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The New International, June 1942

Michael Gordon

Books in Review

The Theory of the Offensive


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 5, June 1942, pp. 157–159.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Defense Will Not Win the War
by W. F. Kernan, Lieutenant-Colonel, U.S. Army
Little, Brown & Co., Boston. $1.50

Ever since the outbreak of World War II the Allies have taken their share of blows from the Axis powers. Since Pearl Harbor, America, too, has tasted defeat. Those who expected that the Japs would be pushovers, or that victories would be quick and cheap, now pound the table and holler that it is a “goddam shame the way we are knuckling under to those lousy Japs,” and that “it’s about time that we did something about it.”

This book is compounded of so much ignorance and prejudice that it is only natural that it should meet with the acclaim of bourgeois mentalities. Still the book is so obviously full of holes that even those critics who are entirely in sympathy with Kernan’s “do something” attitude are obliged to say that outside of the title of the book there is little to recommend it.

And it is true that, from the point of view of the war makers, the title is a slogan that serves a macabre purpose. Psychologically it squares well with the dispatch of AEFs to Australia and Ireland. Compared to the mass AEFs that are still to go, these are only “token payments.” The people of this country are being prepared to accept a mountainous toll of American youth on foreign battlefields. As Kernan puts it:

“It has now been brought home to us that the Nazi system means war to the death for America, and that the only way to win the war is by shooting; that the relentless advance of Germany will continue until it is stopped by the interposition of an insurmountable obstacle.”

The “insurmountable obstacle” that Kernan has in mind is, of course, American manpower. He makes this deadly clear. He says:

“The attack on Hitler which is bound to take our armies to Europe is simply a tremendous movement of extending the American frontier which is about to begin in the teeth of the most implacable foe that any nation has yet encountered.”

Nor does Kernan have any illusions about the terrible price that the American people will have to pay.

“Due to the blind folly and invitational weakness of the past ten years.” says the author, “the price for the defeat of these enemies has been steadily raised until it stands today at a sum undreamed of in the annals of military history ... The price is high, so high indeed, that of all the nations still unchained America alone has the wherewithal to pay it.”

Only as a psychological preparative does Defense Will Not Win the War gibe with reality. Otherwise the book is so completely a misreading of history and an outpouring of prejudice, that it is entirely logical that the only practical proposal for an offensive made by the author should be preposterous on the face of it.

The Lessons of World War I Are Lost

One would think that a serious discussion on the question of offense versus defense would take all this as a starting point. Instead Kernan discusses completely secondary factors, such as the interference of the Allied politicians in army matters and the prevention of Foch’s ascendancy until the last year of the war. In fact Kernan’s discussion of the First World War is almost entirely limited to his idol, Foch, of whom he says:

“Long before Foch was given supreme command he had demonstrated his strategical ability, his objectivity, his sense of the thing being done, his cool, clear rationality, his unshakable will, his faith in God.”

Leaving aside the question of Lloyd George’s, Churchill’s or Clemenceau’s military intervention, of which much can be said not altogether as Kernan would wish, and basing ourselves upon his own ground, that of the incompetence of the Allied generals, why then did not the offensives of the relatively competent German generals succeed? To answer this question Kernan would have to deal with the fundamental factors, that of the equality of the opposing armies, the masses involved, the rôle of the machine gun, the underdevelopment of such offensive weapons as the tank and the airplane, etc. Actually Kernan, for all his praise of Foch, indirectly acknowledges the general defensive character of the last world war by claiming that it was American intervention which broke the stalemate on the Western Front and won the war.

Kernan simply does not see the “defensive” mentality of the Allies in all the years following the war of 1914–18. It is of course easy to be wise after Hitler’s successful demonstration of the blitzkrieg. But prior to this, the outlook of the Allies is perfectly understandable. Basing themselves on the war they won, they perfected the arms with which they won that war. At the same time they disarmed Germany and surrounded her with a cordon sanitaire of Allied satellite nations. With their Maginot Lines and strategic fronties, the “have” nations thought themselves secure. There was only one trouble with this situation. Capitalism was bankrupt, capitalist rivalry was rampant and the world revolution, in the fore of which was the Russian Revolution, threatened. That is why the French, British and American capitalists backed and strengthened the German Junkers, Mussolini and Hitler.

Kernan’s “Analysis” of Fascism

There is not a word of this in his book. Trash is substituted for analysis. We quote a typical example dealing with the rise of fascism in Italy.

The Italians,” writes Kernan, “are clowns, that is to say, buffoons, mimes, imitators, and it is this quality – it is, in a manner of speaking, a histrionic quality – that is responsible for the mushroom growth of fascism and the rapidity with which Mussolini rose to power.” (Emphasis mine – S.)

This is less an insult to the heroic and talented descendants of Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Bruno and Copernicus than it is a key to Kernan’s mental crassness. Does not Kernan know that plain Italian people, the workers and peasants, died by the thousands in their villages and factories in years of bloody fighting against the gangster bands of Mussolini? Does he not know that American gold propped up the tottering fascist regime?

In the same stupid way Kernan avoids explanation of the adoration of Hitler by the ruling classes of Great Britain and the United States. How they hailed a degenerate Fuehrer as the barrier to the rise of Bolshevism! If Hitler was permitted to arm, was it not in order better to keep down the German workers and to turn him against Russia as the super-Wrangel of world capitalism? Was not England also interested in a strong Germany as a balance against French claims to European hegemony?

How Wars Are Really Fought

But capitalist wars are not at all conceived in this way. The capitalist nations resort to war only when their profit-making in peacetime is threatened by the rabid rivalry of capitalist competitor nations or by the threat of revolution against the capitalist system as such. The entire political life of a nation prior to the outbreak of war conditions the war itself.

It was otherwise with the German general staff. They too saw themselves doomed in a war of attrition. That is why they concentrated on the development of these offensive weapons which were still in their infancy at the end of the last World War. These they massed for a swift, crushing blow against defensive walls that were not strong enough to stand the impact. To this military power Hitler added his political weapons. Stark necessity produced the German war machine and German capitalism concentrated on it because for it there was no other road.

If Kernan followed the development of German arms and political policy he would be in a position to understand their value. From the purely military point of view the German offensive registered victories because its power to break through was greater than the power to hold. For all we know it is entirely conceivable that had the Allies had equality in tanks and airplanes the result would be another war of attrition, very likely after the manner of Lybia.

Hence, serious discussion about an offensive must take at its starting point a preponderance of mechanized armies and air fleets at the point of contact with the enemy. If the Allies were anywhere on any of the war fronts in such a position Kernan would be credited with something more than just hot air. The problem that confronts the Allies today is not the offensive. Their problem is that of immediate reinforcement of their positions and the attainment of as near an equality with the Axis as is possible in order to keep from being pushed off the African, Asiatic and Australian continents. In a word, at this stage, the problem of the Allies is a defensive one. The dispatch of a large enough AEF to Australia, Ireland and the Middle East over thousands of miles of ocean for this purpose is so big an order that if it were accomplished in time it would more than satisfy the Allied generals and statesmen.

Sea Power and Invasion

Kernan’s discussion of sea power is as stupid as the rest of his propositions.

“We must remember,” he says, “that navies are powerful and decisive in large dynastic national wars (England and Spain, 16th century) as well as in small pseudo-imperialistic wars (Japan and Russia, 19th century) but in a really imperialistic total world war, such as we are now fighting, they are not by any possible stretch of the imagination, decisive, and are only powerful when they are used, with proper air support, for the convoy and supply of armies.”

Aside from the fact that great navies, with their bases, garrisons and air arms are an absolutely essential element for control of the world’s colonies, one minute of thinking can demonstrate that sea power could have played a decisive rôle against a power such as Japan. Had the Allies overwhelming sea power in the Pacific (naturally, the air support that goes with that is also included), Japan could never have gotten to first base against the Allied bases, the Philippines, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese, on the other hand, so valued sea power that they made certain to deliver then-first blow against Pearl Harbor in order to assure for themselves the control of the seas in the Southwest Pacific. No nation is more vulnerable to sea power than the island nation of Japan. If the Japanese fleet were to be sunk that would be the finish of Japan, for a blockade would then be complete and Japanese life brought to a standstill. From the Allied viewpoint, the trouble with the war against Japan is that the latter has what the Allies lacked – a preponderance of sea power.

What to do with Germany after an Allied victory seems simple enough to Kernan. Without mincing any words he demands the “classic” Roman solution. “Carthage must be destroyed,” he repeats, and the German soldier who hears this will certainly redouble his efforts to resist to the death. There are so many inanities and stupidities that it is impossible for even a lengthy review to deal with them. However, it is not the obtuse, out-and-out sabre rattlers who have to be exposed. Their bankruptcy is obvious. The ones who have to be watched are the more subtle exponents and supporters of the imperialist war, those who try to sell the same rotten bill of goods wrapped up in tinsel and bright colored ribbons.

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