The US Military's German Fetish

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    The US Military's German Fetish

    The US Military's German Fetish | Mother Jones

    This is bound to be controversial but it is too interesting of a point to just ignore.

    This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

    "Why do people have a fixation with the German military when they haven't won a war since 1871?" —Tom Clancy

    I've always been interested in the German military, especially the Wehrmacht of World War II. As a young boy, I recall building many models, not just German Panther and Tiger tanks, but famous Luftwaffe planes as well. True, I built American tanks and planes, Shermans and Thunderbolts and Mustangs, but the German models always seemed "cooler," a little more exotic, a little more predatory. And the German military, to my adolescent imagination, seemed admirably tough and aggressive: hard-fighting, thoroughly professional, hanging on against long odds, especially against the same hordes of "godless communists" that I knew we Americans were then facing down in the Cold War.

    Later, of course, a little knowledge about the nightmare of Nazism and the Holocaust went a long way toward destroying my admiration for the Wehrmacht, but—to be completely honest—a residue of grudging respect still survives: I no longer have my models, but I still have many of the Ballantine illustrated war books I bought as a young boy for a buck or two, and which often celebrated the achievements of the German military, with titles like Panzer Division, or Afrika Korps, or even Waffen SS.

    As the Bible says, we are meant to put aside childish things as we grow to adulthood, and an uninformed fascination with the militaria and regalia of the Third Reich was certainly one of these. But when I entered Air Force ROTC in 1981, and later on active duty in 1985, I was surprised, even pleased, to discover that so many members of the US military shared my interest in the German military. To cite just one example, as a cadet at Field Training in 1983 (and later at Squadron Officer School in 1992), I participated in what was known as "Project X." As cadets, we came to know of it in whispers: "Tomorrow we're doing 'Project X': It's really tough …"

    A problem-solving leadership exercise, Project X consisted of several scenarios and associated tasks. Working in small groups, you were expected to solve these while working against the clock. What made the project exciting and more than busy-work, like the endless marching or shining of shoes or waxing of floors, was that it was based on German methods of developing and instilling small-unit leadership, teamwork, and adaptability. If it worked for the Germans, the "finest soldiers in the world" during World War II, it was good enough for us, or so most of us concluded (including me).

    Project X was just one rather routine manifestation of the American military's fascination with German methods and the German military mystique. As I began teaching military history to cadets at the Air Force Academy in 1990, I quickly became familiar with a flourishing "Cult of Clausewitz." So ubiquitous was Carl von Clausewitz and his book On War that it seemed as if we Americans had never produced our own military theorists. I grew familiar with the way Auftragstaktik (the idea of maximizing flexibility and initiative at the lowest tactical levels) was regularly extolled. So prevalent did Clausewitz and Auftragstaktik become that, in the 1980s and 1990s, American military thinking seemed reducible to the idea that "war is a continuation of politics" and a belief that victory went to the side that empowered its "strategic corporals."

    War as a Creative Act

    The American military's fascination with German military methods and modes of thinking raises many questions. In retrospect, what disturbs me most is that the military swallowed the Clausewitzian/German notion of war as a dialectical or creative art, one in which well-trained and highly-motivated leaders can impose their will on events.

    In this notional construct, war became not destructive, but constructive. It became not the last resort of kings, but the preferred recourse of "creative" warlords who demonstrated their mastery of it by cultivating such qualities as flexibility, adaptability, and quickness. One aimed to get inside the enemy's "decision cycle," the so-called OODA loop—the Air Force's version of Auftragstaktik—while at the same time cultivating a "warrior ethos" within a tight-knit professional army that was to stand above, and also separate from, ordinary citizens.

    This idolization of the German military was a telling manifestation of a growing militarism within an American society which remained remarkably oblivious to the slow strangulation of its citizen-soldier ideal. At the same time, the American military began to glorify a new generation of warrior-leaders by a selective reading of its past. Old "Blood and Guts" himself, the warrior-leader George S. Patton—the commander as artist-creator-genius—was celebrated; Omar N. Bradley—the bespectacled GI general and reluctant soldier-citizen—was neglected. Not coincidentally, a new vision of the battlefield emerged in which the US military aimed, without the slightest sense of irony, for "total situational awareness" and "full spectrum dominance," goals that, if attained, promised commanders the almost god-like ability to master the "storm of steel," to calm the waves, to command the air.

    In the process, any sense of war as thoroughly unpredictable and enormously wasteful was lost. In this infatuation with German military prowess, which the political scientist John Mearsheimer memorably described as "Wehrmacht penis envy," we celebrated our ability to Blitzkrieg our enemies—which promised rapid, decisive victories that would be largely bloodless (at least for us). In 1991, a decisively quick victory in the Desert Storm campaign of the first Gulf War was the proof, or so it seemed then, that a successful "revolution in military affairs," or RMA in military parlance, was underway.

    Forgotten, however, was this: the German Blitzkrieg of World War II ended with Germany's "third empire" thoroughly thrashed by opponents who continued to fight even when the odds seemed longest.

    What a remarkable, not to say bizarre, turnabout! The army and country the US had soundly beaten in two world wars (with a lot of help from allies, including, of course, those godless communists of the Soviet Union in the second one) had become a beacon for the US military after Vietnam. To use a sports analogy, it was as if a Major League Baseball franchise, in seeking to win the World Series, decided to model itself not on the New York Yankees but rather on the Chicago Cubs.

    The New Masters of Blitzkrieg

    Busts of Clausewitz reside in places of honor today at both the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and the National War College in Washington, D.C. Clausewitz was a complex writer, and his vision of war was both dense and rich, defying easy simplification. But that hasn't stopped the US military from simplifying him. Ask the average officer about Clausewitz, and he'll mention "war as the continuation of politics" and maybe something about "the fog and friction of war"—and that's about it. What's really meant by this rendition of Clausewitz for Dummies is that, though warfare may seem extreme, it's really a perfectly sensible form of violent political discourse between nation-states.

    Such an officer may grudgingly admit that, thanks to fog and friction, "no plan survives contact with the enemy." What he's secretly thinking, however, is that it won't matter at all, not given the US military's "mastery" of Auftragstaktik, achieved in part through next-generation weaponry that provides both "total situational awareness" and a decisive, war-winning edge.

    No wonder that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld were so eager to go to war in Iraq in 2003. They saw themselves as the new masters of Blitzkrieg, the new warlords (or "Vulcans" to use a term popular back then), the inheritors of the best methods of German military efficiency.

    This belief, this faith, in German-style total victory through relentless military proficiency is best captured in Max Boot's gushing tribute to the US military, published soon after Bush's self-congratulatory and self-adulatory "Mission Accomplished" speech in May 2003. For Boot, America's victory in Iraq had to "rank as one of the signal achievements in military history." In his words:

    "Previously, the gold standard of operational excellence had been the German blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France in 1940. The Germans managed to conquer France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in just 44 days, at a cost of 'only' 27,000 dead soldiers. The United States and Britain took just 26 days to conquer Iraq (a country 80 percent of the size of France), at a cost of 161 dead, making fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison."

    How likely is it that future military historians will celebrate General Tommy Franks and elevate him above the "incompetent" Rommel and Guderian? Such praise, even then, was more than fatuous. It was absurd.

    Throughout our history, many Americans, especially frontline combat veterans, have known the hell of real war. It's one big reason why, historically speaking, we've traditionally been reluctant to keep a large standing military. But the Cold War, containment, and our own fetishizing of the German Wehrmacht changed everything. We began to see war not as a human-made disaster but as a creative science and art. We began to seek "force multipliers" and total victory achieved through an almost Prussian mania for military excellence.

    Reeling from a seemingly inexplicable and unimaginable defeat in Vietnam, the officer corps used Clausewitz to crawl out of its collective fog. By reading him selectively and reaffirming our own faith in military professionalism and precision weaponry, we tricked ourselves into believing that we had attained mastery over warfare. We believed we had tamed the dogs of war; we believed we had conquered Bellona, that we could make the goddess of war do our bidding.

    We forgot that Clausewitz compared war not only to politics but to a game of cards. Call it the ultimate high-stakes poker match. Even the player with the best cards, the highest stack of chips, doesn't always win. Guile and endurance matter. So too does nerve, even luck. And having a home-table advantage doesn't hurt either.

    None of that seemed to matter to a US military that aped the German military, while over-hyping its abilities and successes. The result? A so-called "new American way of war" that was simply a desiccated version of the old German one, which had produced nothing but catastrophic defeat for Germany in both 1918 and 1945—and disaster for Europe as well.

    Just Ask the Germans

    Precisely because that disaster did not befall us, precisely because we emerged triumphant from two world wars, we became both too enamored with the decisiveness of war, and too dismissive of our own unique strength. For our strength was not military élan or cutting-edge weaponry or tactical finesse (these were German "strengths"), but rather the dedication, the generosity, even the occasional ineptitude, of our citizen-soldiers. Their spirit was unbreakable precisely because they—a truly democratic citizen army—were dedicated to defeating a repellently evil empire that reveled fanatically in its own combat vigor.

    Looking back on my youthful infatuation with the German Wehrmacht, I recognize a boy's misguided enthusiasm for military hardness and toughness. I recognize as well the seductiveness of reducing the chaos of war to "shock and awe" Blitzkrieg and warrior empowerment. What amazes me, however, is how this astonishingly selective and adolescent view of war—with its fetish for lightning results, achieved by elevating and empowering a new generation of warlords, warriors, and advanced weaponry—came to dominate mainstream American military thinking after the frustrations of Vietnam.

    Unlike a devastated and demoralized Germany after its defeats, we decided not to devalue war as an instrument of policy after our defeat, but rather to embrace it. Clasping Clausewitz to our collective breasts, we marched forward seeking new decisive victories. Yet, like our role models the Germans of World War II, we found victory to be both elusive and illusive.

    So, I have a message for my younger self: put aside those menacing models of German tanks and planes. Forget those glowing accounts of Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Dismiss Blitzkrieg from your childish mind. There is no lightning war, America. There never was. And if you won't take my word for it, just ask the Germans.

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    Member Array Alf87's Avatar
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    Wow!!! This guy's article really offended me. Idolization of the German Military?????

    I don't recall anything during my 22 years of USAF service that even resembled us trying to be like the German military of WWII. The "Warrior Ethos" he referenced came about for our branch because our deployments found us more and more outside the wire working side by side with the Army. The Air Force then purposefully encouraged change within the mind set of all Airmen by widely using this "Warrior Ethos" term, publishing an Airman's creed and changing our basic training.

    Military's across the globe are constantly training and learning from past battles and wars. If there are similarities to the way a military force trains and conducts itself in comparison to the Nazi's and the German military, this does not mean they idolize them nor want to propogate a Nazi like agenda.

    Again, all I can say is Wow!!

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    Member Array Deuce130's Avatar
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    Clausewitz is often mentioned in the study of warfare. The "German Military" is not. One can study former generals and their methods without adapting the ways of their military. Sun-Tzu is studied and quoted quite a bit, too, but there is no fascination with ancient Chinese military methods. It's a huge leap of logic to tie the study of Clausewitz by military officers to an 'eagerness' to go to war in 2003 by people (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) who likely never heard of Clausewitz much less studied him.

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    Member Array Deuce130's Avatar
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    Just went to the Mother Jones website, tracked down the author of this article and read a few more things by him. Although a retired USAF Lt Col, he seemed to spend most of his time in academia. He also seems to have a fetish with the Germans as many of his articles compare what is happening in our country today with what happened during the rise of Nazi Germany. Most of his pieces rail against the military-industrial complex and our continued involvement in overseas wars. He has some very good points in his articles, but I think the one posted here is a stretch.

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    Our military had a fetish for German tactics. Those tactics worked. A nation of 12 million people, including men, women and children, nearly defeated the world.

    Late in the war we used their own Blitzkrieg tactics against them with great success. In Korea we used it again. Also Korea is when the USAF started adopting Luftwaffe tactics. Our guys were always outnumbered so they started using the German finger four formation. They still use it because it works!

    Just like our armed forces the German army was always outnumbered. They learned how to fight with less numbers but better equipment, training and tactics. It is also what we must do. Sadly if we went to war with China today it would probably go just like the Eastern front for Germany. We would either win early by exploiting our vast superiority in skill and equipment or we would lose to sheer numbers over the long haul. Also the Chinese would be learning to fight better with every defeat and thus get better as time goes on lessening our advantage.

    Those that don't understand history are doomed to repeat it.
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    And that has made all the difference.

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    VIP Member Array mlr1m's Avatar
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    We would either win early by exploiting our vast superiority in skill and equipment or we would lose to sheer numbers over the long haul.
    This is one thing we did not learn from in the defeat of Germany. While they had many superior weapons, they were not able to produce them in great enough quantities or to maintain them in the field. They were defeated by mostly inferior weapons that were able to be produced in mass quantities. In tank battles their tigers could take out an amazing amount of allied tanks before succumbing to the vast numbers pitted against them.

    While we presently have superior weapons would we be able to instantly tool up to produce them in quantities needed for a large scale war such as fought in the second world war? I remember in the first gulf war we had trouble with needed parts for our tanks because our supplier in Japan did not agree with the war. These were flat screen monitors used in the tanks. I have been worried about this for years.

    Michael

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    Evil is facscinating.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mlr1m View Post
    This is one thing we did not learn from in the defeat of Germany. While they had many superior weapons, they were not able to produce them in great enough quantities or to maintain them in the field. They were defeated by mostly inferior weapons that were able to be produced in mass quantities. In tank battles their tigers could take out an amazing amount of allied tanks before succumbing to the vast numbers pitted against them.

    While we presently have superior weapons would we be able to instantly tool up to produce them in quantities needed for a large scale war such as fought in the second world war? I remember in the first gulf war we had trouble with needed parts for our tanks because our supplier in Japan did not agree with the war. These were flat screen monitors used in the tanks. I have been worried about this for years.

    Michael
    All true. That is my point though, German tactics were by necessity the same type of tactics we would by necessity employ today. We can't win a numbers war unless we win it fast.
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

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    Senior Member Array usmc3169's Avatar
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    This guy is way off the mark - Luckily atctimmy already said it and saved me a long and not so coherant rant about ... Ok I just about started. What a m o r o n. nuf said.
    "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

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    mlr1m, I would also point out that the difference in quality of the weapons between the germans and allies was relatively small, compare the HUGE advantage we enjoy over every military around today. (including the germans and brits - I have seen em first hand)

    Its a different ball game today than it has ever been. the Germans had the right ideas early on, and (THANKFULLY) were ruined by micromanagement of a deranged psychopath. We have the tactics and equipment to completely and utterly destroy any army, airforce or navy on this globe. (thank God we are on our side.... most of the time!)
    "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

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    If it wasn't us destroying German ball bearing plants in WWII, we all might have had to learn to speak German. One of the smaller peculiarities of the war, and the saving grace, was their leader was insane and wanted to fight on too many fronts at once. If he had fought each enemy separately, we could have very easily lost. It was all we could do to fight on two fronts, Europe and the Pacific.
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    Distinguished Member Array jumpwing's Avatar
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    The German WWII army was an outstanding example of military organization, armament, and training and it should be studied. People who think the German military was an extension of the SS, Nazism, or Hitler are woefully misinformed about German history in the early 20th century.

    It was an army, one that nearly achieved global domination in spite of it's lunatic leader. Ironically, it was in many ways modeled after earlier empires which had also fallen to corruption and madness.
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    Interesting note: In WW2 the Gemans never lost a battle in which they were equal strength or better. They usually fought odds of 3 to 1 or greater.
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

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    I don't agree AT ALL with the WWII Germany's idea of genocide, Third Reich, and World Domination...but...The American Military of course had or has a fascination with the WWII Germany....The Sturmgewehr, the flying wing, the V1 V2 and the Fritz-x and HS 293 rockets / missiles, the Panzer, the Tiger and the King Tiger, ME 262, synthetic fuel, the Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251 half track, the Panzerfaust, the MG 44, their secret experiments with gravity and nuclear ideas, sloping armor, heck even the VW Bug, etc etc etc.....WWII Germany was so technically advanced it is crazy to say they were not.
    Where do you think we got the ideas for the military stuff we have now. Germany just did not have enough time to perfect them or get enough out, with all their factories being destroyed, to have a influence on the outcome...and a very good thing they didn't have the chance. God Bless those who have fought in that conflict and Thank You.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gearslammer View Post
    I don't agree AT ALL with the WWII Germany's idea of genocide, Third Reich, and World Domination...but...The American Military of course had or has a fascination with the WWII Germany....The Sturmgewehr, the flying wing, the V1 V2 and the Fritz-x and HS 293 rockets / missiles, the Panzer, the Tiger and the King Tiger, ME 262, synthetic fuel, the Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251 half track, the Panzerfaust, the MG 44, their secret experiments with gravity and nuclear ideas, sloping armor, heck even the VW Bug, etc etc etc.....WWII Germany was so technically advanced it is crazy to say they were not.
    Where do you think we got the ideas for the military stuff we have now. Germany just did not have enough time to perfect them or get enough out, with all their factories being destroyed, to have a influence on the outcome...and a very good thing they didn't have the chance. God Bless those who have fought in that conflict and Thank You.
    All the things you mentioned are not the result of a superior military. They are the result of a superior engineering and industrial complex. No one can argure that German engineering is first rate. The german army used it to their advantage. German engineering is still top notch and worthy of emulation/industrial espionage.

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