The View From Olympus: Guderian Said It

When I began the maneuver warfare debate in the mid-1970s with a critique of the U.S. Army’s field manual FM 100-5 (1976 edition), most of what I knew about the German way of war came from reading books by and about General Heinz Guderian. Guderian did not “invent” Blitzkrieg; as General Hermann Balck told me later, it was conceptually complete by 1918. What Guderian did was make Blitzkrieg a practical possibility by developing the Panzer Division during the 1930s. Blitzkrieg married an all-arms, cross-country mobile division capable of rapid operational maneuver with the infiltration tactics of 1918 (and on the defensive, with the new “let ’em walk right in” tactics of 1917).

Interestingly, the French¬†Division Leger Mechanique of the 1930s looked like a Panzer Division, but because it lacked the Germans’ doctrine, it had little effect in 1940. As usual, ideas were more important than hardware.

One of the early points of debate about maneuver warfare was whether it saved lives. I argued it did, because it is seldom necessary to kill an encircled enemy; usually, he gives up and becomes POWs. The U.S. Army was particularly hostile to this notion. It liked it to describe itself as a “lean, green, killing machine,” and while the “lean” description was hilarious given its tooth-to-tail ratio, its doctrine saw war as an attrition contest and still does. Any enemy dumb enough to just sit there and get pounded, as Red is constrained to do in U.S. Army war games, will take heavy losses. Few enemies have proven that dumb.

Guderian and the question of whether maneuver warfare saves lives came together in a happy discovery I recently made in a book about Prussia, both its history and its current situation: The Vanished Kingdom: Travels Through the History of Prussia by James Charles Roy. It turns out Guderian said I was right. Roy interviewed a veteran of Operation Barbarossa, who had been a junior officer in a Panzer Division and had heard Guderian speak. The veteran recounted:

As spearhead divisions, we were always surrounded. We had enemies in the front, on our left, on our right, often at the back. Ground troops (i.e., infantry) couldn’t keep up with us. Very often they were too exhausted and that could be very dangerous. That’s why they often resupplied us from the air. We could move as few as 5 or 6 kilometers in a day, but we could also drive 60, 70, 80 in a day, then turn around and roll up from the back a whole front. This was the way to wage war! Taking hundreds and thousands of prisoners, saving lives if you will. Good officers can save lives, and we had the best officers in the world. If you get bad officers, you are really in trouble. Guderian said this to us many times. We are not a killing machine, he said. We break through and end wars quickly. By waging quick warfare, the generals believed fewer lives would be lost. (Page 236)

The 1940 campaign demonstrated the life-saving power of maneuver warfare. The Germans lost about 25,000 dead in the whole campaign, the French about 100,000. By World War I standards these were astonishingly small casualties; on one day in August, 1914, the French lost 27,000 dead. Barbarossa brought in millions of Russian POWs. Regrettably, few survived the war, and those who did were shot on Stalin’s orders afterwards; he considered any Russian who surrendered a traitor.

The ability of maneuver warfare to reduce casualties, both friendly and enemy, takes on enhanced importance in the face of Fourth Generation war. If we ever again fight and win a land war against another state, the great danger will be the disintegration of the defeated state and its descent into stateless chaos. The resulting happy hunting ground for Fourth Generation, non-state elements will almost certainly be a greater danger to us than was the opposing state.

If, through maneuver warfare, we are able to keep the enemy state’s soldiers alive and even perhaps in some order as whole units surrender, we can then use those troops and units to quickly reconstitute the state. Presumably, we will not again be as stupid as the neo-cons were in Iraq when they ordered the Iraqi Army and civil service sent home (that order came directly from the West Wing of the White House).

The question is, will U.S. ground forces be able to wage a campaign of rapid maneuver and encirclement? In the First Gulf War, the U.S. Army tried and failed. It still sees itself as a “killing machine” today. The Marine Corps has a doctrine of maneuver warfare, but whether it has more than a few units and commanders who can actually fight that way is an open question.

What is not in question anymore is whether militaries that aspire to wage maneuver warfare are “killing machines.” Guderian said they are not. That settles it. favicon

4 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: Guderian Said It”

  1. The problem is you need to be highly motivated to allow yourself to be surrounded, carrying the risk of annihilation. Oligarchs, political careers, PC and feminism are not worth dying for.

  2. Excellent article, Herr Lind.

    Did the U.S. Army really to fail to maneuver and encircle in the first Gulf war? Shortly after the war was over, I spoke with colonel who was I believe with the Third Armored Regent of the 24th Infantry Division. He told me that they were on the North bank of the Euphrates River, facing South, waiting for the remaining Iraqi armor to come to them. At the last moment, with vast Iraqi armor and other assets in their night sights, they received the order not to fire. He said they could have destroyed the entire remaining Iraqi military right then and there. Instead, their hearts broke as they watched them all flee back to Baghdad intact and unmolested. The leadership refused to administer the coup de grace. The Army did not fail, the leadership did.

  3. It’s an interesting hypothetical…Gulf War’s plan was to force the Iraqis to abandon Kuwait. Had Saddam’s army been encircled and trapped in Kuwait instead, we’d have had what, half his army taken prisoner? You could then have him begging for their release and asking for all kinds of concessions. Or if leaving Saddam in charge really was as intolerable as they say, I’m wondering how many of those POWs would have been willing to march on Baghdad under Coalition air support. Toss out Saddam and Sons and put some general or other Ba’athist in charge while preserving the state institutions.

    It’s a strange hypothetical to me though, because the Gulf War was an unquestionable victory. We did what we went there to do, humiliated Saddam, and didn’t stick around to wage some disastrous counter-insurgency campaign. It’s a question of how to make total victory even more total, and you start gambling and risk messing things up when you think up these hypothetical political gambits we could have played.

    But it’s the future more than the past where Mr. Lind’s (and Herr Guderian’s) ideas would be useful to implement.

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