Max Boot Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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If we look at World War I, is this a conflict that led not to decisive victory but stalemate, and does that happen often in history?
It does happen often in history. World War I came about because of a historical accident, which was that the technology of the day had jumped ahead but the thinking of the generals on both sides had not kept up with the technology, and in particular the power of defensive technology, because this happened at a period when the defensive happened to have the advantage in warfare. Machine guns, quick-firing artillery, barbed wire, all of these technologies made it very hard to charge across open ground against an entrenched adversary, but it took four years of slaughter for both sides to finally realize the futility of what they were doing, and it was only around 1917 or 1918 that you saw the development of technologies to break the stalemate, for example, the British inventing the tank. But those weren't used decisively in World War I. The British had plans to use tanks decisively in 1919 but thankfully the war was over by then, so this became the technology of the next war and of the next revolution, and it wasn't the British who had the most success in harnessing their own technology.
If we look at World War II, why did the Germans and the Japanese lose? Because at a certain point in their reach for empire they were doing very well.
The conventional explanation of why the Axis powers lost World War II is simply that they couldn't compete in the battle of production lines with the Soviet Union and the United States, that these two countries were so big, so powerful, they could churn out so much machinery and so many people that they simply crushed the Axis with the weight of numbers. There is some truth to that, but it's not a complete or entirely accurate explanation, because in fact, if you look at what the world looked like around 1942, the Axis was pretty powerful, they controlled all of Europe and East Asia. Germany in effect was in charge of what is today the European Union, which has resources comparable to that of the United States.
One of the difficulties they had, however, was they couldn't harness all of the resources at their disposal. In many ways Germany and Japan had incredibly ineffective bureaucracies, hobbled in Germany's case by the fact that it was a one-man show and beneath Hitler there was all this competition and chaos and there wasn't an effective mobilization of resources, which is a little bit paradoxical because this was a dictatorship but it wasn't a very efficient dictatorship and they weren't able to harness their industrial machinery in the same way that the Soviets or the Americans did, much more effectively.
Ultimately it was the fact that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had more resources, but it was also the fact that they were able to harness them better, and also, they got better at what they turned out and how they used it. I mean, the Soviets in particular, by 1943, 1944, became very adept at tank warfare, and the U.S. became very adept at aircraft carrier warfare and at long-range bomber warfare, all these key technologies where they had been behind when the war started but very quickly caught up. If they hadn't caught up, even the fact that they had this giant economic advantage might not have sufficed to delivery them victory.
In a way, this capacity on the part of the U.S. and the Soviet Union was a reflection of what was going on in society, so that the Soviets after major defeats at the hands of the Germans were, under a planned economy, able to mobilize the infrastructure to build anew, to produce all of these tanks, whereas the U.S. coming from a very different place, from the developments of Henry Ford and the private sector, was able to mobilize in the strategic aircraft area.
Right. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with their various different systems, nevertheless had effective means of tapping into industrial technology and churning out tons of tanks, airplanes, all the modern machinery of warfare. And they weren't as different as they might seem, because although the U.S. had a private sector economy and the Soviets didn't, there was a fair degree of state planning and state control even in our private sector economy. It was essentially a partnership between big business and big government which was tremendously effective. The U.S. churned out more machinery than pretty much everybody else combined, and we churned out a lot of the stuff that the Soviets used as well, and were tremendously successful in doing that.
But also, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that we did have generals and admirals who became increasingly effective in utilizing that machinery. This is a point I want to stress, which is that material advantage does not necessarily determine the outcome. It's really how you use it. If you're incompetent enough you can squander any material advantage. You have to have a certain degree of skill in how you utilize it. By 1944, 1945, we had admirals like Halsey and generals like Patton, and others, who were pretty adept at utilizing what our factories were churning out.
On the Soviet side, Marshall Zukov could overcome all of the shortcomings of Stalin.
Right. And gradually Stalin learned to give up some authority, the operational control to his generals, and trust them more and let the professionals do the work of military operations instead of micromanaging and meddling in all these things. Stalin figured out how to be more of a hands-off manager than Hitler, who kept foisting horrible decisions off on his military just because of his whims of the moment.
World War II ends and the use of technology which leads to victory defines the world order for the next fifty years, in terms of the bipolar world that we came to know. Once we recognize that, is it the case that there is a tendency throughout history to fight the last war where you won and then not be prepared for the next conflict?
There is a tendency to fight the last war, but there is also a tendency to fight the next war which never arrives, and these are equal dangers that you have to guard yourself against. We always hear about generals being too conservative and being too prepared to fight the last war and not being ready for the challenges of the day, and of course there are numerous examples of that phenomenon, but there are also examples of the countervailing phenomenon. For example, after 1945 it was assumed by everybody that the atomic bomb would become the key weapon in any future warfare and the U.S. army remade itself for warfare in the atomic age and came up with something called the "pentomic structure," and it ordered all sorts of new weapons designed to fire atomic rounds, including atomic mortars and artillery pieces and tactical aircraft, all of this stuff that in retrospect seems like something out of Dr. Strangelove. And yet this was really how people thought the next war would be fought in the 1950s. Of course it wasn't, thankfully, but there was a price to be paid for this desire to be on the cutting edge, which was that the U.S. military was not so ready for the actual war that it had to fight in Vietnam, which was not a war against an enemy with atomic weapons but a very low-tech enemy, nevertheless very adept at guerilla warfare, which was not a kind of warfare that the U.S. military prepared itself for. So, you have to guard against both impulses, the impulse to be too reactionary but also the impulse to be too cutting edge if the future you perceive is not the one that actually arrives.
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