The Poster Child for the Western Way of War
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

The Poster Child for the Western Way of War

two smiling women with bolt-action rifles sitting in a wooded area
A rare moment of joy a terrible war from The Five Men of Velish (Velizh near Smolensk) Why do WWoW theorists want you to know that partisans and insurgencies and hit and run are not western?

If you know the ancient writers, you must be puzzled why moderns often pronounce that ancient Greek armies were highly skilled and rigorously disciplined. Those writers make it clear that getting high-status Greek men to accept any kind of training and discipline was like getting them to pick a day to have a tooth pulled. Spartans accepted commands and corporal punishment and did a bit of drill, but no ancient writer describes them practising marching or fighting in peacetime. One reason why people say things which are contradicted by so many ancient texts is that they are using the ancient Greeks as an excuse to talk about their own culture, so they project things they love or fear about their own culture on the ancients.

Have a look at this quote from Professor Emeritus, Colonel (retired), Dr. Jonathan House who is talking about how the proud professionals of the German army got themselves spanked by the Red Army.

Germany, in fact, is the poster child for what we like to call the Western Way of War, the idea that a well-trained force can achieve rapid offensive decisive victory by superior discipline, manoeuvre, and equipment. Well, that works part of the time, but if you encounter somebody who is not willing to say he’s defeated, as the Soviets were not, and then you encounter somebody who in addition to that has all this vast terrain, then eventually your plan gets thwarted.

Dr. Jonathan House, “How the Red Army Defeated Germany: The Three Alibis,” 2 May 2013 20:00

Dr. House is a specialist in Soviet history and a trained military intelligence officer who helped to plan the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq. He is speaking at a think tank in Kansas founded by 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole. So he is very different from me and not a part of faction fights within ancient military history. And he is talking about how NATO planned to fight the armies of the Warsaw Pact, based on things that German veterans of the Eastern Front had taught them because the Soviets were not talking to Americans.

And the dream which NATO soldiers were dreaming was the dream which the people talking about a Western Way of War in ancient history dreamed about the ancient Greeks, just like an earlier generation of historians compared the Greeks to crusader knights charging the Turkomen. Because they divided the world into binaries (“the west and the rest”) and believed some intangible essence connected all the people on the same side, these people did not ask too many questions whether all their ‘western’ armies really had these things in common. That is why Western Way of War theory was most popular with people focused on recent history, while experts in ancient and medieval history mostly ignored it (the afterward of Carnage and Culture [pp. 461-462] does mention that scholars suggested many improvements in private, but dismisses their points as “minutiae” and “detail” about “obscure battles and weapons” which is a good way to make people who know something you don’t stop telling you about it).

Ancient historians never seem to have engaged with the Western Way of War, and American soldiers / spies / foreign policy types lost interest after their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not turn out the way they were hoping. So this theory is not important like it was in the 1990s and 2000s (when John Lynn wrote a book offering an alternative and the founder had not yet lost interest in the theory). You can not reason someone out of a position which they did not reason themself in to. But if you want to understand why believers defined the Western Way of War the way they did, I think you might want to look into war planning against the Soviet Union and interpretations of the Nazi-Soviet war. Most of us ancient historians don’t read a lot of those kind of books, but the two main advocates of the theory were both Second World War buffs.

If you’re interested in the great and terrible Second World War, the rest of Dr. House’s talk (and his 1995 book When Titans Clashed [h-net]) are worth the time. I hope to get around to Robert Citino’s The German Way of War which talks about seeking decisive battle and not worrying too much about the technical aspects of generalship as long as you smash as many of your troops into the enemy as quickly and aggressively as you can … if you have ever failed to grok early German fencing, he will give you food for thought. And so will the fact that he still feels it necessary to warn audiences of US officers and foreign policy makers that he is not recommending the Prussian approach.

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Edit 2023-07-17: see now Edward Stringer, “100 Years of an Independent Air Force – What have we learned, what do we teach?,” Lord Trenchard Memorial Lecture 2018, 4 September 2018

The US Army’s experience in Vietnam and its desire to rebuild itself in Spartan terms all contributed to the era of Air-Land battle of the 1980s. … One of the most pervasive and influential memes being that if the Western powers of NATO were going to have any chance of beating a Russian invasion then its armies could not be the citizen Armies of Monty in Normandy, waiting for artillery and air power, but would have to demonstrate the freewheeling elan and ability in the counter-attack of Von Manstein.

Edit: 2023-09-15 While I think the Western Way of War theory is dead and buried, some Anglo military historians thought it worth refuting: John D. Hosler, Alfred J. Andrea, Andrew Holt (eds.), Seven Myths of Military History (Hackett Publishing Company, 2022) ISBN: 9781647920432

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7 thoughts on “The Poster Child for the Western Way of War

  1. russell1200 says:

    A lot of the lessons of WW2 are a bit dubious.

    Example (and dovetailing with Citino): There is this idea that the Germans won early on because they didn’t use their armor in penny packets. Good except that almost everyone had some sort of armored units, and the Germans eventually (through necessity at first, but it was found to work better) decreased the ratio of armor to other elements in their tank units. And wound up trying to spread more armor (in the form of assault guns) around their infantry units to make them more resistant on defense.

    The heavy use of radios early-on in their vehicles was likely as important as anything else. And the fact that they moved fast (with whatever they were using) and where willing to accept early casualties to gain later success is probably

    The explanation that the Germans lost because they were using a “Western” way of war is bizarre. Bizarre because the Germans and Soviets were noteworthy for developing (sometimes in cooperation) very similar armor doctrines in the 1930s.(See Mary R. Habeck “Storm of Steel”). It’s just that the Germans had a lot of practice and the Soviets had execute much of their expertise going into the fight. The large spaces helped, but also hurt as it gave lots of room for the Germans to get around the main Soviet fighting forces. As time went on, German expertise dwindled with attrition, and the Soviets got better. The Soviets won because they were a much stronger country that shouldn’t have come as close to losing to the Germans as they did.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      One of my professors who was a historian of radar and anti-submarine warfare (one of the Royal Canadian Navy’s specialties during the Cold War) always said that sweeping manouevres and Sturmtruppen make for great stories, but the Commonwealth won their part of WW I on land with methodical bite-and-hold offensives, and then won their part of WW II on land with methodical bite-and-hold offensives.

      People like to talk about “what if Hitler had not interfered with his generals?” and aside from Dr. House’s point that sometimes his decisions were the better ones, they never ask “what if Stalin had not interfered with his?” And the ones whispering “we should have allied with Germany against the Commies” while the Hag and the Werewolf wait outside the door with the Blue Fire didn’t like to talk about the times when German and Soviet specialists were trading ideas and lessons at secret facilities in Siberia.

      I think if someone had talked it over with Geoffrey Parker, John Keegan, and VDH back in the day, they would have rethought their theory, because VDH is very sure that his grandparents were on the right side in WW II, but back in the 1980s the idea of “a good army” in the USA was so tied up with ideas about the Wehrmacht that it was easy for someone in the USA to accidentally use those tropes. Especially since they fit into older tropes about the east and its numberless, babbling, savage hordes!

      I have reviews of 4 books on WW II scheduled for the next few months.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      I first had a feeling that something was wrong when Parker’s The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare: The Triumph of the West presented the Cold War as east versus west rather than an internal western conflict, but listed the Russian conquest of Siberia and central Asia as examples of western expansion. “The West” is a word which gets used in different ways, and its easy to use one definition and let your audience insert another.

  2. Michael Park says:

    “The western way of war”, the gospel according to VDH. Who, I assume from your link above (which I’ve not yet read), has lost his religion? Given up on the “yeomen farmer soldiers” of Boeotia? Resiled from his ultimate expression of this way of war: the murderous megalomaniac Alexander III of Macedon?

    I’ve not read VDH for quite some time – aside from the occasional paper. A good reason being his seeming inability to remove modern politics and thinking from ancient societies. A good example being an article a friend linked me to of VDH on a strongly right leaning US site. VDH bemoaned the “cancel culture” seeing Homer removed from schools and pontificated about those seeing history and literature through modern political/social mores. He then proceeded to write several hundred words doing just that.

    “You can not reason someone out of a position which they did not reason themself in to.” Will you charge me for the use of that excellent line?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I try not to think too hard about what VDH is saying these days! From what I remember of his piece in Men of Bronze it seems like he is still on about hoplite revolutionaries, and family farms, and hating kings, but not talking about a “western way of war.” Pundits have a culture of not admitting they were ever wrong about anything and since 2004 punditry has been paying for his hobby farm and his electricity bill.

      Feel free to use the quote, there is a version by Thomas Paine and another by Jonathan Swift.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      The link looked at his ‘ancient’ books after Carnage and Culture (2001) and found that he said as little as possible about a Western Way of War in them. And Sir John Keegan is dead, and Geoffrey Parker is usually much more moderate, and it just does not feel like a theory history geeks or ancient historians talk about these days.

  3. If You Find “The West” A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons – Book and Sword says:

    […] in US military and defence circles the German army can be the poster child for the western way of war or it can be out the (British and British settler) […]

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