On War It’s Not
Historical surveys of war and the way technological developments change the way it is fought are common—from the tours de force of major military historians like Martin Van Creveld and William O’Neill to potboilers marketed to 12-year-old boys. In his new book, Max Boot certainly aspires to be among the former, and the enthusiastic recommendations on the book’s dust jacket from no less than Sen. John McCain, Robert Kaplan, retired Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, and Paul Kennedy certainly add to this impression. But War Made New is remarkably superficial and filled with the most extraordinary lacunae. It ignores—by accident or design—the most important developments in modern military technology.
Boot follows the familiar pattern of taking supposedly pivotal battles that changed military history, describing them in a dramatic and easily accessible outline, and then briefly discussing the forces that were their deciding factors. Yet his choice of battles is very bizarre. No chapter in his book covers any major battle of World War I. The Korean War and the Vietnam War are ignored, even though the former is a classic example of a theme Boot celebrates: the superiority of militaries with advanced technology.
With such technology in Korea, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps virtually annihilated the Chinese forces that vastly outnumbered them. Vietnam was different: there, the most advanced military technology, however profusely used, could not end a politically and tactically complex guerrilla conflict. Though the latter example is quite relevant to the United States’ conundrums in Iraq, Boot attempts no significant discussion of the topic. Nor does he discuss any of the anticolonial guerrilla wars, which defined major conflicts for most of the second half of the 20th century, or the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which demonstrated the vulnerability of close support aircraft and main battle tanks to handheld missiles fired by poorly trained conscript soldiers.
But Boot does include a stirring account—filled with simplistic martial clichés that would have made Richard Harding Davis blush—of the combination of horse cavalry and high tech that supposedly worked unprecedented wonders in 2001 to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. The trouble is, as Boot never notes, that conquering Afghanistan is extremely easy. The British did so three times in just over 80 years. In 1979, the Red Army pulled it off 20 times faster than American and Afghan allied forces did in 2001.
There was nothing epochal or revolutionary about the way the 2001 campaign was fought. In fact, it was disastrously bungled. The squeamishness and incompetence of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his right-hand man, Paul Wolfowitz, meant that insufficient U.S. Special Forces were used in the Tora Bora and Anaconda operations, allowing the key command cadres of al-Qaeda to escape—a strategic development with most disastrous consequences for the long-term war on terrorism.
Boot’s chapter on Iraq is even more inept, misleading, and downright wrong than the one on Afghanistan. The chapter’s climax is May 1, 2003, the day President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln—which is like ending an account of World War II with the Nazis’ conquest of France or cutting off “Hamlet” in the first act and claiming that the play had a happy ending. Since that day, of course, the unending violence in Iraq has confounded the Rumsfeld-neocon contention that super-advanced technology has indeed made war new, as Boot claims in his book.
Boot does add a half-hearted and vague discussion of some of the disastrous developments in Iraq since 2003. This is especially notable for its obfuscations clearly designed to get Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Boot’s other neocon friends off the hook for failing to anticipate or prevent any of the developments he mentions. Boot bends over backward to argue that many senior American generals were on record agreeing with Rumsfeld that more troops in Iraq were unnecessary, so no one, as Boot sees it, can be held accountable. Boot neglects to note, however, that Rusmfeld ran the U.S. Armed Forces with more arrogance, hands-on micro-managing, and sheer bullying than any previous defense secretary in American history. Robert McNamara, justly excoriated in the Vietnam era, never came close. Compared to such excellent studies of the Bush-Rumsfeld policymakers’ failure to deal with the developing guerrilla war in Iraq as Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco or Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Boot’s discussion is banal.
Throughout War Made New, Boot’s historical examples of transformational military battles and campaigns are remarkably ill-chosen, capricious, or misunderstood. The battle of Köeniggrätz in 1866, for example, was not the first time rail power was used to achieve decisive concentration of force in war: the campaigns of Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman during the American Civil War were. But neither the Civil War nor Köeniggrätz was the first example of irrepressible firepower massed in combat. In 1815, the 50,000 who died at Waterloo and the thousands of British soldiers slain for negligible loss by Gen. Andrew Jackson’s numerically far inferior forces at New Orleans could attest to that.
Boot correctly notes in passing, but does not further explore, the fact that within four years of Köeniggrätz, artillery had replaced rifles as the main killer in the Franco-Prussian War. This proved to be a far more lasting and lethal development. Artillery, not rifles or machineguns, was the great killer of World War I, especially at the climactic battle of Verdun—which, again, Boot does not discuss. The same was true of World War II.
Boot does, however, rehash the apotheosis of aircraft-carrier power at Pearl Harbor, but even this is bungled. The battle that demonstrated the potency of such power in World War II was not Pearl Harbor but Taranto a year before, when British Swordfish torpedo aircraft knocked out three Italian battleships in their heavily defended home port, thereby wiping out half of the Italian navy’s main striking power in a single blow. The Japanese navy carefully studied the Taranto attack and used it as a model for its attack on Pearl Harbor, making sure to follow the British navy’s placement of wooden fins on its torpedoes to help them operate in the shallow waters of Taranto Harbor. Boot briefly references the Taranto attack but does not discuss the operational lessons that Japan learned from it. Neither does he reference the vulnerability of giant nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to anti-ship missile attack, or the Russian-built N-SS-22 Moskvit—also manufactured by China as the Sunburn—which is designed to sink American super-carriers operating close to shore.
Nowhere does Boot discuss the campaigns of the German U-boats against Britain in both World Wars and that of the U.S. Navy’s submarines against Japan in World War II. Yet these were vastly more strategically important than the carrier battles he celebrates. Boot also excludes the key fact that America’s 12 nuclear aircraft carriers have been sitting ducks for fast-attack submarines since 1968, when a fast Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarine matched the USS Enterprise at top speed in the Pacific Ocean. That moment, vividly and thoroughly discussed in Patrick Tyler’s Running Critical, was as epochal a moment in the shift of the strategic balance at sea as Gen. Billy Mitchell’s sinking of the former German battleship Ostfriesland in a trial attack off Hampton Roads on July 21, 1921. Boot has an excellent account of the latter event but says nothing of the humiliation of the Enterprise. Since 1968, U.S. submarines have routinely scored disabling hits on American carriers in U.S. Navy war games, and the hits, Navy insiders know, are routinely unacknowledged in the official assessments of the maneuvers.
In his discussion of Germany’s blitzkrieg war that brought down France in 1940, Boot plumps for the obvious and gets even that wrong. It is clear that he does not even know what blitzkrieg is. He refers to the successful penetration tactics of the German army on the Western Front in March 1918, but only in passing. He is right to emphasize the importance of good radio communications—as he says, Gen. Heinz Guderian’s experience as a combat communications officer was of great value in this regard—and the importance of close tactical air support. But he does not grasp that the success of blitzkreig did not depend on the massed use of tanks but on their co-ordination with German attacking infantry and air power simultaneously. The German army’s emphasis on leaving tactics to small unit front line officers and the importance of using infantry to clear the way for tanks is nowhere mentioned.
Boot recognizes that France had better tanks than Germany in the campaign of 1940. (It also had lots more of them.) And he recognizes the long-established point that the key reason the French army lost in 1940 is that its ponderous command structure was still mired in the worst aspects of World War I. But he never refers once to the late U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd, the greatest of all American military strategists and certainly the most influential and important of any strategist in the world over the past half century. He doesn’t mention Boyd’s Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) loop concept, despite its being essential to any successful understanding of the blitzkrieg operation. Nor does he mention, or appear to understand the difference, between a highly centralized second-generation army, like the French army in 1940 or the U.S. Army today, and a fast-reacting, decentralized third-generation army, like the German army in 1940. He also appears not to realize that in the course of the war, Hitler systematically stripped the Wehrmacht of its front-line initiative and tactical flexibility—its greatest strengths —and imposed a slow-reacting, ponderous, centralized decision-making structure focused on his person.
Despite being replete with key issues of the impact of technology on war and the lessons to be learned from it, most of them highly relevant today, Boot neglects to refer in any detail to the Russo-German War of 1941-45, the largest and bloodiest war in history. He wrongly claims that Stalingrad was the war’s turning point in the east; serious military historians and analysts almost all concur that the great frontal clash at Kursk in July 1943 was far more pivotal. And he fails to discuss the impact on the war of simple, easily mass-produced but militarily effective weapons, such as the T-34 tank, the Ilyushin Il-2 Stormovik tactical ground support aircraft, or the BM-13 Katyusha multiple rocket mortar that proved so important at Stalingrad and Kursk. (Updated versions of the Katyusha gave the Israeli army a nasty surprise as recently as last July when Hezbollah bombarded northern Israel with thousands of them.)
Furthermore, Boot is misleading in his chapter on modern air-war. As his example of the transforming efficacy of strategic air power—of war made new—he uses Gen. Curtis Le May’s campaign with the USAAF’s XX Bomber Command that burned down Japanese cities in the spring of 1945. But this was shooting fish in a barrel. Japan had neither sufficient technological resources nor the industrial base to create any effective air defense system. Once Le May worked out the tactics of sending in his B-29 Superfortresses flying low and filled to the brim with light incendiary devices, the outcome was inevitable.
In his brief discussion of the Battle of Britain, Boot pays tribute to the pioneering integrated fighter defense system put together by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding of the Royal Air Force. But he does not acknowledge the crucial role that low-tech human spotters, many of them teenagers or retirees, played in supplementing the experimental radar system and giving rapid and accurate observation information about the number of aircraft, location, and altitude of Luftwaffe attacks. He wrongly credits RAF Bomber Command with eliminating half of Germany’s industrial potential by 1945. In fact, through 1943 and 1944, when the British and U.S. Eighth Army Air Force attacks on German industry were at their height, Germany’s industrial production under the direction of Albert Speer soared to record levels.
Boot’s discussion of the future of war and technology at the end of his book is even emptier and more vapid than what comes before. If accuracy in book titles were required, this work would have been called not War Made New but Clichés Made Old. Predictably, Boot sings the praises of DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency so beloved of Rumsfeld and neocon romantics. There is a brief discussion of net-centric war but absolutely nothing about the horrendous problems that the U.S. Army has experienced in trying to integrate its thousands of ad hoc-assembled systems into a new, supposedly fast-moving, and perfectly reliable one. Nor is there any discussion of all net-centric systems’ inherent vulnerability to every kind of dislocation, or of the immense resources China in particular is devoting to asymmetrical warfare programs designed to paralyze American high-tech command and communications systems. The significance of electro-magnetic pulse, or EMP, a byproduct of any nuclear explosion in the atmosphere that can disable electrical systems for hundreds if not thousands of miles around it, is nowhere mentioned, even though the high-tech wonder systems Boot celebrates can be reduced to nothing by it in an instant. And Boot fails to refer even once to the concept of Fourth Generation war, its challenge to the integrity of the nation-state, or William S. Lind’s prolific and valuable writings on it.
War Made New is significant in that it appears to represent an attempt by a prominent neoconservative to reclaim his and his friends’ reputations for expertise on modern war that were so damaged by their repeated and documented incompetence in crafting U.S. policy and dominating public discourse on the Iraq War—not to mention the unfolding fiasco in Afghanistan. The enthusiastic recommendation of Sen. McCain, an acknowledged war hero and the clear Republican frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination, confirms that this bogus rehabilitation remains a very real possibility. The book is therefore of significance as a political and propaganda ploy. But as serious military history or any kind of useful guide to U.S. policymaking, it is simply farcical.
Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International. He has reported from more than 60 countries, covered seven guerrilla wars and ethnic conflicts and been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.