better in teh field, but would any have done better than Blamy in the political situation? Unlikely. He had already been deputy commander of teh Middle East, and acting CIC when Auchinleck was away in London, and was the most knowledgeable about politics and international relations that Australia had available. This does not make him a good general, just the best of bad choices.

So the fact that none of these generals was an ‘ideal’ general, cannot be said to undermine the fact that each of them was in fact ia good candidate for a particular role. Vasey was one of the most successful, and certainly popular, divisional commanders of the war – in any army. But he was probably at his ceiling, and incapable of assuming much higher command. Herring was probably the best possible choice to command the New Guinea area and overcome the difficulties of assembling disparate troops in a functional co-alition. The praises of all American officers – even MacArthur – speak loudly in his favour. But he was not ready or willing to assume higher command. Lavarck showed potential in every area he participated, but was never tested in any of them, so he is simply a great unknown. Blamey was, in practical terms, inadequate as a divisional commander, and possible even poorer as a corps commander. Yet he was the only realistic choice to command as a deputy commander or land forces in a coalition. Despite his weaknesses, his particular strengths gave him a unique value to his army and his country.

This then is the problem with attempting a statistical analysis of generals. Different generals require different strengths for different roles. A general who might be completely unsuitable in one scenario, or at one rank, might be an ideal candidate in, or at, another. At best we can use a statistical analysis for is to give some guidelines for comparison. Thereafter we have to assess each general specifically by the role they were given.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Essentials of Generalship

Even good generals, and they are vanishingly rare in human history, have only a limited range of abilities. It is unreasonable to expect any man (and it has almost invariably been a man), to be everything from an inspirational leader and tactician in regimental ground combat, to a clear-sighted analyst of geopolitical and global trends on an international scale. Yet the term ‘general’ in modern warfare supposedly includes everyone: from the Brigadier defending a hill or village; to the Army Commander carefully resting and rotating his Corps; to the Theatre Commander deploying multi-service resources across large segments of the globe; all the way to the Chief of Staff negotiating global responsibilities and authorities with the political representatives of a dozen nations.

The skills required for these different tasks are amazingly varied, and no man encompasses all of them. Indeed the number who can master more than a few of them is so small that every human conflict reveals more bad generals than good ones. However the key point is that even those who do have some of these abilities to a high degree, rarely have the ability to keep adding new ones if they are unfortunate enough to be promoted beyond their level of competency.

The study of generals in any war, but particularly in the Second World War, is largely the study of who managed to cope with what level of responsibility. In many cases it is a list of people who failed at any level. In some cases it is the names of those who succeeded marvellously well at one particular level, and had the great fortune not to be moved to a different role. In the most interesting cases however, it is the study of those who did very well, often brilliantly well, at one level: only to be promoted into a role for which they had no aptitude. Some of these generals were quickly revealed by smarter and more aggressive opponents. But the most fascinating are those who never realised that they were completely over their head, and whom circumstances never, quite, brought to book.


Good managers of men; good unit commanders and tacticians; good leaders in the front line. These are things which are tested over and over at junior rank (assuming there is a front line to test one in at the right time). No one, hopefully, should get anywhere near general rank - even the ‘one star’ version of Brigadiers - without demonstrating these clearly to their peers, as well as their superiors and subordinates. Yet it is not the ability to command a few thousand men in the sort of engagement where you can physically see the entire battlefield, as in the days of Ceasar or Alexander, or Napoleon and Wellington, which encompasses the modern role of generals. Modern generals have much more diverse roles.

There are many qualities which could be listed as necessary to good generalship, and many people – some of them generals of renown in their own right – have attempted to list those qualities. Field Marshall Lord Wavell for instance, was offered the position of Commander in Chief of the Middle East in 1939, despite his relative lack of seniority: largely on the basis of the excellent national and international reputation he had gained through his lectures in the thirties. These were later collected in a book called “Generals and Generalship”. One of the fascinating comments on relative generalship during the Second World War is that while Wavell himself carried a book of poetry on campaign (often one edited by himself called ‘Other men’s Flowers”), his German opponent in North Africa – General Rommel – carried Wavell’s book on generalship. (In fact one commentator noted that Rommel may have been Wavell’s greatest disciple.)

Wavell made a good list of the basic qualities for a general in World War Two. Physical and mental robustness; calm courage and determination; character, humanity and will to win; zest for the game; common sense and knowledge. To this he added elements of: administration; command of ground and air forces; relations with staff, troops, and subordinate commanders. Most importantly he also pointed out the need for a sense of humor, and what he called ‘priviledged irrascability’, by which he meant that outbursts of temper are often admired, even expected of great leaders, whereas sarcasm is always fatal. Writing in 1943, after experience of high command, he ruefully added a need to communicate well with your political superiors as a necessity for top commanders.

This list which has not been much improved by many post war writers: though obviously elements such as intercept intelligence, combined operations, and relations with coalition partners, have increased in importance.

Unfortunately most biographers of generals fall for the undoubted strengths of character that are a necessary part of any general, and then overlook the weaknesses that make the same men unsuitable for certain roles. The resulting biographies are sincere and well argued, but ultimately unconvincing.

As an exercise, I decided it might be fun to do some ‘scientific’comparison of individuals. I have devised a more analytical division of the list, which allows for some statistical interpretation. (A rating of 10/10 for Tactical ability and Leadership being useful as a Brigadier for instance, but put in context by a rating of 5/10 for planning and 3/10 for logistics if anyone thinks such a person is suitable to command an Army Group.)

I plan to review quite a few Western Allied generals - Australian, American, British, Canadian, French, Polish and others - over the next few months. Some reviews will be non-controversial, but a lot won't be.

It will be interesting to hear the responses.

Anzac Hypocrisy

Once again we have gone through the ritual of the Anzac Day decriers moaning about Australians ‘wasting’ their lives for evil foreigners. As if sacrifice for King and Country was only about seeking glory for the British Empire, or sacrifice for the United Nations was only about being an American lackey.

It has always astonished me that these people are so blatantly of the “pull up the ladder, I’m all right” crowd. Australian lives were sacrificed to make the world safe for democracies - like for instance, Australia - not because the British Empire thought it would be fun to see how many people could die per square kilometer in 1918 France. Australian lives were sacrificed preventing Nazi’s from destroying European civilization and massacring tens of millions of innocent ‘subhumans’, not because Churchill thought it would be fun to have a re-match. The only justification for claiming that Australia should not have been fighting these wars is to argue that there is no duty of care for the less fortunate, and no responsibility to help the needy. In fact such a statement comes down to “F*** you, I’m OK”.

Let’s ignore the fact that World War Two was the one where Australia was directly threatened. (Note – the only reason Japan lacked the ability to genuinely plan to invade Australia was because she was too busy fighting the British and Americans as well to spare the resources for such an invasion - people’s who, by that reasoning, should have told us where to go…) Let’s just stick to the moral imperatives of what Australians actually died for.

The concept of a just war is simply that NOT to fight it is to betray all that is right and good and just. There is a moral obligation to fight for ‘truth, justice and the blah-blah way’, and not to do so betrays the basic foundations of civilized behaviour.

In practical terms of course, those who argue against the Anzacs as a noble expression of self-sacrifice to a higher cause, have already abandoned civilization. They are intent on tearing down everything that traditional Judeo-Christian civilization would consider to be noble and just. They sneer at duty and honour while worshipping such intangible fantasies as ‘multiculturalism’. Whereupon they throw out minor inconveniences like women’s rights, and celebrate ‘cultural diversity’ by allowing Sharia law to enslave women, and ‘Aboriginal custom’ to allow the rape of minor’s. This hypocrisy they justify with meaningless post-modern drivel about cultural relativism. What they actually mean is that they are so intent on destroying the culture that has allowed them such a smug self-satisfied lifestyle, that they will betray all principles of human decency to bring it down.

The position would be more consistent if these people were genuinely pacifists, and opposed all violence, but of course most aren’t. Many of them speak admiringly of terrorists, and have gone so far as to encourage terrorist behaviour on Australian soil. (The authors of a recent anti Anzac book are deeply tied to the unsavoury lot who not only hounded Professor Geoffrey Blainey from his university for not being ‘politically correct’, but encouraged student union violence to the point of bombs being planted… on the wrong person’s lawn.) In fact these people are almost universally in favour of violence, as long as it is against their own culture – which they decry as being too violent!

If you don’t like the culture that has nurtured your postulent maunderings, please leave. Go and live, and die, in one of the horrid cultures that you fail to understand, and fantasise about. The vast majority of people would enjoy a life with a little less hypocritical self-flagellation.

Meanwhile it is encouraging to see the numbers of young people who are willing to join old people in celebrating the concept of willingness to lay down your life for the cause of decency. Who would have thought that generation Y would have such a strong reaction against the crap their baby boomer parents and teachers have been shoveling down their throats, that they might have genuine values hidden in there somewhere?

Kinda makes you feel glad for the essential rebelliousness of the human condition.