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December 29, 2004

In Defense of the 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions

First, a few numbers. A U.S. World War II infantry division had a full strength of 14,087--of whom about 6000 were front-line rifle-carrying officers and men, and the rest were cooks, artillerymen, staff, orderlies, drivers, medics, et cetera. The U.S. 1st Infantry Division hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. From then until the end of the war it was in combat for 292 days. It suffered 2,924 killed and missing, 11,448 wounded in combat, and 631 captured. The 4th Infantry Division hit Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. From then until the end of the war it was in combat for 299 days. It suffered 5,348 killed and missing, 16,985 wounded, and 121 captured.

If we're willing to assume that 80% of the casualties were inflicted on the rifle elements, we can calculate hazard rates: sign up with a 4th ID rifle formation, and after six months--if you hadn't been wounded badly enough to be pulled out first--there was a 36% chance that you were dead; sign up with a 1st ID rifle formation, and after six months there was a 22% chance that you were dead. The riflemen of the 1st and the 4th Infantry Divisions very much wanted to survive and come home. But they also wanted to defeat Hitler. They fought bravely and aggressively, and many of them never came home at all.

Now come Ross Douthat and Max Hastings arguing that the riflemen of the 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions lacked the "martial virtues" because they were citizens of democracies rather than subjects of dictatorships, and that their commanders were too cautious and prudent, unwilling to spend the lives of their men on an appropriate scale for geopolitical advantage.

In so arguing Douthat and Hastings show themselves greatly in need of remedial military history:

www.AndrewSullivan.com - Daily Dish: It's instructive, therefore, to consider just how tough it was for the Western Allies to defeat Nazi Germany, even in 1944 when everything seemed to be going the Allies' way. Max Hasting's new book out the 1944-45 slog, called Armageddon, is reviewed in this Sunday's Times, and this passage struck me as worth highlighting:

...the generals' failure to knock Germany out of the war in late 1944 reflected the kind of armies they led as much as their own deficiencies as leaders. The British and American armies were composed of citizen soldiers, who were usually prepared to do their duty but were also eager to survive. ''These were,'' Hastings writes, ''citizens of democracies, imbued since birth with all the inhibitions and decencies of their societies.'' Such peacetime virtues are not easily transformed into military effectiveness. James Gavin, whose airborne division was among the finest units in any army, filled his diary with harsh comments about the average soldier's military quality. ''If our infantry would fight,'' he wrote in January 1945, ''this war would be over by now.... Everybody wants to live to a ripe old age.'' When Winston Churchill complained to Montgomery about the British Army's lack of initiative, Montgomery replied by recalling the carnage on the Western Front during World War I: ''It was you, Prime Minister, who told me that we must not suffer casualties on the scale of the Somme.''

By contrast, Armaggedon points out, the Soviets were prodigal with the lives of their soldiers -- and ended up in a much-better postwar position because of it.

One does not know where to begin.

Does one begin with the observation that if the riflemen of the 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions thought that surviving the war was more important than fighting and beating Hitler, they did not do a very good job of it? Does one begin by asking how Zhukov's waste of hundreds of thousands of lives in frontal assaults at Seelowe Heights and elsewhere made the post-WWII Soviet Union any stronger? The post-WWII Soviet Union would have been stronger with more young men, not with controlling more acres of sand planted in rye and farmed by unruly peasants who would thraten to revolt every decade or so.

Does one start with the observation that Somme-scale casualties are usually viewed as the nadir rather than the zenith of generalship, and that Montgomery was very good at set-piece assaults and attrition battles? Does one point out that commanders who don't care about the lives of their soldiers and launch "human wave" attacks against fortified positions like the Chinese in the Korean War or the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq are commanders who lose?

Does one start by noting that if James Gavin really was--in his considered judgment--disappointed with the performance of the 82nd Airborne, he had no reason to be? Three times in 1944 the 82nd Airborne should have been overrun and annihilated, but all three times--after the initial drop into Normandy, during Market Garden, and when they held the northern flank ofthe breakthrough against the 6th SS Panzer Army during the Bulge--they fought much more stubbornly and effectively than any bunch of light infantry on a mechanized battlefield had any business doing.

Does one start by pointing out that at different points during World War II the Russian commanders fought stupid and fought smart, and that they broke the back of the Nazi army not when they fought stupid--were prodigal with the lives of their soldiers--but when they fought smart? Uranus, Bagration, the flank attacks near Belgorod and Kharkov that sapped the Nazis of the strength they had hoped to use to encircle Kursk, General Rotmistrov's convincing the Nazis that his Fifth Guards Tank Army was at full strength by successively putting those tanks he had that were still running under the commmand of each of his corps headquarters, the Russian understanding of mass production and the superb design of the T-34 tank--those were the big reasons that the Russian broke the back of the Nazi war machine. Does one start with Patton's observation that he did not want soldiers who would die for our country, but soldiers who would make the other damned bastards die for their country?

Does one start by pointing out that the initiative possessed by citizens of democracies is very valuable in wartime? That their nature as democracies was one of the things that made it possible for Britain and the U.S. to mobilize on an awesome scale and to use their mobilized resources effectively, with much less of the hideous waste because noone dares tell the leaders that things are going wrong found in Nazi Germany--and in Stalinist Russia?

I think the place to start is with the typical operational tempo of World War II campaigns. Generally a World War II campaign had the following stages:

  1. An attrition battle, which ends either when:
    • The attacking side--taking heavy casualties as it assaults dug-in and fortified troops--runs out of reserves to fuel the attack
    • The defending side's line ruptures
    In this second case, the campaign then continues with:
  2. Exploitation, as the attacking side's mechanized troops rush through the breakthrough, destroy supplies, disrupt communications, and surround elements
  3. Panic, as the defending side's forces lose cohesion and their commanders lose control
  4. Retreat, as everyone on the defending side who can attempts to get out of the way of the exploitation forces
  5. Reestablishment, as the remnants of the old forces and reinforcements establish a new front line far enough behind the old one that the attacking side cannot bring up enough fuel and ammunition and replacements to continue the assault against more than minimal opposition.

This breakthough-and-exploitation-to-the-limits-of-supply happened over and over in World War II. After the success of the initial landings, the ETO in 1944 followed this standard pattern. First came an attrition battle in Normany, a battle that was well set-up by Eisenhower and company as airpower isolated the battlefield and strategic deception froze the movement of Nazi reserves for a while, and that seems to have been well-fought by Montgomery (in spite of terrain and in spite of World War I-style front densities, the attrition ratio was, we think, quite favorable to the allies). Then came the breakthrough with Operation Cobra and what may have been Eisenhower's best decision of the war: to hand control over the exploitation to Patton. Then came the pursuit to the limits of Allied supply at the German border.

Further exploitation into Germany itself in the fall of 1944 would have required better supply--three times as many trucks in the Red Ball Express or a much earlier clearing of the port of Antwerp. An Allied unwillingness to take casualties was none of it: the Allied armies took casualties in the Normandy bocage, in the Huertgen Forest, and elsewhere, and kept coming. Perhaps you can blame Montgomery for not understanding either how to conduct an exploitation or that clearing Antwerp was the highest priority. But probably not. The iron law of World War II is that exploitation stops where supply becomes problematic.

So why do Ross Douthat and Max Hastings talk about how a key Red Army edge during World War II was Russian commanders who were "prodigal with the lives of their soldiers"? Prodigal the Russian commanders were at times. But that was not why they won big. And why do they think that British and Americans valued their lives too much to be good soldiers?

I think the origin of this line of thought comes in the self-justifying memoirs written about the War in the East by Nazi commanders in the 1950s. They were unable to face up to the fact that during the long retreat from Stalingrad to Berlin they had been out-weaponed (because the Russians understood mass production while the Nazis did not), out-generaled (Stalingrad, Kursk, Bagration), and simply out-fought (Vatutin's tank crews sealed up their tanks to see if they could run them underwater across the branches of the upper Dneiper: about half of them made it across alive). So they wrote that they had been massively outnumbered--outnumbered by the Asiatic hordes they faced who had been ideologically indoctrinated not to value their own lives.

But just because ex-Nazi commanders wrote it doesn't make it true.

Posted by DeLong at December 29, 2004 02:03 PM

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In a review of Armageddon, a book on WWII by Max Hastings, James Sheehan makes the following bizarre remark.Hastings recognizes that the generals' failure to knock Germany out of the war in late 1944 reflected the kind of armies they [Read More]

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The idea that democracies produce weakness in the military (coupled with the idea that the military life is the ultimate expression of manhood and culture) is a key pillar in Nazi ideology. Not having read the book in question I'm not saying that the authors are intending their argument to be a critique of democracy; just offering that fact as relevant.

[I agree. One would have to look at the twentieth century as a whole and conclude that democracies are not weak but very strong, considered as a type of regime.]

Posted by: plebian at December 29, 2004 02:29 PM

Just one thing...I am not so sure that the german generals were out-done. WWII was a function of being able to build and ship things. The primary reason that the Germans lost was because of rather insane political decisions. Insane political decision was also the big factor in why the soviets did so poorly in the beginning. They could have won or ended the war otherwise. Germany started the war knowing it could not outdo Russia and the US and figured they could win before manufactoring comes into play.

However most of your other comments were spot on. Democracies are important because more people get a piece of the power pie, and thus better people get shots at making decisions.

In my view, this is largly in the political and business areas. I do not view the US has having had many truly outstanding military leaders. Oddly enough, the ones that the old military farts don't laugh out are the guys who fought in the Mexican War...

Posted by: shah8 at December 29, 2004 02:30 PM

I read that review, and came away wondering just what point the authors were trying to get across. They are apparently convinced that Germany was prostrate by autumn of 1944 and was ours for the taking. Unfortunately, even if we'd had the logistics capability to continue the advance, it still would have run smack into the tremendous German reserves waiting at the border. The cost in needless U.S. casualties would have been terrible, especially since the gains would have been minimal.

The authors do, ironically, echo Stalin's complaints about how the Western allies valued the lives of their men too much. Stalin was dismayed at the (comparatively) low casualty rates of Normandy. Could it be that we are entering a new sensibility that says American soldiers should seek death in battle--to die for the emperor?

Posted by: Derelict at December 29, 2004 02:36 PM

Excellent post, Brad.

Couple of points to add.

A good case can be made that we won the war when the allies broke the German and Japanese codes and that from that point on the war was a matter of mopping up. And the codebreakers were not professional soldiers, by any means.

Another case can be made that we won the war in Europe when we controlled the skies over Germany, which we were able to do when some non-soliders back home designed and built the P-38, the first long range fighter planes.

And I know it's a movie, and a not particularly good movie, but best scene in A Bridge Too Far is when the Elliott Gould character oversees the deployment of the Bailey Bridges. I'm sure the scene represents a reality, though, that the engineers fought and helped win the war without firing a shot. Most of them were not professional soldiers.

All of this is just to say that wars are won in ways that don't just minimize casualties but don't necessarily take place on the front line.

Finally, this is a point I remember vividly from William Manchester's excellent biography, American Caesar. Douglas MacArthur was highly critical of the American commanders in Europe and of the Navy commanders in the Pacific because he felt they were careless with their troops' lives.


Posted by: Dave Reilly at December 29, 2004 02:36 PM

Readers might want to look at this analysis of the current situation in Iraq:


Posted by: sm at December 29, 2004 02:52 PM

It will be interesting to watch and see if this theme becomes part of standard wingnut discourse.

Posted by: Observer at December 29, 2004 02:58 PM

It's a two-proged approach: Denounce democracy in favor of the New Sparta and poo-poo the public's natural reaction to casualties.

Posted by: Felix Deutsch at December 29, 2004 03:08 PM

Geoffrey Perret's book on the US Army in WWII (sorry, the name escapes me) notes two points worth mentioning:

1. The US Army lost exactly one battle, Kasserine Pass. It won every other major engagement. This is a record no other national army came close to matching.

2. With time-on-target artillery, effective combat engineers, infantry-armor coordination, air-ground coordination, the '44-'45 army division was far more effective offensively than any of its competitors.


Posted by: John Casey at December 29, 2004 03:16 PM

This is actually a reachback to the late 1970s, when hating democracy's "weakness" was a big talking point among rightniks. There was a book called "Why Democracies Fail" (IIRC) by a French author (oh, the irony) that was quite the rage among the budding neocon movement. It argued that democracies are too soft and decadent, and their citizens are too easily distracted and too interested in their own well-being, to successfully compete against tyrannical superpowers, with their endless arrays of brainwashed citizens and their ability to focus 100% of their economy on crushing their enemies.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick more or less built her career on an article arguing that we had to prop up right-wing dictatorships, because left-wing ditatorships are too strong to ever fall to internal democratization. I guess it's been long enough since 1989 that they can revive this trope.

These Bushie/Neocon types - they really DO hate democracy, don't they?

Posted by: FMguru at December 29, 2004 03:27 PM

Anyone believing either that a democracy's soldiers are incapable of sacrifice, or that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was careful with the lives of his men, would do well to read:
Brune, Peter "A Bastard of a Place: The Australians in Papua".

To Brad's point: looked at through the lens of casualty counts WWII was 'Germany v. Russia', with everything else a side-show. But an important factor in the Soviet success was surely the level of supply which came from the US.

One could argue that the Allies won WW2 because capitalism and liberal democracy proved to be more economically efficient than 'command and control' models. All of which makes the 'soldiers from democracies' beside the point.

Posted by: Paul G. Brown at December 29, 2004 03:39 PM


Perrets excellent book on the The Green Machine in WWII is titled "There's a War to be Won". His book on the US Army Air Corps "Winged Victory" is also well worth a read.

Posted by: Steven Rogers at December 29, 2004 03:48 PM

Assume hypothetically that you're faced with a choice of shortening a war by accepting more fatalities on your side, or else minimizing casualties by prolonging the war. It seems that the second option would usually be preferable. You don't want the quickest victory, necessarily, but the least costly one. The primary reason a long war is considered costly is not because you have to wait longer, but because there are more casualties.

Now, you could make exceptions for particular wars. In the case of WWII, you could say that we had a duty to end the Nazi's atrocities as soon as humanly possible. But if the primary purpose of US involvement in WWII was to protect itself, then a longer war with less risk to life--and probably less risk of catastrophic defeat--would be the prudent course.

It might even be fruitful to study this question in terms of risk and return. Those who want to tout "martial virtues" may be analogous to investors going slackjawed over yesterday's hot stock pick. For every society that won a swift victory by sacrificing many soldiers, how many others were simply left crippled and unable to fight the next battle? Wouldn't they have been better off placing a series of smaller bets and winning some of them? Is it possible that from this perspective, democracies are actually *better* at waging war?

Besides all that, I agree with Brad that American soldiers fought bravely and took great risks. I'll be amazed if neocons manage to gain a lot of support by attacking American bravery during WWII too. Of course, anything is possible these days.

Posted by: Paul Callahan at December 29, 2004 04:06 PM

"Thus Athens went from strength to strength, and proved, if proof were needed, how noble a thing freedom is, not in one respect only, but in all; for while they were oppressed under a despotic government, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbours, yet, once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world. This clearly shows that, so long as they were held down by authority, they deliberately shirked their duty in the field, as slaves shirk working for their masters; but when freedom was won, then every man amongst them was interested in his own cause."


Posted by: Carl at December 29, 2004 04:15 PM

Even if it had been desirable, which is far from certain, the Western allies did not have the time to copy the Japanese, German or Soviet systems. Further, I can't see that these three actually benefitted much from their willingness to take large casualties ; the Japanese army, in particular, seemed to see it as a substitute for planning, logistics, strategy and, indeed, any other exercise of the human intellect.

More to the point, Stalin, who I think is the main example these authors have in mind, didn't benefit much from it either. Rather than capture Budapest by manouevre in 1944, which would have been the most desirable option, he ordered an assault which [a] took far longer and [b] cost him an estimated 320 000 casualties.

In short, I can't see the desire to burn men rather than materiele as especially advantageous. So why is it being mentioned at all?

Re John Casey

I don't think I'd characterise the battles for the Huertgen Forest and the Philippines as anything other than US defeats myself, no matter what Perret thinks.

I should point out as well, that the British and others in 21st AG had access to all the same kinds of force multipliers that the US troops did. In terms of divisional slice, I think that a UK division turns out to be better supported than an US one, though this is slightly misleading since some of that would be made up of assets that weren't much used [eg CDL regiments].

Posted by: Alexei McDonald at December 29, 2004 04:39 PM

This line of thought combined with pondering the possibility of near-term involuntary impressment into the US Army makes for a delightful line of thought, one sure to lighten the mind of everybody that considers it. Thanks, Brad. :P

Posted by: NBarnes at December 29, 2004 04:46 PM

"First, a few numbers."

I recall two issues which were greatly investigated after the conclusion of the Korean Conflict:
1. 90% of American soldiers never fired their rifles while under assault by the enemy.
2. Communists "brainwashing" upon American prisoners was effective.

Have I mis-stated these issues? Is my recollection very wrong?

Posted by: donmaj at December 29, 2004 04:52 PM

Of those ~15,000 casualties, the 1st ID took more than a quarter on the first day; if your hypothetical soldier was a rifleman in the 16th Infantry Regiment, he had about a one in three chance of dying before noon.

Myself, I'd start by assuming that Max Hastings is an reactionary idiot with little connection to reality as seen since 1950, and working from there; it's a fairly good baseline assumption, in my experience of reading his journalism.

(Incidentally, I'm not sure why Gavin was writing letters bitching about his troops - they were in static defensive positions at the time, and the following month merrily got up and "punched through the Siegfried Line ... and crossed the Roer", to quote the official history.)

Posted by: Andrew Gray at December 29, 2004 04:53 PM

Donmaj: The figure you're thinking of is closer to 50%, from memory... [googles]

Here's a paper discussing Marshall's research on this (it was originally done in 1947, then revisited after Korea). The paper falls on the side of "these statistics are grossly misrepresented", but cites the values he gave at the time: less than one-quarter of infantrymen in WWII, and around half in Korea.

I can't comment on the arguments that he pulled the numbers from thin air - I haven't studies them - but I'd guess these figures are of course likely to be low of the mark anyway, given that they came from interviewing people who'd survived the battle, which naturally selects out a proportion of the more gung-ho ones...

Posted by: Andrew Gray at December 29, 2004 05:02 PM

Donmaj: since HTML doesn't work (ooops), here's the link I meant to add there: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0IBR/is_3_33/ai_109580229

But on that note - a further useful statistic... let's consider an American infantry division, on the attack in a by-the-book situation, and ignore supporting arms (ie, deal with the "line infantry" only) One regiment in reserve, two attacking. Each has two battalions attacking, one in reserve; each of those has two companies attacking, one in reserve; and each of those has two platoons attacking, one in reserve. So 2*2*2*2 = sixteen rifle platoons, of 3*3*3*3 = eighty-one in the division. That's 20% of the combat strength "in contact", before you even consider all the numbers of supporting men to skew the figures.

If the division was attacking cautiously, or on a limited front, it might only have used one regiment - or the regiment might have one battalion in front and two held back. It's quite possible to consider a "normal" engagement where most of the infantry never hear a shot, much less engage the enemy.

(There is a passage in George MacDonald Fraser's memoirs of Burma, where he mentions his sergeant demonstrating that GMF is currently the sum total of the leading elements of the Fourteenth Army...)

Posted by: Andrew Gray at December 29, 2004 05:14 PM

"The US Army lost exactly one battle, Kasserine Pass. It won every other major engagement."

Wouldn't Bataan count as a loss? Or does that not ualify as a "major engagement"?

(And why aren't my carriage returns being recognized?)

Posted by: Thlayli at December 29, 2004 05:18 PM

Haven't read the book. However, valor may be a case of the old 20 - 80 percent dictum. When I went through infantry OCS after Korea, I remember being exposed to a study on how many actually fought vs how many slunk down in a foxhole. According to that report, proportionally more men fought in Korea than in WWII.

Posted by: wogie1 at December 29, 2004 05:24 PM

Oh sure, work now but not in preview :P

Posted by: Thlayli at December 29, 2004 05:26 PM

Just read steven Ambrose's "Citizen Soldier" and you learn just how effective our soldiers were in world war II. To suggest otherwise is a denial of history.

Posted by: Bill Vogel at December 29, 2004 05:42 PM

One thing I have to add about this...

Normandy should have never ever happened. Yes, the soldiers were extremely brave, but we should never EVER forget the political isolationism that lead to the point where Normandy was even necessary.

It was a time of heroism that was only made possible by a time of cravenism.

Posted by: Karmakin at December 29, 2004 06:02 PM

Regarding spending the lives of soldiers, it is interesting to note that only after rejecting the human wave tactics of his Chinese advisers did the Vietnamese General Giap defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu.

Posted by: Joseph Duemer at December 29, 2004 06:22 PM

"the Japanese army, in particular, seemed to see it as a substitute for planning, logistics, strategy and, indeed, any other exercise of the human intellect."

Which is obviously why it appeals to Bushco.

Posted by: Maynard Handley at December 29, 2004 06:23 PM

HAPPY NEW YEAR from italian econblogger for all, ALL!

Posted by: Alberto Stanchi at December 29, 2004 06:23 PM

Agree with most of what is said. The idea that Allied soldiers weren't up to it is of course absurd. On the other hand conventional takes on the strategy and tactics of the Soviets has received some much needed revision since the opening of various archives.

In both World Wars one of the distinguishing qualities of the German officer/soldier was his initiative vis-a-vis his Western European contemporaries. This why in WWI the German soldier could be trusted to operate in ad hoc storm trooper formations while the British were stuck with the self annihalating massed formations of the 19th century.

I would make this case in particularly contrast to onstensibly more "democratic" British officers/soldiers who through to WWII remained stilted by an oppressive sense of class obligation and arguably less effective because of that.

For most of World War II the Wehrmacht probably did a better job than the Royal Army rewarding merit and facilitating self-motivation and initiative (even ignoring the question of Colonial units). Puting the political systems they sit within aside the effect of these democratic values undercuts the thesis that blind obedience makes for more a effective infantryman.

Posted by: Michael Carroll at December 29, 2004 06:36 PM

Isn't it dangerous to believe that your armed forces are the greatest and performed superbly in the past? Doesn't it hinder honest analysis and self-criticism?

Posted by: Mark at December 29, 2004 06:40 PM

Max Hastings' animus against GI Joe is actualy long standing - he bitched repeatedly about the poor quality of U.S. soldiering in Overlord, his history of the Normandy campaign. I think Stephen Ambrose wrote his D-Day/Citizen Soldiers/Band of Brothers trilogy in large part as an extended rebuttal to Hastings.

I don't know much about Hastings, but to me he comes across less as a neocon ideologue and more as an old-fashioned British Tory, looking down his gentrified nose at those upstart Yankee Doodles - a rabble in arms.

But anyone who thinks American troops were too scared to stand and fight in World War II should read The Bitter Woods - John Eisenhower's history of the Battle of the Bulge. Here's his account of the American defense of St. Vith (every bit as important a battle as Bastogne, but largely forgotten now):

"The German attack continued. For an hour the 38th Armored Infantry held the Schonberg road under heavy machine gun and bazooka fire. Although a tiger tank was destroyed and German dead lined the ditches on both sides of the road, their comrades still kept pressing forward to follow their tanks. Boyer's men were unable to stop all of them, and the Americans, in their turn, were paying a terrific price. No machine gun or bazooka team lasted more than ten or fifteen minutes; each gun had already been manned by at least several other teams. As soon as one team was wiped out it was replaced by another, which was killed in turn a few minutes later."

That image - of combat teams jumping to take their turn at certain death - really stuck with me. And the 38th was hardly an elite outfit. Nor were any of the units on the front line in the Ardennes when the battle began. It was a quiet sector, a place to stick green divisions and those that had been completely chewed up in the Huertgen Forest. A lot of guys cut and ran when the Germans attacked. But many, like those doomed combat teams of the 38th, stayed and fought - often surrounded, often leaderless, without a prayer of surviving, and with no way of knowing whether their deaths would make any difference in the ultimate outcome of the battle. And they held up three German armies (two of them Panzer armies)just long enough to make their defeat inevitable.

If American soldiers in the European theatre often seemed to lack Hastings' "martial virtues," it may not be because they were the products of a decadent democracy, but rather because they rarely found themselves in a situation where they HAD to stand and die - thanks in large part to the USA's overwhelming material advantages. When they DID have their backs to the wall, though, as at St. Vith and Bastogne, enough of them stood and fought to make the Germans pay an enormous price.

Posted by: Billmon at December 29, 2004 06:40 PM

Wow ... what jerks.

As soon as I've finished my time machine, I'm going to deposit Max Hastings on Omaha Beach at dawn 6/6/1944, and let him exemplify his model of soldiering.

Or if he doesn't want to wait---there are a few kinks, Second-Law stuff, technicality that it is---he could go help mop up in Falluja.

Posted by: Anderson at December 29, 2004 07:03 PM

If anything, Germans showed _more low-level iniative than the US. Germany infantry and tank units were on the whole somewhat more effective than ours, with equal numbers - maybe 25% more effective . That is of course a function of many factors: our superior artillery coordination, their superior tanks, their superior infantry weapons, our widespread familiarity with Chevy transmissions, their superior training, etc etc.

In 1940, the US had something like three times the war potential of Germany, while Great Britain and the Soviet Union were not far behind Germany. After the US entered the war, total Aliied war potential was probably four time that of the Axis. That's why they lost, and it's worth remembering.
The Allied pause in the fall of 1944 was pure logistics. All the valor in the world can't create ammo or gasoline. The Japanese often ignored such factors: they ended up with whole divisions starving to death.
As for Marshall's talk about few US soldiers firing, it's all crap: made up from nothing.

Posted by: gcochran at December 29, 2004 07:06 PM

I haven't read Hasting's book, so I can't really criticize. But the tone of the review suggests that he overlooks three important points:

(1) The behavior of US soldiers, as pointed out in this threat, was far superior than he believes.

(2) The will to combat usually has to do with comradery at the unit level. Every soldier I ask about this has the same reply: "I'm fighting for the guy next to me." The same was true in WWII, from most accounts. Soldiers may join the army out of patriotism or belief in the cause, but they fight for their friends.

(3) Democracies are REALLY good at winning wars.

Posted by: JR at December 29, 2004 07:53 PM

The main thing to think about is training. We started from scratch in 40 I think with the draft. Our guys trained with wooden guns! Go to For Thinkers Only. I know the guy is a republican, I think of the old style. Read his story of his experiences in WW2. The weapons we won the war with were designed starting in 1940 except for the Goony Bird(DC3) and B17..

Posted by: dilbert dogbert at December 29, 2004 08:17 PM

"If anything, Germans showed _more low-level iniative than the US. Germany infantry and tank units were on the whole somewhat more effective than ours, with equal numbers - maybe 25% more effective"

This represents a doctrinal difference between the two powers. The Germans regarded line infantry soldiering as serious work, and provided their infantry units with excellent quality troops and equipment and NCOs and officers who had each had more than six months of training.

The US, by contrast, treated infantrymen as unskilled labor. The soldiers and officers assigned to such units were the ones who had been passed over by the elite forces (rangers, airborne) and the technical services (air, artillery, armor, maintenance). The belief was that any dumb grunt could be given a rifle and fight, and so only the dumbest of dumb grunts got stuck in those roles (led by "90 day wonder" officers). The US compounded this mistake by keeping units on the line without relief for months at a time, replacing losses with individual soldiers from repple-depples, which was absolutely toxic to esprit de corps and unit cohesion.

(anyone following current events in Iraq will see the same any-dumb-grunt-can-carry-an-M16-and-go-on-infantry-patrol attitude enjoying a comeback)

That individual soldiers were able to perform as well as they did in the line units, in spite of their inadequate training and personnel, shows the *strength* of democratic armies.

Posted by: Fmguru at December 29, 2004 08:33 PM

Another Iron Law

One process the WWII Red Army and the Civil War Union Army both had in common was the trial and error process of finding and promoting capable, hard working, talented senior officers. In massively expanded armies that fight on broad scales, this took time. Being lead by incompetent hacks wastes soldiers' lives.

Also, American officers have been plenty prodigal with their soldiers lives. U.S. Grant was a brilliant general, but he certainly was willing to pay the butcher's bill with human wave assaults at Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Sherman at Chickasaw Bayou and Tunnell Hill. Paul Fussell reminds us that American commanders, like Omar Bradley in the Huertgen Forest, certainly weren't averse to spending the lives of U.S. soldiers freely.

Posted by: kaleidescope at December 29, 2004 08:52 PM

Perhaps a factor ignored is where the fighting is being done. An army that is fighting off an enemy within or close to their homeland - think Grant, the the soviets and viets - might be more willing to stand ground and take heavy losses vice an expeditionary force.

Posted by: S. Weil at December 29, 2004 09:34 PM

I have the benefit of discussing these issues with two were there. My friend PFC.Bob Hughart ,now 83 was a member of the 82nd and 101st airborne and jumped into Sicily, Italy Normandy(St. Mere Eglis) and Holland and then fought in the Bulge until Jan 25th when he was snipered. My father was with the 513th PIR at Bastogne and made the jump into Wesel Germany, may 1945(operation Varsity) Dad also served in Korea and Vietnam. I believe these guys would take exception as to their ability to fight. How ever, Id be glad to post any question to them asked. Marcus mtrigg@midsouth.rr.com

Posted by: Marcus trigg at December 29, 2004 10:03 PM

It stand to be noted that most of the combatants on the Reich side were also born into a democracy.

Posted by: ogmb at December 29, 2004 11:48 PM

There were problems with the offensive combat power mustered by a WWII infantry division. Part of the US military tradition is to be mobile, and decisions made at the highest levels traded combat power for mobility. For instance, an infantry division had no tanks. In practice there were enough independent tank outfits that every division got a tank batallion on permanent loan, but by then the division was on the front line and tank/infantry training and coordination suffered.

Posted by: etc. at December 30, 2004 12:53 AM

Wow. Who knew the geek is also a grog? http://www.battlefront.com/index.htm

Posted by: Brendan Meyer at December 30, 2004 04:20 AM

Judging from the comments few people commenting have read the book. Most of Brad's concerns are addressed by Hastings. Hastings doesn't look down his nose at GI Joe, British troops come in for more hassle than he. He does point out that Nazi and Russian troops were quicker to take advantage in battle, but he also states that the militaristic/dictatorial societies that produced such soldiers make it not worth it. He points out that allies in the west could afford to be careful about casualties, whereas in the death battle on the eastern front things were different. The U.S. showed much less concern for casualties in our own death battle with the Japanese in Pacific. Finally, Hastings points out that with out the Russian effort, out battles against the Nazi's would have been near impossible.
He never shies away from pointing out the brutal truth about both the Russians and the Nazis, but for his critisism of our soldiers to called a denunciation of democracy is rediculous.
Read the book, it is full of many interviews, especially Russian ones, which is rare in English histories of the European war.

Posted by: Scott at December 30, 2004 05:33 AM

Seriously though. I just started Hastings's book and I think the main thrust of it isn't the performance of the Allied armies, but how Germany, in the face of overwhelming evidence of defeat, continued to fight past 1944.

That line of query leads not to "Democracies fight better (or worse)," but to "Totalitarian states fight to suicidal ends." The more interesting hypothetical question would be are Democracies more likely to also fight to annihilation, or are they more likely to capitulate.

While Brad's original post was spectacular, it goes after a straw man.

But like I said, I'm only up to Operation Market-Garden in the reading and maybe I'll come around to Brad's POV by end of book.

Posted by: Brendan at December 30, 2004 06:29 AM

And General Gavin,at the time was sleeping with Marlene Dietrich as she was in Europe on USO tours, so maybe his morale was better.

Posted by: pragmatic_realist at December 30, 2004 06:32 AM

I havn't read the book either, but I notice that the same tired old wheeze about Soviet "human wave" tactics is being repeated as if all the recent research on the Red Army never happened.
David Glantz and Jonathan House have demonstrated that Soviet commanders were also concerned with economy in lives. As soon as the Red Army developed the firepower capability to support its offensives, the Soviets used it lavishly to substitute for expenditure of manpower. After the really desperate defensive battles of 1941-42, Soviet tactics became increasingly sophisticated, also reflecting a desire to hold down friendly casualties.

[Except for Zhukov at Seelowe Heights, and various other Russian generals at various other places.... Budapest comes to mind. But spending your soldiers' lives like water is *not* a source of military advantage.]

It's really time to stop relying on self-serving Wehrmacht officers' memoirs written during the heyday of the Cold War.

[Agreed. Glantz and House are very good.]

Posted by: Angry Blue Planet at December 30, 2004 06:33 AM

I distinctly get the impression that the casualty rate in the Civil War and in the Napoleonic Wars was higher than in WWII.

Both, also, I think, would be relevant when discussing the ability/willingness of democracies to sustain casualties.

Posted by: Gibbon at December 30, 2004 07:02 AM

Hastings' argument also fails because it doesn't account for the effects of dictatorship on the officer corps. Obviously, Stalin's decision to murder his best generals during the 1930s could not have happened in a democracy. And the Red Army took years to recover from the liquidation of the general staff.

Posted by: AWC at December 30, 2004 07:05 AM

If one wants a case study of democracies incurring devastating casualties to the extent of suicidal self-destruction, one need look no further than the Western Front in WWI.

It is puzzling, indeed disturbing, that so much of American historical discourse involves WWII and Vietnam (with occasional mentions of the American Civil War) to the exclusion of everything else.

This betrays both arrogance and ignorance - that the lesson learned there encompass everything. So much of our current difficulties in Iraq and elsewhere stem from this distorted viewpoint.

Posted by: Thulcydides at December 30, 2004 07:20 AM

Just a couple of thoughts, mostly unrelated to the historical debate going on above.

A half-dozen or so comments in this thread imply that the Douthat/Hastings line of argument represents some sort of "neocon mainstream," and that it's a manifestation of half-hidden autocratic impulses on the part of "neoconservatives" as a group.

"Hogwash" is the most polite term that comes to mind.

There may be "neoconservatives" here and there who perceive citizen-soldiers as less effective than their dictatorship-bred counterparts. There may even be a self-described "neoconservative" somewhere in the mountains of Montana who thinks that autocracy is a good idea. "Neoconservative" is a notoriously ill-defined term, and it's not like all of us "neoconservatives" get together to synchronize our lunatic points of view over brunch on the weekends.

That said, can anyone seriously believe that "neoconservatives" as a group have the sort of nefarious ultimate strategy some here seem to ascribe to them (us) reflexively? At least from my perspective, that sort of conspiracy-theory paranoia and demonization has little place on a blog as thoughtful and intelligent as Brad's usually is. The fact that I disagree with Brad on his foreign policy views almost always and his economics a fair amount doesn't change the fact that this is a good place populated by good people -- step away from the black helicopters, folks.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of legitimate critiques of "neoconservativism." I know that many intelligent, thoughtful, well-intentioned people disagree with my viewpoints. I'll listen carefully to anyone who accuses me of excessive naivete, or of fatal ignorance of certain realpolitik concerns.

I also know that the world is an incredibly complex system. Unfortunately, this means that essentially every ideology can and probably will survive -- we can always blame our own failures and others' successes on a multiplicity of factors that keep us from being wrong and them from being right. Case in point: if the United States fails in Iraq as many here believe it inevitably will, I will be able to blame that failure not upon a failure of my own ideology, but rather upon myriad other factors. I'll try not to, but the temptation will be there. Those of you who regard the war there as irresponsible adventurism or, heaven forbid, rampant profiteering, will have a similar set of "blame options" if the U.S. mission there ultimately succeeds.

Point is, please leave off with the conspiracy theories, folks. There is plenty to talk about without your insinuating that "neocons" as a group are somehow dedicated to building an autocratic, expansionist, martial society. There is plenty to talk about without my side suggesting that every person with a view left of our own is secretly in the employ of the Communist Party.

Sorry to take so long on this. Now back to the original point. I and many other (I suspect most) self-described "neoconservatives" would nod our heads in agreement with virtually every word of Brad's original post. To the extent we can be described as having a corporate opinion on the desirability and efficacy of a citizen-soldiery, I think we would generally contend that the armed forces of a representative democracy are, in sum, the best possible armed forces. There may well be more friction in such forces, and at the micro level this might not always be a good thing. But viewed as a whole, I'll take the soldiers (and underlying economic potential) of a democracy, the attendant creative destruction, and the underlying check on abuses of power such a force embodies any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

I think most "neoconservatives" would agree.

Posted by: Lurking Neocon at December 30, 2004 08:25 AM

Scott and Brendan are correct. Hastings makes a good case that advances in western Europe were more sluggish than they needed to be, but he doesn't really disparage American or British soldiers. 'Armageddon' is a vastly better treatment of the period than Ambrose's America-centric books, and for me it was a more entertaining read as well.

Posted by: sglover at December 30, 2004 08:55 AM

1)Anyone who criticises a book before they have read that book is in danger of looking stupid, since the author may actually have anticipated and agreed with the criticisms. This is the case with Brad DeLong's critique of 'Armaggedon'.

2) Max Hastings is not a 'neoconservative', but a noted rightist critic of the Bush occupation of Iraq. He is not a 'out of touch with reality'. He is a serious military historian whose books on Normandy, Korea and the Strategic Bombing campaign are worthy of respect (note to Americans- this does not mean 'full and unquestioning agreement') as is 'Armaggedon'.

3)Max Hastings does not, in Armaggedon or elsewhere, extol British soldiers' virtues and sneer at Americans. (Minor exceptions: he thinks British troops in Iraq have done a better job of counterinsurgency than the Americans. So do I. And he notes that British morale at the beginning of the Korean war was higher than US ditto: so did General Matthew Ridgway, in his memoirs. Read them.) Billmon says that he does: Billmon is a fool. Billmon has clearly not read 'Armaggedon', which severely criticises British troops- including making long-overdue comments about the ineptitude shown by many soldiers and battalion commanders at Arnhem, the sentimental veneration of which by British historians and soldiers infuriates me. (I have never understood why the Parachute Regiment, with such successes as Bruneval and Normandy to boast about, has decided to make the fetishisation of Arnhem the centrepiece of the military history taught to its recruits.) Hastings notes that the US Army had 20 first-rate divisions in Europe, had a far better standards of infantry-armour co-operation than the British, and makes many other observations to the credit of the Americans and the disadvantage of the British. You don't believe me, Billmon? Read the book, boy- always a good idea before criticising it.

4) The cretinous Billmon praises the grossly nationalistic Stephen E. Ambrose. 'D-Day' is the book of a liar and a jingo: the inclusion of maps showing the two US beaches but not the three Anglo-Canadian beaches are of a piece with his fact-free worship of US soldiers and relentless disparaging of British troops. I note, in passing, that Max Hastings has reported from a number of wars and that the late plagiarist Ambrose never heard a shot fired in anger.

Posted by: Dan Hardie at December 30, 2004 10:05 AM


I remember reading something similar regarding WWI, that other than in ghastly trench setting, when the whistle blew and everybody died, there was a distinct lack of willingness to use single-shot weapons.

There was also, I have read, a big difference between the willingness of soldiers with the right to vote for their leaders and those without that right to advance from behind cover (again, excepting the setting in which the whistle blew and men died). If I recall correctly, the finding of researchers at the time was that those with the vote were more willing to leave cover and advance.

Recognition of the limits of single-shot weapons in a world of heavy machine guns led, I understand, to adoption of the M1 Garand Rifle (by the US) and a variety of machine guns in WWII.

As to the creeping neocon take on Hasting's argument, which of our neocon highlights was it that said the WWII generation had perverted American politics by caring too much for the disadvantaged, as a result of their experience of the Depression and the War? Norquist, I think. The idea is that, with the Namby-Pamby Generation passing, US politic can get back to its selfish roots.

Posted by: kharris at December 30, 2004 10:17 AM

Sorry- sentence left out from point 3) above. Billmon has not merely not read 'Armaggedon' but he has a laughably inaccurate recollection of Hastings's book on Overlord. Hastings criticised US troops for problems with their infantry training, casualty replacement system, unreadiness for battle of certain formations- and, semi-literates like Billmon please note, he made precisely the same criticisms of British forces, and some more criticisms besides. Hastings was and is a serious military historian. It says something very bad about contemporary American culture that his evenhanded critique of British, Canadian and American forces in the Second World War should lead to the hysterical response of Stephen E. Ambrose, that the British lacked 'guts' and the Americans were beyond criticism. It says something even worse about contemporary American culture that Ambrose- a windy, sentimental, dishonest nationalist- should have become a bestselling author.

Posted by: Dan Hardie at December 30, 2004 10:21 AM

One other thing is that the Allies didnt have to fight as hard. By 44 Yalta had already apportioned Europe so from the high command's perspective, liberating Poland or being the first into Berlin made no difference.

Realistically the Allies also lacked the revenge motive - pretty much every russian lost a freind realtive during the german invasion but causulties during the blitz, while bad, were not catostrophic.

Posted by: Giles at December 30, 2004 10:29 AM

When talking about WWI and WWII, let's be careful which countries we call "democracies." Did even the British think Britain was a democracy before the Great War? Was growing up in Weimar Germany necessarily "growing up in a democracy"?

Posted by: sm at December 30, 2004 10:32 AM

Re: Ambrose. Can't comment on him as a military historian, but his book on the trans-continental railroad, while a great read, was chock full of errors and misrepresentations. From that experience I came away feeling that he was very talented at bringing the historical experience to life, but lacked the necessary commitment to accuracy.

Posted by: Observer at December 30, 2004 10:39 AM

"As to the creeping neocon take on Hasting's argument, which of our neocon highlights was it that said the WWII generation had perverted American politics by caring too much for the disadvantaged, as a result of their experience of the Depression and the War? Norquist, I think."

We all have our different taxonomies, but I don't lump Norquist in with the neo-cons. As far as I know, if Norquist has any interest in foreign policy at all, it's of a non-interventionist, libertarian variety. (Open to modification, of course, if his paymasters provide a good enough 'argument'.) To my mind, the neo-cons are almost the inverse, more than happy to support almost any sort of domestic agenda if it furthers their geopolitical fever dreams.

Posted by: sglover at December 30, 2004 10:58 AM

please change the font to a smaller one...I am tiring of keeping my hand on the 'mouse' so I can get carpel syndrome in my elbow because I have to keep shifting cursor 'left-right-left in order to read every line

It is tedious and therefore I refused to read the 50 approximate entrants
an interesting discussion.
The delong switch to other larger fonts is big mistake and losing his readers now who will not waste time on fonts that cannot fit on computer page without having to hand read every line with your mouse


Posted by: Dave S at December 30, 2004 11:58 AM

I don't think Billmon is an idiot; but his take on Hastings is laughable. Max is as far from a neocon as it is possible to get, and has been a consistent opponent of the Iraq war. He's also a fine military historian who has spent time on the front line (in the Falklands). The last piece I read of his was full of praise of American soldiers in WW2, and claimed that the British were wrong to sneer at them.

On the other hand, Brad does rather undermine his own point about the suicidial bravery of American tropops with a bit of his last paragraph: " (Vatutin's tank crews sealed up their tanks to see if they could run them underwater across the branches of the upper Dneiper: about half of them made it across alive)".

If there is any record of a major allied operation being conducted with a similar disregard for their own lives on the parts of the troops, I don't know it. I know there were operations were the odds were objectively as bad (Dieppe, anyone? or even Arnhem). But these were planned. The brave men there were following orders. They were not large scale spontaneous suicidal improvisation, which the story Brad quotes appears to be.

Posted by: Andrew Brown at December 30, 2004 12:33 PM

I think the assumption, lurking neocon, is that neocons like you take Plato's critique of democracy in The Republic to heart. Namely, "If you want to train a horse, do you have everyone vote on the horse's training regimen, or do you only ask experts in horse training for advice? (Just experts, of course.) Why should we listen to everybody in governing a state, and not merely those expert at governing? (No reason at all, Socrates.)"

Well... sm... I think in the U.S. before WW1, the majority of American states gave women the right to vote, but they were mostly sparsely populated states like Wyoming, so most women couldn't vote. Then there's the issue of American blacks, whose voting rights were reaching their nadir around WW1 (I think that the time, post-slavery when black Americans had the least rights was in the 20s). In Britain, women also got voting rights after WW1, but at a later age than men (I think it was... uh, 18 for men and 30 for women, or something?). France, to its shame, didn't enfranchise women until the Fourth Republic. New Zealand had voting rights for women in 1896 or so, but I don't know about Maori voting rights at the time. Sadly, I know little of the ferocity and willingness of the New Zealand contribution to allied forces to make human wave attacks.

Posted by: Julian Elson at December 30, 2004 12:36 PM

In the battle of Berlin there were an estimated 15,000 germans scattered around in small units in the city and suburbs. The Russians lost an estimated 80,000 men taking Berlin. Strikes me conserving Russian soldier's lives was a low priority.

Posted by: wogie1 at December 30, 2004 02:01 PM

Re: Dan Hardie and his childish insults. Dan seems to have a rather enormous chip on his shoulder. I suggest he put it down before it makes him look any more ridiculous.

Just for the record: I was not criticizing Armaggedon, which I haven't read, but commenting on Overlord, which I have. My impression of Hastings is, however, completely subjective, and hardly seems worth all the frothing.

I also didn't praise Stephen Ambrose, who was indeed a windy, sentimental nationalist, and perhaps a dishonest one as well - although I really don't know enough about the allegations against him to say. I just speculated that Ambrose may have had Hastings' criticisms in mind when he wrote Citizen Soldiers, which amounts an extended defense of the average American infantryman.

Finally, I didn't label Max Hastings a neocon - just the opposite. I don't really know much about him, but what I do know, particularly his former stint at editor of the Daily Telegraph, leads me to peg him as Tory, of the old-fashioned "wet" variety. I may be wrong, in which case I apologize - to Hastings, at least.

One of the nice - and rare - things about Brad's blog is that the discussions are usually reasonably civil, even when people disagree.

I knew it couldn't last.

Posted by: Billmon at December 30, 2004 02:34 PM

Modern wars are not won or lost by killing enemy soldiers. Wars are won and lost by breaking the will or the means of the enemy to fight. The Japanese had some of the toughest soldiers in WWII but in the end, they were superfluous. Nimitz targeted single islands or a few islands in a chain and left the Japanese on the other islands cut off from supplies. The comment by MacArthur is particularly bogus, because MacAthur insisted on going to the Philippines in an action that was unnecessary.

Even the Germans were defeated by a lack of means to fight. By the end of the war they had inadequate fuel and other strategic materials and were outnumbered.

In Iraq, it is not a matter of Americans dying or killing insurgents. Insurgents are created faster than they are killed. The ultimate end of war is political. There is always a surrender or an armistice.

Posted by: bakho at December 30, 2004 03:20 PM

Lurking Neocon,

Very nice post, I'd sign on to most of it.

Posted by: Bernard Guerrero at December 30, 2004 03:28 PM

Billmon, I have read Hastings's 'Overlord' and the statements you make about it are simply false. No conceivable definition of 'chip on the shoulder' describes the reaction of somebody protesting against a deceitful description of a work of history. 'Chip on the shoulder' does however describe an individual prepared to level serious but false charges against a book and then, rather than defend those charges, hide behind a lot of talk about how hurt his feelings are.

'Overlord', like 'Armaggeddon', contains praise and criticism of US troops in pretty equal measure and is at least as hard on British failings as on American. So to say things like this -'Max Hastings' animus against GI Joe is actualy long standing - he bitched repeatedly about the poor quality of U.S. soldiering in Overlord, his history of the Normandy campaign...an old-fashioned British Tory, looking down his gentrified nose at those upstart Yankee Doodles - a rabble in arms.' is, as I say, entirely wrong.

You are either too stupid to have read 'Overlord' correctly, or too fuddled to remember what you did read, or too dishonest to resist describing Hastings in your utterly inaccurate fashion.

Either way, your criticisms of Hastings are without foundation.
If you had an ounce of intellectual honesty you would re-read 'Overlord',
looking up Hastings's references to US and British faults and strengths, and then make a shamefaced apology to us all: Hastings has no 'animus against GI Joe' and does not 'look down his nose' at Americans, least of all the Americans who liberated Western Europe.

Posted by: Dan Hardie at December 30, 2004 03:42 PM


Very close, but I'd modify your formulation. Insurgents are always killed and created. The key is whether the former rate can be brought above the latter for a sustained period, whether via an increase in the kill rate or a decrease in the creation rate.

Simply formulating it as a matter of will misses the slightly different nature of the opponent. The Japanese and German governments were effective at mobilizing even a hesitant citizenry, and so it was the overall national will to fight (as expressed in those governments) that needed to be broken. In the present case, no such mobilizing force exists. Insurgents cannot be drafted, nor is there a single insurgent political body from which a surrender can be extracted. The case thus degenerates into a matter of killing them faster than they are created. This does not negate the ultimately political nature of the conflict, since a lower creation rate implies that the populace accepts (or is at least resigned to) U.S. political will. Not one large surrender, but rather many small personal ones.

Posted by: Bernard Guerrero at December 30, 2004 03:53 PM

Zhukov: "Ludi u nas mnogo"

Posted by: radek at December 30, 2004 04:39 PM

@Lurking Neocon: please don't forget that most commenters and even prof de Long himself not only analyse and criticize but express their concerns and emotions as well.
I just came upon this post by mr James Pinkerton at TCS (http://www.techcentralstation.com/122304I.html).
It's purely ideolizing of war. He actually rejoices about the possibility of war-robots learning *the joy of the knife*...
His point is that out of sentimantality and the fact that so many US-parents have only one or two children that can be spent on the war the US have to face and welcome the possibility of *robot-heroes*. So in one way it is the exact opposite of the ideology of democracies being vulnerable because of putting *too much* value in the lives of individuals but it shares the would-be real-politik approach that war is not only unavoidable at some moments in history but is not very bad in itself.
I am worried about that.

Posted by: Frans Groenendijk at December 30, 2004 04:54 PM

I think there is no denying that the combat effectiveness of the German army far outstripped that of the US, British and Canadian armies in Normandy -- Keegan concluded his "six armies in Normandy" by saying that the outstanding force was the German one. Outnumbered and without air cover, they hung on much longer than most observers except Hitler thought possible. The diaries of Panzer Meyer and others who were there all recount that allied tank forces were no match for German armor, and that the same goes for the infantry. Michael Wittman's Tiger destroyed 20 armored vehicles from the British 7th Army in one day in Villers Bocage. It normally took five Shermans to overwhelm a single Tiger tank. What made all the difference was air power (as happened again during the battle of the Bulge) and naval gunfire. Having said that, I continue to be amazed by the desire of Hastings et al. to attribute fighting performance to "martial spirit" and the like. There is nothing inherently wrong by winning with airpower, saving your own men. Producing enormous numbers of crappy tanks like the Sherman long after the allies got their hands on an early-production Tiger in North Africa strikes me as completely reckless, but allied superiority in the air was such that this didn't matter in the end. The US had poor tactics, as did the British, partly because they didn't do what one would expect democracies to do first -- empower (in modern management lingo) their frontline officers and soldiers to take decisions etc., although this improved after Kasserine Pass. A good part of the differential in combat effectiveness must also be a result of German units having been through the ordeal of the Eastern front, facing lots of green units with little or no combat experience (not the big red 1, obviously). Most studies show that veterans do better. The last factor that anyone should invoke to understand Normandy is 'martial spirit' -- that's the thing that made Haig et al. insist on frontal assaults in WWI. Armies with poor tactics, no understanding of the need to send their best men into the rifle companies and tank battalions, poor equipment etc. didn't matter because of superior logistics, codebreaking, tactical airpower and some spirited leadership by Patton after the breakout from Bocage country. There are, of course, egregious cases of a lack of "martial spirit" -- Italian combat performance in WWII was so poor that I can't think of good reasons other than general indifference to the war and its aims, as well as a desire to save one's own skin. What all of this shows, I think, is that democracies vs. dictatorships is the wrong question -- martial spirit is deeply intertwined with national culture, and save for the most amazing cases such as the Italians, it has little to do with success on a modern battlefield.

Posted by: Joachim Voth at December 30, 2004 07:50 PM

Bernard, your formulation, even for Iraq is backward. The creation of insurgents has to be brought below the numbers being killed. There is no way for a standing army to increase its kill of insurgents without radicalizing the population. While some of the Iraqi insurgents may be "TERRORISTS" as defined by Mr Bush, the vast majority are not. The key to the insurgency is separating the fanatics from those with legitimate political grievance by addressing the POLLITICAL ISSUES. The problem for Bush in Iraq is he sees all insurgents as TERRORIST and so refuses to even admit that there are ANY political issues that would help the situation. Of course there are political issues. The political failures of the Bush Administration have led to our military bogged down in Iraq trying to backstop a failed political policy. It is not our military that is failing in Iraq. Our military did not fail in Vietnam. In both cases, the politicians failed because they refused to admit political truths they believed were politically unacceptable in domestic politics or ideology.

Posted by: bakho at December 30, 2004 08:04 PM

The commentary perpetuates the notion that wars are won by military valor alone. GOP true believers blame the outcome of Vietnam on the military. The GOP says, "If only soldiers like John Kerry would have stayed and fought to the death like Rambo instead of coming home after being wounded 3 times, we would have won in Nam." This was the message of the Swift Boat Liars.

Or the GOP will say, "The military was held back from doing its job. If only the gloves were taken off and the military could have killed more people indiscriminately, we would have won in Nam." Hey, but 2 million Asians died in Nam between 1963 and 1973. WTF Would killing another million Asians have made the difference?

What is the alternative view? Vietnam was a POLITICAL FAILURE caused by a failure of American politicians from JFK and LBJ to RM Nixon to fully comprehend the political situation they were facing and/or the failure to tell the truth to the American public for fear of the political consequences. LBJ could not stand to continue to LIE so he stepped down. Nixon could not stand to LOSE so he continued to LIE. The BIG LIE in NAM was "military failure". The truth was POLITICAL FAILURE.

The BIG LIE for Iraq is "MILITARY SOLUTION". The truth for Iraq is "POLITICAL FAILURE". It is total BS to claim that there is no political settlement for Iraq. There is. Mr Bush is too blind to notice. This is why we have POLITICAL FAILURE.

Posted by: bakho at December 30, 2004 09:18 PM

The evolutionary psychologists Richerson and Boyd have written extensively about the reasons for the slightly greater man-for-man effectiveness of German soldiers in WWII (all else being equal, according to Dupuy, 100 German soldiers were roughly equivalent to 120 British or American soldiers): http://www.geser.net/richerson.html

This is not to denigrate the Yanks and Brits, who fought awfully well, especially compared to, say, the Italians. It's just when compared to _the Germans_ that noticeable differences are apparent. It's like saying that Arnold Palmer wasn't quite as good a golfer as Jack Nicklaus: undeniable, but hardly an insult to Arnie.

Richerson and Boyd largely attribute the difference to the paradoxical fact that relationships between officers and enlisted men in the German army were more egalitarian and even quasi-democratic than in the American army. You'll note that after Eisenhower, most of the Presidents for the next three decades were Navy officers -- it's largely forgotten today in the nostaligic glow with which all aspects of the Greatest Generation are bathed, but enlisted US Army soliders tended to return from WWII with much more resentment of stuck-up Army officers than Navy sailors returned with resentment of Navy officers. As evolutionary psychologists, Richerson and Boyd argue that the German army did a better job of reproducing the conditions conducive to small group cohesion and espirt de corps during the "era of evolutionary adaptiveness."

Obviously, there is no reason a dictatorship should be better than a democracy at organizing an army in this more effective fashion. It was just an accident of history. The U.S. Army learned a lot from the experience and improved in the decades afterwards.

Indeed a recent article by Robert D. Kaplan in the Atlantic Monthly quotes a colonel on how much the Army has improved during his couple of decades of service. He attributed much of the improved relations between officers and men to the recent spread of evangelical Christianity, and the consequent decline in drinking. Since officers and men are not allowed to drink in the same room, back in the days when most free time was devoted to drinking, the ranks almost never came in contact off duty.

Today, officers and men share more in common. I'd also add to that that since the downsizing of the military in 1992, the IQ gap between officers and enlisted has shrunk: For the last dozen years, about 65-70% of new enlistees score over the national average on the IQ test the military gives all applicants for enlistment. Only about 1% of new enlistees have scored below the 30th percentile (around 90 on the usual IQ scale), so officers and enlisted people can now communicate in a more egalitarian fashion than in previous eras.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at December 30, 2004 09:39 PM

The BIG LIE in NAM was "military failure". The truth was POLITICAL FAILURE.

There are three books that tell the story of Vietnam in a way that every American should at least consider. Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie", Peter Braestrup's "Big Story" and David Butler's "The Fall of Saigon". All three are exhaustively researched and, in my opinion, heartbreakingly honest.

Posted by: Steve at December 30, 2004 10:16 PM

I would like to throw a few more background facts into the pot.

First off, I should tell you I wrote an article called "Connections between GDP and Defence" (http://member.netlink.com.au/~peterl/publicns.html#ADAART01), that was printed in Defender, the national journal of the Australia Defence Association (http://www.ada.asn.au), of Spring 2002 (Northern Hemisphere Autumn).

That was before the current occupation of Iraq, so it cannot be just hindsight speaking. This article covers length of training and background culture a little, just in passing. The crucial thing to notice is that somewhere along the line soldiers need about two years of training to become what they should be. This applies regardless of "race" or culture.

However, many cultures do pre-cook their human material, as it were; the troops still need training, but not so much. The Turks come to mind, and in an earlier era the Irish were definitely warlike in their culture (see Spenser on the Current - late 16th century - State of Ireland). But pre-cooking does not need the culture as a whole to be military; the BEF of 1914 was of high quality because of Haldane's reforms and the pre-cooking offered by the Territorial Army, that made reserves. (Incidentally, kharris, they were so good with single-shot rifles that at Le Cateau in 1914 the Germans held up for reinforcements, thinking they faced machine guns.)

As my article covered, the role of conscription in peaceful countries has mostly been to provide trained reservists rather than actual troops. That partly explains why Vietnam didn't have enough well enough trained troops; at least some troops were in what had been intended as a training program.

Certainly if the Russians had attacked and assessed the US troop quality on the basis of Vietnam they would have been making the same mistake about the troops' qualities as Hitler did after hearing about Kasserine Pass, or indeed Lee made at Gettysburg after learning about the Union forces' quality in previous years. The thing is, by the time two years had passed they weren't the same troops any more.

I believe it is this that matters when people suggest that democracies have unwarlike recruits. It is far more that democracies are short termist, and so they are often unprepared, and also that they are personally inclined to like peace but unaware of accidental harm they cause, so wars they have fanned take them by surprise. This applies to many countries, it is just that the USA is currently the pace setter. "Democratic" is a proxy for "peaceful", but not in any peace-procuring sense, rather in a let things slide sense.

Weimar Germany let things slide enough that their remaining armed forces were able to keep training and tradition alive, ogmb; in this sense its very limited democracy didn't extend to making Germany "peaceful". And, of course, very few 1939-45 German soldiers spent all their formative years under Weimar anyway, most being cut off at the beginning or end of it anyway, and nearly all being aware of its beginning and continuing in rigging and hypocrisy - it had the same sort of legitimacy and participants as Vichy.

John Casey, it is at the least misleading to say that "The US Army lost exactly one battle, Kasserine Pass. It won every other major engagement. This is a record no other national army came close to matching." It was just that the US army only had that one battle at that stage of troop development. (Equivalently, at the same stage of training, many other combatants were being trained in peacetime conditions; British conscription started before World War II.) And, of course, with the wind behind them all forces perform better; they show their true worth in managing retreats (defeat is a criticism of commanders more often than of men).

In regards to training, it is also worth realising that US training was worse than British training until the very end of World War II (which did actually count for preparing for Korea, since World War II had left trained reservists around). But - possibly from necessity rather than ignorance - the US cut corners, leading to such things as US glider pilots standing around and getting in the way after landing while their British equivalents were able to join the combat. (This is not a comment on their courage, they had to be brave to land those gliders.)

On troop casualty rates, trained troops typically reach a point of collapse of morale at 1/3 casualties, and untrained ones at 1/5. This is aggravated if there is a policy of returning troops to the front so that they realise that they face going back until their number comes up. The French did this out of ignorance in World War I, and from necessity at Dien Ben Phu, and it appears that the USA was doing it in 1944-5 (though not quite reaching the collapse point, which shows that sparing the troops was wise in all the circumstances).

There is another issue, nothing to do with the troops' own quality. If you have trained troops driving forlorn hopes before them, you can still get quantity into the fray if not the highest quality; "quantity has a quality all its own". This was what Stalin often did, and indeed what Mustapha Kemal had done with his odds and sods at Gallipoli ("I do not want you to fight for your country, I want you to die for it").

There is no point criticising them for wasting their own people's lives, any more than for criticising Saddam Hussein for gassing his "own" people; the casualties were others whom they didn't care about. Indeed, after 1945 Stalin took some care to execute a great many of his own troops who had been captured and liberated. When Stalin acted wastefully, for him it was no great loss. Ask not what happened to the USSR's punishment battalions but to the NKVD regiments.

As Montaigne and Frederick the Great realised, the secret of discipline is that the soldiers have to be more scared of the sergeant than of the enemy (this is one reason why deaths in training are useful, "pour encourager les autres").

One final point. Have a look at my article and see how double dip conscription destroyed the Portuguese commitment to their war effort. The USA is running a double dip system now, calling back those long released. This is bound to lead to the same collapse of home morale if it is sustained.

P.S., Steve Voth, one explanation for the Italian poor performance was the same as the Egyptians' in 1967. All their best officers and men were cut off at the other end of the Red Sea. On top of that, Italy had its own Pearl Harbour at Tarento, and had a number of early defeats in what were supposed to be walk overs against the late 1940 French and in the Balkans (again due to having to use second grade forces).

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence at December 31, 2004 03:13 AM


With regards to that formulation, yours and mine are mathematically equivalent. One way or another other, the kill rate must be higher than the create rate. The only debate is whether either of those is not movable (I say no.)

Re Vietnam, I think you've got it quite backwards. As a right-winger, I can attest that the mantra has always been that Vietnam was a military success and a political failure.

Posted by: Bernard Guerrero at December 31, 2004 05:06 AM

Lurking Neocon --

"There is plenty to talk about without your insinuating that "neocons" as a group are somehow dedicated to building an autocratic, expansionist, martial society."

I guess it's just happening all by itself, then.

Posted by: SqueakyRat at December 31, 2004 06:47 AM

Icebreaker (Excerpts) by Victor Suvorov
Who Started the Second World War?

"Suvorov's most significant claim was that Stalin had been preparing a great invasion of the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe, set to begin in July 1941 (most probably on July 6). The planned date followed Nazi invasion only about 2 weeks."

Posted by: Dimitar Vesselinov at December 31, 2004 10:13 AM

Bernard G -

If 'war is politics by other means', would you like to explain how Vietnam (or any armed conflict) could have been 'a military success but a political failure'? The 'military success/political defeat' thing has always sounded like cognitive dissonance.

Posted by: Paul G. Brown at December 31, 2004 11:23 AM

Another perspective:

The obedience of troops subject to autocratic rule is not a given.

Consider, for example, the breakdown of Russian morale during WWI and the role the Russian army subsequently played in the Revolution.

Posted by: Tolstoy at December 31, 2004 11:41 AM

kaleidescope wrote, "U.S. Grant was a brilliant general, but he certainly was willing to pay the butcher's bill with human wave assaults at Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor."

I don't have "official" stats on hand, but I do recall seeing something while touring Gettysburg that claimed that Lee was the most profligate with blood.

Posted by: liberal at December 31, 2004 01:26 PM

bakho wrote, "Vietnam was a POLITICAL FAILURE caused by a failure of American politicians from JFK and LBJ to RM Nixon to fully comprehend the political situation they were facing and/or the failure to tell the truth to the American public for fear of the political consequences."

Our involvement in Indochina started earlier than JFK---the figures I recall say that the US was funding 80% of the earlier French effort towards its end.

Posted by: liberal at December 31, 2004 01:34 PM

Liberal is correct. I recall listening to radio's "Meet the Press" w/Lawrence Spivak where either Senator Wayne Morse or the Senator from Alaska clearly defended their voted positions against involvement in that part of the world. I paraphrase their argument that: one American life is not worth losing for the whole of French Indo China, and scoffing at the then assertions that our Generals were smarter than the French or Vietnamese Generals. Thus our superior Generalmanship would guarantee our victory.

Posted by: donmaj at December 31, 2004 02:37 PM

Paul Brown,

Not at all. The application of force by the state is, as Clausewitz pointed out, merely another way of seeking to fulfil the state's political goals. War is thus merely another tool in the tool-kit.

I can then specify three possible modes of failure if the goal is not achieved:

A) Military or Operational failure: The goal is theoretically within grasp, but the tool does not operate to specifications, and battlefield failure results in failure to reach the political goal.

B) Strategic failure: The goal was never possible with the tool at hand; operational performance may have been excellent, but the political goal is still not attained.

C) Failure of Will -or- Cost/Benefit Shift: The state decides at some point after operations have already started that the goal is not worth the cost, and so abandons the goal.

Obviously, gray areas exist. Part of the endless Eastern Front arguments is a question of whether the Nazi failure was more A) or B) (C presumably not being possible under the rather extreme circumstances). My feeling is that the U.S. failure in Vietnam was a combination of B) and C), but mostly C). The goals were very difficult to achieve with the tools at hand, the cost turned out to be far higher than expected (if still reasonable in absolute terms by historical standards) and in the end a large portion of the polity didn't feel like paying, and the state didn't feel like pushing the issue any further.

Posted by: Bernard Guerrero at December 31, 2004 06:47 PM

Bernard, you are misreading both Iraq and Vietnam. The failure is almost entirely B, strategic failure. Strategic failure is the fault of politicians. This is why John Kerry and the Vietnam Vets Against the War got so much heat. They directly blamed McNamara, LBJ, and Nixon for the strategic failure. Strategic failure can also be due to failure to clearly define the objective or out come or defining the outcome too narrowly.

Posted by: bakho at January 1, 2005 07:48 AM

bakho wrote, "Strategic failure can also be due to failure to clearly define the objective or out come or defining the outcome too narrowly."

In the case of Vietnam, it was more because of a complete misreading of the geopolitics involved.

The US read it as the West against the Communists, when in fact it was the West against anticolonialism/nationalism. (Not that I think it was a good thing that the people taking up the cause of anticolonialism were Leninists or Stalinists. As Jonathan Kwitney put it in his excellent _Endless Enemies_, the problem in e.g. Indonesia was that to the Indonesians, "capitalism" was equivalent to "Dutch imperialism".)

Don't forget that after we left Vietnam, the Vietnamese and Chinese had a border conflict which resulted in (IIRC) 30,000+ Vietnamese deaths. That was proportionally more than the number of US deaths due to the Vietnamese conflict.

The US perspective was so warped that the signs of the Soviet-Sino split were misinterpreted at the time by some as a feint to fool the West.

Posted by: liberal at January 1, 2005 08:05 AM

The Germans were on the defensive, while the Americans were attacking

So it should be no surprise that the Germans inflicted more casualties than they suffered

Posted by: martin at January 2, 2005 06:15 PM

So, what you're saying is that, in hindsight, Vietnam held no possibility of a military success from the outset.

So, erm, how could it have been a "military success"?

That phrase sounds to me like "comfort rhetoric". When the Roman legions got their asses kicked by the Scythians because they completely lacked the military technology to compete, was that a "military success but a political failure"? I mean, it sounds like by your definitions you could say that WW2 from a German perspective was a "military success but a political failure".

Seems like a strange way to define success. "Sure. We got our asses kicked out of the place. But we killed a bunch of 'em while we were there. An' we shouldn't have been there in the first place."

Call a spade a spade. "Don't fight a land war in Asia" (as the first great truth goes). Why not? Cos' you're gonna lose!

Posted by: Paul G. Brown at January 3, 2005 02:45 PM

No, no, Paul.

By your reasoning, if I use a hammer to try and nail something to a ferrocrete slab, or perform a root-canal, the hammer has failed. There is a distinction between the performance of the hammer to specifications and whether or not the goal was possible and/or my carpentry skills were up to snuff.

Posted by: Bernard Guerrero at January 4, 2005 11:53 AM

Don't pull the intentional fallacy on me! In so far as we are using language in conventional ways, did the hammer fail to "ferrocrete the slab"? Yes, it did fail. It would be even more absurd to say that the ferrocetation[eep!] was a success. Did the hammer fail to "perform the root-canal"? Of course!

More precisely, "I failed to perform the root-canal with the hammer." But it was still a failure.

I don't see a distinction here between the technical failure, and the inability to complete the act. There may be different sources of technical failure: the hammer may break, for instance, in which case the root-canal was incomplete. The hammer might not be right tool for the job. But the only way to observe the failure of intention, is to experience the technical failure.

We went into Vietnam with the biggest, baddest army in the world. We were unable, through force of arms, to stay in the country. Sounds like a military failure to me.

I do wish people would read Carl von Clausewitz, rather than just quote him. Early in Book 2 of AoW, he points out that although we make these divisions of the study of war into 'tactics', and 'strategy', and 'politics',and 'operations', there is really no such distinction. It's all one and the same thing. You cannot have a "military success and a political failure". There is only success, or failure.

All else is cant. The US got its ass kicked in Vietnam. The Soviets did in Afghanistan. A failure to recognize that the biggest, baddest army in the world can get its arse kicked by a bunch of sandal wearing/camel humping peasants helps explain why, in certain quarters, our current Iraq engagement seemed like a good idea.

Posted by: Paul G. Brown at January 4, 2005 01:19 PM

Way too simplistic, Paul. I've read Clausewitz, and he does no such thing. Early on in Chapter 1 of Book 2, he in passing mentions that other writers have been arbitrary in setting hard dividing lines between strategy and tactics. He therefore lays out the following:

"...tactics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat. Strategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the war."

Further, he goes on to state:

"We fall into an error of this description if we attribute to strategical combinations a force independent of tactical results. Marches and manœuvres are combined, the object attained, and at the same time not a word about combat from which the conclusion is drawn that there are means in war of conquering an enemy without fighting The prolific nature of this error we cannot show until hereafter."

This is merely a statement of the fact that no strategy can be effective without the tool itself, that is, the forces involved in combat, being themselves effective on the battlefield. In other words, what I described as mode-of-failure A). That in no way changes the fact that an otherwise effective tool can still be misused and the goal still not obtained. I think you misread Clausewitz, badly.

More broadly, your point throws away a great deal of useful detail. A hypothetical Vietnam could have been lost because U.S forces were unable to stand against Vietcong or NVA forces on the battlefield due to a lack of firepower, or poor tactical organization, or poor logistics which rendered their otherwise superior firepower inconstant, or any number of other military failures. Or it could have been lost because U.S. forces could control any battlefield they cared to, but were never directed towards a crucial one, or because the opponent could afford to cede all battlefields for a long period, trusting that the cost of operations itself would become unbearable to the U.S. government. Or....but I'm sure you get the drift.

Ascribing all failure to a good "ass kicking" is cant. It's useless as a form of analysis, telling us nothing about what actually happened or why. I find your concept risible, to say the least.

Posted by: Bernard Guerrero at January 5, 2005 11:17 AM

I think our reading of Clausewitz is one and the same. Only you're not applying it in the situation under discussion. Your second quote is exactly the one I had in mind (didn't have a copy of the book to hand). And your own words: "no strategy can be effective without the tool itself ... being themselves effective on the battlefield." are words I can give an "Amen!".

Now I suppose that, logically speaking, you are arguing that the effectiveness of the tool is *necessary*, though not *sufficient*, to the success of the strategy. Logically then, it is possible to have a military success with a strategic failure. Strategic failure does not *imply* military failure. But frankly, I can't think of a single (other) case where this was true. What other nation had a military victorious in the field and became politically submissive? (Fabian against Hannibal comes close, but it was a political decision for a different military doctrine that led to Cannae).

In terms of analysis: it was an error to conclude that force of arms was a viable option in Vietnam. US military failure is evidence to support that conclusion. The US couldn't escalate far and fast enough to win (without, say, nuking Hanoi). Reading Halberstam's Best_and_Brightest, and watching McNamara of late, it appears that this conclusion was shared by almost every body at the time.

Do you mean "military success" in the sense that the US army wasn't destroyed? Well, later, in Book II, and very apropos of Vietnam (courtesy, project Guttenberg):

"If we speak of the destruction of the enemy's armed force, we must expressly point out that nothing obliges us to confine this idea to the mere physical force; on the contrary, the moral is necessarily implied as well, because both in fact are interwoven with each other, even in the most minute details, and therefore cannot be separated. But it is just in connection with the
inevitable effect which has been referred to, of a great act of destruction (a great victory) upon all other decisions by arms, that this moral element is most fluid, if we may use that expression, and therefore distributes itself the
most easily through all the parts."

We're losing in Iraq in exactly the same way we lost in Vietnam; by slowly attrition of US moral (ditto: Phillipines in early C20th, etc). If we leave Iraq under similar, ignoble circumstances, will it also count as a military success?

The expression "Vietnam was a military success but a political failure" is cant. It's a pious sentiment, a cliche, repeated endlessly by those caught up in their own cognitive dissonance. I mean, what the hell is wrong with saying "We should never have been there in the first place, and the idea that we could impose our will by force of arms over that kind of logistical/cultural/moral gap was dumb."

PS: "Risible"? Why not just "laughable"? Stronger word.

Posted by: Paul G. Brown at January 5, 2005 01:30 PM