AuthorTopic: Waging Progress...  (Read 1633 times)

Offline steve from virginia

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Waging Progress...
« on: September 26, 2013, 02:18:53 AM »

Off the keyboard of Steve from Virginia

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Published on Economic Undertow on September 24, 2013

Somme 1

Unknown photographer, the French town of Péronne after being mined and shelled by combatants during the Somme offensive, 1916.

Discuss this article at the Geopolitics table inside the Diner

It can be said that war begins as a lie and ends as a tragedy. The easiest lie and the most grotesque … is that war is easy, rather, the next war will be easier than any of the others … that the end will be quick, that the ‘boys will be home by Christmas …’ that the war will not cost anything or it will be profitable to our side … that you too can be a winner. There are other lies, of course, all of them are closely twined together so tightly that is almost impossible to separate the strands. If history tells us anything it is that war is never easy, that short glorious wars have echoes that reverberate decade after decade, that the shadows of the great wars never really clear. Another lie is that technology applied to war possesses a form of moral supremacy identical to the forms it takes elsewhere … that war is integral to the progress narrative: more war = more progress;

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of disappointed shells that dropped behind …

On the first of July, 1916, the British and French launched a combined offensive against the Germans along a twenty-mile stretch of front between the hamlets of Gommecourt and Rosières-en-Santerre. The Somme River divided the battlefield from east to west, where Allied armies joined; the British to the north and the French to the south. The offensive was intended to press upon the right- or northern flank of a broad salient in the German front lines that protruded toward Compiegne about 50 miles north of Paris.

In preparing for the offensive, the Allied leadership was divided. Early on, the British sought a rapid breakthrough of poorly tended German defenses leading to a rapid advance into the German rear. The French wished to draw German reserves away from the charnel house that was Verdun. The two allies were never able to completely agree; a breakthrough in the area would not expose German strategic vulnerabilities, nor was there a particular strategic aim for the offensive other than it was past time for one.

The slow pace of planning was overtaken by events. The Verdun battle that had begun in February forced the French to draw on all its available forces. In June the Russian army launched the Brusilov Offensive into Galicia. This drew German reserves to the east, preventing a spoiling attack against the English. Ultimately, the Somme offensive became part of the greater effort to boil away the opposing armies by attrition; a non-strategy of ‘Verdun everywhere’. Neither side on the Western Front had the imagination — or enough of a manpower or materiel advantage — to alter the military balance, only one side to bleed the other and hope for the best.

An eight-day long English preparatory barrage of 1,500 heavy guns signaled the beginning of the assault north of the Somme River. Artillery alerted the Germans without seriously denting their positions. The defenders retired to dugouts or withdrew out of range until the barrage ended. Many of the British shells were duds while others fell short or passed over their intended targets. Meanwhile, commanders over-estimated the effect of the barrage and ordered infantry to advance across the no-man’s land in close order with heavy packs in broad daylight leaving them easy targets for German machine gunners.

Simple errors compounded problems: British troops — particularly junior officers — were inexperienced with little ability to act on their own initiative. British command compensated by drafting a rigid timetable for the assault. The British neglected to remove wire entanglements in front of of their own lines; troops were forced to pass through single file where they were exposed to the Germans. The barrage failed to clear German wire. As the assault got underway, the British infantrymen were unable to reach the German first-line positions and silence withering small-arms fire.

July 1 was the worst day in British military history. The army suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 men were killed, most of them on a six mile stretch of front between Gommecourt and the Albert-Bapaume road. Reinforcements were held up by waves of wounded streaming back toward the British line. Aid stations and field hospitals were overwhelmed. For all the bloodshed and courage of the soldiers, very little in the way of ground was gained. By the end of the day the front had been advanced only a few hundred meters around Mametz and Montauban with small gains elsewhere.

In the French sector, the artillery preparation were less deliberate, more shells were fired over a shorter period which gave the Germans less time to react. French infantry was able to quickly capture German forward positions and consolidate them. French soldiers had more combat experience than new British recruits and employed better tactics; Poilus bypassed and isolated German outposts rather than assaulting them in slow moving human waves.

Over the next four months, the offensive deteriorated into a series of bloody piecemeal attacks. When it finally petered out in November, the Germans had been pushed back to the greatest depth of about six miles. The cost was stupendous; approximately 1.2 million dead and wounded on both sides.

The 450,000 British losses represented the flower of English society, of the country’s working- and middle classes. These were the recruits enlisted into the army immediately after the war began in 1914; the Somme represented their first appearance in the trenches. The professional soldiers who had polished their craft in Britain’s numerous colonial wars were gone. The lives thrown away carelessly at the Somme were England’s fittest, most determined, best-educated and idealistic young men. The cost to Britain’s society was incalculable. On the other side, the 450,000 losses to Germany represented the flower of the Kaiser’s army; the last of its elite, peace-time trained pre-war cohort. By the harsh calculus by which wartime outcomes are measured, the Somme was a tremendous Allied success, the turning point of the war. The Allies had traded some inexperienced youths for an equal number of Germany’s better trained, more experienced veterans.

After the battle, the Germans would fill its ranks with the sorts of men that now populated the trenches of its Eastern European adversaries, the kinds of soldiers it at the beginning did not want or need: the less fit, the un-healed wounded pressed back into duty, the too-old or too-young, the shirkers, the anarchists, bohemians and revolutionaries, the criminals removed from prisons; those passed over in the first flush of recruitment as being too small, too uncertain, the workers in war-factories replaced by women and children … all those previously deemed unlikely to obey orders without question. The new soldiers were prematurely aged, skinny, haggard, sunken-chested, hollow cheeked with bad teeth; stunted from poverty and chronic ill-health, combed from the industrial ghettos and press-ganged from the Balkan margins of the expanding German Reich; they were the flower of nothing, the laborers and porters, stupid peasants and farmers, long-term exiles from gainful employment, the inmates from asylums. These were conjoined to the battlefield survivors; damaged soldiers who had learned by experience to ignore orders they did not like along with officers who had learned not to give them …

The fit and brilliant young soldiers ready to laugh at privation and danger would not be seen on the European battlefields until the Americans arrived long after the combatants had destroyed themselves, late in 1917.

A consequence of less-than-able soldiery was mutinies in the ranks. The Poilus rebelled 1917; fed up with the pointless slaughter and the apparent unconcern of the the high command that drove them to their deaths. The Austro-Hungarian army unraveled due to the strains imposed by the Brusilov campaign which in turn ended with a Russian mutiny. The French rebellion was suppressed, that in the Russian army was not; in 1917 the Tsar gave way to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Germany’s mutiny came in 1918 after victory in the east … and crushing defeat in the trenches; it terminated the Kaiser’s rule and with it his war.

The Somme battle is noteworthy for the late appearance of the armored fighting vehicle and the deployment of large numbers of aircraft in combat roles. World War One was a technological war; there was the continuous application of the fruits of science and mechanical invention. Along with tanks and aircraft were improved rapid fire artillery and machine guns, smokeless powder and high explosives, submarines, depth charges, hand grenades, flamethrowers, wireless communications and poison gases. Technology then, as it does now, offered chances for one side or the other to end the war quickly. On the battlefield, technology increased the ability of countries to wage war … rather, wage ‘progress’ against the other side.

Advantages gained by technology ware short-lived. As soon as one side produced an invention, the other copied it or developed countermeasures. The tanks at the Somme battle were not strategically important. They broke down or caught fire, their armor plating was thin and easily punctured with light artillery or even machine guns. The vehicles were large and unwieldy, hard to see out of … they got lost on the battleground or tipped into shell craters. On level ground they were unable to keep pace with infantry. More technology would be needed before the tank would be useful as a battlefield weapon … and more countermeasures.

The first appearance of lethal gas was a little over a year earlier, on April 22, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, when German troops released 168 tons of chlorine gas from pressurized cylinders against French Territorial forces. The attack was successful in that the Algerian and Moroccan troops fled leaving behind 3,000 dead and a large gap in the Allied lines. The attack was a failure because the Germans were unprepared for their tactical success and had few reserves to exploit the opening which was soon blocked with a Canadian division. The Canadians countered the gas by urinating on pieces of cloth and using them as ad-hoc face masks.

As the war continued, so did the onslaught of gas; there were improvements in its lethality and the facility of its use. Along with improvements came systematic countermeasures, so that the effectiveness of the different forms were of diminished even as there were vastly increased amounts deployed. The primary chemical weapon of World War I was mustard gas discharged from artillery shells. Even though gas turned out to have minimal strategic importance, gas shells made up a large percentage of bombardments by both sides. Gas casualties were low — 3% or less of the total — cost to defenders was high as victims required more convalescent care at aid stations and in the rear than did other kinds of casualties. Gas also disproportionately effected morale, the bulky countermeasures were uncomfortable and confining. At the same time, properly equipped and trained soldiers were little effected by gas.

The gases used in the first world war were irritants or vesicants (blistering agents) that were lethal only when concentrated … at the impact point of a shell or at the bottom of a trench where the heavy compounds collected. Most effective as killers were not gases but diseases — including influenza which appeared in 1918 — infection of even minor wounds, artillery bombardments and fire from small arms especially machine guns.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

After the war research began on the second generation of military gases which were designed to be lethal at once in very small quantities. At the same time governments looked to the accumulated date and measured the costs and benefits of using gas on the battlefield.

Chemical weapons were not controllable: operational success depended on the weather. Changes in the wind brought gas back onto the army that discharged it. Cold rendered some types of gas harmless. Non-persistent gases dissipated quickly leaving little time for the attacker to exploit the effects of the gas. Persistent gases left soldiers unable to advance into contaminated battlefields without casualties.

With gas weapons available, there was no way for a country to ‘opt out’ of gas warfare costs. Countries foreswearing chemical weapons would find it necessary to pursue costly countermeasures, leading to a chemical arms’ race. The scale of World War One was sobering, the numbers hard to comprehend: even a small country might field an army of a million men or more; each needing protective gear and special training … also millions or more convalescent beds. In a gas war, the care of long-term invalids would bankrupt the victors. Gas created disproportionate adverse effects on morale. Even minor exposure left soldiers incapacitated for long periods; the agonies of gas poisoning and terror behind the lines of both soldiers and civilians contributed to breakdowns in discipline and revolts. Even if the weapons themselves did not affect outcomes, the related costs did. Gas threatened to make war too expensive to fight, large countries would be unable to intimidate or invade smaller ones. There would be no victories, no conquests, no glory or spoils. A large reason for having governments in the first place would vanish, put into receivership by … chemists.

Technology such as railroads, steamships, tanks and aircraft expanded the ability of countries to wage war at lower unit cost and over a much broader scale. Chemical and biological weapons offered the revolutionary potential to disable war itself … to undermine the desire on the part of citizens to submit to military discipline or support war policies. Gas was disruptive technology carried to its logical conclusion; it wasn’t too destructive, it was too subversive. The more capable or deadly the gas arsenal the more costly and useless it would become. World War One gases were incapacitating, costs were high but survivable. Science would soon offer gases of unparalleled lethality … accompanied by infinite costs. Progress would work in reverse: unit costs would balloon, military force would be too costly to deploy, the option to wage war would narrow then disappear. In a series of treaties beginning with Versailles, the Americans and Europeans agreed to control if not prohibit outright the use of chemical and biological weapons. These agreements were not difficult to make as adversaries likewise agreed to limit the size and numbers of capital ships for similar reasons.

Chemists in Germany after the war began investigatng agents that included cyanide and organophosphates. Phosphate compounds were patented by the Germans in the early- to mid 1930s. Originally, these were intended as pesticides, their lethality suggested themselves as military weapons. The British and Russians synthesized their own varieties, all of which effect the nervous system leading to respiratory paralysis and asphyxiation. The pathway of nerve gas in the body is not limited to inhalation, the gases can be absorbed through the skin, protection is needed for the entire body. Organophosphate nerve gas analogs are commonly used today as insecticides.

In 1935, the Italians used small amounts of mustard gas against soldiers and civilians during their conquest of Abyssinia. Japan used unspecified war gases against the Chinese during the late 1930s along with biological weapons.

Once World War II began, Germany began manufacturing the phosphate gases Tabun, later Sarin and Soman in large quantities. The Germans did not use their war gases on the battlefield, they were uncertain as to the Allies capacity; they feared being inundated by Allied nerve gases.

Gases were deployed most effectively by Germany against against war prisoners, ‘undesirables’ and the infirm during WWII. The gases used were carbon monoxide from engine exhaust and cyanide/prussic acid fumigants; both were introduced into confined spaces packed with victims. The Germans built a comprehensive, systematic killing apparatus; euthanasia centers for the elderly, ‘T-4? centers for invalids, ‘clinics’ and ‘infirmaries’ in concentration camps, gas vans, various ‘crematoria’ as adjuncts to ordinary concentration-and slave labor camps as well as purpose-built killing camps. Within the two great killing camps, at Birkenau and Treblinka in Poland more than three millions were murdered with gas. Nearly a million of these were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide at Treblinka, the rest by ‘Zyklon B’ at Birkenau. It is likely that the total number of gas deaths during the second world war were greater than all the gas casualties — killed and wounded — inflicted during the first world war.

By the harsh calculus by which wartime outcomes are measured, the German poison gas campaign against its own civilian population was a complete catastrophe. Even if Germany had been able to hold off the Allies, the consequence of mass murder and slave labor would have been diminished output and the collapse of the German regime from within … just as the same miscalculation fatally undermined the Soviet Union. In Germany, the returns on the ability to wage progress — to apply technology to solve the problem of how to kill others — had diminished to nothing. Using more gas and building more death camps would not have saved Germany from destruction, rather, doing so insured it.

After the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, the Americans and Russians uncovered German nerve gas laboratories and stockpiles. Gases as well as bacteriological agents were soon produced in very large quantities in both countries in a sort of semi-clandestine arms’ race.

Chemical and biological agents have been used in war since the Third Century BC and perhaps earlier. Gas has been deployed against rebels in Morocco by the Spanish, against Eritreans by Ethiopia, by Iraq against Iran, by the US against the Vietnamese — and ourselves, by the Soviets against Afghan Mujeheddin, by Soviet proxies against Hmong tribesmen and Khmers in Southeast Asia, by Iraq against Kurds at Halabja and elsewhere in 1988 …

During the Vietnam War, the US dispersed thousands of tons of herbicide over large areas of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The purpose was not to kill outright but to remove cover for the enemy as well as destroy their food supply. The herbicide ‘Agent Orange’ was contaminated with dioxin and the ill effects were experienced by both civilians as well as American and Allied soldiers operating in these areas.

The more things change, the more they remain the same; a war begins as a lie. Poison gas appears to have been used recently against civilians in Syria. It is not clear who launched the gas attacks, yet the American establishment is quick to seize on this latest event as justification for a military intervention … to wage high-technology progress against unlucky Syrians. The establishment insists the world is outraged about Syrian gas which is false. What is being challenged is the bosses’ prerogative to bully smaller countries. American citizens are wise to say ‘enough!’ The establishment claims that a war in Syria would be easy; the failed US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq speak for themselves. Progress military-style has turned out to be a failure.

Here is another lie: that America has a moral responsibility to make bad matters worse in Syria … because worse is the only possible outcome.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

— Wilfred Owen; ‘It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country … ‘ Owen was killed in France a week before the Armistice was to take effect, November 4, 1918.

Offline Surly1

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Re: Waging Progress...
« Reply #1 on: September 27, 2013, 09:17:11 AM »
A remarkable, elegiac article.

War is always and forever a lie.
“The old world is dying, and the New World struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”


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