Russia’s Missing Peacemakers
Why the Country’s Elites Are Struggling to Break With Putin
TWENTY years ago, as Major John Magruder noted at the time in these pages,[i] the Chinese proudly called themselves pacifists. They have spent the better part of the intervening two decades in fighting major wars, and probably they no longer think of themselves as pacifists any more than others so regard them. The martial spirit of China, indeed, was never dead. It now has been rejuvenated by a renascent nationalism inspired by the Japanese aggressions, and, since the Korean war, by the dialectical rationalization of Communism. Peking, echoing the familiar rodomontade of Moscow, issues a call to arms in "defense" of the Fatherland and stirs the masses with visions of China's latent strength transformed into dynamic political and military energy.
That the world no longer thinks of the Chinese in terms of pacifism is a measure of the change in China. Two decades have exposed China, not only to the surge of nationalism and "anti-Westernism" which so many observers have noted in Asia, but to vast and profound social changes. The oligarchy of wealth and wisdom (or Oriental shrewdness) which once ruled China has gone; the intelligentsia are harnessed to the chariot of Communism, which is essentially a dynamic and aggressive philosophy. The picture we once entertained of the somewhat benign, inscrutable but wise and civilized Chinese, too intelligent for war--an oversimplified caricature 20 years ago--has even less validity today. For the future China is in the hands of peasant stock, of patient men who have shown on many battlefields that they will fight. We have learned this, somewhat to our surprise and at heavy cost, in Korea. There for almost a year American troops, for the first time since the Boxer rebellion (save for skirmishes with river pirates and bandits), have been fighting organized Chinese armed forces. We have met face to face and often hand to hand the modern Chinese soldier, and few Americans who have faced them will deny the Chinese will to fight.
Is the new Chinese soldier a major factor in the world political equation? Is he a potential world menace? Are we beginning to witness the transmutation into fact of that old bogey of 50 years ago--"the Yellow Peril?" Can China's vast manpower be harnessed--possibly by Communism, possibly by a virulent nationalism, possibly by a blend of the two--to a militaristic purpose, object aggression?
No one, of course, can answer such questions with precision, but today we have far more first-hand experience of Chinese combat potential than we had 20 years ago.
In an assessment of the Chinese as a military power the first obvious fact is that their greatest present weakness is in materiel. For the first time in their modern history the Chinese encountered in Korea a Western army, and the results have demonstrated that in the age of the plane and the tank massed manpower is not enough to constitute great military strength. Victory today is more on the side of the big factories than the big battalions, and China is lacking the big factories. Her industrial weaknesses, her inadequate and vulnerable (to bombing) communications, her lack of sea power and her limited air power are such major military deficiencies that China today is not in the first rank of military powers. Her foot soldiers, toiling over mountains and through swamps barefoot or in straw sandals or tennis shoes, might be able to dominate by sheer force of numbers areas contiguous to China on the Asiatic mainland. In the sense that an Eastern Asia dominated by Communist China would be a threat to the world, the modern Chinese soldier could be said to be a potential "world menace." But China is still cabined and confined by the seas; even Formosa, only 100 miles from the mainland, still defies Peking. Lack of adequate communications--particularly with her neighbors in Southeast Asia--also would attenuate Chinese military effort beyond her frontiers; we have seen in Korea that the further south of the Yalu the Chinese advanced, the more difficult it was for them to supply themselves. "The Yellow Peril" in the sense we once used the term cannot exist until China is organized, developed and industrialized--a process that will surely require not years, but decades.
Yet a qualification must immediately be entered to this comforting assertion. China may already have started the process of acquiring modern military strength. Her railroads are now more efficient than they were a decade ago; she has proved her ability to move thousands of troops from the extreme fringelands of her vast country to Korea. Some limited industrial development has started. The Communists have centralized administrative and military control in Peking to perhaps a greater degree than any modern Chinese government and their hold over North China is already strong. Moreover, some of the modern implements of war--tanks, artillery, jet planes (unverified reports even say submarines)--have been supplied Peking by Russia, and the Chinese have demonstrated their ability to employ them. Probably most of the MIG-15 jet fighters, flown from Manchurian bases, have been manned by Chinese,[ii] who are plainly less skilled than our own pilots. But they have again demonstrated, as did the Chinese trained in this country, during World War II, that as far as human material is concerned China has the potential of air power.
It is possible, moreover, that the same process so well advanced in Europe in the satellite states--the Russianization of the armies --is occurring in China. A joint Sino--Russian command appears to have been established in Manchuria; Russian "advisers" are reported in many parts of China as far south as Canton; and Russian equipment--notably jet aircraft--has been funnelled into Manchuria and Korea. Some Chinese troops are known to be training in Manchuria under Russian as well as Chinese instructors, and one of the many reported secret protocols of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship is said to promise Russian equipment for more than 1,000,000 Chinese soldiers. Obviously, such a completely Russianized Chinese Army--like the modernized armies of the satellites in Eastern Europe--would be a potential threat of tremendous importance to most of Asia.
Just how far Moscow--or Peking--would be willing to carry any such "Russianization" process is uncertain. Reëquipping and reorganizing administratively and tactically the whole Chinese army after the Soviet pattern would be a huge task which might represent a drain upon the Soviet economy, and which, once accomplished, might establish Peking, in Moscow's eyes, as undesirably independent of the Stalin brand of Communism. It seems more likely that Russia would prefer to keep China in her present dependent status--dependent upon Moscow for equipment and industrial support--and that the best way to do this is to keep a trickle of equipment flowing to China (but never enough modern equipment for the entire army) and to increase the numbers of Russian "advisers" and military and political personnel in China.
With these caveats firmly in mind, we may now try to take the measure of the Chinese soldier--his individual attributes, his will to fight, his degree of literacy, his equipment, his tactics, his organization and his leadership.
There probably exists no better description of the Chinese fighting man than the one penned by Major Magruder in his article, already cited, of 20 years ago:
The Chinese soldier is the most docile material from which to build a disciplined unit. He will stand an indefinite amount of hardship and discomfort without grumbling. He can march tremendous distances on foot-gear that would ruin a western soldier in the first mile. Whereas our own soldiers wear themselves out nervously during rests and while engaged in duties which to them seem useless, the Chinese soldier recuperates as soon as physical exertion ceases. He cares little where he is or how long he stays, provided he has the bare necessities of food and clothing. He does not worry, as does the American soldier, about the difficulties or shortcomings of the hierarchy of command, from the squad leader to the President. . . . By the same token, however, the Chinese soldier is too content with his just-sufficient rice bowl.
It is well to remember that the Chinese soldier springs from a land of conflict where human life is cheap, in peace or war. In the Orient, it has been well said, the only difference between peace and war is the degree of tension.
The Chinese soldier is fatalistic, with little regard for human life. In the opinion of men who have fought them both he is like a Japanese soldier but less effective. His "extremely strong sense of blind obedience," which makes him attempt any mission, no matter how hazardous, is a formidable combat quality, but it is coupled with a general lack of individual initiative and--like the Japanese--a sometimes blind adherence to plan or orders. Sometimes in Korea this iron discipline--stupid automatism, from one point of view--was responsible for huge casualties. Night after night the enemy would attack over the same well-defended ground in reckless wave assaults, only to be beaten back, when a slight alteration of his axis of attack might well have exploited one of our weak points and might have resulted in a breakthrough. On some occasions both pilots and ground troops noted how enemy troops marching along a road would preserve road discipline even under fire. Strafing planes would riddle the ranks, yet the Chinese marched on, stepping over the bodies of their slain, scarcely lifting their eyes to the heavens from which death came. In another instance, in the Changjin (Choshin) Reservoir fighting, the Marines took a body of marching Chinese under machine gun fire at point blank range. A Chinese officer blew a whistle; the survivors jumped into ditches alongside the road. When the fire lifted, the whistle blew again; the men reformed and marched on. Again they were brought under fire and the same performance was repeated. This continued--blindly--until there were only a handful of survivors.
Demonstrations such as this, and a quite different Chinese version of the Japanese "Banzai" charge, have led to reports (for which this observer has seen no verification) that the Chinese in battle--particularly in the extreme cold of last winter's fighting--were "hopped up" with opium. Since addiction to opium is not uncommon in China such reports may well have been true in some instances, but opium is almost certainly beyond the economic status of most Chinese soldiers, and no artificial stimulant furnishes the main motivation of the bulk of their troops.
The will to fight of the Chinese soldier has been proved in Korea. The reasons why men of various nations and races fight have always been a complex medley of pragmatic and emotional tangibles and intangibles. Major Magruder noted in 1931 that "where the vital, personal interest exists, or can be made to appear to exist, remarkable demonstrations of fighting spirit have temporarily been developed [in the Chinese] even by unscrupulous leaders for unscrupulous ends. Ideal causes are not sufficient to stir such spirit. The appeal must be made on the score that a menace exists which affects the material livelihood of the individuals concerned."
In other words, at that date the economic motive was the dominant one in the Chinese soldier's thinking. He was preoccupied with the full rice bowl, the unleavened ball of dough, the concept of soldiering as a way of living rather than as an ideological profession. To a definite extent this is still true. The Marines noted that their enemy's blind discipline sometimes was exceeded by his desire for gain. Enemy attacks, after scoring initial successes, sometimes halted in their tracks as the Chinese soldiers paused to loot and pillage, thereby sacrificing the opportunity for decisive tactical gain.
Yet it should also be noted that ideology does motivate some of the Chinese soldiery. An army's will to fight frequently can be gauged by the number of prisoners it yields, yet in Korea the Chinese (in distinction to the North Koreans) have not been quick to surrender. We claim a prisoner toll, up to June 25, of only 17,039 Chinese. Interrogations of these prisoners reveal there are predominantly two types in the "People's Liberation Army" (the official Communist title), or the "C.C.F." (Chinese Communist Forces), as our G-2's prefer to designate the Chinese Army. The one might be termed the Chinese professional soldier --many of them ex-Nationalists--good fighters but motivated by the full rice bowl and the bonds of discipline more than by ideological concepts. But the second type is the convinced and even fanatic Communist, who is full of the (for the Chinese) sophisticated cant of the Russian Communist--the hatred for "capitalist aggression," the hope of the "brotherhood of man." These latter seem to be the cement that binds the Chinese armies together; officers and non-coms are almost invariably--when in trusted positions--convinced Communists.
Communism aside, it would in any case be a mistake to discount too much the emotional and ideological motive in assessing the Chinese will to fight. For that motive always has played some part in Chinese history; even Chiang Kai-shek used the political commissar system and intensive propaganda to try to bind his armies to him. True, there has been relatively little sense of personal loyalty on the part of the Chinese soldier to great leaders or high causes in the past; often he would fight for the general who could offer him most tangible rewards. But there always has been, along with this pragmatic motive, an occasional strain of idealism. Major Magruder also noted that induced feelings of hatred were especially effective in stimulating the Chinese soldier's fighting spirit. The Communists have made the most of this. The Chinese soldier's credulity makes him a pliable instrument. To quote a U. S. Army Field Forces report: "In general, Chinese soldiers have a very low standard of education, lack of ability of discerning the truth, and are easily misled through false propaganda--factors which the Communists have exploited to the utmost."
Yet puzzling contradictions have been noted. Many Chinese prisoners-of-war in Korea have proved to be amazingly well informed--far more so than the private soldier of most armies--about the unit to which they are assigned and the military designation of superior units, even up to army level. In numerous instances prisoners have known the detailed plan of the campaign. One prisoner, captured by the Marines at Choshin, told his interrogators before the fact about the Chinese plan for cutting the Marine's supply route and trapping them in the frigid mountains of the north.
Detailed battle maps and masses of written orders are not the norm in the Chinese Army; the bulk of its soldiers are illiterate or barely literate, so that most of the instructions must be verbal. Yet the Chinese soldier has a retentive memory and a good sense for terrain; he can, and does, follow his orders literally.
These contradictory trends extend to the enemy treatment of prisoners-of-war and wounded. This treatment varies from brutality so callous as to indicate that, measured by the standards of the Orient, it is the norm, to calculated kindnesses with obvious propagandistic objectives. Prisoners and wounded are sometimes treated with care and consideration and then released bearing messages of good will to the "capitalistic aggressors." On one occasion, Communist soldiers occupied the same native huts with American wounded who had been left behind when their comrades retreated from the Choshin reservoir. The Chinese paid no attention to the wounded, gave them nothing to eat or drink, but did not object when the wounded fed themselves. They even allowed Korean agents to give them messages informing the wounded about the details of a rescue party, and made no attempts to stop the walking wounded from escaping when they left the huts. On the other hand, ambulances seemed to be the special objective of the Chinese in many ambushes, and the enemy frequently tossed hand grenades into trucks full of our wounded.
This, then, is the man. Like other soldiers he is bound by discipline, though for him it is a discipline more rigorous, more harsh, more blind than most. Its components are simultaneously economic and ideological, the carrot and the stick, the hope of reward and the fear of punishment. There is the natural subservience of the Chinese soldier coupled with the fanaticism of the Communist political commissar, and the gun-in-the-back, the fear of the punishment of the defector's families. No matter what its components, it is an effective discipline and no one can doubt the battlefield courage and combat persistency of the Chinese. Yet lack of initiative and blind adherence to orders make for great tactical weaknesses. Indeed, these attributes probably explain in good part our ability to beat back repeatedly superior masses of Chinese in Korea.
The variegated equipment of the Chinese troops and their limited firepower also explain their inability so far to achieve a decisive success in Korea. Though reëquipment of the People's Liberation Army with Soviet matériel is well under way, the bulk of the equipment available is still heterogeneous. The following incomplete catalogue of the artillery they employ sufficiently indicates the variety of their arms:
|75 mm. pack howitzer||75 mm. mountain gun||76 mm. mountain gun|
|105 mm. howitzer||75 mm. gun, type 38||76 mm. gun (1902)|
|155 mm. howitzer||75 mm. gun, types 90, 92||76 mm. gun (1942)|
|57 mm. antitank gun||105 mm. howitzer||122 mm. howitzer|
|120 mm. mortar||45 mm. antitank gun|
This variety of calibers complicates ammunition supply and tactics. Yet the Chinese are adept at using what they have or can get; they immediately turn captured equipment against the enemy.
Essentially an infantry army, the C.C.F. uses primarily rifles, "burp" guns (submachine guns), hand grenades, automatic arms, machine guns and mortars to fight its battles. It has artillery, but relatively little of it, and the ammunition supply is limited. It has a few tanks--the most recent probably the World War II Russian-type T-34, still an excellent tank. It probably now has more than 1,000 aircraft, including 400 to 600 modern jets, many of them of the MIG-15 type. Its Navy, so far, is negligible, but it includes some U. S. and Japanese-type landing craft and U. S., Japanese and Russian-type torpedo craft and destroyer escorts. Moreover, the thousands of Chinese junks, with their resistance to gunfire, constitute a ready-made amphibious force.
The Chinese have limited motor transport, although they utilize all they can get. The Chinese are not mechanical-minded; their maintenance of vehicles and motorized equipment is poor; breakdowns are numerous, yet many trucks are kept running literally with baling wire. Mobility is chiefly by foot, and to that extent is limited; yet the Chinese foot soldier--like "Stonewall" Jackson's famous foot-cavalry of our Civil War days--can easily make a march of 20 to 30 miles in a night. Supply is often by porters or animal pack trains. Like the Russian Army, the Chinese use anything and everything that is available, from trucks and school buses to Korean porters, oxen, camels and horses.
The tactics of an army of this type--still primitive in one sense, but utilizing some modern weapons--is fitted, as might be expected, to the horde. In the Orient, human lives are cheaper and less valuable than equipment. The Chinese sacrifice a replaceable company or a regiment far more readily than an irreplaceable tank. If the enemy's strength is too great, they resort to attrition--guerrilla onslaughts, Fabian tactics, a sudden rush and a fading away. They try to isolate small enemy units by ambush --at which they are adept--by "infiltration, double-envelopment, isolation and piecemeal annihilation." They are excellent primitive engineers and are adept at constructing road blocks behind enemy lines or in building bridges with whatever native material is at hand. When a unit has been isolated, the Chinese invariably try to overrun and destroy it by "human sea" frontal attacks, which are attempted again and again regardless of the costs. But a stout defense seems to frustrate them, and their tactics are often inflexible--in part due, no doubt, not only to national characteristics but to the paucity of communication equipment which makes a sudden change in battle plan difficult to convey to a large army.
As might be expected in these circumstances, the Chinese count on a heavy superiority in manpower--usually at least three to one. Also as might be expected, they are adept at camouflage and concealment; where other cover is lacking they shelter in native huts during the daytime, or in abandoned mine diggings. Their preference for night attacks is well known; this preference is partially explicable on psychological grounds (the terror instilled in the enemy), partially on tactical grounds (night aids infiltration of enemy lines). There is usually much blowing of bugles and whistles, sometimes calls, taunts, jeers or shouts. This "war by sound" serves a threefold purpose. It may at first confuse and frighten the enemy (as it did in the initial enemy attacks against Army units in Korea last year; as it still does when the Chinese attack the Koreans). It serves as a substitute for radio and telephone and directs the attacking troops. And it draws fire from the enemy positions, thus identifying for the attacking Chinese the enemy strongpoints. Ruses, and deception--the attack screened by civilian refugees, the fake surrender--are all a traditional part of Chinese Communist tactics.
As a whole, these tactics are well adapted to their mass manpower infantry army, and are generally rather well conceived down to company level. But there is little flexibility or originality, particularly at lower levels.
The Chinese logistic system, like their tactics, is geared to mass. Whole villages are impressed to carry ammunition or to build field fortifications. Chinese communications have proved particularly resistant to air attack since the Chinese--using prodigious amounts of manpower--repair at night what we destroy by day.
The strategic grasp of the Chinese Communist leaders in Korea appears to have been, on the whole, good. They bided their time and carefully chose our weak spots for their attacks. Their intervention in Northern Korea, when the C.C.F. turned the "Home-by-Christmas Victory Drive" into a disastrous U. S. retreat, was a model of careful planning and concealment. The enemy demonstrated then, and he has demonstrated since, his ability--by utilizing large masses of manpower--to break through defense positions (though in his two spring offensives the weak points he chose were the South Koreans). His failures to exploit his successes were not so much an indication of strategic myopia as of the limitations of an army of foot soldiers possessing few tanks, very limited road mobility and no close air support against an army inferior in numbers but vastly superior in road mobility and fire power. The Chinese Communists learned in Korea the same lessons both sides learned in World War I's trench stalemate--that the foot soldier by taking enormous losses from the machine gun might be able to break through a fortified position, but that he could not keep the attack moving and exploit his successes (before the enemy moved up reserves to plug the gap) without the aid of the tank and the plane.
The organization of the Chinese Army is geared to its weapons and tactics. Its basic component is the infantry division--usually from 8,000 to 10,000 men at full strength--armed chiefly with rifles, automatic weapons, grenades, machine guns and mortars, but with organic artillery in most divisions. There are generally three of these divisions to what the Chinese call an "Army"--that is, 20,000 to 30,000 men, not much larger than one of our war-strength divisions. A variable number of these Armies are in turn organized into "group armies," roughly corresponding to our corps or army. The major grouping in the Chinese Army is the Field Army--of which there were four when the Korean fighting started. There may now be six. These are great concentrations of manpower, each numbering from 150,000 to 750,000 men. Heavy equipment such as tanks and heavy artillery is usually concentrated in special "columns" or special group armies, which are a part of each field army. Horsed cavalry is still used.
To an army like this, utilizing both the most ancient and the most modern equipment and tactics, employing at once primitive peasants actuated by the hope of loot and fear of reprisal and fanatic and arrogant zealots, leadership is the leaven which can mold the whole into an efficient fighting machine or can permit breakup and disaster.
The top Chinese Communist leaders are well versed in the theory of war, ancient and modern, occidental and oriental. They understand Clausewitz as well as Sun Tze and Stalin. They merge the psychological and the political with the military; there is, for them, no fine line of demarcation. Since the victory of Communism in China, training for leadership has been emphasized at all levels. Nevertheless there still remain weak links in the chain of command. Many junior leaders--particularly company and platoon commanders--though fanatically fervent are deficient in military knowledge.
The real key to the future effectiveness of the Chinese Army is leadership. In the words of a U. S. Army Field Forces report: "The inherent fatalistic attitude of the Chinese makes them seemingly fearless in combat as long as their leadership does not falter. The loss of leadership or confidence in their leaders has in many instances resulted in entire units becoming lost, defecting, or surrendering to the enemy. Arrogance and presumptuousness become the keynote of the Chinese soldier when he detects weakness or unguardedness in any enemy. . . . However, confronted with a strong and determined enemy, their (the Chinese) stability is dependent upon strong and inspired leadership, without which their will to resist is often weak."
These observations are further emphasized by the fact that traditionally the loyalty of many Chinese soldiers is personal in nature. In the past they often followed a man rather than an ideal. Today the political commissar, a fixture in the Soviet military structure, is an important part of the apparatus in the C.C.F. He provides personal leadership as well as insurance against disloyalty to the cause of Communism.
The military potential of China may thus have approached a turning point with the Korean war. There are signs that the Chinese Communist hierarchy have recognized the military weaknesses there revealed and are commencing to try to remedy them. There are various remedies at hand, and it is probable that the more obvious weaknesses will be alleviated within the next few years and that gradually better equipment, more standardization, better leadership and organization and modern tactics will add mobility and fire power to the C.C.F. But the real long-term weakness of China as a military power arising out of her lack of industry and adequate transportation will remain. It can be remedied only by time--much time, so much, indeed, that we are unlikely to see a Red China colossus emerge, fully helmeted and armored, in our lifetime. More dangerous is the possibility--still only that--that the Chinese Army may gradually be Russianized. This might add materially to its short-term offensive and defensive strength, even though perhaps not so much (failing comparable industrialization) to its staying power.
Meanwhile these conclusions cannot be gainsaid: The Chinese Army, little regarded in the past, is now a major political factor in the Orient. The Chinese soldier has demonstrated his will to fight.
[i] "The Chinese as a Fighting Man," by John Magruder, Foreign Affairs, April 1931. At that time he was Major Magruder; now he is Brigadier-General Magruder, Retired.
[ii] The pilots of some of the MIG's (specifically the so-called "Red Nose Squadron," which have been most effective in their attacks upon our B-29's and our fighters) are believed to be Polish or German "volunteers," with perhaps a few Russians.