The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
THERE is a basic paradox in coupling the word "defense" with modern military means and methods. The atomic bomb, the long-range plane, the giant missile have demolished so many "security" concepts that defense, measured by any military yardstick, has become chiefly a reflex of retaliation. In a search for defense, men have broken the boundaries of space and solved many of the mysteries of nature. But, ironically, they have made themselves less secure than before. The rise of nation-states, the growth of populations, the industrial revolution and a new technological revolution have made war "total." "Defense" is completely incompatible with the realities of modern warfare, and if it dominates the military thinking of a nation it is a term synonymous with defeat. No theory of limited liability, of defensive strategy or tactics, can win the war of tomorrow.
Man's attempts to limit the destructiveness and outlaw some of the horror of war are not likely to succeed unless power is linked to reality. The great general problem of the twentieth century, as of all past centuries, is to harness justice with power, idealism with realism. Moral factors -- the ebb and flow of intangible forces, the surge of national wills, the things of the spirit, man's consciousness of right and wrong -- are realities and cannot be omitted from any reckoning of power which pretends to be trustworthy. But the fact remains that though moral scruples, embodied in such international laws as the divided peoples of the earth have come to accept, may serve as deterrents to aggressor nations, the fear of a swift counter-punch -- retaliation in kind -- is in the present state of affairs the weightiest argument against aggression. The American military problem is how to land that counter-punch. That is the problem of "defense," and it obviously has many aspects.
But before the strategic problem confronting the United States can even be posed, Americans must examine and dismiss some of the errors and half-truths that color our military thinking. There can be no understanding of the military problem unless we rid our minds of some of the shibboleths that cluster around it. The following pages are an attempt to clear away certain of the fallacies which encumber discussions of military problems in the United States, and to suggest some of the lessons which may justifiably be drawn from recent military history. Though so restricted an analysis will not provide answers to the American strategical problem, it may help make the nature of that problem clear.[i]
The first fallacy:
As a people we are prone to wishful thinking, and lack the long view of history. The fallacy that underlies so much of our overoptimism, and hence of our moods of disillusion, is the assumption that we can get peace overnight and cheaply -- by declaring ourselves in favor of it. But unfortunately there is no evidence in history (or in the behavior of men today) for the belief that the millennium is just around the corner. Permanent peace -- a world without war -- has been the goal of generations; it is "a consummation devoutly to be wished." But there seems no likelihood that war will be abolished in our generation, or, indeed, for many generations to come. Peace is a process of education, and man learns slowly. Each succeeding generation, it seems, must relearn some of the bitter lessons of the past. There is progress. The United Nations -- weak though it may be -- is stronger than was the League of Nations. There is no reason for absolute despair. The scope of modern war and the horror of its instruments of devastation are, in themselves, a check upon its inception. Yet no nation is ready to build its policy upon that foundation alone.
The second fallacy:
The assertion that "We were unprepared" has been applied, with almost monotonous repetition, to the state of American armed forces before World War I, before World War II, in fact before all our wars. But the statement is sophistry. For what were we unprepared? Preparedness is relative, not absolute; there are degrees of preparedness. Before the Second World War this nation had a navy equal to any and the best long-range bomber in the world; the National Guard had been federalized, conscription had started, and the factories of the country already had commenced the manufacture of war orders. Nevertheless, we were, of course, "unprepared" for the war that developed. We shall always be similarly unprepared; for there is no such thing as absolute preparedness and it is futile to strive for it. Germany, for instance, was prepared for the Polish campaign, but not for the war she got. Not even totalitarian states -- much less democracies -- can indulge in the luxury of absolute preparedness in time of peace. Complete preparedness is a will o' the wisp; it has led any country which attempted to achieve it to destruction.
The third fallacy:
The beguiling belief that "A strong army and navy will prevent war" is the twin of the "unpreparedness" argument. The assertion that armaments mean security is denied by all history. There is no such thing as security from war. The greatest armaments -- those of Sparta, Persia, Macedonia, Rome, Carthage, France, Germany, Japan, Russia -- have never brought either inviolability against attack or certainty of victory. The greater the armaments, the greater the temptation to embark upon an imperialistic war and to strive for "absolute" preparedness -- which is likely to mean casting the rest of the world in the rôle of potential enemies. Merely because there is no safety in flabby weakness does not make it necessary to fly to the opposite extreme and seek safety in excessive armaments. Excessive military weakness can invite attack; excessive military strength can precipitate war. There is a happy mean in armaments as in politics.
The fourth fallacy:
This, the fallacy that "Disarmament means insecurity," [ii] is the corollary of the foregoing. It stems from a distorted view of the history of the 1920's, a view always popular to chauvinistic opinion which has found wide acceptance during the present postwar crisis. In this view, the gallant and idealistic United States was the dupe of clever international politicians, and was hornswoggled out of its rightful power at the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921. The Washington Conference, in fact, halted a rapidly growing naval race between the United States and Britain, and formalized for the United States a position of naval parity with Britain -- an inestimable gain, for it provided a foundation for the subsequent naval partnership between the two countries. The Washington Conference did, however, give Japan virtual strategic hegemony over the western Pacific, though our error in this regard was more political than military. It was compounded by our failure to enter the League of Nations, which so disastrously cramped the effectiveness of that organization and nullified the political, psychological and military results achieved by the armaments limitations conferences.
The limitation of armaments does not, of course, mean insecurity -- unless a Great Power indulges in disarmament unilaterally, which we have never done. Limitation of armaments will not end war, for armaments are not the primary cause of war, but rather surface evidence of a deeper infection in the body politic, international or national. But excessive armaments, particularly races in armaments, do add to the multiple frictions which bring on war, and though arms limitation will not abolish war, it does tend to limit its frequency and scope -- which is no minor goal.
The fifth fallacy:
This is the fallacy that "The United States will be the first area to be attacked in any future war." This glib assertion -- which is another half-truth -- has had popular acceptance now for a quarter of a century, though it has not yet been proved valid. Postwar military prophets after World War I warned that the next war would bring the weight of enemy attack first upon American soil. They were wrong. Unless United States diplomacy becomes utterly bankrupt they may well be entirely wrong again, for the basis of our whole past strategy has been, of course, to fight our wars overseas. And the object of our diplomacy (as applied to strategy) has been to ensure that there would be bases overseas for the United States, whence our military power could be applied to the enemy, and to gain allies so that we would not fight the war alone. The technological revolution in weapons and the great range of the plane and the missile which will make transoceanic attack feasible enhance the possibility that a future world war will begin with an attack upon American cities. But though our cities may be among the first places to be attacked in any future war, no potential enemy could possibly afford to neglect the danger spots nearer his own borders from which we might launch attacks against him. So long as the United States possesses allies and bases overseas, the objective of any enemy must be neutralization or conquest of those positions. A concurrent attack upon the continental United States would be, of course, possible, but our own advantage would be considerable so long as we possessed positions overseas and the enemy did not.
The sixth fallacy:
This is the fallacy that "Invasion of the United States is now possible." Neither now nor in the foreseeable future is the largescale, physical invasion of the continental United States by troops probable. Today it is virtually impossible. Invading forces can come to the United States only by sea or air, and distance and geography -- though foreshortened in the air age -- still have strategical and, above all, logistical meaning. Only at the Bering Strait, where Alaska abuts closely to the land-mass of Eurasia, are the distances separating us from potential enemies small enough to permit the large-scale transport of armies by air. And even in Alaska and the contiguous coast of Asia, communications are so difficult and climate so severe that large-scale airborne operations would be exceedingly hazardous. So long as we "control" the sea and the air no large-scale, physical invasion, like the Normandy invasion or the other amphibious and airborne operations made famous during the last war, are possible. Small-scale airborne operations -- involving the transportation of régiments or even a division of men -- might be accomplished, though without air superiority they would be very difficult.
The history of airborne operations attests to their complexity, and the ocean distances that still separate us from potential enemies make any large-scale invasion through the air impossible in the immediate future, whether or not the enemy enjoys air superiority. In the more distant future they will be exceedingly difficult, though not impossible. The danger of invasion of our shores by large bodies of armed men is not a major problem of this nation. Yet such are the range, flexibility and speed of modern weapons that invasion by troops may not be necessary to future conquest. In the century of the atomic bomb, supersonic missiles, long-range jet planes and high-speed submarines, the strategic problem for the United States is not defense against invasion, but protection against assault.
Set in this frame and stripped of some trappings of myth and half-truth, the dimensions of the United States strategic problem in the atomic age come into clearer perspective. Yet that problem cannot be stated even in general terms until we have first considered some of the broad lessons taught us -- with blood and mourning, tears and sweat and misery -- in World War II.
The war did not develop new principles. For the principles of war -- that is, the broad "rules" of the art of fighting -- are immutable; "their interpretation and application will vary greatly, but their substance is the same."[iii] Hannibal annihilated the legions of Rome in the "perfect" battle at Cannae in 216 B.C. Eisenhower, using precisely the same tactic of the "double envelopment," crushed the last cohesive German armies of the west in the Battle of the Ruhr in 1945. Many air enthusiasts, bred on the doctrines of Douhet, Mitchell and Seversky, have claimed that "strategic bombardment" or air attack upon cities, civilian populations and factories introduces a new principle of war in that it focuses military effort upon the civilian rather than the military populations of the warring nations. But pressure behind the military lines has been an old tactic of warfare since the days when Attila the Hun and Jenghiz Khan ravaged, burned and looted Europe. The naval blockade is an indirect form of such pressure; the siege and sack of walled cities in the Middle Ages, Sherman's march through Georgia and Sheridan's devastation of the Shenandoah Valley are all examples of precisely the same tactic that the air age has adopted -- the application of military power to civilian and behind-the-line installations. The instruments have changed and the plane and the atomic bomb have extended the potential area of devastation of the scourged and ravaged earth to the infinite; but the principle of ruthlessness is still the same.
Despite the universality of military principles, it is well to recall that war still is and always has been an art, not a science. It includes, adumbrates and transcends all sciences. Yet military operations are not scientific. They cannot be marshalled in the exact phalanx of equations, particularly in this era of total war, when they include not merely the clash of armed men but the activity of the entire population of the belligerents. The inexact and the intangible are as much a part of modern war as the finite. It is necessary to emphasize this at a time of technological revolution in warfare, lest we tend to think of future war solely in impersonal, "push-button" terms. Science and the armed forces must, of course, be closely harnessed, but war remains an unscientific occupation. Like genius, it represents an infinite capacity for taking pains; yet the art of taking pains can lead to its own confusion. The Germanic cult of precision and the propensity of the Prussians for trying to give detailed, practical application to vast and cloudy generalities (viz., some of the mumbo-jumbo produced in the name of geopolitics) have not been without influence in the United States.
With such reservations, we may list a few of the major strategical lessons of World War II.
First, victory in modern war is no longer won by the big battalions but by the big factories. This has been increasingly true since the industrial revolution; Forrest's "To git thar fust with the most" now must be amended "To git thar fust with the most fire power." The Russian front in the last war would seem to refute this lesson, and it is true that massed manpower still can be a factor of military strength. But the Russians used masses of men not through choice but because of necessity. Men in great numbers substituted for machines and fire power, in which the Russians were relatively weak. Even so, the masses of men used on the Russian front were probably less dense in proportion to the extent of that front than the numbers used in the west, and the Russian quantitative superiority in manpower could never have overcome the armaments without the powerful intervention -- primarily with fire power -- of the western allies. The mass army (with manpower as the yardstick of strength) has declined steadily in importance, and the technological revolution in weapons of the last few years has accelerated the trend.
Our victory in World War II was primarily and fundamentally an industrial victory, a victory in which the factories of America supplied not only our own armies but the forces of our Allies. The United States was, irrefutably, the "arsenal of democracy;" the statistics of our industrial effort are gargantuan, unprecedented. It used to be said, for instance, that a nation must fight a war with the navy it possessed at the outbreak, so complex and so difficult is the construction of men-of-war. Yet we produced during World War II fleets that completely dwarfed our prewar navy; the naval and mercantile ships that went down our ways easily exceeded the combined tonnage of all the fleets of the world. Our factories produced by far the greatest air force in history and gave us an army more thoroughly equipped than any that had ever gone forth to battle. And we shipped to our allies, over thousands of miles of sea, the equivalent in dollar value of enough military equipment to outfit completely 2,000 infantry divisions -- more divisions, by far, than there were in all the world. In short, the big factories of America won the Second World War.
Incidental to the growing importance of industrial strength which made massed machines rather than massed manpower the determinant of victory, was the decline in importance of generalship (though not of leadership). Generals and admirals (though particularly generals) became -- at least in the highest ranks -- general managers rather than tacticians and strategists. Particularly in the early days of the war, before the industrial output of war matériel had risen to such unprecedented peaks, there was still a premium on skill in manœuvre and on a nice sense of terrain and timing. Rommel, who did much with little, exemplified this "dying" art of generalship perhaps better than any other individual of World War II. But for the most part, the higher ranking generals had to be a combination of politician, personnel director, inventory clerk and general manager. Once the big factories of America had outstripped the factories of the Axis, the Allies could scarcely have lost the war no matter what mistakes in generalship were made. After 1943, there was no single American general or admiral of whom it might be said -- as it was said of Jellico at Jutland -- that he could "lose the war in an afternoon." Industrial strength is a major factor in military power and a major measure of national power in the modern world.
Second, the continental United States is not only arsenal and supply base, but is now the main operating base for our armed forces. This development will be speeded as the range of weapons increases. During the war our entire global strategy was directed from Washington; headquarters was not on horseback, as in Napoleon's or Lee's day, or in the field at all. Our B-29 Super-Fortresses were directed strategically and sometimes even tactically from Washington. The Navy's floating-base system, which uses supply ships, floating machine shops, barracks ships, etc., to support the combatant ships, was prepared and provisioned and supplied in the continental United States. More and more as the war progressed, not only supplies but operations tended to stem outward from the United States to the foci of fighting. As transoceanic, trans-polar, and ultimately around-the-world ranges are achieved, the continental United States will become more and more completely the main operating base of our armed forces as well as their manufacturing and supply base.
Third, the offense has so far outstripped the defense that our strategic concepts have been altered fundamentally. This superiority of offense over defense, which reversed the trend of World War I, when the machine gun and the trench-system locked the fighting fronts in bloody stalemate, became apparent almost as soon as World War II commenced. The basic theory of Blitzkrieg is movement. The Germans maintained their mobility (which neither Allies nor Germans had been able to do a quarter century before) by coupling fire power to the plane-tank spearhead. As the war developed, and the bomber came into its frightful heritage, the offense gained even greater ascendancy. By skillful choice of terrain, prodigious feats of fortification, and very careful use of manœuvre and counterattack, a nation fighting a defensive war might hope -- for a time -- to ward off its enemy's ground attacks, but there was little hope of averting bombing assaults. At one time during the war the ascendancy of the offensive seemed to be checked by the development of the anti-tank gun, radar and other equipment, but it became more and more pronounced in the closing years with the introduction of the robot V-1 "flying bomb," the supersonic V-2, the submarine with schnorchel and high underwater speed, and the atomic bomb.
These last weapons heralded the technological revolution through which we are passing, and foreshadow the nature of the next war. The evolution thus scarcely begun has developed with considerable rapidity. Weapons will, in the next three decades, approach the ultimate in range, power and speed. Clearly forecast on the world's proving grounds and in its laboratories are supersonic transoceanic missiles; high-speed submersibles with rocket-firing facilities (the first true submersibles in history, able to cross the oceans under water); biological poisons; radioactive dusts; gases far more toxic than the German Tabun wartime series (which outmoded all previously known war gases); and more atomic bombs. These and other frightful agents of destruction have conferred upon the offense a great and growing lead over the defense. The coming long-range missiles have in particular altered all American strategical concepts.
The United States is now more vulnerable to assault than ever before. For the first time in history we have "live" frontiers -- frontiers of the air through which missiles may move across the Pole or across the seas at supersonic speeds, frontiers of the underseas, whence modern and unseen leviathans may launch devastating attack upon our coasts. These live frontiers, and the increasing lead of the offense, seem to make the problem of American defense hopeless of solution, if the word "defense" is used in its old, narrow sense. The best and only defense against atomic bombs, long-range, globe-girdling planes, intercontinental missiles and induced plagues would appear to be a strong offense -- the threat of worse blows against the enemy homeland than any the enemy can deliver against us. This means reorientation of our traditional American military policy to an offensive concept and the maintenance of a completely equipped mobile force ready for instant action.
Fourth, modern war is "total" far beyond the imagination of even those who coined the phrase. The totality of effort of the United States and of all other major nations that participated in the Second World War far exceeded national efforts in any preceding wars. The trend has been inevitable since the advent of the industrial revolution. The growing importance of the factories put a wartime premium upon the man behind the lines. Then the plane made possible the attaque brusquée upon homes, factories and civilian morale, and made the civilian a part of the war machine. Missiles and atomic bombs accelerate these trends. In the next war, labor as well as fighting power will probably be drafted; every phase of national effort that does not contribute to victory will probably be eliminated. Total war means total effort, and the preparations for it must be as far-reaching as the execution of the blueprint. Consequently, the effects of total war transcend the period of hostilities; they wrench and distort and twist the body politic and the body economic not only after a war (as we are now seeing) but they necessitate peacetime measures of preparation which also affect the entire state.
These "lessons," tentative and subject to perennial reëxamination though they may be, delimit and define the nature of the modern American strategical problem. The frame of experience in which the American strategic problem in the atomic age is set compels us to confront the greatest and most puzzling paradox in our military or political history. It can be best stated in the form of three statements and ancillary questions:
1. We have seen that the continental United States is now not only the manufacturing arsenal and supply base of any American military effort, but is also the main operating base of our armed forces. Because of this triple importance -- especially because of the value of mass industry to war effort -- it is more important than ever before in history to protect the continental United States against assault. Yet we have also seen that, because of the technological revolution and the ascendancy of the offensive, the United States is now more vulnerable than ever before in history. How, then, do we "defend" the continental United States?
2. Offense today is by far the best defense. But how can we develop in peacetime, in a peace-loving, non-imperialist democracy, an offensive force of suitable type, ready for instant action?
3. The atomic bomb and the age of total war make mandatory an increase in military efficiency. This logically means a redirection of all phases of national life toward military strength and the extension of the influence of the military into all phases of life. Yet, how can we thus increase military efficiency without weakening our democracy? How can we prepare for total war without becoming a "garrison state" and destroying the very qualities and virtues and principles we originally aimed to save?
This is the paradox, this is the problem we must now set out to solve.
[i] This article is adapted from the introductory chapter of the author's book, entitled "The Price of Power," scheduled for publication in the spring by Harper and Brothers for the Council on Foreign Relations.
[ii] The popular word "disarmament" is of course loosely and incorrectly applied. Real disarmament never has been considered seriously at any of the so-called "disarmament" conferences and never has been practised by any major nation, except when imposed by victor upon vanquished. Disarmament belongs to the millennium; but limitation of armaments is a practical possibility of today.
[iii] Wallace Goforth, in an address to l'Institut Militaire de Quebec, June 1947.