T. H. Wintringham

War is also an Art

Source: Left Review Vol. 2, No. 5, February 1936, pp.194-196
Transcription: Phyll
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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War is also an art. It is a minor and harmful art, which in these days could be as well abandoned as the arts of necromancy, poisoning, or advertising. Indeed it will have to be abandoned, or else we go a long way back into barbarism. But it is worth considering as an art because in the past and present, and for some few more years of the future, it can alter the fate of nations and of social systems. And the Fascist theory and practice of war—we can see it to-day in Abyssinia—carry to their logical and most ludicrous development all the decadent tendencies in this art that have grown up during the period of imperialism.

War has not been studied dialectically except by Friedrich Engels since the days of Clausewitz, who was influenced to some extent by the Hegeian dialectic. All the major propositions that he laid down in his eight enormous volumes have been changed from their carefully guarded dialectical shape into metaphysical dogmas with a mystical significance. To take the most considerable example, see the change in the idea that the chief concern of a commander is the principal armed force of his opponent. This, when stated by Clausewitz, was a correct generalization of Napoleonic practice; but the commander’s concentration of attention was, of course, relative to the other factors towards which he might be inclined to let his attention wander, factors such as a city, particularly the capital city of his opponent’s country, or some other territorial advantage, or the scoring of easy victories by a concentration upon unimportant detached portions of his opponent’s forces. This correct theory became, in the teaching and practice of Ferdinand Foch, a mystical insistence on the need for concentrating not only attention but all available troops and material against the strongest armed force that the enemy has in the field! Napoleon, while his aim was always to defeat his opponent’s army, endeavoured to manoeuvre in such a way that this army would divide itself into sections and give him the chance to wipe out the smaller Section before turning to the larger. Foch and the other theorists of the “Great” War insisted on the other hand on attacking the opponent where he was strongest, and the art of war by 1916 had become swamped, on both sides of the western front, in the futile massacres of Verdun and the Somme.

The Fascist adventure in Abyssinia is a caricature of the worst phases of this decadent theory. Equipping themselves with all the vast material necessary for a battle like that of the Somme, the Fascists have found it impossible even to get within striking distance of the main forces of their opponent, and this impossibility arises not from the nature of the country but from the burden of armaments with which they have loaded their unfortunate troops. All ideas of movement, of manoeuvre, of surprise and of deception have been abandoned. Instead, the fetish of “consolidating the ground won” has led to an advance on the main front that never exceeded ten miles a day, and during three months took the Italians less than eighty miles forward. And after this advance there has been immobility so complete that the Italian army seems like one of the vast armoured dinosaurs of the Mesozoic past which were so bulky in relation to their brain power and muscular strength that they could never turn round in time to face an agile opponent.

In all armies up to and including the German army of 1870 the stores and supplies that the troops needed for immediate consumption were carried by the men themselves or by wagons that could usually go with the troops. But “modern war” depends on a supply of foodstuffs and munitions which are brought by mechanical vehicles to dumps and depots behind the lines. The vehicles do not stay at these dumps ready to move on the supplies when the troops move; they are sent back to bring up more shells and more food. So the troops are tied down to their depots and their dumps, and moving an army forward is an engineering problem, or a problem for a military Carter Paterson, that can only be solved slowly.

Because of this immobility it is even more difficult to retreat than to advance. The art of war consisted at one period in retreating quite as much as in advancing. When the well known Schlieffen plan for a war between France and Germany was first drawn up, in the days of the elder Moltke, an essential feature of the plan was that the German left wing should be extremely weak as compared with the French forces opposed to it. The German right wing, marching through Belgium, was to be overwhelmingly strong, and able to move so rapidly that it could penetrate on to the lines of communications of the French forces of the centre and the right. These forces, by advancing into Germany, would—as Liddell Hart says—stretch their necks on the block. This plan was drawn up before bourgeois military science became decadent. But during the years between the inception of this plan and 1914, gradual modifications took place which strengthened the German right wing a little, at the cost of slowing down its power of movement, and strengthened the German left wing a great deal. The German left wing therefore did not retreat towards the Rhine, as Schlieffen had foreseen that it should, and therefore did not draw after it the French forces of the right and centre. If these forces had been drawn far into Lorraine, as the plan originally intended, it would have been impossible for parts of them to come back during the crisis of the battle to reinforce the left wing and oppose Von Kluck. The Germans lost the battle of the Marne, and therefore in the end lost the war, because they dared not allow a considerable part of their army to retreat at the beginning of the war, and dared not allow the French to carry out a deep invasion of German territory.

As a comparison with this let us take one of Cromwell’s campaigns, an example of the art of manoeuvre in war carried to the most daring lengths. The King’s army was in Scotland, strongly placed, and Cromwell’s forces were not sufficient for him to risk a frontal attack on their position, although he had a considerable superiority. He therefore deliberately opened to the King a clear way into England, by Carlisle and the west coast. Charles naturally took the opportunity given him, and brought his army across the length of England to Worcester. Cromwell meanwhile had been moving down the East coast, keeping parallel with his opponent and gathering reinforcements all the way. The result was the “crowning mercy” of Worcester field.

This brings us to another point. War is an extension of politics, and the chief masters of it, such as Cromwell and Napoleon, have been politicians as well as soldiers. But with imperialism and still more with Fascism it is no longer possible for the ruling class to produce political leaders whom they can also trust to be military leaders. Even when it produces a man of the quality of Winston Churchill, the British ruling class dare not let this descendant of Marlborough control policy. (Courage in such things, we admit, is not always wisdom.) Instead we get the armies entrusted to “political generals,” Sarrail, Henry Wilson, Blomberg. And here again Fascism in Abyssinia has shown the supreme example: General De Bono’s only qualification for his office was that he had been a sufficiently brutal and sufficiently corrupt chief of police in Rome. He was known for no military qualities and received his appointment for political reasons.

The hysterical and vindictive enthusiasm generated by Fascism is also the exact opposite of the sort of morale that sees an army through its normal difficulties. Good soldiers have always grumbled, and the attempt to impose upon an army the superficial moral regimenting—“Heil Hitler!”—that is inseparable from Fascism would ruin any fighting force.

So long as war remains, the classes that practise it will show in it their class characteristics. And to-day the only examples of the real art of war will be found in the campaigns of primitive peoples, revolutionary-nationalist alliances of classes, and the armies of the working class, forces moulding a world from which war, whether art or madness, will be banished for ever.