Saturday, December 13, 2014


"Waterloo was instead that most definitive of defeats: an irremediable loss at the level of grand strategy. It was in this sense an intellectual defeat for Napoleon himself: had his mind been working properly, he would not have been at Waterloo that day, or on any other battlefield, because by June 1815 the coalition ranged against him comprised the Habsburg Empire, the Duchy of Brunswick, the Kingdoms of Prussia and Hanover, the Duchy of Nassau, the tsarist Empire of all the Russias, the Kingdoms of the Netherlands, Portugal, Sardinia, Sicily, Sweden and Spain, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Swiss Confederation, and the French monarchists with their loyalist troops, as well as the British and their empire. The 118,000 troops actually at Waterloo, from the armies of Prussia, the Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau, along with 25,000 British soldiers and 6000 of the King’s German Legion, were quite enough to outnumber the 73,000 French soldiers, yet they were only a fraction of the total troop strength of the coalition.... In the end the shortcomings of Marshal Ney as a tactician made no difference. If Wellington was right, the balance in the field might have been tilted by exceptionally good tactics, but that would merely have delayed Napoleon’s final defeat until the next battle, for the coalition would not have seen a tactical defeat as conclusive. The same is true at the operational level: if de Grouchy’s 33,000 soldiers, once thrown into battle, had succeeded in breaking Wellington’s array, driving off the Prussians, Napoleon’s Waterloo would have come in some other place, as soon as the coalition could reassemble to fight, with the added forces that could not be deployed in time for Waterloo. That is how the logic of strategy works. Its different levels might be thought of as the floors of a building. Nothing can be achieved at the operational level of strategy without adequate tactical capacity below it – there’s no point in moving units around in clever manoeuvres if they cannot fight at all – just as there is no capacity at the tactical level if there are no supplies and no weapons. The technical level of strategy is just as essential, for all its simplicity as compared to the mysteries of unit cohesion, morale and leadership which largely determine tactical strength. But this edifice of several storeys has a most peculiar feature: there are no stairs or elevators from the operational level, where battles are fought, up to the level of grand strategy, where entire wars are fought with every political and material strength or weakness in play, including alliances and enmities. Absent overwhelming superiority to begin with, no war fought with the wrong allies against the wrong enemies can yield victory, even if a hundred battles are won. By 1814, that was Napoleon’s predicament, as it would be for Germany in both world wars: German forces fought skillfully and often ferociously to win again and again in battles large and small, but nothing could overcome the consequences of siding with the decrepit Ottoman and Habsburg Empires against the British, French, Japanese and Russian empires the first time around, or with Bulgaria and Italy against all the Great Powers but Japan the second time.... In retrospect the fight against Napoleon seems to have engendered a new strategic method, later employed against Germany in two world wars and against the Soviet Union thereafter. The French might call it the Anglo-Saxon encirclement strategy. Its essential aim was to avoid direct combat with a formidable enemy, or at least to limit engagement to a minimum. Instead of confronting one vast army with another – at Waterloo there were only 25,000 British troops – the Anglo-Saxon approach was to take on the big beast by assembling as many neighbourhood dogs and cats as possible, with a few squirrels and mice thrown in. With the obvious exception of the Western Front in the First World War, that is how the two world wars were fought, with an ever longer list of allies large, small and trivial (e.g. Guatemala, whose rulers could thereby expropriate the coffee plantations of German settlers), and that is how the Soviet Union was resisted after 1945, with what eventually became the North Atlantic Alliance. Like the anti-Napoleon coalition, Nato was – and remains – a ragbag of member states large and small, of vastly different capacity for war or deterrence, not all of them loyal all the time, though loyal and strong enough. Like the challenge to British diplomacy in the struggle against Napoleon, the great challenge to which American diplomacy successfully rose was to keep the alliance going by tending to the various political needs of its member governments, even those of countries as small as Luxembourg, whose rulers sat on all committees as equals, even though they could never field more than a single battalion of troops. Now it is the turn of the Chinese, whose strength is still modest yet growing too rapidly for comfort, and who are inevitably provoking the emergence of a coalition against them; the members range in magnitude from India and Japan down to the Sultanate of Brunei, in addition of course to the US. Should they become powerful enough, the Chinese will force even the Russian Federation into the coalition regardless of the innate preferences of its rulers, for strategy is always stronger than politics, as it was for the anti-communist Nixon and the anti-American Mao in 1972. China cannot therefore overcome its inferiority to the American-led coalition by converting its economic strength into aircraft carriers and such, any more than Napoleon could have overcome strategic encirclement by winning one more battle.."
Edward Luttwak, "A Damned Nice Thing". The London Review of Books. 18 December 2014, in
While finding his more than occasional obiter dicta to be annoying as well erroneous historically speaking, the amateur historian and commentator Edward Luttwak, does on occasion rise, nay more than rise to the occasion by way of profound and penetrating analysis. His piece in the current issue of the London Review of Books more than qualifies. In a very cogent and learned review article, Luttwak amply demonstrates once again, why the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo did not matter in the least. That even if Bonaparte had beaten the British and the Prussians in the later part of June 1815, that victory would not have mattered. That with the overwhelming predominance of Allied forces over the French in both numbers and elan, the outcome was inevitable. It was merely a question if that outcome would occur sooner (in late June) or later (sometime in August) in anno domini 1815. In retrospect, it is clear that Bonaparte had sold the pass back in the second quarter of 1813, by refusing to agree to the modus vivendi offered to him by Graf von Metternich. That by holding out for everything, Bonaparte inevitably ended up with nothing 1. Similarly, as Luttwak points out, the Germans in both the Great War and in World War II, regardless of their (occasional) brilliance at military tactics, made their defeat inevitable by the gross stupidity at both war-time diplomacy and overall strategy. As the British scholar Alexander Watson points out in his new book on Austria and Imperial Germany during the Great War, the so-called 'Central Powers' entered with war, with heavily outmanned in terms of armed forces, population numbers and economic & financial strength 2. Something which the entry into the war of Japan, Italia, and the United States did not make any better. In the case of World War II, Hitler's own stupidity in attacking first Sovietskaya Vlast, then in declaring war on the United States, speaks for itself. And, while the Cold War did not see Sovietskaya Vlast commit so egregious errata in either strategy or diplomacy, the original discrepancy in overall economic and military power vis`-a-vis the United States and its allies was never really over-come. With the effort made to match the Western powers resulting in the economic exhaustion of the Soviet Union. As per what may occur with the Peoples Republic, all one may say is that given the blundering diplomacy that Peking has engaged in these past half dozen years with its neighbors, one may not be very surprised at a repeat `a la Luttwak's surmise in the future.
1. For this see: Paul Schroeder. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848. (1994), pp.459-471 & passim.
2. Alexander Watson. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918.(2014), p.104 & passim.


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