Small Wars Journal

The Wisdom of Winston

Sat, 02/20/2010 - 5:22am
And so, it begins.

I have departed the Office of Net Assessment, OSD, and for the next four years, at least, I will serve the United States by serving with or among other nation's military forces. This means that, among other things, I can write again. I arrived at the NATO Defense College recently. Not exactly a hardship tour, to be sure. I am in Rome, Italy, for six months. At the end of this gig, so I hear, the odds are not bad that I will go downrange for a while, working as a Strategist for somebody. We will see. Following that...the European Rapid Reaction Corps, Lille, France, where I will be one of about six Americans.

In other words, the only time when I will be among the majority, nationality-wise, for the next four years, will be when I am in Afghanistan. How messed up is that?

Not really much at all, as it turns out. Which is why I not only accepted these gigs, but sought them.

Old Winnie once noted, "It is better to jaw jaw than to war war." Churchill knew whereof he spoke. Although, to the best of this historian's knowledge, he never made a very big deal about it personally or politically, following his deserved dismissal in disgrace in the wake of the debacle of Gallipoli from the post of First Lord of the Admiralty, Winnie did something that few other politicians have done since 1865, he went all military, in person. (His only real peer in this act being Teddy Roosevelt who did much the same following his stint as UnderSec of the Navy, following some hijinks of his own.) He jiined 'th infantry. And, while Teddy's excursion was short, if brutal, it really does not hold a candle to Winston's. Churchill, for at least a little while, was a battalion commander on the Somme Front, in WWI. Folks, as bad as we have it now, that sort of experience defines "suck." (We ought not forget, while we are at it, that Churchill fought in what is now Pakistan as well. His other wars were, technically, as a "correspondent.")

As near as I can tell (and this is sketchy, because the sources are all over the place and you need to adjust for the periods of the major offensives) at that time, in that place, the Brits were taking about 600 casualties every day along their part of the front. And so were the French, on their lines, and of course the Germans and Austrians too. It is no exaggeration to note that conditions, as I said, sucked. Even as a life-long infantryman who has seen his share, I cede that I never experienced the likes that which line dogs did in WWI. And Churchill did this on his own volition. So he knew whereof he spoke.

Which brings me to NATO, and the entire constellation of treaties, and consultation groups, and advisory committees, and Brownie-troop sleep-overs, which sit over any "decision" made about force from these, our allies. The collection of which constantly seem to annoy us Americans, civil and military.

Bottom Line: Their history is not our history. We should understand that.

Yes, we fought a horrific war in which a huge percentage (demographically speaking) of our male population died. But that war was internal, both sides were American, and it ended in 1865. The Brits, our most pugnacious allies even now, fought a war so disgustingly brutal THAT THE AVERAGE HEIGHT OF A MAN IN THAT COUNTRY WENT DOWN BY TWO INCHES. (approximately) Consider that friends. Consider that and gape, particularly when you recall that the same happened to the French, the Germans, and the Austrians. (We don't have good data on the Russians of that period.) Then, barely more than 20 years later, they did it again.

Yah, me too.

Getting my head around those numbers, the sheer volume of them, is difficult. Even for a historian, understanding the breadth of human tragedy from those two wars is difficult. But you have to do it, as an American, if you want to grok. We have not had anything in the American experience to compare it to in almost 150 years. For them, it's right there. It's there in the now-disappeared bombed out medieval center of Bristol, in the shell that is the remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm church in Berlin, in the preserved ghost-village of Oradour-sur-Glan, France, and a thousand other locations.

And so, it seems to me when I think about it dispassionately, logical. For the first time in their history, a bloody and destructive history the likes of which we Americans can barely understand, the Europeans slowly, collectively, came to the conclusion that while they were very good at waging war, war sucks. Then they came to the further conclusion that they should construct systems to keep them from doing, again, that which they are so good at. I submit to my fellow Americans that this is not an unreasonable conclusion, particularly considering the evidence the Europeans live with every day, in the abstract.

And so we return to the wisdom of Winston. We must comprehend our allies. It is not an option. It is not a luxury. It is an imperative, if we are to succeed. As Churchill noted, "The only thing worse than fighting with fighting without them." Let us remember that.


Steve (not verified)

Thu, 10/14/2010 - 8:13pm

"war sucks"

I find it ironic that your homage to W. Churchill should result in almost the antithesis of his ideology. "We must comprehend our allies" indeed, this is true; but Churchill would have been the first to damn our "allies" for failing to step into the breach.

Our European allies have an intimate and tragically complete view of war. Americans, in contrast, by and large haven't experienced a 'home war' ever - even the Civil War was confined to what, perhaps 14 states? One could argue that indeed, their long history of war would grant them a special insight and credence when the subject came up.

I suspect that's a very superficial view. One might likewise and alternately compare it to a man who was badly beaten and robbed, jumping at every shadow and refusing to go outside at night. Churchill himself would argue (and in fact he may have, in his history of the Second World War - it's been a while since I read it) that the searing experience of WWI blinded Chamberlain to the reality of German aggression and allowed the allies to willfully ignore a situation that early confrontation would have made much, much less horrific.

Having an experience grants one an insight that a theoretician doesn't have, I'd concede that. But context matters. And human nature being what it is, it's almost equally likely that an individual takes the WRONG lessons from their experience as the right ones.

I believe Sir Winston would chortle at your conclusion, apparently having missed the former clause entirely in favor of the latter.