Small Wars Journal

America and a Mohacs-style Military Defeat

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America and a Mohacs-style Military Defeat

Jeff Groom

It was a late summer day on August 29th, 1526, in the town of Mohacs, in present day southern Hungary. The combined military forces of Hungary were under the leadership of their king, Louis II. Opposing them on the plains of Mohacs was an Ottoman army commanded by Suleiman the Magnificent. The battle that followed was a catastrophic loss for the once mighty Hungarians. Their forces were routed, thousands of knights and nobles killed, including their king, and the Kingdom of Hungary was no more.

Their Kingdom was partitioned between the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, and the Principality of Transylvania. For the next one hundred and fifty years their lands were the site of the bloody struggle between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, culminating in the siege of Vienna in 1683, the high point of Muslim expansion in Europe. Only the arrival of Poland’s king with 20,000 mounted Hussars saved the day.

The loss of their kingdom and national identity persists in the national consciousness of present day Hungary.

How did this catastrophe unfold? And are there lessons to be learned as they relate to the state’s responsibility to wage collective defense, especially as the American military readiness crisis has become a focal point of current policy debates?

When the Magyar tribes founded the precursor to the Hungarian state over 1000 years ago the monarchy began to increase its influence by dissolving tribal property and creating their own estates. King Bela III in the mid-1100s started a practice of granting estates of land to an emerging class of barons. Unlike in feudal Western Europe these plots of land were not grants that came with strings attached for taxes, soldiers, or food owed to the monarchy.

In his book The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama explores the rise of the modern state in its various forms. As this practice of granting estates continued the nobility coalesced into a political entity and lobbied the king Andrew II to create and accept the Golden Bull in 1222. From Fukuyama:

“This early constitution limited the power of Hungarian kings so well that effective rule was placed in the hands of an undisciplined aristocracy. Instead of developing a political system in which strong executive power was balanced against that of cohesive legislature, the constitution that the Hungarian noble estate imposed on the monarchy prevented the emergence of a strong central executive to the point that the nation was not prepared to defend itself externally.”

Following a devastating Mongol invasion in 1241 Hungary improved their defensive positions but had to re-organize their military in the process. However, the kings allowed their new military structure to fall outside of the state and under the previously mentioned great barons. This led to a large noble class as de-facto commanders of the military rather than the king and his state.

Power and influence waned back and forth between the state and the nobility but the nobility gradually gained the upper hand through an arrangement called the Diet. This council met annually and had the power to select kings.

In the second half of the fifteenth century the Ottoman threat began to gather. Hungary had one last chance. The Diet demonstrated prudence and elected a noble landowner named Janos Hunyadi followed by his son Matthias Corvinus in 1458. He preceded to modernize the state and created the professional Black Army, modeled after Roman legions. In order train, equip, and field this army taxes were levied on the noble land-owning class.

However, the nobles did not take this for long and on his death in 1490 they reasserted control. They collaborated to place Vladislaus II on the throne. A weak king whose nickname was translated as “very well” for his ease of manipulation, the nobles had their tax burdens reduced by 70 to 80 percent with the resulting decrease in revenues disbanding the previously effective Black Army.

Returning to the Battle of Mohacs, despite the gathering Ottoman army the King Louis II, assuming power in 1516, could hardly muster the nobles and their troops to defend their own country. The army was disorganized, underequipped, poorly trained and led, and had low morale. The rest is history.

Is the current dysfunction in the United States military and the Congress leading to an American Mohacs at some future date with China or Russia? The noble class of medieval Hungary and their relationship between their king isn’t a perfect analogy, but as Mark Twain once said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

From President Trump’s inauguration speech For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” Indeed, the elitists of Washington, D.C. made their wishes known in the 2016 election, favoring Hillary Clinton at the 90% mark.

In October 2017 the Heritage Foundation completed their yearly assessments of all the military branches. Their work analyzed capacity, capability, and readiness, and gave an overall score using the qualitative metric of very weak, weak, marginal, strong, and very strong.

The Heritage reports rated the Marine Corps, Army, Navy, and Air Force readiness as weak, weak, marginal, and marginal, respectively. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in 2017 stated “it took us years to get into this situation. It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”

But just as there was a power struggle between Hungary’s noble class and the state over the costs of common defense, Secretary Mattis and the DoD are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Republicans demand ever larger defense budgets while simultaneously playing tenacious defense for their low tax business incentives and Laffer-Hayek-Friedman worship. Not only are wars not financed through direct taxation, the entire federal budget has been projected to be in the red for decades to come, hitting 33 trillion by 2028. How will “years of stable budgets and increased funding” be achieved other than massive taxation?

Additionally, as Hungary’s political elites gained the upper hand against their state’s tax burdens, an even more sinister and dangerous situation has developed in the United States. The industrial business sector that supplies the armed forces has gained the upper hand against the military itself via their crony allies in the Congress.

Disregarding the Pentagon’s wishes, the Congress pushes more equipment and material than can be utilized or maintained. Take the battle the Army waged from 2012 to 2015 to cut off purchases of the M1 Abrams tank. However, the Congress pushed for hundreds of millions of dollars each year to buy new tanks even though the current models were only two and a half years old on average.

And as former Marine turned Project on Government oversight reporter Dan Grazier has duly investigated, the Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapon system in history, despite 17 years of redesign and development, is still not at the finish line. Cleverly spreading the plane’s suppliers across more than 2,000 subcontractors and 45 states, the boondoggle is simply too big to fail.

Despite the Cold War’s peaceful conclusion over 25 years ago, the military capacity for fighting industrial state enemies has been maintained, capable of fighting two major regional conflicts (MRC) simultaneously. For the Marine Corps, by far the smallest service, this means possessing more combat aircraft than Great Britain. And as noted in the Heritage assessment, only 40% of those aircraft could fly as of December 2016.

 With the recent uptick in fatal military aviation mishaps, Congressmen such as Mike Turner (R-OH) have been grilling senior military brass for answers. Through the lens of the 2 MRC policy, the crisis is fairly straightforward. By law the Marine Corps must fly and maintain enough aircraft to fight two big wars at the same time. This combined with 17 years of war and continuous power projection, there simply isn’t enough money given current deficits to maintain them all. This sorry state of affairs led the Commandant, General Neller, to declare in 2018 that the Marine Corps had “too many airplanes.”

A similar story plagues the other services. In the Army, 21 Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) of 4,500 soldiers apiece are required for one major contingency. And in 2017 only 3 of the 58 are considered ready for combat.

Cutting excess capacity via Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) has not been conducted since 2005, despite numerous futile attempts.  The latest iteration of BRAC claims the DoD is operating at 22 percent over capacity, however these bills are quickly picked apart district by district in the Congress lest they face their constituents whose bellies are filled with satisfying pork.

How can change be affected? If current trends hold, one of two outcomes is likely. A catastrophic military defeat that exposes the corruption of the system and serves as a spark for change, or the fiscal reality of future deficits forces a reorganization. Either scenario is regrettable and avoidable yet without the political willpower coming from either party, only the future will tell. America suffering a Mohacs-style military defeat would indeed be poetic irony, as the plains of Mohacs were dotted with Swampy marshes.

 

About the Author(s)

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). You can follow him at @BigsbyGroom.

Comments

Groom refers to the “once mighty Hungarians” at Mohacs in 1526, but the fact is that despite prevailing over the Mongols 150 years earlier, Hungary was a relatively small country surrounded by much larger neighbors.  For the duration of Hungary’s wars with the Turks, the latter had a numerical population superiority of 3 to 7 times that of the Hungarians, who never numbered more than 2.5 million.  Not only were the Hungarians defending themselves against the Habsburgs, they were also occupying the Croats and Transylvanians.  Turkey advanced into Europe over a period of centuries, and its size enabled it to withstand defeats and consolidate gains; alone, the Hungarians stood no chance.  The “Hungarian” army at Mohacs consisted of three separate forces, in addition to five satellite forces; mercenaries also played an important role as they did in all European armies at the time.  I do not see how the Hungarian military in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries is comparable in any meaningful way to the American military of the 21st Century. 

 

Though American civil-military relations are indeed dysfunctional, neither Russia nor China are immune from these problems; in fact, they are worse.  Putin’s attempts to rapidly reform and professionalize the Russian military met with considerable resistance (Serdyukov’s ouster), resulting in poor performance in Georgia and Syria.  As for China, Xi only began the process of dismantling the PLA’s lucrative and corrupt business activities in 2016, and despite the 2019 deadline it will be difficult to curb a 40-year practice; nor is the scale of the practice of selling military promotions known.  As for capabilities, neither Russian nor Chinese wunderwaffen have been tested in war, and neither possess a truly joint force.  Russia seems focused on preparing to fight a ground war without airpower, while China seems to believe that “the missile will always get through”.  A “Mohacs-style military defeat” would suggest a Russian and/or Chinese offensive capability (e.g. stealth strategic bombers) that neither possess. 

 

The struggle against corruption and corporate welfare is an important one, and needs to be fought tooth-and-nail.  However, readiness, inter-service competition for resources, and bureaucratic sprawl are problems that all militaries face; especially in peacetime