The Epistemology of Stellungskrieg and Bewegungskrieg
In November I was talking to James Baillie who had questions about why the war in Ukraine was becoming harder to follow. To understand why that is, we have to think about the two forms of industrial warfare. While its dangerous to predict, as I schedule this post in December I foresee that the Russo-Ukrainian War is about to slow down after momentous events in January and February 2023 (and it is worth saying that I was wrong about those momentous events – ed.). I think that when a war settles down along fixed lines (whether the NATO intervention in Afghanistan or the Russian invasion of Ukraine) it becomes hard for anyone to know who is winning.
In the 19th century the Prussian General Staff and its Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung started to divide warfare between states into Bewegungskrieg (maneuver warfare) and Stellungskrieg (positional warfare). The Prussians idealized the former (and really did not want to talk about wars which were not between states at all) but it is still a useful model. The archetype of Bewegungskrieg would be something like the Russian invasion of East Prussia in 1914, and the archetype of Stellungskrieg would be the battles of the Somme and Verdun two years later.
In Bewegungskrieg anyone who cares to look can get a general sense of what is happening. If in spring the Axis are defending Tripoli, and in fall the British are defending Alexandria, that theatre is going well for the Axis. Its true that all this movement, or even winning battles, does not always lead to decisive results. And its always hard to understand how a particular battle was fought (even if you were there, you were probably busy surviving not carefully observing!) But again, people can see “the king of Macedon made the Persian king flee and Babylon opened its gates to him” or “the king of Sparta marched from city to city and could not take them or even make them pay tribute.” They might not agree about the details, but they can probably agree about the general course of events.
Stellungskrieg is governed by attrition: killing and wounding a few of the other guys and breaking or destroying some of their stuff every day. The side which wins is the side which is destroying enemy troops and equipment faster than it loses its own. And in war, each side only knows its own losses. People since Thucydides have complained that in a war everyone shrinks or inflates numbers to make themselves look good. And even if one side has a good idea of enemy losses, it may not share the true numbers. It certainly won’t share the true rate at which it is acquiring and deploying new equipment and new units. So if you are an onlooker, you can only guess at who is attritting whom more successfully. If you are a soldier on the front lines, you may notice that “the enemy are shelling us less this week than last week” or “I see more of our drones overhead than last week.” But you don’t know the overall situation, or whether the reason that the enemy are shelling less is that they are saving their ammunition for an offensive next month.
Bewegungskrieg attracts lookie-loos. Before the 20th century people often came out to watch a battle from a safe distance, and since 1914 people often find the fighting move past them. They talk to reporters, send letters, or post photos and videos. Unexpected things happen, and official sources have to say something about them right away without spending a week scheming how to frame it. So interested people can get a variety of independent perspectives. But in Stellungskrieg the fire becomes intense and civilians have time to get away. Militaries also have time to organize to control the flow of information and keep out reporters who report things the military does not want them to report. Even if they want to share information, explaining how they defeated an attack on Monday is a bad idea if the enemy will attack the same place on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. So as warfare transitions to Stellungskrieg, observers have fewer sources of information and those sources are increasingly propagandistic.
The Indy Neidell documentary World War Two (piped) shamelessly neglects the submarine war and production. It focuses on land, air, and sea battles which make for better stories with agents, victories, and defeats. Even if it were as easy to learn about Stellungskrieg as Bewegungskrieg, its not as fun.
As soon at the Russian invasion got stuck and neither side was able to win air superiority, I think it was in the nature of things that the war would transition from Bewegungskrieg to Stellungskrieg and become harder to follow. But at least we are not living in a wet trench with temperatures just above freezing! And one day, the fronts will break again (just like they did in the north-east and around Kherson) and people will tell us that this was obviously going to happen.
(scheduled 28 December 2022)
And of course, if the war is large enough, you have Bewegungskrieg and Stellungskrieg at the same time, with public attention focusing to where the visible action is.
Air campaigns are particularly hard to judge. The Germans thought they were winning the battle of Britain because their pilots told them how many British they were shooting down, and they knew how many they had lost. When the British went back the other way in 41 and 42, they were losing even worse, but didn’t realize it until decrypts and captured pilots gave away the game. The Allies thought there fighter bombers were destroying all the German armor, until they actually won the battlefield and realized they were getting maybe 2% of the kills claimed.
It is really hard to see what is going on when you are trying to survive, and the glimpses of action are particularly fleeting in air combat. If successful pilots get awards, they have the temptation to exaggerate – as is now clear with some of the Germans in the Soviet Union.
What is particularly odd is that although air combat does less direct damage than often stated, its effects are often very large, and people have often had a very hard time pinning down exactly why air dominance is so devastating if not that many actual things are getting blown up.
Its also tricky since the UK and USA have had tactical or total air superiority in every operation they have fought since, what, 1943? So British and US commentators sometimes take that for granted, or expect that if one side has a superior airforce, it will launch big air operations and attain air superiority, rather than using it defensively and for small raids like the Iranian airforce in the war with Iraq.
It took years of war for Bomber Command and the US Army Air Force to start shutting down the European transport network like they did in 1944 and 1945, and before that there was a lot of pointless dying and killing and destroying.