Monday, October 8, 2012

Antony Beevor's "The Second World War": Strategic analysis and myth-busting

In the acknowledgements to his latest history, TheSecond World War, Antony Beevor says that he wrote this comprehensive tome on one of the biggest events in human history because he wanted to fill in the gaps to his own knowledge of the topic. But, he says, “above all it is an attempt to understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together, with the direct and indirect effects of actions and decisions taking place in very different theatres of war.” In this, Beevor succeeds where no other historian I have read has. Weighing in at 833 pages (with notes), Beevor deftly describes and analyzes the political and military strategic events, people, and decisions that started, fought, and ended World War II. Potentially more importantly, he debunks one myth after another surrounding this war.

Geographically and politically, the European and Pacific Theaters were fairly cordoned off from each other, outside of the involvement of the United States and the British, but not entirely. Beevor pulls the thread to examine how the Soviet victory at Khalkhin Gol in eastern Mongolia in the summer of 1939 ensured that the Soviets stayed out of the eastern war (Beevor is not, of course, the only historian to make this important point) and how that affected both theaters. As he pulls the thread further, the interactions of east and west, Axis and Allies, become more acute. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have almost no strategic interaction (there are a handful of exceptions), but their actions on three or four fronts each create a strategic graph theory problem of biblical proportions for the Allies. As a big-picture example, the United States did not just face a Pacific versus Europe resource competition. The United States faced resource competition between Stillwell’s command supporting the Chinese Nationalists, MacArthur’s forces, Halsey’s forces, the preparation for an invasion of western France, operations in North Africa and then Italy, strategic bombing campaigns on both sides, and Lend-Lease to many a slew of locations. To compound this, American leaders needed to maintain support for the war at home and keep the Alliance together while trying to shape the post-war world through a political minefield of communists, socialists, fascists, colonialists, revolutionaries, and democratists. All while trying to actually win the war. If you consider the number of facets and decisions required in this complex world, multiply these considerations by the same problems with which all of the other Allies (and enemies) were forced to contend. The result is an exponentially large equation to determine the outcomes of a world in flux moving at the speed of a tank. Beevor is at his best in this work when he examines these interdependencies of these fronts, the Allies’ force structure to address them, and the inter- and intra-national political considerations.  For students of strategy, this alone makes The Second World War worth reading.

Beevor is equally as good at myth-busting the saintliness of the war’s heroes, the competence of its tragic warriors, and the general sense that it was, in fact, a “good war.” Almost none of the major players of the war get a pass (more on an exception below). Montgomery was “egotistic, ambitious and ruthless, possessing a boundless self-confidence which occasionally bordered on the fatuous.” MacArthur receives even harsher treatment that includes accusations of gross corruption. Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Patton, Brooke, Bradley, Stalin, Zhukov, Clark, Stillwell, Halsey, et al, are all described by their weaknesses and mistakes as much as they are by their strengths and failures. The sheer volume of egomania among these great captains significantly exceeded their capabilities, as Beevor explicitly demonstrates. That is not to suggest that these were not extraordinary men in extraordinary times - on the contrary. But none of these men were as idyllically competent as many histories would have us believe. The Axis powers are given the same treatment, if not more with rightful criticism focused on their general inhumanity. As a young Armor officer undergoing basic maneuver traing, a number of German officers were still considered gods of mechanized warfare: Rommel, Peiper, Guderian, von Rundstedt, etc. Further analysis, as done in this book, shows that these men were not nearly as good as I was taught. And those that were actually tactically or operationally superior, such as Peiper, were so ruthless with their own men and civilians that their tactics should hardly be extolled, never mind exemplified, by modern Western armies. It is well past time to end this infatuation with German maneuver exceptionalism as it never really existed. (As an aside, my experience has been that those who believe in this exceptionalism also believe, incorrectly in my opinion, in Israeli maneuver exceptionalism. The sooner we end these fantasies, the better for the education of the coming generations of maneuver leaders.)

Before I return to the myth-busting of the “good war” trope, I would be remiss if did not discuss this book’s shortcomings, of which I found two. Anyone who has read extensively on World War II, a population I consider myself a part of despite my just now revisiting the topic after many years, has a pet rock about this war: some issue or topic, preferably obscure and contrarian, which is used by its holder to judge all writing and analysis of World War II.  I have one of these and his name was Major General Philippe Leclerc who commanded the French 2d Armored Division.  Although Leclerc was a competent and brave commander, he had absolutely no regard for the Allied chain of command or unity of effort. He had a reputation for ignoring his orders and doing whatever he pleased for the glory of France and/or himself. There was an obscure incident that occurred in August 1944 towards the very end of Operation OVERLORD during the attempt to trap hundreds of thousands of Germans in the Falaise Pocket. The battle to close the gap and encircle the German forces inside the pocket was hard fought and in the end a victory for the Allies. But at least one Panzer corps (and most likely more) escaped. There were three reasons: Montgomery’s inability to drive his forces south fast or hard enough, Bradley’s indecision, and Leclerc disobeying orders. The really long-story-short is that Leclerc was so excited to end the battle so that he could turn south and spearhead the liberation of Paris that he exceeded his divisional boundary in the Foret d’Ecouves. This caused a massive traffic jam with the U.S. 5th Armored Division and provided the German Army defenders time and space to establish a defensive line that allowed more German forces to escape encirclement (see page 416 at this link). I find Leclerc’s actions unconscionable. In a book that aims to break down the many cults of personality surrounding the key characters of this conflict, Beevor misses this opportunity and gives Leclerc a pass. I will grant the author some forgiveness in that if he picked on the foibles of every division commander in the war (even if this particular one was a prominent player) then this book would expand to be many volumes.  But this is my pet rock and I am miffed that Leclerc’s egomania likely led to the deaths of many soldiers and Beevor did not take a written hammer to him for it.

Some readers will complain that the Pacific Theater receives short shrift in this book. Many of the battles are not detailed, but that is true of most battles in both theaters. This book was not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the fighting, but rather of the strategic decisions and actions that comprised the whole of the war.  Tactics are rarely discussed anywhere unless they are needed for the larger analysis, such as in Stalingrad where the type of fighting played a role in the Red Army’s ferocity in the outbreak that in turn had a number of strategic implications through the end of the war. So yes, Midway gets all of two pages, but that is all that particular battle warrants when not examining the tactical situation of the battle that was irrelevant to strategy in the Pacific. Rest assured that the major strategic concerns of the Pacific are addressed in detail as well as relevant tactical analysis.

No, the second major issue with this book, besides some redundancies, is sloppiness in editing. There are too many sentences that do not make sense because of various errors. Thankfully the errors do not create ambiguity and thus confusion, but they are irritating and interrupt the flow of the book. They also increase in number near the end. It is a rather large book so some errors are expected, but the publisher would do well to give it another scrub before a second printing. Related to this is the index, which is a mess. For example, there you will find in order: Cholitz, Chungking, Chou, Ciano. There is the obvious problem that Chou should precede Chungking, but more importantly is that “Churchill” is not to be found between “Chungking” and “Ciano”.  Winston Churchill is not in the index. That is a major mistake if I have ever seen one.

These problems are overwhelmed by this book’s positive contribution to the study of World War II and military history and strategy in general. Beevor attacks the “good war” campaign and stops it dead in its tracks. The incomprehensible costs of this war should cause anyone about to describe it as “good” to pause. Indeed, fascist and imperialist aggressors and mass murderers were defeated and there is no denying that was a good thing. However, the Western Allies were hardly angels themselves if potentially lesser devils. Atrocities on the ground in the Pacific and western European fronts are detailed and are comparatively benign. But the strategic bombing campaign conducted against civilians on both sides of the war with no tangible military objectives should be viewed through a realist lens. If the Allies had lost the war, its leaders would have been tried for war crimes. And these crimes pale in comparison not only with Nazi and Japanese atrocities, but also with Soviet atrocities and later Chinese crimes. Beevor is also quite harsh on the Western leaders for acquiescing to Stalin on Eastern Europe, saying that they sold out half of Europe to save the other half. He is not wrong in this. It is important to note that Beevor does not suggest that World War II was an unjust war, he in fact says that is (from the Allied perspective, naturally), but rather that we should remove our rosy glasses on the West’s activities during the war and understand analysis of the war and its events for what they are and why “good” is not a descriptor of this war. He describes the war as “so rich a source for the study of dilemmas, individual and mass tragedy, the corruption of power politics, ideological hypocrisy, the egomania of commanders, betrayal, perversity, self-sacrifice, unbelievable sadism and unpredictable compassion.” Indeed this is true. Beevor’s account of it sets a high bar of scholarship and unprejudiced perspective for such study. 


  1. Great review, Jason. So much so that I look forward to borrowing your copy ; )

    Two questions come to mind.

    First - Is the egoism that Beevor found among the great captains in fact necessary to be a great captain? As the scale, scope and stakes of problems expands, does it perhaps require a certain egoism to come up with a solution and see it through, even as the costs inevitably mount and things go not entirely to plan? That's not to excuse ideological thick-headedness or outright arrogance, but surely even the most conscientious leader has to have brass balls to roll the dice with that many lives. History celebrates those who win for their vision, and caricatures the losers as callous or hubristic fools. Perhaps a closer analysis should be more generous in some cases.

    Second - I'm a bit puzzled by the 'good war' narrative that you portray. Perhaps I simply haven't bought in to a caricature that overlooks the horrendous human cost of even the most just war, but in the wake of popular portrayals like 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Band of Brothers', where if anywhere does that caricature survive? Frankly, I encounter far more people who don't believe the costs of war are ever justified, no matter the cause. Which, I should mention, terrifies me as much as neoconservative disregard for such costs. To restate the obvious, the world would be a much darker place (and with probably many more dead) if so many didn't fight so hard, and not only in WWII.

    1. First - my reading is that Beevor generally believes that the egoism more counterproductive than in fact a necessary trait of the great captains. These men exuded more than vision and balls to hang in there when things were most difficult ("these men" being the 4-star commanders generally and includes the political leaders, not the many great battalion to corps commanders). It was their own firm beliefs that their way was the only way to win the operation or the battle. Even if their way was actually a recipe for disaster. Often they went out of their way to screw neighboring or "rival" commanders. This wasn't merely competing for resources, these guys did everything short of attacking their fellow commanders in attempts to achieve glory (and Zhukov came very close to doing so to his own fellow Russian general and any Western Allies stupid enough to cross the Elbe). Somewhat amusingly (and anecdotal to this point), Montgomery used to hand out autographed pictures of himself as thanks and minor awards, Clark did the same, and MacAurthur had prepositioned matchbooks and all sorts of things with his face on them prior to his return to the Philippians. Essential, Beevor draws a picture that the Allies won in spite of their commanders' hubris.

      Second - I often see this "good war" narrative, but probably most in older books (pre-"Saving Private Ryan") and in personal interactions. I'm sure you know this, but the "good war" is directly linked to Studs Terkel's book of the same name. This may be an American perspective alone, but it is pervasive. I would say it's often held by people who also make comments to the effect that France and the UK should still be thankful we saved their asses. Twice. Obviously this is quite stupid.

      What Beevor does not do is not appreciate the sacrifices of so many people to end such evil as that propagated by the Axis powers. He does and essentially ends the book on that note.

      And you're welcome to borrow my copy any time!

  2. Excellent on all fronts, and thanks for the quick reply.

  3. Who was the one exception? You never addressed that. Slim in the Pacific? I have looked long and hard and find little criticism of him in other sources.


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