Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

On War: Rationing the Horse Fodder

I just wasn’t prepared.

The author of the “On War” reading guide, Bernard Brodie, was a cheery companion for the first three sections. But even Barney couldn’t drum up much enthusiasm for Book Four. He called various chapters “rather less consequential” or “not particularly memorable.” I can think of some stronger language, like “fairly gruesome,” “droolingly dull” and “coma-inducing.”

I did like one chapter on the use of the battle, where Clause gets all indignant about silly folks who don’t like to fight. They get nervous when it’s time to roll the dice. “The human spirit recoils from the decision brought about by a single blow,” he says.

So governments and commanders sought out other means of avoiding a decisive battle, finding other ways to meet their goal or abandoning it altogether. All this, Clause says, turned a battle into a kind of evil, something that a properly managed war could avoid.

“Recent history has scattered such nonsense to the winds,” Clause snaps. Warriors must not fall into the same stupid thinking again.

“We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed,” he goes on. “The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.”

Ah, good old bloodthirsty Clause.

He makes another important point: that now victory is effective without pursuit. Troops on both sides are exhausted and disorganized after a battle. But this isn’t the time for the victor to pause. Any time lost after the battle is in the loser’s favor. He’ll get a nice rest and maybe some gruel or something. Then the victor has to go beat him all over again.

Clause constantly repeats this point throughout the book, but it’s worth hounding us about. Apparently he didn’t go far enough anyway, since I remember some Civil War generals who’d beat the enemy, then sit around and let him go.

So okay, not bad. But then I hit Book Five (“Military Forces”). Barney called the early chapters “somewhat dated.” I call them “thoroughly useless.”

Modern armies are huge, Clause writes breathlessly. Why Napolean had 200,000 men! And then he tells us in detail how to go into winter quarters.

But I’d rather read about marches, billets and horse fodder all day then deal with Book Six (“Defense”) again. Defense is the stronger form of waging war, Clause tells us, an idea that World War I generals took a little too much to heart.

Clause tells us how to defend fortresses, set up fortified positions and establish entrenched camps. We defend ourselves in the mountains, by the rivers, in the swamps, in the forests and along a cordon. Even Barney admits tiredly that in the last chapter, “Clausewitz is not at his inspired best.”

I myself skimmed much of Book Six, eager to get on to the more interesting problem of attack. Oh God, what a mistake that was. What I got is how to ATTACK a force on the river, attack an entrenched camp, attack a mountainous area, attack the enemy in swamps, forests and cordons. Barney was bored too: “This book is but the obverse of the preceding book,” he grumbled.

I liked the part about the “culminating point of victory,” which says the attacker can overshoot the point at which, if he stopped and assumed the defensive, he might still succeed. The trick is, of course, knowing when to quit.

I nearly quit myself halfway through Book Six, and again early in Book Seven. I was very discouraged, given to snapping at slow ATM machines and griping about long traffic lights. Perhaps this was a stupid idea. I’m a 21st-century housewife with a toddler to raise, not a Napoleanic general with cavalry forces to manage. Maybe I should acknowledge my culminating point and go watch “So You Think You Can Dance?”

But I slogged on, and was rewarded by Book Eight: “War Plans.”



No comments: