Saturday, October 22, 2016

Freeman Dyson's review of Hastings Armageddon: 1944-1945

    I read Freeman Dyson’s reviews of Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 by Max Hastings, and The End: Hamburg 1943 by Hans Erich Nossack.  The reviews appeared in the April 28, 2005 issue of the NYROB. 
    I couldn’t always tell whether it was Dyson speaking for himself or paraphrasing Hastings.  Dyson writes, “It is not possible to calculate the numbers of lives saved in the West and lost in the East by following and not following the Geneva rules.  The numbers certainly amount to hundreds of thousands in the West and millions in the East.”  This may be true if prisoners in the east were killed more often than in the West. 
    Dysan goes on: “A second important lesson of World War II is the fact that German soldiers consistently fought better than Britons or Americans.  Whenever they were fighting against equal numbers, the Germans always won, a fact recognized by the Allied generals, who always planned to achiever numerical superiority before attacking.”    This may not be true.  We learned in the American Civil War that defenders require fewer men than attackers.  Defenders always have the advantage, all other things being equal.  They can dig in, find the best places for defense whereas the attackers must encounter each new defensive position as experiencing it for the first time.  Americans and British during the time period Hastings refers to were on the attack whereas the Germans were on the defensive. 
    Dyson goes on “This was the main reason why the Allied advance into Germany was slow.  If the Allied soldiers had been able to fight like Germans, the war would probably have been over in 1944 and millions of lives would have been saved.
    “Hastings explains the superiority of German soldiers as a consequence of the difference between a professional army and a citizen army.  The Germans were professionals, brought up in a society that glorified soldiering, and toughened by years of fighting in Russia [“years”?  Germany invaded Russia in June 1941; so three years, but were the soldiers on the eastern front used against the British and Americans?  Not in very large numbers if I recall correctly].  The British and American soldiers were mostly amateurs, civilians who happened to be in uniform, brought up in societies that glorified freedom and material comfort, and lacking experience of warfare.  The difference between the German and Allied armies was similar to the difference between Southern and Northern armies in the American Civil War.  The Southern soldiers fought better and the Southern generals were more brilliant.  The Northern soldiers won in the end because there were more of them and they had greater industrial resources, just as the Allies did in World War II.  The leaders of the old South romanticized war and led their society to destruction, just as the leaders of Germany did eighty years later.”
    It is true that Southern armies didn’t take up defensive positions as often a they could have.  Perhaps for political reasons they felt a need to fight offensively in order to achieve victory quickly.  Also, many in the North did not understand the need to fight against the South, or at least not as long or as hard as they were doing.  General McClelland ran against Lincoln in 1864 and it was believed would have negotiated a peace with the South.   Lincoln told Grant he needed some military victories in order to win the election.
    Also, it isn’t true that Southern Generals were “more brilliant” than Northern Generals.  They were all trained at the same military academy.  They knew each other, and were it not for the Mexican War the political leaders would have no idea as to which officer was likely to make a brilliant general.  And then three of the most brilliant generals (albeit Northern), Grant, Sherman and Sheridan did not seem brilliant when they were first starting out.  As to Lee and Jackson, two generals Hastings and Dyson probably have in mind.  Many modern military historians think they are over-rated.
    Dyson goes on: “Hastings says we should take pride in the fact that our soldiers did not fight as well as Germans.  To fight like Germans, they would have had to think like Germans, glorifying war and following their leaders blindly.  The Germans have a word, Soldatentum, which means the pursuit of soldiering considered as a spiritual vocation.  Fortunately, the word cannot be translated into English.”
    I wonder if the Japanese had a word like Soldatentum.  They did have a long history of fighting.  Their soldiers had considerable experience in China and elsewhere and yet I suspect that few would say that man for man they were superior to the Marines that invaded their fortified islands.
I looked up Freeman Dyson.  Perhaps this article is relatable to his review of Hastings book:

Or perhaps not.  In reading Dyson’s review of Hasting’s book it is probably safe to save that Dyson considers the loss of life in war a bad thing, and yet in his Register interview we see that he believes we ought to be good stewards of our planet.  And it is safe to say that in earlier periods of our history our population was controlled by wars, famines and plagues.  We have eliminated the plagues and famines and Dyson would say that it would be a good thing if we could eliminate or at least reduce war in the future, the last hope for reducing the world’s population and its consequent pollution.
    No one will volunteer to reduce himself and his family, nor do we perhaps have any advocacy in the U.S. for the reduction of the size of families.  But Dyson the mathematician knows that our planet cannot withstand an unlimited increase in population.  The question I would have asked him in the interview was what he thought might become of us as a result of unending population growth.   
    I’ve suggested colonies on the moon and Mars as the means to siphon off some of our excess numbers.  Saturn’s moon Enceladus is another candidate.
    Perhaps this will all work out.  We don’t seem to be in any rush to colonize available planets and moons in our solar system, but as we increase in number, the return of plague-like disease and of famine seem likely.  War, especially if Iran or North Korea employ their atomic weapons may also contribute to the reduction in population.  The U.S. and Britain as Hastings (apparently) and Dyson applaudingly tell us have only citizen soldiers who will never want to start a war.  


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