Category Archive 'Military History'
22 Feb 2023

Looking Back a Year Later With Amazement

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Ukrainian girl inspects destroyed Russian tank last October.

Anatol Lieven

A year ago, all but one of Russia’s chief aims in Ukraine were defeated in the first three weeks of the war, before the arrival of Western heavy weaponry. The reasons for this comprehensive Russian reverse — which no Western observer, including myself, predicted — are of great interest to military analysts, even if some of the lessons they teach are very old ones.

Between the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, and the middle of March, Russian forces failed to take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv; failed to take Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, though it is less than 20 miles from the Russian frontier; failed to occupy the whole of the Donbas; and failed to capture Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. The only Russian bridgehead established west of the Dnieper River, at Kherson, was so limited that it ultimately proved untenable.

The only major objective that the Russians did achieve was to capture the “land bridge” between Russia and Crimea. Even so, the capture of Mariupol took another two months and involved the complete destruction of the city. The diversion of troops necessary for the siege of Mariupol made it impossible to sustain offensives elsewhere.

The errors in initial Russian planning and strategy are now glaringly obvious. Russian intelligence completely underestimated the strength of Ukrainian resistance — or if any of their predictions were accurate, they either never reached Putin or were ignored by him. In addition, it seems likely that it was fear of the domestic political reaction that led Putin not to call up additional reservists for the “Special Military Operation.”

As a result, Russia invaded Ukraine (a country of 230,000 square miles and 41 million people) with barely 200,000 troops and seven different objectives. So while the Russian armed forces as a whole were much larger than those of Ukraine, in practice Russian troops were often outnumbered by the Ukrainians they were facing. This disparity grew as Ukraine called up every man that it could during the summer, while Putin hesitated for seven months to carry out even a partial mobilization in Russia.

Until October 2022 no supreme commander was appointed for the operation — perhaps because Putin feared the emergence of a victorious general who might challenge his own power. So there were serious problems of coordination between the different Russian fronts. This may have contributed to some appalling failures of staff work and logistics, such as the 40-mile-long traffic jam of Russian vehicles that built up on a single road north of Kyiv.

Russian command-and-control problems must have been worsened significantly by the number of senior officers killed by Ukrainian missile and artillery strikes in the first months of the war. U.S. technical intelligence was largely responsible for identifying local Russian headquarters. Like the strike on Makiivka over the New Year that killed dozens (or possibly hundreds) of Russian troops, these successes may also have been enabled by poor communications security on the Russian side.

U.S. satellite intelligence spotted Russian military build-ups and allowed the Ukrainians to anticipate Russian attacks. Ukrainian civilians in Russian-held areas were also able to simply call Ukrainian forces on their cell phones and tell them where Russian convoys were to be found. This in turn partly contributed to the atrocities against civilians committed by Russian soldiers, which have done so much to tarnish the image of the Russian army.

Despite all this, and despite longstanding and well-known problems with the poor quality of NCOs and lack of initiative on the part of junior officers, the Russian army might have been expected to do better. This was because of the colossal Russian superiority in the two weapons of the classical “Blitzkrieg,” as practiced by Germany in 1939-42, the Soviet Union in 1942-45, and Israel in most of its wars: armor and airpower. The failure of these two arms is perhaps the most striking lesson of the war in Ukraine so far, and indicates that Ukrainian hopes that Western tanks and warplanes will allow them to break through may also be misplaced. Their failure has also led to immense casualties among Russia’s best infantry units.


17 Feb 2019

“W.E.B. Griffin” — November 10, 1929 – February 12, 2019

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William E. Butterworth III, the best-selling author, has died. He was 89, and had fought a years-long battle with cancer.

While his body of work includes more than 250 books published under more than a dozen pseudonyms, he is best known as W.E.B. Griffin, the #1 best-selling author of nearly 60 epic novels in seven series, all of which have made The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and other best-seller lists. More than fifty million of the books are in print in more than ten languages, including Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, and Hungarian.

Mr. Butterworth’s first novel, Comfort Me with Love, was published in 1959. The delivery-and-acceptance check from the publisher paid the hospital bill for the birth of his first son, who two decades ago began editing the Griffin best-sellers and then became co-author of them.

Mr. Butterworth grew up in the suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1946. After basic training, he received counterintelligence training at Fort Holabird, Maryland. He was assigned to the Army of Occupation in Germany, and ultimately to the staff of then-Major General I.D. White, commander of the U.S. Constabulary.

In 1951, Mr. Butterworth was recalled to active duty for the Korean War, interrupting his education at Phillips University, Marburg an der Lahn, Germany. In Korea he earned the Combat Infantry Badge as a combat correspondent and later served as acting X Corps (Group) information officer under Lieutenant General White.

On his release from active duty in 1953, Mr. Butterworth was appointed Chief of the Publications Division of the U.S. Army Signal Aviation Test & Support Activity at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Mr. Butterworth is a member of the Special Operations Association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Army Aviation Association, the Armor Association, and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Society.

He was the 1991 recipient of the Brigadier General Robert L. Dening Memorial Distinguished Service Award of the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association, and the August 1999 recipient of the Veterans of Foreign Wars News Media Award, presented at the 100th National Convention in Kansas City.

He has been vested into the Order of St. George of the U.S. Armor Association, and the Order of St. Andrew of the U.S. Army Aviation Association, and been awarded Honorary Doctoral degrees by Norwich University, the nation’s first and oldest private military college, and by Troy State University (Ala.). He was the graduation dinner speaker for the class of 1988 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

He has been awarded honorary membership in the Special Forces Association, the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association, the Marine Raiders Association, and the U.S. Army Otter & Caribou Association. In January 2003, he was made a life member of the Police Chiefs Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey, and the State of Delaware.

He was the co-founder of the William E. Colby Seminar on Intelligence, Military, and Diplomatic Affairs.

The W.E.B. Griffin novels, known for their historical accuracy, have been praised by The Philadelphia Inquirer for their “fierce, stop-for-nothing scenes.”

“Nothing honors me more than a serviceman, veteran, or cop telling me he enjoys reading my books,” he said.


W.E.B. Griffin quotations.


I really liked his “Brotherhood of War” series, which was so thoroughly grounded in real history that you could describe it as a Roman à clef.

28 Aug 2018

The Chinese Military is Studying Military History

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Lyle J. Goldstein, in the National Interest, reports that The Chinese military appears to be making a careful study of the military history of its likely main opponents: the US and Japan.

China’s military has not had much combat experience in recent decades, and this is recognized among Chinese military leaders as a potentially serious problem. The reasons for this scarcity of battlefield know—how are obvious and might even be praise-worthy. It has been nearly four decades since Beijing undertook a significant military campaign, so how would its armed forces have attained this knowledge? As I have argued many times before in this forum, nearly four decades without resorting to a major use of force represents very impressive restraint for any great power.
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“China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sought to remedy its lack of actual combat experience by the careful study of military history, including the bloody Pacific War as I have noted in other Dragon Eye columns. August is steamy in the South Pacific and so the Guadalcanal campaign that began in August 1942 was hell. It was through that campaign that the fate of the Pacific was decided. While the dazzling miracle of Midway gets infinitely more attention, the grinding attrition battle just a few months later of Guadalcanal, which could be termed the ‘Verdun’ of the Pacific War, ultimately proved to be the turning point. Losing 38 ships and perhaps over 700 aircraft proved devastating for Japan, although these losses were quite similar to those suffered on the American side. The difference, of course, was that America could replace these losses quite easily.

“Late last year (Dec 2017), the Chinese Navy’s official magazine Navy Today [当代海军] carried a reasonably detailed analysis of the crucial Guadalcanal campaign. The article concludes that Japan’s ‘command decisions and weapons development errors greatly increased the losses [指挥决策和装备研发上的失误更是大大加速了失败],’ together with fundamental problems in Japan’s strategic culture. The Chinese analysis of Japanese mistakes in the campaign is neatly divided between errors in strategic judgment, operational and tactical errors, as well as mistakes in developing appropriate weaponry.

“At the grand strategic level, this Chinese Navy analysis assesses that Japan’s mistakes in the Guadalcanal campaign were partly a failure to reckon with the true significance of the Midway battle a couple of months prior in June 1942. Tokyo seemingly maintained its offensive posture in the South Pacific without recognizing the fundamental fact of ‘the mobilization of America’s enormous industrial capacity [美国强大工业机器启动].’ The analysis asserts that much of the Japanese military was not even informed of the truly devastating results (for Japan) of Midway and that Tokyo’s decision-making was plagued by an incessant and pervasive cult of the offensive. It is noted that the South Pacific could have been invaluable to Japan’s effort to sever U.S. supply lines, but that a critical shortage of airborne intelligence inhibited effective decision-making. The great importance of the U.S. capture of Henderson Field early in the Guadalcanal campaign is noted, and this Chinese analysis concluded, meant that the Japanese pilots flying from distant Rabaul could not offer effective support to Japanese ground troops on the contested island, while Japanese carriers ‘would not dare to overreach by approaching Guadalcanal’ [未敢过分接近瓜岛]. Japanese strategic decisions are assessed to have been plagued by poor coordination between ground and naval forces in the completely ‘unclear situation [情况不明].’”


14 Nov 2016

General Winter (He’s on the Russian Team)

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13 Aug 2016

The Roman Legion

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29 Jul 2016

WWII Jurassic Graphic

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An amusing effort to illustrate in an imaginative way the larger scale of WWII conflict on the Eastern Front.

28 Mar 2016

Great Bronze Age Battle Fought in Northern Germany

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Around the time that the Greeks were fighting the Trojans because Menelaos’ wife Helen had run off with Paris, evidence has been found proving that a great battle involving thousands of men was fought over a nearly 2 mile (3 kilometer) front along the Tollense River in Northern Germany.

The conventional perspective is that Northern Europe, in the Bronze Age, was a sparsely-populated wilderness containing only scattered individual farmsteads, no cities, no advanced cultures, no major population centers, just a few pitiful, fur-clad barbarians.

So, how on earth, could there possibly have been two leaders and two societies stretching across such large territories and featuring such potent forms of political organization as to be able to field such large armies prepared to fight to the death?

These questions are absolutely fascinating, but since literacy and written records simply did not exist, we will never know the answers. All this does seem to demonstrate, though, that Barbarous, Prehistoric Europe was a lot more culturally-developed and complex than can be readily imagined.


In 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbank—the first clue that the Tollense Valley, about 120 kilometers north of Berlin, concealed a gruesome secret. A flint arrowhead was firmly embedded in one end of the bone, prompting archaeologists to dig a small test excavation that yielded more bones, a bashed-in skull, and a 73-centimeter club resembling a baseball bat. The artifacts all were radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 B.C.E., suggesting they stemmed from a single episode during Europe’s Bronze Age.

Now, after a series of excavations between 2009 and 2015, researchers have begun to understand the battle and its startling implications for Bronze Age society. Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists from the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Department of Historic Preservation (MVDHP) and the University of Greifswald (UG) have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived.

“If our hypothesis is correct that all of the finds belong to the same event, we’re dealing with a conflict of a scale hitherto completely unknown north of the Alps,” says dig co-director Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hannover. “There’s nothing to compare it to.” It may even be the earliest direct evidence—with weapons and warriors together—of a battle this size anywhere in the ancient world.

Northern Europe in the Bronze Age was long dismissed as a backwater, overshadowed by more sophisticated civilizations in the Near East and Greece. Bronze itself, created in the Near East around 3200 B.C.E., took 1000 years to arrive here. But Tollense’s scale suggests more organization—and more violence—than once thought. “We had considered scenarios of raids, with small groups of young men killing and stealing food, but to imagine such a big battle with thousands of people is very surprising,” says Svend Hansen, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s (DAI’s) Eurasia Department in Berlin. The well-preserved bones and artifacts add detail to this picture of Bronze Age sophistication, pointing to the existence of a trained warrior class and suggesting that people from across Europe joined the bloody fray.


08 Feb 2008

A No-Confidence Vote for Western Civilian Leadership

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TMLutas contemplates a recent news development, and concludes that proliferation of WMD among non-state actors is inevitable, and that the current aversion of members of the modern Western intelligentsia to violence is only likely to lead, in the end, to far worse violence.

When the generals start getting restless, they do things like this preemptive nuclear strike proposal. But why are the generals getting restless all over NATO? Amerca’s Gen. Shalikashvili, Germany’s Gen. Naumann, the UK’s Field Marshall Inge, the Netherland’s Gen van den Breemen, and France’s Admiral Jacques Lanxade are all serious military players of varying politics. These are not brash, unthinking chest beaters. What possessed them to intervene in this manner and damage their societies’ moral standing in the world (and thus their vaunted ‘soft power’) by proposing an updated, in your face, first strike policy, coupled with a much more active NATO and explicitly decoupling military action from the UN?

I can see no other explanation than a profound, international vote of no-confidence in the political class of the West by heavily experienced military minds that live, breathe, eat, and sleep the problem of defending us all from violent threats to our liberties and very existence. I am not even sure that the presentation of the plan in Bucharest in April is coincidence. After all, Romania is a very good example of how even dead broke powers with unstable, highly repressive regimes can extract uranium and enrich it while nobody takes the threat seriously. Had Ceausescu managed his internal repression better, Romania would be a balkans “hedgehog” today similar to the Swiss except with nuclear armed Scuds and a sociopath’s hand on the button. Romania’s Ceausescu era relations with North Korea were always very good. They also had friends across the muslim world.

The ‘peace faction’ that does not look beyond its own nose will be shocked, outraged, and redouble its efforts to neuter the military so it cannot be used. It’s as if they have never heard of feedback loops or their own part in this very pernicious one. Spelling it out explicitly, the peace factions have neutered the political process so even vigorous peaceful competition is impossible. After all, to draw a caricature of Mohammad, write an insensitive book, or film a blaspheming movie draw death sentences from which we have little practical defense. The best we can do is a sort of life-long semi-imprisonment, insecure in our lives and our possessions, never knowing when the knife will fall.

The “peace faction” ensures that persistent, responding, violent escalations cannot happen so we end up implicitly enslaved because, in the real world, others are willing to persistently bring to bear more violence than we are. We shrink from exercising our freedoms because of justifiable fear. And thus we lose them in a practical matter because the muslims (and in their success they will draw imitators) are willing to tolerate periodic violent episodes that spasmodically, ineffectively lash out at them more as a sop to western domestic factions that demand “a response” because a durable majority in so many Western countries has shrunk back from the military buildup necessary to generate “a solution”.

The only thing that is left in modern Western political discourse is to make the spasmodic response so terrible, so violent, that in that short political window when the West permits itself to respond at all will annihilate our enemies and form a sort of “solution” after all. And thus the general staff rebellion in the making.

What the general staffs across the West see is the death of Western supremacy of violence…

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.

28 Aug 2007

Some Vietnam War Titles

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Robert D. Kaplan, in the Atlantic, discusses in detail a number of Vietnam War books exemplifying the warrior ethos which are widely admired in professional military circles (just check the prices of those out-of-print Jean Larteguy titles), but which are not nearly as well known by the general public as they deserve to be.

Wikipedia profile quotes David Lipsky saying of Robert D. Kaplan:

Kaplan, over his career, appears to have become someone who is too fond of war.

Andrew J. Bacevich:

If Kaplan is a romantic, he is also a populist and a reactionary.”

Michael Ignatieff:

Mr. Kaplan is the first traveler to take us on a journey to the jagged places where these tectonic plates meet, and his argument–that our future is being shaped far away ‘at the ends of the earth’–makes his travelogue pertinent and compelling reading.”

David Rieff:

This is breathtaking. Here is a serious writer in 2005 admiring the Indian wars, which in their brutality brought about the end of an entire American civilization.”

26 Jun 2007

Horatius’ Commendation: Military Humor

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Nicolò dell’Abbate, Horatius Cocles défendant un pont
16th century, lithograph, 39.8 x 55.5 cm. (15.7 x 21.9″), Louvre

Horatius Cocles’s gallant defense of the Sublican Bridge was mentioned in despatches by Livy, and sung of in the poem by Thomas Babbington Macauley


Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,

‘And for the tender mother
Who dandled him to rest,
And for the wife who nurses
His baby at her breast,
And for the holy maidens
Who feed the eternal flame,
To save them from false Sextus
That wrought the deed of shame?

‘Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?’

Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
A Ramnian proud was he:
‘Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
And keep the bridge with thee.’
And out spake strong Herminius;
Of Titan blood was he:
‘I will abide on thy left side,
And keep the bridge with thee.’

‘Horatius,’ quoth the Consul,
‘As thou sayest, so let it be.’
And straight against that great array
Forth went the dauntless Three.
For Romans in Rome’s quarrel
Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
In the brave days of old.

Then none was for a party;
Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great:
Then lands were fairly portioned;
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old.

More recently, Colonel W. C. Hall had some fun imagining what Horatius’ citation would read like in our modern era (printed in the British Army Journal, January 1953).

16 May 2007

Bush Found a Czar

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There is a famous military history by Kenneth P. Williams, titled Lincoln Finds a General, describing the lengthy series of unsuccessful Union commanders and the dismal record of Union defeats in the Eastern theater of the war, before, after three years of fighting, Abraham Lincoln finally made Ulysses Grant general-in-chief.

In Grant, Lincoln found a general who had an unbroken record of victory in the West, and it was Lincoln’s decision to give supreme command to a fighting general with a habit of success which brought his war to a successful conclusion.

Burdened with a similarly protracted war, one happily unmarred by any American defeat, but nonetheless a war increasing dramatically in unpopularity with the electorate, George W. Bush has found not a fighting general with a record of victory, but a staff officer. He has appointed not a general-in-chief with unlimited authority to wage war, but rather “a war coordinator” whose role will be “to eliminate conflicts among the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies.”

Following Lincoln’s example would have been more to the point.

Associated Press story

16 May 2007

Study Shows Insurgencies Can Be Defeated

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USAToday recently reported an in-progress study by military historians commissioned by the Department of Defense demonstrates that insurgencies can be defeated, but doing so takes time and requires ingenuity and patience.

Insurgencies, such as the one the United States is fighting in Iraq, last an average of more than 10 years, according to a study commissioned by the Defense Department.

For the United States, the good news is that rebels lose more often than they win. Chances for stopping an insurgency improve after 10 years, the study shows. …

“The violence in Iraq is going to go on a minimum for at least three or four more years and in reality another five plus years,” said Christopher Lawrence, director of The Dupuy Institute, which is conducting the study.

The Iraq war is in its fifth year.

The Annandale, Va.-based Dupuy Institute is under a Defense Department contract to study insurgencies to help give commanders more information about what works and what doesn’t. The study is due to be completed in September.

The military recently produced a new counterinsurgency manual that establishes doctrine for waging a counterinsurgency.

According to the manual, defeating an insurgency requires:

•An understanding of local society;

•Good intelligence about the enemy;

•Establishing security and a rule of law;

•Establishing a long-term commitment.

The new doctrine points out the limits to using overwhelming firepower, which could anger civilians, and the need to find political solutions to win over the population.

The manual says counterinsurgency is much more complex than other forms of warfare, requiring the coordination of political, military and economic efforts.

As part of the study, the institute built a database of 63 post-World War II insurgencies, including Vietnam, the French in Algeria and the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The United States experience in Vietnam soured the U.S. military on insurgencies, Lawrence said. The prevailing military doctrine after Vietnam emphasized building conventional capabilities to counter the Soviet threat. “The subject (of counterinsurgencies) has not been seriously analyzed by the Army since the 1960s,” Lawrence said.

Not all insurgencies are quagmires, the report shows. Insurgents only win in 41% of the conflicts in the database, Lawrence said. The remainder were victories for the counterinsurgents, were inconclusive or are still going on.

One of the most successful counterinsurgencies was the British victory over communist insurgents in Malaysia during the 1950s.

Col. Timothy Reese, director of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., cautions against reading too much into it.

Each conflict is unique, and the differences are as important as the similarities, Reese said.

“War cannot be reduced to a formula,” Reese said. “War is an art as much as it is a science.”

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