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Posts Tagged ‘military violence’

“I did not awake this morning to the deafening noise of sirens or the rocketing sound of nonstop bombs. I did not awake to the missiles that come like rain from the sky, exploding on contact with land, staking out huge craters within the earth, collapsing people into buildings, trees into rubble, men into women, hands into feet, children into dust. Two thousands tons of ammunition in three hours. Forty-two air raids in one day. Twenty-seven thousand air raids in a decade. I did not awake this morning to the taste of desolation, nor to the crusts of anger piled high from from decades of neglect. I did not awake to the smell of charred flesh, which sand storms use to announce the morning raid. I did not awaken in Basra to the familiar smell of hunger, or of grief for that matter, residual grief from the last twelve years that has now settled as a thick band of air everywhere. Breathing grief for a lifetime can be toxic. Breathing only grief simply kills. I did not awake in Falluja, symbol of the post-election settlement wager: votes in exchange for bombs. I awoke this morning from a comfortable bed, avoiding the interminable queues for rations of fuel or food, because I have the privilege to choose to live, unlike many who have lost their lives in the insatiable service of imperialism.”

– Jaqui Alexander, The Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory & The Sacred. Duke University Press, 2005.

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“Beyond the triumph of the landings accomplished and the enemy
defeated, the D-Day literature has never found complacency easy to come by.
Some of the earliest commentators were scathing. Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller,
Chester Wilmont were all critical of both the generalship and the fighting power
of the Allies. The 1950s and 1960s saw a wave of recrimination amongst the
leading commanders of the invasion forces, divided above all over by the
retrospective posturing of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. At stake was
more than Montie’s status as a great commander, in his disagreements with
Bradley and Eisenhower a more fundamental clash between hidebound British
conservatism and the dash and glamour of American modernity was
encapsulated. In 1983 Carlo D’Este’s Decision in Normandy not only adjudicated

this argument, but provided a compelling narrative of how the postwar myth of
Normandy and the controversy around it had taken shape. By then, however,
the currents in the wider historiography had moved on. The argument between
the Allies was displaced by invidious comparisons drawn between all of them
and their Wehrmacht opponents. Whilst the wider historical literature moved in
the 1980s to an ever more determined “othering” of the Nazi regime on account
of its radical racism, amongst the military intelligentsia the reverse tendency
prevailed. For analysts concerned to hone the “military effectiveness” of NATO’s
armies in Cold War Europe, the Germans were not just different. They were
better. As Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy the leader of the new breed of quantitative
battlefield analysts put it: “On a man for man basis, the German ground soldier
consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50% higher rate than they incurred
from the opposing British and American troops UNDER ALL
CIRCUMSTANCES.”

Inverting the terms of the earlier debate about generalship, Max Hastings
in 1983 arrived at the cruel conclusion that it was not Montgomery who had
failed his troops, but the other way around. As Hastings put it: “Montgomery’s
massive conceit masked the extent to which his own generalship in Normandy
fell victim to the inability of his army to match the performance of their
opponents on the battlefield.” “There was nothing cowardly about the
performance of the British army in Normandy”, Hastings hastened to add. But it
was simply too much to expect a “citizen army in the fifth year of war, with the
certainty of victory in the distance” to match the skill and ferocity of the
Wehrmacht at bay. It is worth remembering that Hastings concluded his D-Day
book shortly after participating as an embedded reporter in the Falklands
campaign, in which the highly professional British army humbled a much larger
force of Argentinian conscripts. And he did not hesitate to draw conclusions
from D-Day for NATO in the 1980s. Given the overwhelming conventional
superiority of the Warsaw Pact, the “armies of democracy” needed critically to
examine their own history: “If a Soviet invasion force swept across Europe from
the east, it would be unhelpful if contemporary British or American soldiers
were trained and conditioned to believe that the level of endurance and sacrifice
displayed by the Allies in Normandy would suffice to defeat the invaders. For an
example to follow in the event of a future European battle, it will be necessary to
look to the German army; and to the extraordinary defence that its men

conducted in Europe in the face of all the odds against them, and in spite of their
own demented Führer.”

In the 1980s, whilst for liberal intellectuals Holocaust consciousness
served to buttress a complacent identification with the “values of the West”, the
military intelligentsia were both far less sanguine about a dawning end of
history, in which their role seemed far less self-evident, and far more ambiguous
in the use the made of the history of Nazi Germany. The most striking instance of
this kind of militarist cultural critic was the Israeli military historian Martin van
Creveld, who was not then the marginal figure that he was to become in the
2000s. His Fighting Power published in 1982 was at the center of the “military
effectiveness” debates that were convulsing the American army in the wake of
Vietnam.  Why van Creveld asked had the German army not only fought better
but held together in the face of overwhelming odds, why did it not “run”, why
did it not “disintegrate” and why did it not “frag its officers.” Creveld’s answer
was simple. The Germans fought well because they were members of a “well
integrated well led team whose structure administration and functioning were
perceived to be …. Equitable and just.” Their leaders were first rate and despite
the totalitarian regime they served were empowered to employ their freedom
and initiative wherever possible. By contrast the social segregation in America’s
army was extreme. “American democracy” Creveld opined “fought world war II
primarily at the expense of the tired, the poor the huddled masses” “between
America’s second rate junior officers “ and their German opposite numbers there
simply is no comparison possible.” On the battlefield Nazi Volksgemeinschaft
trumped Western class society.

If despite these devastating deficiencies, the allies had nevertheless
prevailed, the reason was not military but economic. Overwhelming material
superiority decided the outcome. Brute Force was the title chosen by John Ellis for
his powerful summation. It was a conclusion backed up by economic histories
that began to be published at the time. The Allies waged a “rich man’s war”
against a vastly inferior enemy. In the mayhem of the Falaise Gap, the Allies
were shocked to find the grisly carcasses of thousands of dead horses mingled
with the Wehrmacht’s abandoned armor and burned-out soft-skinned vehicles.

What hope did the half-starved slave economy of Nazi-occupied Europe have of
competing with the Allies’ oil-fuelled, globe-spanning war machine?

But it was not just the battlefield contest and its material background that
were being reexamined from the 1970s onwards. So too was the methodology of
military history and its mode of story telling. The juxtaposition of Carlo D’Este’s
Decision in Normandy and Max Hasting’s Overlord published within months of
each in 1983-1984 marks a moment of transition. D’Este offers a classic view from
the top, focusing on the high command. Hastings assembles his history from the
bottom up. His was, one is tempted to say, a social history of combat – organized
around the category of experience, intimate, personal and graphically violent. In
this respect Hastings followed in the deep footprints left by John Keegan’s pathbreaking,
The Face of Battle (1976). The image that Hastings painted was savage.
The struggle waged in Normandy was no “clean war”. Appalling death and
destruction scarred the battlefield. Casualty rates in the frontline spearhead units
of the Allied units ran well above 100 percent by the end of 1944. Hastings did
not deny the atrocities committed by the German soldiers he recommended as an
example for NATO. But he leveled the score by pointing out how frequently the
Allies armies shot both prisoners and men trying to surrender. Savagery began
savagery in a loop that was more anthropological than political.

And if violence was no longer taboo then this went for the civilians as
much as the soldiers. Since the early 2000s, a powerful new strand of literature
has sought to address the enormous collateral damaged produced in the course
of the landings and the way in which “liberated” France struggled to come to
terms with its profoundly ambiguous experience. Ground and naval artillery,
but above all air power wrecked French cities and claimed tens of thousands of
lives. Tellingly this research took place in the context of a wider and highly
critical investigation of the Allied strategic air war directed by Richard Overy. It
was flanked by a more wide-ranging inter-disciplinary enquiry into liberal
societies and war. In the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the
legal questions posed by a new era of long-range and remote killing, the question
hung in the air. Was the use of force by the Allied forces in Normandy
proportionate? Did it constitute a crime against the French civilian population?
The ambiguity of liberation is brought home most recently by Mary Louise

Roberts What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II (Chicago, 2014).
She describes how the bodies of French women were made the eroticized booty
of the soldiers of the “Great Crusade.”

In World War II, there was nothing like the conscientious objection
movement on the Allied side that there had been in World War I. But given the
scale of the violence that they were dealing out in the final stages of the war, it is
not surprising that at least some people spoke out in protest. Opposition to the
destruction being wrought ranged from outraged ethical criticism in the House
of Lords to the shock of a corporal in the 4th Dorsets who later recalled the
incongruity of bursting into a French home during house to house fighting:
‘There we were, wrecking this house, and I suddenly thought – “How would I
feel if this was mine?” In 1940 the British Expeditionary Force in France had
been under strict instructions to avoid all damage to French property, including
a prohibition on knocking loopholes in brick walls so as to create firing positions.
Now the Allied forces were reducing entire cities to rubble. But horrific as the
bombardments clearly were, research on the British side does not suggest that
revulsion was the general response. The war had to be won and if firepower kept
Allied soldiers out of harms way, so be it. Few allied soldiers apologize for the
material preponderance they commanded. Many of them clearly relished the
spectacle. For the commanders the war might be an end in itself, an opportunity
to write their names into the annals of military history. For the vast majority of
their troops it was a job to be accomplished. The Germans were to be defeated
with whatever means and manpower was available to crush them. In so doing,
the Allies may not have matched the military skill of the Wehrmacht. But it was
not merely brute force. The Allied war effort had its own logic – political,
strategic, operational, tactical and technical. Rescuing this logic from the
damning but tightly circumscribed judgments of the “military effectiveness”
literature, has been the purpose of two decades of revisionist scholarship.”

– Adam Tooze, “Blitzkrieg manqué or a new kind of war?: Interpreting the Allied Victory in the Normandy campaign.” Working paper, Columia, 2016.  

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