Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
PAUL REYNAUD published a little book in 1937 called Le Problème Militaire Français. Two years before, France had decided to extend military service from one to two years. Was that a sound method of building the army? Was that real preparedness? M. Reynaud answered "no," it was "only patch-work." He said that to let Germany have the advantage in respect of the "modern instruments" for destruction would permit the ancient threat weighing on France to grow in terrible proportions. "On the contrary, if we know how to play the new card which the evolution of warfare offers us, we will find again all our advantages, for it is above all in the realm of quality that it is within our power to seize the advantage since the superiority of numbers is, alas, denied us."
Generals, ministers and parliamentarians did not heed Reynaud's words. A few months before, the government had demanded credits of nineteen and a half billion francs for defense preparations. That figure was arrived at by totaling the requisitions of the three defense ministries. In Washington, recent figures seem to have been arrived at by totaling the requests of two services -- the army and navy -- for themselves, and for a third service, the air force, which they share and in which they compete with each other. France, Reynaud declared, made no attempt "to determine whether, given the actual means of our state of defense, the perils which the country ran, and existing or probable alliances, it were better [for each billion francs] to construct a cruiser or five hundred planes or a thousand tanks. Doubtless the ideal thing would be to have the strongest army, the strongest air force, the strongest navy; but is this possible? If it is not possible, we must choose, that is to say, decide."
France had no machinery for such decisions. Neither has the United States. To be sure, France had a "trinity of national defense" -- the three ministers heading the three services of the army, the navy and the air force, each assisted by his chief of staff and meeting periodically in a Comité Permanent (of which Marshal Pétain was a "permanent member") under the presidency of the Minister of War, who also had the title of Minister of National Defense. The United States has no such "trinity." It has a "duality" -- the Joint Board. But this body includes only the highest army and navy officers, and no one save them -- neither the President, nor the Secretaries, nor Congress -- can have more than incomplete and haphazard information about the matters on which they agree, on those about which they continue to be deadlocked, and on those they may have completely overlooked.
The French "trinity" was unable to decide the military policy of France, for each minister had faith in his own branch of the service and fought for its interests. Hence contradictory responsibilities confronted each other and were not reconciled. Reynaud proposed a Ministry of National Defense assisted by a staff -- an "espèce de 'brain trust'" -- small in numbers, composed in principle of officers drawn from the Centre des Hautes-Études de la Défense Nationale -- an organization for which there is no American counterpart. As they exercised their functions, these officers would forget their former allegiances and think only of defense. Underneath the Ministry there would be Secretaries for the three services and an Undersecretary for procurement for all three. The French Government did not adopt this suggestion. Its method was the one which in the last war was described as le système D -- "débrouille toi" -- "muddle through." Unhappily in this sort of war such a system was synonymous with catastrophe.
Does not Reynaud's analysis have a direct and immediate bearing on the problem which now confronts the United States? He asked whether, given "existing or probable alliances," France had the weapons that she should have. But his country and Great Britain went ahead and made promises to Poland without having military power to fulfill them. What is it that the United States now proposes to defend and where and how do we propose to do it? France had her Maginot Line, but did the Comité Permanent ever consider the necessity of extending it to the Channel, or consider how -- as an alternative -- France was to be made less deficient in the air? At the time of Munich, Great Britain and France frankly admitted their unpreparedness. But why was that unpreparedness relatively so little less a year later? Enough money had been appropriated to begin to redress the balance. Did the operations on the Continent show that the British and French had thought out plans for their conduct -- just where, for example, they would resist an attack through Belgium? Hasty and even impromptu planning must have contributed to make the Norwegian expedition the egregious failure that it turned out to be. Most important of all was the fact that Great Britain long neglected the cardinal principle of all warfare: that military operations require a secure base. At the time of Munich, antiaircraft defence was so scant as to be almost ludicrous, and the preparations during the following year were laggard. One reason had been a struggle between the Exchequer and the local authorities, brilliantly conducted on both sides, over who should pay for what. During the first months of the war, Allied purchasing in the United States -- particularly of planes -- failed to disclose any conviction that deficiencies in the air must be met as fully and as swiftly as possible and at almost any cost. After the Norway débâcle and the change of government in England there was a change of attitude; but until then the record was not heartening.
Before the war of 1914-1918, Jules Cambon, France's Ambassador in Berlin, could and did say, when Germany seemed to be riding high: "J'attends la gaffe allemande." But in this war the Germans do not seem to have made many blunders. They had thought out what they wanted to do and had endeavored to produce the means for doing it. The military machine was mighty. But in addition they were aided by the fact that the governments of their enemies had been victims of what M. Reynaud called the "illusion" that the political authorities could leave it "to the military authority itself to reform itself." Thus they were guilty of crimes which Reynaud listed as l'hésitation, la timidité, la mollesse -- hesitation, timidity, softness. "In this matter," Reynaud declared -- and in recent weeks he must ofttimes have recalled the passage -- "history shows us that crimes by abstention are the greatest crimes against a country even if they escape, though wrongfully, dramatic catastrophes in the law courts." Ironically, it is not these crimes which the Riom court is investigating.
If there have been "crimes of abstention" in Germany, they have failed to prevent an almost unbroken series of military successes and were so few as to revise Hans Delbrück's definition of strategy as "making one less error than your opponents." "According to plan" was a phrase sickeningly familiar in the war communiqués of 1914-1918. Newspaper readers knew that in most cases it concealed tactical failures. Only successes would be reported in definite terms of the capture of territory or of prisoners. But since September 1939, "according to plan" has been a not inaccurate description of the way in which Germany's strategy has proceeded and in which total warfare has been conducted. No secret weapon has been brought forth suddenly from the military arsenal for use with catastrophic effects. On the contrary, Germany's most effective weapon has not been secret; yet the enemy did not use it. Germany has simply made certain that sufficient thought preceded the determination of policy and the selection of means for implementing it; that political statecraft and military strategy were harmonious parts of the same effort; that there was coördination of the military machine, and that it had backing from the industrial machine.
Of course, this was far easier in Germany than it would be in a non-totalitarian state. In February 1938, Hitler decreed: "Henceforth I shall take personal and direct command of the armed forces." How far he has actually directed them is not clear, but the High Command has certainly not been independent, and the sweep of events seems to demonstrate that Hitler has got along better with his Command than did, for example, Lincoln with McClellan or Jefferson Davis with his generals.
Two days before the war began, Hitler set up a Ministerial Council for the Defense of the Reich. Its head was Field Marshal Göring, whose associates were the Führer's deputy and party representative, Herr Rudolf Hess; the Minister of the Interior, Dr. Frick; the Minister of Economics, Dr. Funk; the Chief of the Reich Chancellery, Dr. Lammers; and the Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, General Keitel. This organization could instantly settle any dispute between the political and military authorities. It could issue any decrees that it wanted to, coöpt members for sub-committees and appoint and control regional defense commissars. Four months later this body was reorganized and in effect Marshal Göring took over the direction of the war economy with a council of the same character but recruited on a broader basis. The council did not have to improvise because, for six years, Germany's be-all and end-all had been the organization of every military, industrial and moral resource for the waging of total war. Arbitrary power was subject to few restraints. Laws, constitutions, bills of rights, conscience, decency could not stand in the way of carrying out orders. Bismarck once declared that any fool could rule by martial law; but arbitrary power alone cannot run a complicated mechanism which combines military effort and economic organization, to say nothing of diplomacy and propaganda. Totalitarian warfare, to be successful, requires the transfer of sufficient authority to a body so constituted that it can command the knowledge necessary for it to make intelligent use of its authority. That is possible in a democratic state without excessive sacrifice of democratic values. Indeed, if it is not done, those values may be lost as in France, or threatened as in Great Britain. And when it is done, two important principles must be adhered to.
In the first place, the military hierarchy cannot be permitted to reform itself. "One of the most sure principles" of the art of statecraft, wrote Walter Bagehot, "is that success depends on a due mixture of special and non-special minds -- of minds which attend to the means and of minds which attend to the ends." Germany acted on that principle. The military hierarchy was not allowed to reform itself. On the contrary, it was broken and reshaped. I do not refer to the purges of generals that Herr Hitler has had and which may have been due to dislike of individuals or to a desire to insure absolute loyalty to himself. Much more important has been the fact that the three military branches -- army, navy and air -- have been coördinated. L'amour propre and particularism were not permitted. The chieftains have not been men whose selection was chiefly influenced by seniority and who reached key posts only when they were close to retirement. For men of ability, promotion has been rapid; and for men whose capacities were found wanting, cashiering has been instantaneous -- all this before the war actually began.
But there is, I think, a second clue, the symbol of which is Berghof, the Führer's mountain fastness, to which he so frequently retires. He may be abnormal mentally, he may consult astrologers, he may not himself be the principal directing genius of the German war machine. He may, in 1938, as an official statement declared, have made ninety-seven speeches and had 8,922 telephone conversations, but he and his immediate associates do reserve time which is not interrupted by routine duties. At Berghof, Hitler does not play the country squire; neither there nor in Berlin has he any burdensome ceremonial duties; and he does not have to run for reëlection. "Too busy to think" is a phrase that does not seem to be in the Berghof vocabulary. When that phrase has to be used, the fact that the busy men are of extraordinary ability is not a sufficient offset. When the description is not apt, lesser minds going at a problem from different angles, pooling experience and ideas, raising questions, asking for facts, demanding of the experts their appreciations of actual and probable situations, can ofttimes do a better job than can an overwhelmed genius. M. Reynaud wanted a thought organization in the French War Office, but he did not have it.
Save in the totalitarian states, civilian ministers have on the whole been extremely reluctant to order, to check, or even to question the services.
Twenty years ago, Lord d'Abernon, then British Ambassador to Germany, remarked that in the country to which he was accredited there was "exaggerated deference to professional opinion," and he contrasted Germany with Great Britain and the United States which heard all the arguments and then made a selection of policies rather than having the "best" handed to them by experts. The heads of totalitarian states, as I have suggested, show "exaggerated deference" to none; but in the democracies, legislatures and executives acquiesce rather easily in the professional opinion of soldiers and sailors, and neglect to question and to prod. Of course, proper deference should be paid any professional opinion that is competent, but the amazing thing is that the professional opinion of soldiers and sailors is considered far more sacrosanct than are the opinions of other professions. For the fact is that, as Churchill said of the generals and admirals in the last war, outside of technical matters they "were helpless and misleading arbiters in problems in whose solution the aid of the statesman, the financier, the manufacturer, the inventor, the psychologist, was equally required."
That this truth is so frequently ignored seems the more remarkable when one reflects on the nature of the profession of arms. In his "History of Civilization," Buckle noted that "in a backward state of society, men of distinguished talents crowd to the army and are proud to enroll themselves in its ranks," but that "as society advances, new sources of activity are opened and new professions arise which, being essentially mental, offer to genius opportunities for success more rapid than any formerly known." In England, seventy years ago, the opportunities of the new professions were great. To quote Buckle, "if a father has a son whose faculties are remarkable, he brings him up in one of the lay professions where intellect when accompanied by industry is sure to be rewarded. If, however, the inferiority of the boy is obvious, a suitable remedy is at hand: he is made either a soldier or a clergyman; he is sent into the army or hidden in the church."
Let it be said at once that, as applied to the American Army, Buckle's observation is a caricature, and that our officers are, on the whole, able and devoted men, some of whom have deliberately chosen to serve their country instead of seeking great distinction and wealth in other professions. At the moment, moreover, there seems to be agreement that we are fortunate in our high command. On the other hand, it should be remembered that recruitment for the profession of arms is on the basis of excellence tempered by geographical distribution and political nomination. ". . . our whole Army," wrote General MacArthur in his last report as Chief of Staff, "has been developed spiritually in the image of West Point" whose graduates are nurtured in the teachings "of discipline, courage and loyalty -- the cardinal virtues of the soldier." These are certainly virtues -- perhaps cardinal ones -- but no one has ever maintained that instruction at the service academies sought to cultivate flair, judgment, inventiveness, flexibility of mind, receptiveness to new ideas, and rejection of worn-out ideas.
The profession, moreover, is one which discourages juniors from questioning superiors, and which makes rank synonymous with omniscience. "No one," as Harold Laski has said, "can effectively argue with another man on his knees; and the soldier and sailor in high command have become so accustomed to the unquestioning acceptance of their views that they too seldom are accessible to that criticism which makes them state, and defend from attack, the groundwork of their basic assumptions." What other profession separates promotion from ability, makes it depend on seniority, confines high preferment to those who are ceasing to be middle-aged and then permits it to be determined by older comrades in arms? This is tolerated because, save in time of war, soldiering is a sheltered, non-competitive profession. In time of peace, the soldier's life is make-believe: the study of tactics of previous wars, the preparation of plans for new eventualities, manœuvres and war games. But there is no way of finding out whether the plans are any good until they are actually tried against an enemy. Ability is not put to any decisive test as it continually is in the case of the doctor whose patients die or the lawyer whose clients lose. What I have said about the army applies to the navy, save that it, even in time of peace, is not a sheltered occupation. There is competition -- with the elements. And, in the case of air forces, unhappily, training demands a heavy toll of human life.
Surely these considerations suggest that, technical matters apart, the deference paid to service opinion should not be exaggerated. Military history teems with illustrations of the beneficial substitution of civilian judgment for the judgment of the services. The story of the tanks is a tragic one of military indifference, even hostility, to the possibilities of a new weapon. The British command in France, ignoring ministerial advice, used the tank in such a way that its effectiveness was greatly lessened. In mid-1915, Lord Kitchener initialled a memorandum which asked two machine guns per battalion: "if possible run to four per battalion and above four may be counted as a luxury." Lloyd George, then Minister of Munitions, took Kitchener's maximum of four and gave this order: "Square it, multiply that result by two; and when you are in sight of that, double it again for good luck." By November 1915, five months after Kitchener's memorandum, the War Office had quadrupled his maximum, and before the end of the war the average was about the one anticipated by Lloyd George. Convoys for merchant ships were forced upon the Admiralty by the British War Cabinet against firm and prolonged objections from Admiral Jellicoe. The Cabinet's view, it should be noted, was backed by Admiral Sims, who in turn was supported by the Navy Department and the White House. Until Munich, the British War Office had only allotted one quarter of one percent of its total appropriations for anti-aircraft defense. "The custom of the services," it has been said, "differs from the domestic family in that the latest born is commonly the first to suffer." Old, well-intrenched branches can look after themselves. Before 1938, our War Department was spending more on horses, mules, harness and wagons than on tanks, arms and armed vehicles.
But it should not be thought that the only lesson of the past is the need for more civilian coöperation with or even direction of the services. Despite agitation in Parliament and in the press, the British Cabinet was laggard in planning its defense preparations. There was great delay in setting up a Ministry of Supply, and when it was finally created its powers were inadequate. Antiaircraft defense was for long left to the Home Office and was not put under a separate organization. The stimulation of agriculture and the storage of food supplies were tackled late and then, for some time, tentatively. British experience before the war demonstrated that the much-vaunted administrative class of the British Civil Service was not brilliantly adapted to meet the new tasks imposed upon it. When a man has spent the formative years of his life caring as much for routine as for results, and, in an endeavor to keep costs down, has habituated himself to say "no," it is too much to expect that, save in exceptional cases, he will undergo a metamorphosis and, in meeting emergencies, will be imaginative, courageous and even rash. Lloyd George realized this in the last war when he staffed the key posts of his Ministry of Munitions from outside the Civil Service, and it was an amazingly efficient organization that he created.
When this war came, Mr. Chamberlain created a War Cabinet, but it differed fundamentally from the War Cabinet that Lloyd George set up in December 1916. It was on strict party lines and was nearly twice as large. With the exception of the Prime Minister, it had only one member who was entirely free of departmental duties. It was heavily weighted with Mr. Chamberlain's cronies -- Sir John Simon, Sir Kingsley Wood, Sir Samuel Hoare -- all Ministers who were worn out through devotion to routine. In Lloyd George's Cabinet of five, there was only one man -- Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer -- who had departmental duties, and he was rather a sentinel outside the Cabinet to keep matters from getting to it than a full member of the directorate. The others, Lord Milner, Lord Curzon, Arthur Henderson and General Smuts, were not mere deserving party hacks.
From December 1916 on, that War Cabinet planned the conduct of the war. It met daily, sometimes twice a day. It had direct access to chiefs of staff and to departmental experts. It had a highly efficient secretariat. It divided labor and set up innumerable sub-committees under the chairmanships of the individual members. There was criticism that it ignored the fact that policy cannot be completely separated from departmental detail and that it imposed great burdens on the time of officials who had to dance attendance until they could get their innings. But the War Cabinet was an organization which attempted to put thought before action, and after it was set up the British effort was much more smoothly directed and the term "too late" was rarely used. A British War Cabinet is not an article for export, but the principles which underlay its creation and functioning are principles which must be accepted and then adapted by any government which seeks to avoid failure.
What is the situation in which we in this country find ourselves? Our problem is more difficult than was the comparable problem in Great Britain and in France. Their parliaments were willing to give pleins pouvoirs to the executive. Hence, for any errors which were committed, the executives bore sole responsibility. Our Congress is not willing to write a blank check in respect to grants of power, and I do not think that we should blame Congress. It encounters vagueness in high places. It knows that in June its adjournment was proposed and that now there is much work for it to do. But Congressional delays or even refusals will not be decisive. The President of the United States has emergency powers already granted that give him, as Commander in Chief, sufficient freedom of action -- to make or mar his reputation and perhaps save or sacrifice his country. If we go the way of France, no one will be able to blame it on Congress. It has been generous, almost profligate, in granting money and, within the limitations it has imposed, there is ample opportunity for the spenders to be intelligent. Likewise there can be no legislative barrier to their unintelligence.
In France and particularly in Great Britain, parliaments exercised a beneficent influence on executive policy and stimulated executive action through questioning ministers, expressing fears and alarms, and demanding an accounting. That kind of rôle is impossible for the American Congress. Nor can it impose on the executive any solution of the planning problem. When the executive becomes aware of the necessity for coöperation and anxious to effect it, he will take the necessary steps himself, for his powers are ample. If Congress tried to impose a solution on an executive unaware of its necessity, any organization suggested would be viewed with suspicion, even hostility, and would not work.
Blueprints of desirable changes could easily be drawn up, but what blueprint would be best? A separate department of National Defense is probably ruled out because both services would be so hostile to it. Even if it were desirable, a separate Air Department would take so long to shake down that the advisability of constituting it at the present juncture would seem doubtful. Certainly, however, there should be some civilian participation in the Joint Board so that there could be a mixture of the non-special and special minds. Certainly also, on the procurement and industrial mobilization side the National Defense Advisory Commission cannot be left advisory. But most important of all is the necessity of setting up some kind of body -- perhaps interdepartmental, perhaps supradepartmental -- in which routine will not be allowed to postpone thinking about policy, charting its outlines, and planning its execution -- a body, in short, which will confine itself to intellectual effort.
"It is one business," wrote Sir Henry Taylor many years ago, "to do what must be done and another to devise what ought to be done. It is the spirit of the British Government as hitherto existing to transact only the former business; and the reform which it requires is to enlarge that spirit so as to include the latter." Where in Washington is any machinery for devising what ought to be done? President Roosevelt undoubtedly wishes to go down in history as a great President. He may -- and with some justification -- think of himself as did William Pitt, the Elder, who said to George II, "I know that I can save this country and that no one else can." If he feels this way, he should ponder a remark by Mandell Creighton in his "Life of Cardinal Wolsey." Creighton said that "all men are to be judged by what they do and the way in which they do it;" but he added that in the case of great statesmen there is a third consideration which challenges our judgment -- "what they choose to do." That third consideration is nowadays much more important than it was in Wolsey's or even in Creighton's time. Given the tremendous problems which now confront statesmen -- the totalitarian nature of defense preparations, the importance of time, the difficulty of retrieving errors, the catastrophic effects of not being able to say "according to plan," there is a fourth consideration: the selection of machinery and procedures by a statesman so that he makes it certain that thought will precede decisions, that his choosing what to do will be intelligent and not too late.
There is a French proverb which says that a man can accomplish miracles if he will only share the credit with others. The proverb does not say what is equally true -- that a man who thus accomplishes miracles seems a miracle man because those with whom he shares the credit are no more than his instruments.
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