Military Ethnography
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Military Ethnography

In my post on that hilarious book on US soldiers overseas under the second President Bush, I mentioned that its full of pithy ethnography of the people Americans fight with or against (or both, as in Iraq and Columbia). Some things I read in January 2022 make me want to come back to it. This week let us think about the relationship between ethnography and military theory.

Adam Tooze has a blog, and one of his posts is about how the US military turned German Selbständigkeit der Unterführer into American English mission command or Auftragstaktik. Some of the ideas and language in his post are strange although maybe they fit in seminar-rooms at his university. Tooze believes that the US military adopted mission command after strategic defeat in Vietnam caused it to doubt that its own military tradition had solutions for its problems.

Western observers have seized on the contrast between the initiative shown by the Ukrainians and the dysfunctional repetitive behavior shown by the Russians on the banks of the Siverskyi Donets (where they tried and failed to bridge a river under Ukrainian fire – ed.). For many observers it appears to confirm on the battlefield the cultural stereotypes of freedom versus disciplines that now associate Ukraine with the West against Russian “autocracy”. This crude ethno-cultural distinction has a counterpart in technical military discourse. Whereas the Russians are laboring under rigid, top-down discipline, what Ukraine’s military have apparently learned from NATO is “mission command”.

The Americans in the 1970s and 1980s emphasized the difference between their bureaucratic way of war and the German way. The Wehrmacht veterans had a different perspective:

For Balck and von Mellenthin far from there being a gulf that separated them from their hosts the more important fact was that Germany and the US were both part of the “West” and exponents of a culture of individualism and this distinguished them both from their potential enemies.

If you remember very unconvincing books like Keegan’s History of Warfare or Hanson’s Carnage and Culture this should send the alarm bells ringing. But lets look at the interview with Generals Balck and von Mellenthin which Tooze is describing:

Generals Balck and von Mellenthin on Tactics: Implications for NATO Military Doctrine, The BDM Corporation: McLean, Virginia, 19 December 1980 BDM/W-81-077-TR <>

Gen v. Mellenthin: “The Russian is unpredictable. Today he is a hero attacking in great depth- tomorrow he is completely afraid and not willing to do anything.”

Mr. Dunnigan (James F. ‘How To Make War’ Dunnigan “Do you feel that on the Russian side there was an excessive amount of command from the top, or was it just that they did not have any initiative?”

Gen. Balck: “It was a combination of both.”

Mr. Dunnigan “Do you think that is still in effect today?”

Gen. Balck: That won’t change

Mr. Dunnigan: Why would you think that?

Gen. Balck “It is because no army can separate itself from the principles on which it has acted from the very outset.”

Gen. von Mellenthin “Believe us, they are masses and we are individuals. That is the difference between the Russian soldier and the European soldier.”

Mr. Dunnigan “More education on the part of the Russian soldier, more sophistication, more exposure to Western ideas- do you think that would change it in any way?”

Gen. Balck “No, I don’t believe so.”

Aside from the Nazi-Soviet conflict, the other model which NATO soldiers used to imagine how they might fight Soviet forces was the Arab-Israeli wars. General Trevor DePuy asked about that during the meeting:

Gen. DePuy: The Israelis say that [the Syrians] did not use the terrain. They kept their Soviet-style formations. They kept on line and in columns, and therefore designed themselves the use of covered routes and concealment. Did you observer anything like that in Russia?

Gen. Balck: The answer is yes. Normal European and American countries educate their people like we do. There is a different class of prairie people – prairie nations like Hungary, like some peoples in Asia. They are used to flat, open terrain, and they use this kind of attack – the formation that was previously criticized. Then there is a third category, mountain people. They adapt more to the features of the terrain and they are more apt to adapt to modern warfare. Prairie people should not be used in modern warfare because that courts disaster.

(Mongol armies from Ghengis Khan onwards were the only armies in world history which could do the things which Napoleonic armies could do before 1789, and General Balck would presumably call them prairie people, but lets put that aside for a moment).

And our pamphleteer goes on to give a quick one-page summary of the national or racial characteristics of Soviet armies as explained by Balck and von Mellenthin. If you have read book 11 of the Strategikon of Emperor Maurice, this will sound familiar. It will also sound familiar if you know the history of anthropology in the 20th century as a tool of intelligence agencies, colonial governance, and counterinsurgency. Academic anthropology had to work hard to separate itself from this because people don’t talk to police informants. Military reformers in the age of European nationalism often appealed to supposed national characteristics to argue for or against particular reforms (eg. “we French are naturals with edged weapons but not with fire” or “the men of this district are natural marksmen but not good horsemen”).

Since I wrote this in December 2021 or January 2022, it has become impossible not to think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 which recapitulated many issues of the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War:

Armies do often retain certain general characteristics over time, whether we see them as racial, national, institutional, or driven by geopolitical forces like “before the late 20th century, the Russian army had more potential recruits than most of its potential enemies”. But we should be very suspicious of these offhand generalizations. Balck and von Mellenthin had an interest in presenting themselves as amazing soldiers and their enemies as brutal and incompetent (and an interest in not understanding why Russians often pretended to support them but changed sides). And I think that a disturbing amount of what people in the past wrote about foreigners was this kind of military ethnography.

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Further Reading:

  • McAvoy, Ioan 2017. The effeminate east: orientalism in Roman military contexts (c. 200 bce to c. 200 ce). PhD Thesis, Cardiff University
  • Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes (London: Hurst, 2009)
  • John Earl Wiita, The Ethnika in Byzantine military treatises (PhD thesis, University of Minnesota, 1977)

(outlined January 2022, scheduled 22 September 2022)

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6 thoughts on “Military Ethnography

  1. dearieme says:

    Before the Falklands War one of the senior British officers said the he understood that the Argentinians were a mix of Spaniards and Italians. If they fight like Italians, he said, we should win comfortably. If they fight like Spaniards we’ll have our hands full.

    I suppose he was thinking of the Tercios marching to war in the Low Countries. He obviously wasn’t thinking of the Roman legions.

    1. Sean says:

      And in WW I the Italian army did not fight smart, but it sure fought!

      Bernard Cornwell liked to dis the Spanish army in the Napoleonic Wars, apparently that was a lot like the Germans disrespecting the Italians in WW II and leaving out how they stole all the Italians’ transport or just asked small formations with poor equipment to attack large, well-equipped formations.

      That “Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts” book found an example where a Commonwealth unit got smacked around by Italians and pronounced that it was obviously Germans in Italian vehicles.

      Roel Konijnendijk has written about how much the Spartan reputation as badasses seems to depend on Thermopylae, Thermopylae, Thermopylae. I hope he has time to turn his corporate social media musings into an evidence-based argument.

  2. dearieme says:

    My father fought in The War. He thought the Germans better soldiers than the soldiers of the democracies. He attributed that partly to their training. It was the Germans who had been taught to improvise and take initiatives locally whereas the allies, particularly the Americans, had been taught just to obey orders.

    He had no views on Soviet soldiers, having had no experience of them.

    1. Sean says:

      Yeah, there is a lot of pushback today against Wehrmacht fanboys, but I don’t think anyone who ever fought the imperial German army wanted to do it again. They were not ten-foot supermen driving BOLO units but they fought well.

  3. russell1200 says:

    Balck, from what I have read, seems to be very highly regarded during WW2. He seems to have been in the thick of a lot of major fighting, and a low enough level to see what was going on at ground level.

    My suspicion is that he was somewhat restrained in his responses in that he didn’t want to insult his bureaucratic by telling them that they were “replacing” their (often) bureaucratic methods with the same bureaucratic mindset with a papering over of buzzwords. It is telling that the OODA theory proposed by Boyd became a business buzzword. That the Germans would tell them something like ‘actually we didn’t fight/think this was’ of course never slowed anyone up.

    It does seem to be the case that strong cultural differences can make a strong difference in war fighting methods. Kenneth Polack in his Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness discusses this with reference to Arabic armies, but also brings in the issue of Asian warfighting methods. He is the only western observer who notes that the Chinese, fighting at great technical disadvantages, seem to have punched way above their weight against the Americans in Korea. Something that could also be said of the Japanese in 1942.

    Balck, not being a social scientist, may have somewhat the wrong reason for why certain groups fight better. It is not where they live, it is how there society is structured: particularly at the local/family level.

    1. Sean says:

      Although there is always the Kamil Galeev argument that Russians are very individualistic because they know that ‘the system’ will not look out for them so they have to fend for themselves (and they don’t trust most of the people around them, so they will not sacrifice much for them). He likes to use that stereotype alongside the stereotype of slavish Russians submitting to the state, I don’t remember if he tried to reconcile the two back when I read some of his posts.

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