All the way back in 2002, Josh Marshall recommended a book about the German invasion of France in 1940 called Strange Victory, written by Ernest R. May. The book basically turns the conventional wisdom on why France fell so quickly to the Germans in World War II on its head. Before reading it, I had thought that the French lost because they were vastly outgunned, unprepared for war, and had staked everything on the ridiculous Maginot Line. According to May, who goes back to contemporary accounts to reconstruct the events leading up to the battle of France and the battle itself, France (and Britain) were instead done in by their command style and poor use of intelligence. The Germans used intelligence analysis and wargaming to come up with the only plan for invading France that could possibly work, and the French failed to anticipate that plan and positioned their troops in the worst possible configuration to thwart that plan. Then, once Germany invaded, it took the French days to determine what Germany was up to and respond to it. As they say, by then it was too late.
The story itself is quite gripping, but as with any good history book, there are plenty of lessons to be learned that we can apply to the events of today. The book gave me a healthy new respect for the degree of uncertainty under which war planning occurs. In that light, I’m inclined to regard our efforts in Afghanistan as much more successful as I had been before. After we invaded Afghanistan, I was unsatisfied with what we had achieved, in that the warlords are still in power, much of the country is outside the control of the central government, and elements of the Taliban are still operating. While I do think we could have done more against al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of routing the Taliban, I think that what has been achieved in Afghanistan is notable. Part of my change of heart involved reading Strange Victory and part of it has to do with looking at Iraq. Given the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m sure that the people planning for both wars thought that Iraq would go even better than Afghanistan. It has a better educated, more modern populace and we were sending in a lot more troops. Just as Iraq has been a remarkable failure, Afghanistan has to be qualified as a remarkable success. It could still fall into chaos, but Afghans are clearly better off than they were under the Taliban.
The book also gave me a healthy respect for what war leadership takes. I don’t have any more sympathy for the Bush administration, which seems to have a preference for fixed ideas and assumptions based on political convenience rather than common sense that would make the French government of 1939 envious, but I do see how any government can fall into the patterns that the Allies did in 1939 and the US and UK governments did in 2002 when they were preparing for the war in Iraq.
In any case, if you’re into history in general and military or diplomatic history in particular, I recommend this book highly.