Tyee Books

The Canadian Way of War

Robert Citino's 'The Wehrmacht Retreats' makes a powerful case for war as an expression of national culture.

By Crawford Kilian 12 Nov 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Our understanding of Germany in the Second World War is largely shaped as much by mythology as by fact. A monstrously evil dictator launched a terrifying new kind of war on the world. After titanic battles, the West -- mostly Britain, the U.S., and Canada, with a walk-on part for the Soviets -- defeated the evil dictator through greater military genius and the resources only capitalist democracies can generate. Within this mythology there is room for plenty of individual heroes, whether spies or four-star generals, all demonstrating how their personal virtues led to triumph.

In The Wehrmacht Retreats, Robert Citino portrays a different war altogether. A specialist in German military history, he makes a powerful case for war as an expression of national culture. That culture's way of war, he argues, can outlive its time and lead to disaster -- as it did for Germany and has for other nations.

Citino is a lively and irreverent writer, easily escaping the tedium of describing the attack of this tank regiment or the retreat of that infantry brigade. He structures his book around three major campaigns in 1943: the invasion of North Africa, the battles of Kharkov and Kursk in Russia, and the Allied attacks on Sicily and then Italy.

The key point of the German way of war, as Citino presents it, is that it emerged not in 1939-40 with the blitzkriegs against Poland and then France, but in 18th-century Prussia. A relatively small, poor country surrounded by more powerful neighbours, Prussia lacked resources to support big armies and long campaigns. But its king, known to us as Frederick the Great (1712-1786), was a brilliant military thinker and warrior.

Winning the war of maneuver

Frederick devised a new kind of war: Bewegungskrieg, a war of maneuver. It involved aggressive attacks by well-trained and highly mobile forces, capable of surprising and defeating much larger forces as quickly as possible by encircling and crushing them.

Frederick's Prussia thereby gained profound respect from other European countries. When Napoleon invaded Prussia, he is said to have led his generals on a visit to Frederick's tomb in Berlin: "Hats off, gentlemen," Napoleon ordered them. "If he were still alive, we wouldn't be here."

Prussia came back to help defeat Napoleon, and then waged a series of "short, lively" wars against its neighbours; they led eventually to the unification of Germany and its rise as a major power. Prussian officers ran the new German army, the Wehrmacht, on Prussian military doctrine based on Prussian success.

Losing the war of position

The First World War was of course a serious challenge to the German way of war. When the Wehrmacht failed to knock France out of the war in the fall of 1914, both sides settled into a war of position, a Stellungskrieg where victory depended on the sheer mass of soldiers and resources.

Having lost that war, the Wehrmacht explored new technology that would restore the advantage of maneuver. They became masters of tank and air combat, and launched the Second World War as a classic Prussian assault: fast, aggressive, and reliant on the tactic of surrounding and crushing the enemy's forces.

Citino shows how the German way of war worked very well, but failed when it ran into the Soviet way of war -- based on pouring enormous numbers of soldiers into repeated blows against its adversary, damn the cost in lives and resources.

Hitler, who despised his Prussian generals, had no response to the Soviets but to order his armies to die where they stood. At Stalingrad in 1942 they did just that, and in 1943 the Germans tried to revive a war of maneuver in tank battles that failed to regain lost ground.

Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht was also facing the Americans' first foray, the invasion of North Africa. The American way of war was based in part on maneuver but even more on sheer firepower -- "a demonstrated ability," Citino says, "to blow things up." The Germans in North Africa could bloody the Americans' noses at Kasserine Pass, but couldn't resist the endless onslaught of tanks, bombers and naval power. It wasn't elegant, but it worked.

Citino's description of the invasion of Sicily vividly illustrates the differences in the combatants' war cultures. The Germans saw the invasion fleet, knew they couldn't win, and carried out a brilliant retreat to the Italian mainland. The British, deeply suspicious of American fighting ability, sent the Yanks across the island on a dramatic but irrelevant march (remember George C. Scott in Patton?) Sicily itself was irrelevant in many ways, except to give the Italian army a chance to surrender en masse and thereby help pull Italy out of the Axis.

Blowing things up from a distance

Citino's focus is on the Wehrmacht and how it was both enabled and crippled by its way of war. But his concept of military culture is also useful for understanding how other nations fight. The American way of war matured rapidly between the Kasserine Pass and Hiroshima, but it too has its limits: it still believes in blowing things up, preferably from a distance.

Patton scandalized his colleagues when he said: "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." But heavy American casualties had already become politically unacceptable, and the American way of war for almost 70 years has emphasized the use of technology to minimize the risk to American personnel.

For almost as long, blowing things up as a way of war has had its limits. The U.S. Air Force left scarcely a building standing in North Korea by 1953, but the war still ended in a stalemate. In Vietnam, helicopter gunships and B-52s were no match for punji sticks and supplies hauled in on bicycles down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After a decade of futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans now blow up wedding parties with drones. The American way of war is a good argument for not going to war at all.

Canada's style

And does Canada have a particular way of war? Actually, it does. Frederick the Great was good at fighting his next-door neighbours (Citino describes him as appalled at the idea of Britain fighting rebel colonists across the Atlantic). We, however, know better than to fight our American neighbours. But ever since the Boer War, we've found a niche in British and American expeditionary forces, hired guns in other people's wars and shaky ceasefires.

So we fought in South Africa, and then in the trenches of the First World War, and we took our lumps at Dieppe and other European theatres. We shipped over 25,000 soldiers, sailors and fliers out of Vancouver to Korea in the early 1950s. At the behest of the UN after the 1956 Suez crisis, thousands more have gone overseas as peacekeepers.

In recent years we've reverted to our hired-gun role -- in the 1991 Gulf War, NATO's Kosovo campaign, Afghanistan, and most recently in helping NATO to bomb Gaddafi out of power. In all those cases we've essentially followed the American way of war: insulated in a technological cocoon, making forays against a largely unseen enemy. We don't take the casualties we suffered at Vimy, but we haven't scored Vimy's kind of decisive victory.

Such a way of war doesn't bring much glory, but -- like peacekeeping -- it serves a political purpose by pleasing our allies. As one historian has said about our role in the Gulf War,

…the Canadian government got exactly what it wanted: an active, if limited, participation at arms-length from direct American control -- and to a degree to which a middle power with a limited defence budget can realistically aspire in the expensive high-technology business of modern war. Within their assigned roles, the Canadian Forces dispatched to the Gulf performed admirably, providing their government with a credible military presence in support of the delicately balanced policies of the Cabinet at home and our Ambassador at the United Nations.

Truly, a Canadian way of war.  [Tyee]

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