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MACGREGOR: Remember the Blitzkrieg before it’s too late
Seventy years ago today, on May 10, 1940, the German armed forces launched the deep-penetration attack through southern Belgium to the English Channel that split the French and British armies in two - a form of warfare known to the world as Blitzkrieg or “lightning war.” Three weeks later, the campaign ended with the German subjugation of France, Belgium and the Netherlands and Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from the European continent.
To contemporary Western military observers accustomed to the grinding attrition battles of World War I, Germany’s incredibly successful Blitzkrieg seemed magical. But there was no magic. For any great victory to occur, the winning side must get most things right while the losing side gets most things wrong.
The Germans got most things right. They integrated new technology into new organizations - radio communications, tanks, armored infantry and air power - under vastly superior battlefield commanders, commanders who led Germany’s superbly educated, physically fit and trained soldiers from the front, not the rear. But it’s what the British and French got wrong that should command America’s attention.
In the 1920s, Britain’s top generals focused the British army on organizing, training and equipping its troops to police the declining British Empire. British military leaders decided the only enemy Britain would fight for at least 10 years would be a colonial enemy, a hostile tribesman or insurgent. The long-term results of this thinking were nearly fatal to Britain.
Soon after Poland’s defeat, Sir Winston Churchill privately acknowledged that Britain had nothing to match the Germans in land warfare. Britain lacked modern war-fighting equipment and the officers trained to use it. So, Churchill played for time, replacing colonels and generals who excelled at suppressing Arab insurgents in Palestine or Pashtun tribesmen in northwestern India but performed poorly against the skilled German and Japanese armies. Unfortunately, Churchill’s efforts were too late to prevent a string of British defeats stretching from Paris to Singapore.
In France, where defense spending rose to account for one-third of all government expenditures by 1939, there was no shortage of modern equipment, only a shortage of competent senior leadership in the general-officer ranks. “Methodical battle,” a concept of war-fighting emphasizing set-piece battles and the application of preplanned firepower over maneuver, was enshrined as the French national vision of future war. Its strategic effect was devastating. When French politicians asked why the French army could not attack Germany to support France’s Polish ally in 1939, the army’s commander in chief, Gen. Maurice Gamelin, insisted the French and British armies must prepare for the “long war” with an offensive in 1941 or ‘42.
Today, stars will only fall on American Army and Marine officers who religiously embrace counterinsurgency inside the Islamic world as the future. The notion that the generals have “discovered” a military solution to Islam’s societal misery in the form of counterinsurgency is untrue, but no one in the White House, the Senate or the House, let alone the media, is willing to challenge it.
In truth, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and a thousand other places are complex problems rooted in local societal and governmental failures, destructive social pathologies and widespread resistance not only to foreign military intervention, but to modernity in general. The historic lessons of Iraq, Algeria, Libya, Palestine and Afghanistan have far more to do with avoiding the hazard of occupation in the first place and, thus, eluding the problem of insurgency altogether.
But armies are what they do, and, for the moment, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are light constabulary forces designed to police Muslim Arabs and Afghans with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mines. This conversion to light forces designed to operate from fixed bases while depending heavily on timely and accurate air strikes for effectiveness and survival has left American ground forces in a weakened, vulnerable state.
For the United States, the critical military lesson of May 10, 1940, means avoiding Britain’s mistake of optimizing its forces to fight weak insurgents, especially when Muslim rebellions against unwanted American military occupations are easily avoided. It also means understanding that future conflicts will involve wars among nations and alliances of nations waged by powerful armed forces for regional power and influence; fights for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create. Otherwise, the generals’ current obsession with counterinsurgency will leave the American armed forces as unprepared for a real war in 10 years as the British and French forces were for their confrontation with Germany in 1940.
Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor is a decorated combat veteran and the author of four books. His newest book is “Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting” (Naval Institute Press, 2009).
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