For when men are men of action, it is with resolved plans, at once and without waiting, that they advance.—Thucydides.
We shall win the war of ideologies that has brought nations suffering and despair unequaled since the vast upheaval ending the empire of Rome. We shall win and go on to the grand destiny of world leadership that is the opportunity and the duty of the United States. We must win or decline to futility, to the dishonor and death of a nation that is given great strength, great vision, great opportunity to direct earth's fate, but fails to stand up to its part. We shall win but it will not be by material. It will not be by warships and planes, tanks and guns, or soldiers and sailors alone. It will not be by training and morale. All these things we shall have and all are necessary; but all are useless and all will fail without leadership.
It was not from lack of material, however much this was at fault, that France was crushed in the disastrous days of 1940. She was badly led and badly inspired, in war and preparation for war, just as the English had been up to that time, though they have learned much since. The material deficiencies that entered into France's defeat have, however, been played up to such a point that they whitewash and hide a far more serious deficiency. There is danger in both England and this country of placing such reliance on material that we shall forget the soul of war, forget that material is only for men to use, is given life only by men, and even then has little value without wise and courageous direction of men in command.
It is such truths we must hold in our hearts constantly as we go into the unknown future. We must not, in recognizing one cause for defeat, make material our god—the body rather than the life. We must remember constantly that although material, preparation, and all similar things will aid in winning the war, one thing alone can lose it—weak leadership. We can still have all other elements of strength to the highest degree and fail for lack of leaders. The most stupendous factory output may not be utilized, the strongest military might may be allowed to rot away and our proposed colossal material strength be wasted for lack of moral courage in a few men, perhaps in one man, when the day of crisis comes. War is a contest not of machines but of men.
That God is on the side of the strongest battalions, as Napoleon once cynically remarked, may or may not be true; but strength is not merely in numbers, as was his fate to prove in his declining years of leadership when, inspiration and wisdom having failed, he came to rely on mass of numbers. That strength is not merely in material was also Napoleon's destiny to reveal, glowingly, by his early amazing campaigns in Italy and Austria with ragged, ill-fed, and ill-equipped armies that were irresistible when led by him.
Military strength is not a tangible quality that we can weigh and measure as so many tanks, guns, planes, or even men. This is a difficulty of war games and the error of many people in thinking about our nation's future role in the present world upheaval. In every fateful period of history the ultimate balance of strength (and usually the largest component in it) has come from the integrity of purpose, resolution, and energy of men in posts of high responsibility.
Leadership is the soul of all human endeavor. It is the flame that enabled the French under Clemenceau, Joffre, and Foch to stop an unstoppable German Army in 1914, because these men willed to stop it. It is the magic of German success so far in this war, and of the unexpected Russian resistance. It is for lack of this flame, which had burned low and sooty, that France fell in 1940.
It is upon it that we should place our first trust, upon man's moral courage, upon his irresistible determination to win, to drive his purposes to a conclusion, to strike on past all hazard with ceaseless concentration of intent that knows no barrier. It will be the power of leadership that must and will direct us into the great future; and it alone will be the decisive and concluding force in this titanic struggle between the faiths of hope and darkness.
France suffered the crushing defeat of 1940 because she was led by men who believed in the power of the defensive. She placed her faith in walls, in blockade and the Maginot Line, which were supposed to sap German strength until economic and spiritual collapse would strike the killing blow. She was fattening herself on an easy war, remaining strong by sitting. She was as fatefully wrong as were Napoleon's admirals a century and a half earlier in their struggle against English sea power. Mooring their fleets in port, they thought the English Navy would wear out in use while their own gained strength by idling. How false! How patently untrue to any but a timorous mind. The great heart of man grows on privation and danger. Flabbiness comes to muscles not from use but disuse. Weathering the hardships of continuous sea keeping, the British Fleet grew strong and sinewy and proud of its strength to endure. It was the French fleet that declined, deteriorated in material, in discipline, above all in morale and confidence. Under similar conditions the French armies of today weakened sleeping behind the Maginot Line; while the German Army, ceaselessly on the move in drill and attack, gained strength in the school of action. To advance is to conquer.
The French are brilliant in logic; their reasoning is analytical, clear, penetrating. More accurately than most races they can solve a question by theory and words. There are two faults with this type of reasoning: the one is that the best theoretical solution to a problem of life is of little value until translated into action; the other, that this solution may be accurate, without a flaw in theory, and still collapse in practice where the strength and weakness of man may negate any perfection of words.
In 1870, by following theories to their ultimate end, by taking no account of how man's strength or weakness defeats all theories, and by inaction, the French brought disaster upon themselves. France was more powerful in resource, population, and other material means of warfare than Prussia. 1940 is almost an exact parallel of what happened 70 years earlier. In each instance there were a few men who realized their country's error and tried to lead her from it; but they were the few. The mass, soft in inaction, could not be moved. A national theory, if a delusion, breeds inertia that is the parent of disaster. Even when the error is realized, so strongly does it bind the nation's will to act, the hour may be too late to change.
In the years before 1870 one of France's great students of war jotted in his notes comments that might have been written of the 1930's. Colonel Ardant du Picq saw with vivid clarity the false belief in routine and the indolence of mind among French military leaders that caused them to depend upon theory rather than the facts of the human soul. He devoted his life in effort to change military thinking in time to save France; and he gave it, having failed in his mission for that generation, when he fell mortally wounded on a late summer morning in 1870.
To France's great good fortune, however, his spirit remained alive for another generation in a book that contained the essence of his lifetime of search to understand war and the heart of man. The book was published nearly 40 years ago and is credited by many as having a preponderant influence upon French military leaders who saved France by averting like indolence and like decay in 1914. Mr. Frank H. Simonds' introduction to an English translation of the book begins with these words, written in 1920 about the war of 1870, but so shockingly true of 1940 that not one word needs changing:
In presenting to the American reading public a translation of a volume written by an obscure French colonel belonging to a defeated army, who fell on the eve of a battle which not alone gave France over to the enemy but disclosed a leadership so inept as to awaken the suspicion of treason, one is faced by the inevitable interrogation—"Why?"1
Mr. Simonds then proceeds to recount the answer to the "Why?"—the same terrible why that is being asked today, the answer du Picq gave before the disaster of 1870, the same answer that may be found in any great book on war, or serious study of Man who is and ever will be the most important and deciding force in war:
With surprising exactness du Picq, speaking in the abstract, foretold an engagement in which the mistakes of the enemy would be counterbalanced by their energy in the face of French passivity. . . . The strategy of Moltke, mistaken in all respects, failed to meet the ruin it deserved, only because at Gravelotte Bezaine could not make up his mind, solely because of the absence in French High Command of precisely that "Creed of Combat" the lack of which du Picq deplored.2
Man brings his ruin upon himself. Defeat or victory comes out of his own mind. Ruin is always deserved. How fatally a people may in three short generations learn their error, achieve great deeds, and then sink into inaction again! How much the destiny of a whole people, their fortunes, their lives, all their futures hang upon the resolute or indolent souls of a few men! Du Picq's French editor set down these comments in 1902:
In an army in which most of the seniors disdained the future and neglected their responsibilities, rested satisfied on the laurels of former campaigns and relied on superannuated theories. . . . Ardant du Picq worked for the common good. . . . He watched while his contemporaries slept.3
This quotation, along with the preceding ones, in explaining 1870 also explains too well 1940. Conditions are not the same, rote for rote; there is never an exact repetition in history; but the same fundamental causes exist: Leaders fixing on false theory, inaction, allowing a human being's natural inertia to movement to overcome his grander but lesser urge to action, failing above everything else to take into account morale's effect in war; in other words, those in command failing to call out the strength that may be found, if one seeks, in the soul of Man, that "incomparable instrument whose elements, character, energies, sentiments, fears, desires, and instincts are stronger than all abstract rules, than all bookish theories."4
All such national failure as that of the French (which is incredible only in that it should have happened, been realized, and happened again in the short space of 70 years) comes from leaders' acceptance of some fixed idea of the past with such intensity that it is followed to the ne plus ultra of development. It becomes so completely the idol, faith becomes so strong in form, that clear thinking able to appreciate the spirit is crushed. The leaders delude themselves so thoroughly that the idea becomes a national delusion. This is especially true since it is the nature of man to take the easier course of following form and routine. The error always seems right to the mass. It is never quite the same as the past error. Always there are differences in the trappings with the result that the same type of deadly thinking may attack successive generations.
The theory that was a chief instrument in destroying France in 1940 arose out of the powerful defensive lines of 1918. It was easy to carry on the trench system, the complex fortifications, the powerful bastion of Verdun to the logical conclusion of a Maginot Line. And because it is easier to recline behind a barrier than to seek a break through it, it was easier to arrive at this delusion than to take the nobler course of action.
"Moral force," says Foch, "is the most powerful element in the strength of armies . . . the preponderant influence in the outcome of battles."5 It was by faith in it that men like him rejuvenated France from the false reasoning and inaction preceding 1870, and saved their country in 1914 when she was attacked by the most powerful and wealthy nation on the continent:
In 1870 France was materially stronger than Prussia; and in 1940 she was fighting against a Germany fundamentally much weaker in economic and material resources than in 1914. But both times it was a nation, on France's part, depending on theory and forgetting the soul, pitted against a resolute, determined Germany fighting an offensive war against people whose strength was enmeshed in the futility of passive defense.
It has been said the Allies had to assume the defensive in the fateful winter of 1939-40. Germany was superior in equipment. Germany would crush them should they attempt to move forward. Why then did the Germans so frantically continue reinforcing the Siegfried Line throughout their campaign in Poland and thereafter? Why the frequent stories disseminated by the Germans and insidiously spread through the Allied countries by Fifth Columnists and dangerous "patriotic" wishful thinking dupes (as many otherwise honest men are still today) of concrete emplacements that crumbled in the rain, antiquated reservists manning the line, railroads breaking down under the strain of transport, Allied fighters shooting German planes out of the sky, Allied troops smashing German raiding parties who would not fight, German ersatz equipment falling apart?
Why did Germany strengthen the Siegfried Line, and why these lies so foolishly believed?
They are clearly steps that any wise nation or leader attempts in war: To be strong in fact or subterfuge where the enemy may attack, so as to be able to take the offensive oneself elsewhere; to delude the enemy into inaction so that one can denude the weaker parts of the line and concentrate on the point of attack. The defensive is assumed in all places except the vital one so that the offensive may have irresistible concentration of power at the vital point.
After France's collapse, after Greece and Crete, there invariably appeared in print: "Lessons that have been learned." But what is new in these records of victory and defeat? The essence of success in war has been known and written about for at least 3,000 years. It sums up into the axiom: "Assemble overwhelming strength, physical and moral, at the decisive point; then become stronger still by attacking."
Everybody knows this secret of victory. Why do not all act on it? Why did the Germans; why did not the French?
While the Germans were exerting their full might on Poland, why did the Allies fail to strike the Reich? Why weren't the great factories of the Ruhr bombed, the railroads, airfields, temporary concentrations of troops and roads in eastern Germany? Planes were bombing these areas with leaflets. Words and wishing are feeble instruments to deter a people striking for victory.
Why did the Allies passively sit while only 20 German divisions, without air or tank support, held the West Wall? Why, on the other side, was Germany willing to risk throwing the mass of her power into Poland with only these few divisions facing what was claimed to be "the finest and most powerful army in the world," the French Army along the Rhine?
The answer lies in the spirit of the two commands. Germany was following the teachings of her great military thinkers from the time of Clausewitz:
Most generals when they should act remain stuck fast in bewildering doubts. . . .
Statesmen and generals have at all times endeavored to avoid the decisive battle, seeking either to attain their aim without it, or dropping that aim unperceived. . . . The more a General takes the field in the true spirit of War, as well as of every contest, with the . . . conviction that he must and will conquer, the more he will strive to throw every weight into the scale in the first battle, hope and strive to win everything by it. . . .
Whoever reads history with a mind free from prejudice cannot fail to arrive at a conviction that of all military virtues, energy in the conduct of operations has always contributed the most to the glory and success of arms.6
Germany was sounding the well of inexhaustible benefits that come from the will to act. She was likewise, having honeycombed France with her agents, depending upon Allied inertia. Germany well knew that the propitious hour had come, that the French had forgotten Napoleon, du Picq, and Foch. Germany knew that her opponents were flabby in spirit, that in placing their trust in concrete they had fixed their doom. Once again the French had forgotten that whatever the strength of the defensive, somewhere there is a weakness, and somehow a determined enemy will find it. When he does, and attacks, he will be irresistible. He will have the power of surprise, of movement, of morale; for
in battle, two moral forces even more than two material forces are in conflict. The stronger conquers. . . . With equal or even inferior powers of destruction, he will win who has the resolution to advance. . . .
When confidence is placed in superiority of material means, valuable as they are . . . it may be betrayed by actions of the enemy. If he closes with you in spite of your superiority in means of destruction, the morale of the enemy mounts with the loss of your confidence. His morale dominates yours. You flee. Entrenched troops give way in this manner.7
It was easy to forget. They were safe behind the Maginot Line; why risk loss by attacking? If Germany were let alone, then she might let France alone; and in some unknowable but fondly hoped and miraculous way all the dangers and the blackness would pass on like a cloud from the sun. In Utopian sunshine there would be no more Fascists or Nazis, no more nations hungry for growth and the fat lusciousness of lands drunk with the softness of their own richness, no more ambition and wolves. How similarly some of our citizens dream in this country today; how similar will be the end should their views prevail.
Germany, acting on the true principles of war, and aided by the inaction of her greatest opponents, destroyed her opponents piecemeal. Never did her armies move until most of the opposing forces were immobilized so that she might hurl great forces against the decisive point. When the struggle was joined, the pressure was relentless, not against the strong points but against the weak, like a rapier that springs back from armor only to dart at a chink exposing the heart. What better method of attack is there in war? Yet throughout the first year of conflict, and to a degree today, writers in the Allied countries and the United States have stated that the German soldier is not courageous because he prefers to go around rather than through a stone wall. Men who have faced the Germans in action as well as many of our military writers have stated that the German of today does not compare in fighting qualities with his father of 1914.
In the Germany Navy, likewise, so the story went after the Graf Spee, the crew were untrained and unwilling to fight. The sinking of the Glorious and the Rawalpindi was by superior force; when faced by odds and great hazards the Germany Navy would not fight. The torpedoing of the Royal Oak and Ark Royal, along with the unceasing submarine campaign that must be costing the Germans severely in lost crews and "boats"; the steady flow of German convoys up and down the west shore of Europe in face of British attack— all should have long since dispelled the thought that the German at sea is weak because he seeks to have the advantage when entering combat. Who doesn't! What wise leader attacks where the foe is strongest? Where else should one strike but at the Achilles heel?
So often was the statement of weak German morale repeated, even after the downfall of France, that it came to be widely believed. The British certainly, and probably the French, were far braver than the German soldier. That he reached his objective was laid to his superior mechanized legions. This is a rationalization of the most dangerous type. However large a part material has played in German victory, such spurious reasoning disguises the true cause of Allied failure. Belief in the fallacy that the machine of itself conquers is fatal. If all other factors are equal on the opposing sides—which never happens—then superiority in machines should prove decisive. To lay faith in them as such, however, is certain to end in ruin.
It was not by the machine, as unclear thinkers say, that the Germans broke around the end of the Maginot Line, by the machine that they drove a narrow wedge through Amiens to the coast, by the machine that they relentlessly pushed the Allies into the sea and the French far beyond the Seine.
If the German soldier was not brave, some ask, why then did he always obtain his objective in the end? Oh, that is the machine. It is the machine that is emphasized, not the skilful planning and swift execution of the break through; not the moral courage required of the general nor the physical courage of his subordinates to thrust far behind the opponent's line through only a thin break in the front. The question might be asked would it not have been better for the Allies to strike at morale, by hitting, like the Germans, where the opponent was unprepared, by cutting behind the German lines, as the German did behind those of the Allies to turn the fear for his life, in battle always present with a soldier, into black panic. Frederick the Great, as the German leaders of 1940 well knew, said and operated on the wisdom that three men behind the enemy are worth fifty in front. The German forces on the Western Front were probably inferior in total numbers to those of the Allies. That they were better prepared and better equipped for the type of war that was ultimately fought was only because the inaction of the Allies let the Germans fight the war of their own choice.
The machine is powerless of itself. It cannot help a nation—if the human factors of war are forgotten. An armed force cannot depend on its equipment for primary strength. Its leaders must seek to get for their forces the best available. But once the issue is joined, then troops must fight regardless of weapons. Then, though hopelessly inferior by all the book reasoning and mathematical accounting of two against two, they must still reach down into the human soul and find the power to overcome the impossible. Then they must dare and go forward. Clausewitz declares,
Naturally, in War we always seek to have the probability of success on our side, whether it be that we count upon a physical or moral superiority. But this is not always possible; we must often undertake things when the probability of our succeeding is against us, if, for instance, we can do nothing better. If in such a case we despair, then our rational reflection and judgment leave us just when most wanted....
Therefore, even when the probability of success is against us, we must not on that account consider our undertaking as impossible or unreasonable; reasonable it will always be if we can do nothing better, and if we employ the few means we have to the best advantage.
In order that in such cases we may never lose equanimity and firmness, two qualities which in War are always the first to be in peril . . . but without which, with the most brilliant qualities of the mind, we can effect nothing, we must familiarize ourselves with the idea of falling with honor; cherish that idea constantly. . . . Be convinced, most noble Prince, that without this firm determination nothing great can be effected in the most fortunate War, to say nothing of an unfortunate one.8
At Cannae, with a force on the field hardly half as strong as that of the Romans, and with inferior equipment, Hannibal won one of the most complete victories in history. Stonewall Jackson's matchless campaigns were achieved almost always by troops inferior in numbers or equipment but always, even in the most desperate situation, attacking. It was a leader that won the Bon Homme Richard-Serapis battle, not a rotten, completely outclassed ship that most men would have hidden behind a breakwater and fled ashore rather than sail it forth to attack.
We must not underrate the opponent, nor place our faith in soulless things. The German is thorough, brave, resolute, and hard hitting both in preparation and execution. He who wins over him must be more thorough, more resolute, have more able leadership. This is possible, but only if we face war with clear eyes and strong hearts. We must know that however much the machine may have proved of value to Germany, it was not the terrible force that defeated the Allied armies in France and elsewhere. Germany was seeking to win; the Allies were seeking to sit. Germany was driven on by the restless spirit of the offensive, the Allies by the old dying one of the defensive.
Let us look at the nature of this weakening spirit a little more closely. More fully than we have so far examined, let us try to understand how it ate away the glorious French national soul during the 1930's and through the ominously quiet winter of 1939 to the days of the cataclysm. Let us look at this once great force enmeshed by inaction that is stagnant death compared with the torrent driving on the Germans, a torrent hungrily licking at its dikes, seeking, reaching, dashing. A torrent that does not break through the strongest and highest parts of its walls, but always searches out the weak ones for the breach to unleash its fury.
The faults in French leadership cannot be laid wholly to the Maginot Line. Indeed, it may have been a product of defeatism rather than a cause; but the two go together. The Maginot Line is an expression of the futile, fearful spirit of the defensive; and by its existence accentuated this spirit.
In France men said: We have the Line to save us; all we need do is to sit and wait and let the Germans break themselves upon it—sit and decay! and each day find it harder to will to act, more impossible to stir the vast inertia of lethargy that oppressed the nation like death. Since France was going to defend herself by sitting instead of by going forward, nowhere arose leaders to inflame the mass, as few people like the French can be inflamed, with a burning Will to Conquer. Futility struck into every organ of the national body. The strength of a noble people melted away. In industry, neither leaders nor workers could be stimulated to increased production for winning the war. Six- and eight-hour days continued to be the established maximum labor would even stay in the factories. Sit-down delays, slow-up strikes, squabbling labor politicians, selfishness and disunity on the part of both industrialists and labor continued incredibly even to the day of ruin. National wealth, a large part of national strength, is fundamentally work done. The cost of raw materials in a manufactured raw product is usually negligible compared with the labor component. In Germany men were at their tools 60 to 70 hours a week. How much ill-spared strength did France, with her smaller population, throw away through insistence on labor's right, on the industrialist's right, on the right of all classes against the state; how many guns, how many planes! And in the end, how many Frenchman's fortunes, homes, lives, and ultimately the destruction of their proud nation herself!
But the Line was there. It would hold while each selfish group fought for its own ends. It would hold while easy, politically expedient methods could be followed gradually to get the populace unified and perhaps some far off day into full swing of production. There was no desperate necessity to act in the years before 1939, nor even thereafter when armies were facing each other. There would be time; all would come gradually, easily.
Time! how tragic the thought. Time that never waits. Time that flees away and may take forever from a people and its leaders the opportunity to utilize it for victory. Time, as Nelson said, that means everything. Time that is the reflected stream, luminous and dark, of human effort.
This spirit of the Wall, this disease infecting the economic and political life of the nation, as insidiously ate out the bowels of the army, especially of the leaders. The "best-equipped and finest army in the world" was the best-equipped and finest only to hold a wall that only a mad enemy would attack frontally. It was equipped to dig into fortifications and hold back the Germans as in 1918. The whole frontier of France was to be a Verdun. It was forgotten that the defense of Verdun did not save France, or at least played only a part, whereas the attack of the First Marne did.
They had forgotten that "in the last analysis, success in battle is a matter of morale. In all matters which pertain to an army, organization, discipline, and tactics, the human heart in the supreme moment of battle is the basic factor."9
They had forgotten that the greatest power in morale is movement, that "To conquer is to advance." They had forgotten Foch's supreme belief in the offensive which had saved them a generation earlier in one of the most crucial moments of history. It was the fate of this people to show within one generation the currents of supreme nobility and supreme weakness that with all their lights and fearful shadows flow side by side in the human soul.
At last the defensive was to be impregnable and for the first time in history a nation was going to be able to win just by sitting. So the spirit overwhelmed them. So inaction tied them in bonds of sloth. Then even the needful things could not be done. Then when leaders at last comprehended the urgent necessity for planes and tanks, somehow no one could move to get them in quantity. Then when it was realized that the Maginot Line was not even a line securing the whole frontier, but could be easily turned, nothing was done. The forest and hills were there; a good army like France's could rest behind them and keep the enemy out. The nation moved as in a dream, seeing but unable to act.
France was entrapped by inaction. Having decided upon doing nothing but waiting, it became harder and harder for her ever to do anything but wait. Vital preparation, the sinew of attack and always present in high degree where there is energy in operations, went slack. To attack, by the very inertia of changing from long habits of thinking, became impossible. She was caught inextricably. She herself had won the war for Germany.
Man is the slave of habit. The habit of thinking defensively, of sitting, of waiting, waiting, waiting for a blow to fall, eventually becomes fixed beyond any redemption. Eventually it chains the will and destroys any man, even the strongest and greatest. And as ever happens when we pass from the attitude of strength to that of weakness, this habit not only breeds inaction with its rot, but, far worse, dark fear, the hell of the human mind and destroyer of all that is noble and brave.
What happens to a commander, confident in his secure position, who waits for an enemy to strike? First of all, by just waiting, it daily becomes harder and harder for him to stir. So it was through the brooding winter of 1939. Troops went on leave from the fortifications. Men on furlough sunned on the gay southern beaches. Lilting songs of hanging "the wash on the Siegfried Line" burst from merry cafes. It was an easy war because the Germans could not break through. First, the Allied Generals would not move because they were too secure. From that it was a human transition to the frame of mind that they should not move for fear if they struck the German, he might strike back. And from that in turn to the awful ending that will and must inevitably come to men whose wills are thus debased.
Ultimately what the leaders had dreaded in the deepest silenced part of their thoughts came to pass. Ultimately the enemy struck at weakness; and they, unable to make up their minds that had refused this possibility, became mad with panic.
"Habit," says Clausewitz, "gives strength to the body in great exertions, to the mind in great danger, to the judgment against first impressions."10 He was speaking of habits of resolution, of valor, of facing a situation and acting. Such habits are a host of strength; for habits truly rule our lives, being the handiworks of our days that end by being our days.
Habits of inaction as certainly dominate us as those of action. When all goes as expected, life flows smoothly for him who follows rather than shaping events. When the Maginot Line breaks and the enemy suddenly strikes at his heart, the flimsy structure of the will he has let deteriorate crashes in disaster. Now there is no habit to sustain him, for his habit is to do nothing. Now there is no strength to hold on to a single way of action, for the habit is to follow no way. Suddenly, as the need for decision, swift, sure, and positive, becomes urgent beyond hesitation, panic assails. Now he who must decide is engulfed in indecision and fear. A thousand courses lie open . . . which should he take . . . will any be good? Frantic he turns from the breach. The wall upon which he had depended is gone; is there any strength left in the world for him since he has built none in himself?
The current of emotion engulfs his mind. Awful fear floods over him; and a crazed being flees from the horror of the unknown. Terrified he takes the easiest course, which is retreat. Once he begins to fall back the shadows terrify him with louder and louder screams of danger. His mind becomes frantic seeking escape. At last he runs—what was once a man is a tormented being without mind; what was once an army, knit strong into a weapon of mass and power, is shreds.
So panic overcomes a man; so it destroys an army; so it killed France. It was a panic bred directly out of the depths of the Maginot Line that spread into the souls of a people and their leaders. Had the Line held, they would have felt strong, sure of their decision, confident in the one way they knew. Once it failed them, there was nothing else to grasp.
"Be it agreeable or terrible," says Xenophon, "the less anything is foreseen, the more does it cause pleasure or dismay. This is true above all in war where every surprise strikes terror even to those who are much the stronger." This terror from surprise, with its fearful destruction of the will to decide, is surely purchased by the side that in accepting a passive defensive permits the initiative, the choice of time, and the place of striking to pass to the enemy.
The German flood of conquest in 1940 might have been stemmed had the French fought back and held their ground to the death; but Joffre and Foch were not there this time. There were only leaders trained to think passively and weakly.
Given time, the French would have tired of running. At first death seems unbearable as one flees from danger; but the human being becomes adjusted even to panic and fear. He can run just so far. Once the fright has been converted into fatigue he comprehends that one is killed no deader from standing and fighting than from running himself to death. Strong leaders, resolute of mind and strong to strike, with the courage of desperation if nothing else, could have rallied the French people who above all men will rise to the call to die for la Gloire et la Paine.
Yet how could the Allies have held? It was impossible under the hell of dive bombing for them to have endured. It was a miracle that they escaped at all. So men have said, extolling the victory of retreat; but we ask, where was the miracle, where the terrible effect of dive bombing, where the overwhelming power of German mechanized arms to shatter an army, except in its leader's mind.
Had they held out for even another week, or a fortnight, the whole tenor of the war might have been changed. The German push was reaching the end of its resources until new supplies could have been brought up. Planes and tanks are useless unless fed; guns must have ammunition. Heavy sacrifices in killed and wounded would have been an unhappy loss; but the results might have been incalculable. At the very least, strong French leaders might have appeared, as they ultimately do even from disaster. Large French armies might have been kept in the field somewhere in Europe or Africa. In the desperate months that have followed, Britain would have had the strength of the French Fleet, would have been saved from the catastrophe of Libya and probably of Crete. The added resistance might have so extended Germany that she would not have been ready to clean up southern Europe or strike at Russia in the summer of 1941 before the Great Bear could become too powerful to attack.
The death of many thousands of troops would have been a sad loss; but it is better to sacrifice what must be sacrificed at the crucial hour than the millions that may have to die before this holocaust is finished by victory—which is the only alternative for freedom short of extinction.
We who enter war must be ready to sacrifice lives—others as well as our own. The first end is not to save the individual. The British Navy knows that, as we do in our own: the life of the individual must be risked for the greater end. Fighting when there is no hope of victory is not mad; it is the deepest wisdom, beyond the comprehension of timorous leaders who look into the book and decide all is lost. It is wisdom because courage achieves the impossible. Boldness driven by energy knows no barrier. War cannot be fought without sore loss. But any sacrifice today is small loss compared to a nation enslaved tomorrow.
"Even when the probability of success is against us, we must not on that account consider our undertaking as impossible." We must be willing to accept death gladly, to give everything in us in resolute effort to win over the enemy though all indications declare it impossible to check him. The impossible has been achieved by valor more than once in man's long road of defeat and glory.
Had the British squares at Waterloo retreated before Napoleon's superior assault, that battle would not have ended the world conqueror's battle career. Had the "thin red line" that time after time refused to break throughout the centuries England has led in shaping the destinies of the world—had it broken against the great odds British stubbornness has often overcome, the history of the world would have been different, and England's part therein far less stirring.
The most magnificent characteristic of the British Tommy—his stubbornness against odds, his magnificent courage in adversity—was utilized. The fundamental virtue of the British soldier has been the virtue of the Briton throughout history: stoutness in adversity, bulldog determination, a hanging on and fighting when there is no hope of victory, the positive will to conquer, the rock of persistence upon which all opponents broke in the end, when the British were fully united behind the war.
War is truly a matter of "nerve to endure." It is the strength to stand, to fight, and to die. It is the greatest strength of Britain, the one she has in greatest abundance. The general who has the moral courage to use it towards its unbreakable limit will find in it the shining sword of victory.
We say the things we have written here not in hostile condemnation of the Allies. Human weakness is all too common a frailty for us to rail at what may happen to any nation that does not ceaselessly watch. It is natural that the English and French should rationalize their defeat; but it is nevertheless dangerous, dangerous to England, and dangerous indeed to our own nation where many men do not yet comprehend what the forces unleashed in this world may produce. It is this danger that we must be vigilant against first of all by understanding that the fundamental weakness of the Allies in France was not in their war machine, but in the spirit that drove them into battle. It is a tragic thing that they could so soon have lost the flame that in 1914, with French armies broken on all sides, and his own weary, shattered troops far outnumbered, caused Foch in the very lowest ebb of battle's fortune to report confidently:
I am heavily pressed upon my right; my center is giving way; I cannot redistribute my forces. The situation is excellent and I shall attack.11
The Germans were at the door of Paris. Foch was a rock on which they broke. Until a man knows he is defeated, he is never defeated. It is not only tragic, but bitter gall that because men did not refuse in 1940 likewise to believe in defeat, because there were not again leaders to will victory, these pathetic words written of the 1870 debacle could in all their calamitous connotations be repeated almost without change today:
The virile thought of a military thinker alone brings forth successes and maintains victorious nations. Fatal indolence brought about the invasion, the loss of two provinces, the bog of moral miseries and social evils which ever beset vanquished States.12
1 Battle Studies, du Picq, Greely and Cotton, vii.
2 Ibid., ix.
3 Ibid., 2v3.
4 Battle Studies, 4.
5 Ibid., iv.
6 Clausewitz, On War, vol. 1, 168-242; 287-89.
7 Into Battle, 123-24.
8 On War, iii, 183-184.
9 Into Battle, 109.
10 On War, i, 81.
11 Precepts and Judgments, 21.
12 Battle Studies, 1.