Myths of Maneuver

By Robert A Fry

The battle of Cannae has assumed a totemic significance for the Maneuverist School. Indeed, General H. Norman Schwartzkopf has acknowledged publicly his debt to the concept of double envelopment, first created by Hannibal in 216 BC. Yet, close scrutiny reveals both false and interestingly exact parallels.

At the tactical level, the Coalition maneuver in Operation Desert Storm was a single envelopment with a contingent but refused-threat of a second, amphibious, envelopment; it relied on allied movement and did not exploit enemy momentum as Hannibal had done. Further, it resulted only in the partial destruction of the enemy field army, and thus bore little resemblance to the catastrophic defeat of Roman arms achieved at Cannae. At the tactical level, therefore, the legacy of Cannae can be seen in conception, but it was not carried through to execution.

At the operational and strategic levels the parallels are closer. Hannibal, perhaps shocked by the scale of his victory, was unable to press home tactical victory to achieve a strategic decision. Rome was garrisoned, and only after the decisive invasion of Carthage by Scipio Africanus was the Second Punic War concluded, 14 years later. The comparison with the Gulf War is poignantly obvious. A clear tactical victory attained neither the operational objective (destruction of the Republican Guard) nor the strategic objective (neutralization of the Iraqi regime). Therefore, what we see in the frequently quoted example of Cannae is a blurring of the tactical definitions and a complete avoidance of the strategic parallels-in short, a corruption of the lessons of history resulting from a partial and superficial analysis that does little to support maneuverist claims to rest upon historical precedent.

But perhaps there are deeper reasons, which lie as much in our culture and sociology as in our military history, that can explain the Anglo-Saxon predisposition toward maneuver in the late 20th century. After all, there is little historical evidence of inherent talent for maneuver to be found in either Britain or America.

We have to look as far back as Marlborough to establish a British tradition of maneuver in mass. Subsequently there was a reliance on maritime operations supported by the subsidy of local surrogates and-only when necessary-temporary excursions into minor land theaters. This self-serving but highly successful approach did not survive the early years of the 20th century, when Britain was faced by the requirement to meet the main enemy in the main theater from 1916 to the conclusion of World War I.

During World War II, Britain managed to avoid the onerous responsibility of engaging the main land enemy decisively, leaving that instead to the Red Army. In many ways, the British conduct of World War II-informed by the indelible lessons of the Great War-more closely resembled the tradition of selective engagement of the 19th century than the aberration of 1916-18. Land operations relied on the attritional impact of a favorable correlation of forces, and when maneuver was attempted-in Operation Market Garden-it was consigned to glorious failure.

The U.S. experience is broadly similar. The Civil War was decided by Grant's bludgeon, rather than Lee's rapier. (A broad generalization, I concede-and one that makes few concessions to the campaign of maneuver conducted by Sherman in the West.) It also could be argued that U.S. World War II campaigns in the Pacific saw a maneuverist approach at the military strategic level-but few survivors of Tarawa or Iwo Jima would regard the tactical fight as anything but bloody attrition. Equally, Patton's 3rd Army cut a maneuverist swath across Europe, but the underlying doctrine of American arms was "a firepower/attrition style of warfare"-and one that continued until defeat in Vietnam provoked a fundamental reappraisal.

In the absence of any clear tradition, what are the factors that account for the recent enthusiasm for maneuver? In Britain, the seeds were sown in costly victory; in America, in defeat. In both countries, an adequate explanation can be found only by looking beyond the confines of military thought, at the wider conjunction of military, political, and cultural factors.

Let us examine the British case first. The trauma represented by World War I needs little elaboration. For most of this century it has been a blind spot in the national consciousness and, as such, has largely defied objective scholarship. After a brief hiatus immediately after the war, the canon of antiwar literature began to grow, until, in Barnett's view, by the early 1930s the Great War had become the great British excuse.

Into this environment entered the two most influential British military writers of the period: J. F. C. Fuller and Basil H. Liddell Hart. Of the two, Fuller was the bolder and more original thinker, and the far more experienced soldier. He also was the more extreme and erratic, and he never gained the access to power that Liddell Hart enjoyed. Liddell Hart was less extravagant and more soothing, and had the tact and charm to become an insider, influencing government and establishing a legacy that still lingers today. It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the Great War on Liddell Hart. and he saw a causal link between the practice of Napoleonic war, the "evil legacy" of Clausewitz, and the attritional warfare of 1914-18. He first established "The British Way in Warfare" at a public lecture in 1931, and the major elements of the concept-sea power, limited expeditionary operations, and financial and material support of allies-have already been rehearsed. It is impossible now to judge how much "The British Way" owed to objective analysis and how much it was simply an attempt to give intellectual respectability to Liddell Hart's horror of continental warfare. Certainly Fuller had no doubt, and when confronted with 20th-century conditions it was, in his telling phrase, "the strategy of evasion."

Whatever the intellectual motive, "The British Way" had in its natural concomitant, The Indirect Approach-a doctrine that could have been lifted from either ADP Operations or FMFM 1-1: Campaigning. Its central thesis was: "to move along the line of natural expectation is to consolidate the opponent's equilibrium, and by stiffening it to augment his resisting power. In contrast, an examination of military history points to the fact that in all the decisive campaigns the dislocation of the enemy's psychological and physical balance has been the vital prelude to a successful attempt at his overthrow."

As this brief review shows, much of Liddell Hart's writing has an element of ambiguity. Yet however flawed his method, he created the possibility of an alternative to attritional warfare and thus a way out of an otherwise intractable strategic dilemma. There can be little doubt of the degree of influence he exerted at the time; his Times leaders were read avidly by public and politicians, and as eminence grise to War Minister Leslie Hore-Belisha, he scripted government defense policy. Ironically, of course, much of his writing at the tactical level was adopted by the German Army, and the Expanding Torrent that erupted across the Meuse in May 1940 can be seen as his vindication. Yet perhaps S. L. A. Marshall comes closer to the mark with his verdict that "several of the major premises (of Liddell Hart's doctrine) have been proved absurdly wrong by the passage of events. Fake doctrine is never so dangerous as when it is forcefully presented by a brilliant logician."

Whether a visionary, or a lobbyist fixated by the single issue of avoiding the attrition of continental warfare, Liddell Hart exerted influence that was pervasive during the interwar period and still excites academic debate today. At its heart is the "hope to find some formula to win wars without fighting," a charge that revisionists level with equal vehemence at the Maneuver Warfare School today.

The American case parallels the British but differs in detail. The United States that sent troops into Vietnam in 1965 appeared to be at the height of its powers: a formidable military strength with an unbroken record of strategic victory and equally formidable economic strength. Although the physical losses endured by Britain in World War I and the Americans in Vietnam do not bear comparison, the shared sense of national anguish and dislocation do. An antiwar movement equipped with the devices of international telecommunications had a far more immediate impact than the privately published poems of Sassoon and Owen. The military establishment's sense of incomprehension at defeat was palpable and led to the same "Never Again" slogan that was so universally felt in Britain after 1918. The military reform movement of the 1970s subsequently gathered pace-influenced by the writing of Liddell Hart and to a lesser extent Fuller-and commentators such as William Lind have occupied a central place in the process. They have advocated the reform of military education, the reduction of military bureaucracy, and training that emphasizes initiative rather than templated solutions. Above all, they stress the virtues of maneuver doctrine in the German style rather than the habitual "synchronization" of the American and interwar French traditions. Therefore, to reuse the epithets employed earlier, while costly victory is a counterpoint to humiliating defeat, the effect has been the same: to create an imperative requirement to replace a strategy of attrition.

This requirement has its roots in both popular culture and military hierarchy; indeed it could not be otherwise, because among advanced industrialized nations one of the characteristics of 20th-century warfare has been an increasing tendency to embrace whole societies rather than leave its conduct to self-elected elites. Faced with the need to satisfy this broad constituency and to guarantee no return to the harrowing experiences of 1914-18 and 1965-75, there is a risk that we may have taken and continue to take comfort in theorists offering the equivalent of military strategic snake oil-a "formula to win wars without fighting." No matter the brevity and elegance of the Gulf War, there is no historical record of easy victory in a contest between nations or alliances of broadly equal capability and will. History testifies to the strategic efficacy of Leipzig, Shiloh, Verdun, and Stalingrad, and not the Basrah Road-a lesson we lose sight of at our peril.


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