There is a scene in the film ‘Black Hawk Down‘ in which Josh Hartnett’s character, Sgt. Eversmann, is asked what he was trained to do. He replies “I like to think I was trained to make a difference.” This is a notable sentiment chiefly for its staggering and wilful misunderstanding. The soldier who posed the question says “I was trained to fight”. Put simply, he is right and Eversmann is wrong, despite that Hartnett’s is more sympathetic a character.
I raise this because I have had a number of conversations recently in which I have talked about the role of the armed forces. Those with whom I have had these conversations have come from various walks of life, with political perspectives from all points of the spectrum (insofar as Britain, as a liberal Western democracy, has a spectrum), but the common thread is that all have broadly agreed with the sentiment expressed by Hartnett’s Eversmann. In agreeing, they too are wrong.
The purpose of the armed forces is to generate violence, and then to inflict that violence. To say otherwise is folly. Worse, it is self-deluding folly. It is striking to compare the combat effectiveness of the armies fielded by the major belligerents in World War Two. The basic conclusions to be drawn from such a comparison are these: willingness to accept sacrifice makes an army effective in achieving its goals; aggression does not go unrewarded; and an army lacking in aggression and willingness to accept sacrifice must perforce content itself with smaller or no gains albeit at the price of fewer casualties if possessed of sufficient technological means to wage war. Without those means, defeat is its only recourse. I draw these conclusions based on the following facts: of the Allied armies, by far the most effective was that of the Soviets. The Red Army absorbed the vast majority of the casualties suffered by the Allies in the course of the war. However, the Red Army also distinguished itself as the most brutal and barbarous of the Allies in its conduct, which it justified – at least internally – as revenge for the conduct of the Wehrmacht upon Soviet territory. The armies of the Western democracies, meanwhile, refused to accept the level of privation regarded as routine by the Soviets, and more importantly refused to accept anything like the number of casualties. (Nor did their governments expect them to: another fundamental difference). It was only in the most technologically sophisticated areas of the forces, and the areas separated at some remove from the immediacy of killing, that the Western Allies displayed martial competence equal to that of the Axis. The average British foot soldier was no peer of his German equivalent, but British Artillery was reckoned excellent by both sides. The RAF’s Bomber Command, and 2nd Tactical Airforce, were effective agents of destruction. So too were the carriers of the American Pacific fleet. But by and large, the average rifleman was no great soldier.
There is an important exception to this rule of thumb. The elite forces – the US Army Rangers, British paratroopers and the like – excelled in the field and punched well above their weight. This was partially a reflection of the intensity of their training, but more importantly there was a marked mental difference in the attitudes of their footsoldiers. This could be boiled down to the difference between “success is up to me” against “someone should really deal with that”. One sergeant, of a regular regiment, said of man under his command who went on to win the Victoria Cross: “he was the only soldier I ever met who seemed to regard winning the war as his personal responsibility.” On Omaha beach, for instance – the most contested of the invasion beaches at Normandy, and immortalised with varying levels of accuracy in the film ‘Saving Private Ryan‘ – American success came mostly at the hands of US Rangers, whose determination eventually overcame the defenders and secured the beachhead for the remainder of the American forces coming ashore. The Rangers indeed ‘made a difference’, but only because they recognised – more so than the regular infantry – that they were trained to fight.
The generation and infliction of violence is achieved in two ways: mass and precision. The Soviets achieved the former: in April 1945 they attacked Berlin with 2.5 million men and 6,000 armoured vehicles. The USAAF was notable, in its public pronouncements at least, for its emphasis on the latter: unlike the RAF’s Bomber Command, which was unapologetic in its continuation of area bombardment, the American bombers claimed to target precision objectives such as the ball-bearing manufacturing facility at Schweinfurt. In practice, of course, the claim to precision was little more than a fig-leaf to cover area bombardment conducted not as a matter of policy but certainly as a matter of fact: the USAAF was little more accurate in its bombardment than the RAF despite the advantage of flying in daylight. It has been claimed, not without justification, that the RAF precision-bombed area targets while the USAAF area-bombed precision targets. Arthur Harris, the commander-in-chief of Bomber Command, remained until the end of the war obdurate in his belief that bombing German cities must bring about the collapse of the Reich. In this he was proven wrong, but more importantly that proof was available before the end of the war: the Germans’ Ardennes offensive at the end of 1944, the so-called ‘Battle of the Bulge’, failed primarily due to acute fuel shortage – the result of largely American bombing of oil refineries serving the Reich. What damns Harris as far as posterity is concerned is his insistance on continuing the air offensive he had designed despite the fact that it had been shown to be ineffective: the bombing of cities, even industrial ones, could in no way compare to the disruption of the war machine brought about by destroying what he had dismissed – and continued to dismiss – as ‘panacea targets’. Fundamentally, he demonstrated no understanding of the nature of strategic bombing. A newspaperman had defined it thus: “Tactical bombing is the equivalent of knocking over the milk pail every morning: strategic bombing attempts to kill the cow.” Harris, in his relentless pursuit of the destruction of German cities, might be said to have committed to destroying the farmer’s house and forcing him to relocate, in the hope that in so doing he would prove unable to take the cow with him. Such hopes proved unfounded, not least due to Albert Speer’s genius in maintaining German industrial capacity in the face of such relentless aerial assault.
All that aside, it is perhaps a reflection of the social attitude which then became widespread – the one that has been demonstrated to me recently – that the aircrew of Bomber Command received no campaign medal at the end of the war. Harris’s aims and objectives may have been far from laudable, but they were a matter of national policy and refusing to recognise the grim determination required of aircrew in order to carry them out (55,000 – more than half – the aircrew of Bomber Command perished in the conflict, a survival rate lower than that of infantry officers in World War One) seems both unfair and unwarranted.
‘Making a difference’ is not the preserve of the armed forces, otherwise we would even now be discussing the weaponry available to (for instance) UNESCO. Armed forces are required to be violent. The sooner we recognise that, and understand its implications, the more accurate will be our expectations of them, and the less likely we are to be disappointed at their relative ineffectiveness in other spheres of endeavour. It is a romantic fallacy to expect them to be able to operate effectively as aid agencies, humanitarian workers or police forces, however useful they might prove in such capacities.
Note that I am not passing any moral judgement in recognising the primacy of violence in their nature. On the contrary, I recognise the appropriateness of it. When a nation finds itself in armed conflict it must have a reserve of force it can call upon to wage war effectively. Moreover, the considerations of the application of this force must be primarily the responsibility of those best placed to recognise both its limitations and its capabilities. For that reason I find myself annoyed at those who cite the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano as part of combat operations in the 1982 Falklands War as somehow unfair. I, among others rather more qualified to suggest such things, would argue that the sinking was not only justified but essential to the maritime security of the British Task Force. It is a fact that as a result of the loss of the Belgrano the Argentinian aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo, along with the rest of the Argentinian fleet, returned to port, considerably alleviating the threat posed to the British fleet; it is also a fact that both the captain of the Belgrano and the Argentinian government, in 1994, acknowledged the attack on the cruiser as legitimate and legal. The recommendation to attack was made by those who understood the military necessities of the situation, and the order to attack was given in full cognizance of them. That truth may seem unpalatable to those possessed of more liberal social sensibilities, but its palatibility or otherwise has no bearing on its fundamental and inescapable relevence to the discussion.
I make these points not because I am wedded to the morality of conflict. Having recently finished reading Max Hastings’s excellent new book, ‘All Hell Let Loose: The World at War, 1939-1945‘ one thing that is manifestly apparent is that while the Allied cause claims unquestionable moral superiority against the repugnance of Axis convictions, it is by no means an uncompromised claim. It would be very foolish to assert that there are no discreditable episodes in the wartime histories of even the Western democracies: the conduct of the Allied armies in Italy, and the treatment afforded to its colonial properties by the British, were frequently disgraceful. However, the fact remains that those efforts which shortened the war, and thus more quickly brought to an end the sufferings of those caught up in the conflict, were those in which violence was most effectively applied to those who needed to be stopped. If military history teaches us anything, it is that wars are won by those who most efficiently generate violence. I do not know if Sgt. Eversmann’s words about making a difference were an invention of a Hollywood scriptwriter. I rather think so. But it was another scriptwriter who better understood the essential nature of warfare when, in the film ‘Gladiator‘, he had a Roman general say to his men: “On my order, unleash Hell”. We do not like, in a liberal democracy, to think of such things. That does not mean, however, that we are right in ignoring them. And ultimately, whatever our sensibilities may be, we need to acknowledge as fundamental the nature of the armed forces. It’s right there in the name.