Tag Archives: logistics

Review of “To Lose a Battle: France 1940,” by Alistair Horne

To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne (the author of A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962) is (1) a logistics-heavy description of the Battle of France, (2) a description of the general incompetence in both the France and German High Commands, (3) a tale of France, a country that was not then and never became a western democracy, and (4) a history of the end of France and Germany as distinct states.

1. The Logistics of War

“It was time that was the vital element which — more than weapons, even perhaps more than morale — France most lacked in 1940.”

Horne’s focus on logistics, timing, supplies, and materiel is refreshing, especially given so much strategy-focused writing by John Boyd and William Lind. I am not in a position to evaluate the completeness of Horne’s account, but his manner of writing certainly has fans:

Some two years later, I encountered at a London publishing party Israel’s leading military analyst and former Chief of Intelligence, Chaim Herzog (He was later to become Israel’s President.) We had met some years previously in Israel, and he had now just published his own account of the 1973 campaign, The War of Atonement. (Weidenfeld, 1975). When I commented on the similarities to the Manstein Plan of 1940, he smiled knowingly and said something to the effect that, only recently, General Sharon had referred to it, acknowledging a certain indebtedness to To Lose a Battle. Herzog kindly signed a copy of his book for me, adding the laconic but meaningful inscription, “In appreciation.”

I’ve never read a clearer account of battle that focused on the vital appointment of having the right materiel at the right location at the right time. Horne deserves major props for this part of the book, as he does for flowing between the political and military dimensions of struggle in his last book.

2. The Incompetence of the High Commands

Poor decisions went up to the part. “During the course of the Second World War,” Horne writes, “Hitler committed half a dozen key blunders that were to lose Germany the war.” Though in fairness, Hitler’s consistent habit was to bluff as much as he can while being prepared to rapidly ceed ground at the first resistance. Even as late as 1939 Horne believes that a French attack on Germany (during the Nazi invasion of Poland) would have reached the Rhine within two weeks.

The French and German general staffs, however, were fixated on the strategy of an orderly defense, and as such both were hesitant to move rapidly or seize the initiative. These “wrong lessons learned” for World War I, however, reach comic levels with the French, who even move troops away from Paris and towards the Maginot Line near the end of the fight.

3. France, an Unstable Democracy

The best insight I have from reading To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace is that France was never a stable western democracy. Attempts to view its behavior as analogous to what the United States or Britain would do in a similar situation are unfounded, because France had a unique set of interests. Specific elements of French political life that made normal politics impossible were

  • A lack of separation between the political and the military
  • A militant left-wing (which was purposefully crippled by Stalin)
  • A revolutionary right-wing (which was sympathetic to military coups against elected governments)

The pattern of both To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace is the old general, brought in from retirement, who oversees the death of the old Republic and faces resistance from an idealistic general

Philippe Petain v. the Third Republic and Charles DeGaulle
but then… DeGaulle v. the Fourth Republic and Roaul Salan

After reading both books, the solution is obvious: France is not a stable democracy.

Reading To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace at first is strange, because the country appears to be a nightmarish version of the United States, but the U.S. is a democracy that has not had a new constitution since the the 18th century. France, by contrast, was never stable. Thus Petain, and DeGaulle, operated out the same frame: no stable government existed absent a strong leader, so a constitutional dictatorship was (for the time being) the only natural form of government for France.

The difference between Petain and DeGaulle was not between traitor and patriot (by our standards, they were surely both). Indeed, both recognized the unstable nature of French democracy, and sought to meld the French polity into Germany. Likewise, both (like Mao Zedong, Chiang Kaishek, and Wang Jingwei) differentiated between ‘diseases of the limbs’ and ‘diseases of the hearts’ — during their heights…

DeGaulle, unlike Petain, was an optimist as DeGaulle, unlike Petain, did not live with the guilt of overseeing a massacre. While other French commanders fled he attacked the Germans, achieving some pointless victories that did nothing to stop the German war machine. Thus, DeGaulle was willing to wait for a better time to commit his ethnic cleansing campaign and tie his country’s fate to Germany. Petain simply wanted to end the destruction of his country.

4. The End of France and Germany

The hosts of heaven allowed the sons of man to form two nations, France and Germany, in June 840. The mandate was revoked in June, 1940.

Before France and Germany western Europe was controlled by a transnational aristocracy. After June, 1940, such a world returned.

The end of the book has a “where are they now” section. There seemed to be no correlation between the side of a leader and how his future career unfolded. Both German and French generals suffered under Hitler. Both German and French generals were executed post-war. Both German and French generals would enjoy a sunny career in NATO. June 1940 appeared to be the last month where the fates of Germany and France were, truly, antagonistic.

For centuries it was impossible imagine a world without these two countries. Now, it is impossible to imagine one with them. Considering the inability of either France or Germany to establish stable national democracies, the accomplishments of the European Union are astounding.

To Lose a Battle is a brilliant history of one of the first fights of the Second World War. Highly recommended!

Leave Iraq Now

What if the Shia turn against U.S.?,” by Joe Galloway, The Anniston Start, 5 August 2006, http://www.annistonstar.com/opinion/2006/as-columns-0805-0-6h04s2718.htm (from Michael Yon and The Corner).

More Iranian experts calling on Bush to deal from the baseline that Iran’s getting the bomb,” by Thomas Barnett, Thomas P.M. Barnett :: Weblog, 7 August 2006, http://www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog/archives2/003548.html.

Iraq is a state in the deepest part of the gap. We should be firewalling ourselves off from the Gap’s violence. We should be increasing the instability in the Gap (to change their system) while increasing the stability of the Core (to preserve our system). We should realize that attempts to superimpose the legal structure of the Core in an imaginary state surrounded in the Gap

Bad Neighbors

By remaining in Iraq, our foreign policy is at the mercy of Iran’s kind graces. As long as we are in Iraq, we can only do what Iran wants us to do: unless we are willing to put American in a trap worthy of the French in Indochina

However invincible the military of the world’s only superpower might seem, every army has its weak spot. Historically, it centers on logistics, the supply line tail that wags the dog. From Hannibal to Erwin Rommel, from Robert E. Lee to Kim Il Sung in 1950, it’s been ever thus.

The lifeline for American forces in Iraq is a 400-plus-mile main supply route that runs from Kuwait through Shia-dominated and Iranian-infiltrated southern Iraq to Baghdad and points north and west.

Along that route, trucks and tankers driven by third-country nationals — Turks, Pakistanis and others — haul 95 percent of the beans and bullets for our troops and 100 percent of the fuel that our tanks and Bradleys and Humvees gulp at staggering rates.

There’s another strategic vulnerability farther up the chain: Supplies for our forces must first reach the main port in Kuwait by ships — ships that must transit the Strait of Hormuz past a gantlet of Iranian Silkworm anti-ship missiles and suicide torpedo boats.

Little wonder, then, that Iran and its ayatollahs have the nerve to thumb their noses at efforts to curtail their nuclear ambitions and to supply thousands of short- and medium-range missiles to their Hezbollah proteges in Lebanon.

Iraq’s Highway, Our Vulnerability, Iran’s Veto

Tom Barnett has written similar things in the future:

Again, this is what I warned about back in early 2005 in Esquire: we either get off the WMD focus or Iran would veto our efforts at peace throughout the region. Now that Iran’s gone through with that obvious threat, taking advantage of the unleashed Shiite minorities’s anger throughout the region (the main byproduct of the Big Bang), a lot of people who had a hard time with such arguments back then are basically repeating them now.

The way out is to leave Iraq. We know that Iraqis – even Iraqis who do not like us — will kill Baathist and Qaedists on their own. Increasingly, our misguided attempts to move up Iraq just amount to subverting the democratic Iraqi government’s attempts to defear our mutual enemies. The best plan is to leave Iraq, recovery our foreign policy from the Iranian Mullahs, and continue winning the Global War on Terrorism.