Losing the War
December 28, 2004 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Losing the War, an insightful memoir by writer and journalist Lee Sandlin. Note: It's not about Iraq. Or is it? "A year later, in the second winter of the invasion, as the army inched forward on a final, desperate push into Stalingrad, a daring joke began making the rounds in Germany, a mock dispatch from Stalingrad HQ: 'Today our troops captured a two-room apartment with kitchen, toilet, and bathroom. They have succeeded in retaining two-thirds of it despite fierce counterattacks by the enemy.' Few of the tellers realized just how accurate this description was. John Keegan, in his book The Second World War, quotes a German officer's description of the fighting in the city: 'We have fought for fifteen days for a single house with mortars, grenades, machine-guns and bayonets. Already by the third day fifty-four German corpses are strewn in the cellars, on the landings, and the staircases. The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors.' This was where Hitler's vision of the world finally foundered. After striding like a colossus over a continent, the German army was in the end unable to force its way up a flight of stairs."
posted by digaman (20 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's not about Iraq. Or is it?

I don't see anyone to play a dithering Friedrich Paulus, and if there are battle-hardened, well-trained Arab armies waiting to encircle American troops, they're pretty well hidden, so no, I'd say this has very little to do with Iraq as a factual matter. Nonetheless, Stalingrad was an interesting juncture in military history, so I give this post two thumbs up despite the gratuitous Iraq reference.

As far as losing the war is concerned, I'd say that Hitler had definitely lost it long before Stalingrad, by December 11, 1941 to be precise, when he pointlessly declared war on America despite the warnings of Fritz Todt and others. The Soviets certainly had the men to do the fighting, but it's most unlikely that they could have made up the losses of material and industrial capacity without heavy American assistance, and while the Eastern Front's importance is often underplayed in Western history books, it helped Stalin's efforts to no end that in 1944 so many divisions were tied up in Western Europe awaiting an Anglo-American invasion. The numbers ran heavily against the Axis in the long run, especially when the world's most productive economy was combined with that of the state most cavalier with the lives of its subjects.
posted by Goedel at 1:55 PM on December 28, 2004

This is the great area of Red States in full support of the "enter[prise" in Iraq...and this is what is said here!
"People my age and younger who've grown up in the American heartland can't help but take for granted that war is unnatural. We think of the limitless peace around us as the baseline condition of life. War, any war, is for us a contemptible death trip, a relic of lizard-brain machismo, a toxic by-product of America's capitalist military system--one more covert and dishonorable crime we commit in the third world. All my life I've heard people say "war is insanity" in tones of dramatic insight and final wisdom, and it took me a long time to realize that what they really meant was "war is an activity I don't want to understand, done by people I fear and despise."...something has changed!
posted by Postroad at 2:01 PM on December 28, 2004

the iraq war makes me sadder and sadder every day. who's going to be the LBJ who has to clean up bush's mess then fall on his sword while the right tries to deify bush?
posted by wbm$tr at 2:02 PM on December 28, 2004

I think you're in the wrong thread for those "answers" wbm$tr.
posted by Witty at 2:24 PM on December 28, 2004

I don't think the Iraq reference is particularly insightful.
I would point you towards 'Rising '44' by Norman Davies for a closer parallel - in this case in the conflict between the Poles and the Germans in Warsaw.

It's a great book that illustrates an important truth; that no matter how good and plentiful your hardware and how modern your doctrine, when faced with an enemy with a stronger will than you, you will lose.

See Grozny for details.
posted by fingerbang at 2:51 PM on December 28, 2004

Metafilter: It's not about Iraq. Or is it?
posted by Turtle at 3:21 PM on December 28, 2004

The comparision is apt, Godel. Like the Wehrmacht before it, the U.S. Armed Forces are capable of destroying almost any military enemy in any specific battle. Despite this, as even Pentagon war planners now admit, the U.S. lost the initiative within three months of smashing Saddam's army. The two events share ironic qualities.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:25 PM on December 28, 2004

The parallel trying to be drawn here is weak. The guerillas in Iraq have no problem running away when heavy forces are brought in, unlike the Soviet soldiers who were entrenched and fought in heavily fortified positions against the German Nazis.

fingerbang gets to the heart of it: a guerilla force that has a stronger conviction is more likely to win (they also need support of the local people and superior knowledge of the terrain, in this case cities). However, even that's not a guarantee, as an insurgent populace can be put down, but only through brutality and extreme carnage, such as Argentina's Montoneros (a Trotskyite urban group) who were so thoroughly eradicated, even though they certainly had more willingness to fight and ample support from the local people.

Study up on the history of guerilla warfare and you'll see that this type of warfare has played out over and over again. My bet is on the insurgents, since I can't see America ever reaching the apex of brutality that the Argentine army did and is already at a disadvantage geographically and politically in Iraq.
posted by StephenV at 3:34 PM on December 28, 2004

No fun in Stalingrad.
posted by jperkins at 3:42 PM on December 28, 2004

damn. "Not much fun in Stalingrad, no."
posted by jperkins at 3:44 PM on December 28, 2004

The Soviets certainly had the men to do the fighting, but it's most unlikely that they could have made up the losses of material and industrial capacity without heavy American assistance, and while the Eastern Front's importance is often underplayed in Western history books, it helped Stalin's efforts to no end that in 1944 so many divisions were tied up in Western Europe awaiting an Anglo-American invasion.

You're certainly correct about the importance of American industry to the Allied war effort, but I think you over-estimate the number of German troops based on the Western Front. I seem to recall reading that the Germans took 90% of their casualties on the Eastern Front, and had about the same percentage of troops committed there.

The Allies won the war thanks to Russian bodies and American industry.
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:15 PM on December 28, 2004

My bet is on the insurgents, since I can't see America ever reaching the apex of brutality that the Argentine army did and is already at a disadvantage geographically and politically in Iraq.

Well, Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, a resercher for the Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group tends to agree:

"While there may have been 'plans' at the national level, and even within various agencies within the war zone, none of these 'plans' operationalized the problem beyond regime collapse" -- that is, laid out how U.S. forces would be moved and structured, Wilson writes in an essay that has been delivered at several academic conferences but not published. "There was no adequate operational plan for stability operations and support operations."...

Army commanders still misunderstand the strategic problem they face and therefore are still pursuing a flawed approach, writes Wilson, who is scheduled to teach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point next year. "Plainly stated, the 'western coalition' failed, and continues to fail, to see Operation Iraqi Freedom in its fullness," he asserts.

"Reluctance in even defining the situation . . . is perhaps the most telling indicator of a collective cognitive dissidence on part of the U.S. Army to recognize a war of rebellion, a people's war, even when they were fighting it," he comments. Because of this failure, Wilson concludes, the U.S. military remains "perhaps in peril of losing the 'war,' even after supposedly winning it." Overall, he grades the U.S. military performance in Iraq as "mediocre."

Army Historian Cites Lack of Postwar Plan
posted by y2karl at 6:33 PM on December 28, 2004

By the time of Pearl Harbor the war had erupted in Norway and Mongolia, on Crete and in the Dutch East Indies; the Italian Army had marched on Egypt, and the German army was pushing into the outskirts of Moscow; there had been savage fighting in Finland north of the Arctic Circle and sea battles off the coast of Argentina. The United States was one of the last secluded places left on earth.


The insurgents in this case didn't win the war, but they sure made it costly.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 7:32 PM on December 28, 2004

"Beyond the Euphrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplessly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing. The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained off in the attempt."

Emperor Hadrian AD 117-138
posted by halekon at 9:05 PM on December 28, 2004

That's a damned long article. And a damned good one.

I think the comparison to Iraq is weak but existent, in the sense that all wars tend to have common themes beyond just people killing each other. I'm not trying to say modern issues, such as the war in Iraq, shouldn't be discussed or compared to past events. I simply think this article certainly warrants more attention than "it's like Iraq!"/"no it's not!"

While there were moments in the article that made me think of modern situations, the article is far more impressive as a piece which manages to create a horrific image of WWII after so many films and other forms of media have glorified it. (Of course, I'm speaking for myself here.) This passage on Okinawa I found particularly jarring:
The major campaign Sledge fought in was Okinawa, which took place toward the end of the war. It was expected to be quick: one more island recaptured from a defeated enemy. But the Japanese withdrew deep into Okinawa's lush interior, where the rains and the dense foliage made the few roads impassable. The marines had to bring their supplies in on foot--carrying mortars and shells, water and food on their backs across miles of ravine-cut hills. Often they were so exhausted they couldn't move when the enemy attacked. The battle lines, as so often happened in the war, soon froze in place. The quick campaign lasted for months.

Conditions on the front rapidly deteriorated. Soldiers were trapped in their foxholes by barrages that went on for days at a time. They were stupefied by the unbroken roar of the explosions and reduced to sick misery by the incessant rain and deepening mud. They had to use discarded grenade cans for latrines, then empty the contents into the mud outside their foxholes. The rain washed everything into the ravines; the urine and feces mixed with the blood and the shreds of rotting flesh blown by the shell bursts from the hundreds of unburied bodies scattered everywhere. The smell was so intolerable it took an act of supreme will for the soldiers to choke down their rations each day. Sledge calls it "an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool."

He writes, "If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. Then he and a buddy would shake or scrape them away with a piece of ammo box or a knife blade."

The soldiers began to crack. As Sledge writes, "It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane." He catalogs the forms the insanity took: "from a state of dull detachment seemingly unaware of their surroundings, to quiet sobbing, or all the way to wild screaming and shouting." Sledge himself began having hallucinations that the dead bodies were rising at night. "They got up slowly out of their waterlogged craters or off the mud and, with stooped shoulders and dragging feet, wandered around aimlessly, their lips moving as though trying to tell me something." It was a relief to shake himself alert and find the corpses decomposing in their accustomed spots.
Makes me wonder why more people don't suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome. The terms 'beserker' and 'fey' applied to such a recent historic event are interesting as well.
posted by DyRE at 9:27 PM on December 28, 2004

Quite an amazing and profound article. I'm temporarily stunned. Thanks!
posted by sirvesa at 10:42 PM on December 28, 2004

This is a superb article. Actually, at 33,500 words, it's a superb small book. I understand what sirvesa means about being temporarily stunned.

Though I've read a (relatively) lot of military history in the past 25 years, I believe this memoir is one of the most surpassingly excellent treatments of World War II, and the nature of war and concomitant human frailty, that I have ever encountered.

Every now and then, you catch yourself reading something that is so hauntingly eloquent that you know you are reading a work of art. Sometimes you find something that is created in your own time that nevertheless stands in contrast to the ephemeral and forgetful nature of modernity. It is as if you've witnessed by prophetic powers the birth of greatness - a Simeonic moment. Setting aside restraint completely, I may confess that this article leaves me with such a sense.

Thank you very much for this post, digaman.
posted by darkstar at 2:39 AM on December 29, 2004

Wow. I just spent an interminable amount of time reading that whole piece. Incredible. I've never thought about World War II or, really, any war in the way that this article has made me consider it. This essay is about so many things that it's hard to even begin to discuss it.

"Like most big events in history, World War II obliterated its own causes."

What a succint and eloquent way to put it. Thanks for the post, digaman, one of the most fascinating things I've read in a long time.
posted by deafmute at 3:53 AM on December 29, 2004

I'm wary of some of the sweeping statements in this piece (e.g. "Battle X meant Y"), because my limited reading of WW2 history suggests that different opinions of major events are common amongst historians. For example, Sandlin argues that the Italian campaign was meaningless, while Alan Brooke, head of the British armed forces ("Chief of the Imperial General Staff"), argued that it tied up a disproportionate number of German divisions that would otherwise have been deployed in Northern France and against the USSR, and that the Americans never understood this. I don't know who is right, or if there is a "right" here, but there are many different opinions on some of the facts and themes Sandlin presents as unambiguous.

That said, it's a really great piece. Thanks, digaman.
posted by alasdair at 5:42 AM on December 29, 2004

DyRE, if you haven't yet, pick up Sledge's book, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, where the Sldege material comes from. It's an absolutely devastating book; how men in any age endured these things is beyond my imagination.

I'd read Sledge's book after he was mentioned by Paul Fussell in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War; I'd picked up the Fussell book - and liked the Sandlin piece - because I think most Americans have succumbed to this heroic myth about what WWII was really like.

And there the relevance for our current conflict in Iraq. Because we are justifying the latter conflict, in part, on the basis of our moral superiority, achieved during the "good" war. Though Sandlin makes his own case for the moral superiority of those who fought it, the realist in me always wondered what it was really like, that "good" war. And the truth is that though the outcome might have been a very, very good thing, for those fighting it the war was pretty much the opposite of good.

It was not parades and swelling patriotic pride; it was chunks of your buddy's flesh flecking your muddy uniform, the foul smell of rotting corpses, wholescale murder and madness. It was, as Fussell writes, men shitting themselves and crying like babies from fear as the shells came crashing in.

Which is why I was against the war in Iraq, even though the outcome there may well be very, very good - because in our run-up to war, this stark reality was never discussed, never even acknowledged. Still isn't. And this reality absolutely has to factor into the equation; leave it out and the damned thing simply cannot add up.
posted by kgasmart at 9:40 AM on December 29, 2004

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