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The Generals’ Dilemma

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

Europe in Anns. By Liddell Hart. New York: Random House. $2.50.

Within the covers of “Europe in Arms” Captain Liddell Hart has placed the record of his last two years of thought on the current state of the Ant of War. The book is frankly a digest of his day-by-day writings and is oriented primarily toward the consideration of British defense problems; consequently, its expectancy of permanence would appear slight. However, it is redeemed by two elements, both personal. In the first place, Captain Hart is probably the foremost writer in the English language on military subjects; he is worth a respectful reading whether he speaks ex cathedra or from a scrivener’s bench. Secondly, he comes to the end of his two years’ reflection with the reinforced opinion that he was right from the start; what we have here is a record of seasoned faith, not transitory reflections of the moment.

He is firm in the conviction that the machine gun on the defensive, or more precisely, the organized machine-gun defense, is the king of today’s battlefields. A few intelligent men in a short space of time can place machine guns so that their bands of fire “interlock”: that is, when all triggers are pressed there extends along the defended front an angular, invisible but deadly fence of missiles, from ankle to breast high, which takes inevitable toll of those who trudge into it. It was this structure, composed of relatively cheap, light weapons handled by ordinary workaday soldiers, which rang the knell on the traditional infantry assault during the World War and which still reigns supreme on the field of battle.

Captain Hart investigates at some length the existing methods for challenging this supremacy of the machine gun and returns a Scotch verdict against them all. Artillery fire is too ponderous; you have to blow the whole face of the earth away to destroy your enemy’s machine guns, and then he merely sets up some more and you must repeat the process. Gas did not prove a decisive weapon in the World War, and we are little further advanced in its employment today. The airplane, with its wonderful flexibility and power of concentrated bombardment, may be of paramount importance when unopposed in the air, as witness Ethiopia and the Spanish Nationalists’ capture of Bilbao. But when even a little aerial resistance is encountered, the complex organization and essential accurate timing of attack from the air on the ground are shattered. Finally there is the tank, the ironclad of the battlefield. Liddell Hart, never a believer in the armored fighting vehicle as a military panacea, has receded somewhat from his tempered enthusiasm of a few years back. This is reasonable in view of Ethiopia, where naked savages overcame Italian tanks with boulders, and of Spain, where tanks have not only proved vulnerable but where also the lie of the land has seldom permitted full use of the numbers available. Captain Hart in consequence refuses to award these weapons the hegemony of the battlefield. He goes further and holds that mechanized and motorized forces are more valuable to the defender than to the attacker.

While I agree with Liddell Hart’s present evaluation of the tank, I cannot but feel that its current status is impermanent and subject to change. The essential problem of the tank is one of weight. If they are built to weigh much more than seven tons they become unwieldy, break down bridges, and lose the mobility that is their excuse for existence. But a seven-ton tank cannot be adequately armored; it can be “killed” by hand grenades, incendiary bombs, and by lucky shots from rifles and machine guns, without question of special anti-tank weapons. Still, if there should become available light but tough metal alloys, true bulletproof glass or perhaps bulletproof synthetic resins, properly shielded tanks may yet prove an antidote for the organized machine-gun defense. Also, of course, if practical tank-piercing projectiles should ever be developed for the rifle and the light machine gun, the tank would be sponged off the field of battle. Of the two possibilities, however, the immediate likelihood seems to lie in favor of the armor as opposed to the bullet.

On the basis of the defense supremacy established by the machine gun, Liddell Hart goes on to explore the generals’ dilemma as intensified in 1937. The object of formal war is to defeat the enemy. To defeat him usually you must attack him. But if you attack him today your assault will almost certainly break down before the fire of his machine guns. What then is to be done? Captain Hart first considers the attaque brusquee, currently beloved of certain European theorists. This concept is simply that if a war is to be won, the decision must be gained not in months, weeks, or days, but in hours. The process contemplated is to send your aviation and mechanized and motorized ground troops over your enemy’s frontier in a Valkyries’ ride, rushing through his fixed defenses and seizing his centers of transportation, communications, mobilization, and government. After that your demoralized and dislocated enemy can be mopped up at your leisure. It is in effect an old fashioned hold-up multiplied by a hundred thousand; and in terms of Western European distances it is feasible. But Liddell Hart believes that the risk of your own dislocation and disorganization is too great. A few destroyed bridges, a few groups of resolute men bombarding vital road junctions, and your plans and schedules are disrupted and you are mopped up instead of mopping. Captain Hart is strongly skeptical that such risks would ever be undertaken in the present day.

Again, there is the possibility of playing the classic defensive-offensive game, of so placing your troops that your enemy must attack you, and then after you have seared him with your machine guns, disorganized and demoralized him, you turn to the offensive and defeat him. It is a method which has worked, but it is far from infallible. Napoleon scored a stunning success with it in his Marengo campaign and was outgeneraled when he tried to repeat the essential procedure in 1814. Lee with his lean and handy army had similar hopes in both of his invasions of the North, but each time he failed. Liddell Hart, while approving the method, has no illusions as to its being consistently applicable.

What else can be done to revive war as an art and science? While he calls for more original and creative thought by military leaders, Captain Hart is pessimistic about the future of formal war. He goes so far as to suggest the possibility and advisability of developing “a new art of war aiming at paralysis rather than annihilation and operating by multiple pressure without combat: a super-guerrilla warfare aimed at the sources instead of at the face of the enemy’s armed power, and striking at the greatest number of points—economic, political, and psychological—over the widest area, without offering a target or coming to a clinch.”

In a sense he says: War has become too big for the generals. Admitting the conservatism of military leadership, I wonder if he does not mean that, purely on its technical side, war has grown too big for Western Europe? Between the Polish-German frontier and the Mediterranean, the countries are cramped in terms of aviation and of movement by motor. Few, few are the places where you can deploy a thousand tanks. Nowhere is there space within the boundaries of a single nation where you can use large motorized units at their optimum strategic ranges. In many instances it would be impossible to deploy on the ground in readiness for flight the thousands of aircraft now under construction or already available in various countries. In my opinion the generals of Europe are confronted by a shortage of space more than by a paucity of ideas.

Be that as it may, I do not believe that, whether through timidity, acknowledged ignorance, or common sense, there is a single responsible military leader of Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, or Russia who would go out tomorrow on an offensive campaign against any other great continental power with any sense of confidence or certainty of victory. And that, to leave the military sphere for a moment, places the decisions affecting the peace of Europe on the shoulders of a handful of statesmen known to and observed by everyone.


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