Friday, December 25, 2020

Brusilov and the question of Lessons Learned


My Bride (who is a terrific person for lots of other reasons, too...) was wonderful enough to gift me Tim Dowling's 2008 The Brusilov Offensive and I wasted no time curling up amid the wrapping debris to begin reading. 

In the opening chapter I came across something that intrigued me a bit, and thought I'd throw it out here for the patrons to swill along with their Christmas nog.

On page nine, Dowling recounts a general consensus among what he describes as "...a great many people - most notably the Russian general staff - that technological advances would play a minimal role." in the coming war of 1914. 

He then goes on to say that this "cult of the offensive" dominated most of the tactical to grand tactical thinking of the European powers. The paragraph concludes with a summary of the work of Austro-Hungarian GEN von Hötzendorf, as concluding that "Firepower was certainly beneficial, but its effectiveness was limited..."

I won't argue too hard against this; certainly there was a hell of an influential clique for the attaque à outrance idea in the French Army, and most of the other combatant army planners of WW1 seemed unwilling to abandon the notion that you could figure out some way to outrun a bullet or a shell and gain that elusive decisive victory if you just tried hard enough.

I get that part of that had to have been the lack of actual Great Power combat in the forty-odd years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and 1914.

But, still...

You'd had the Russo-Japanese War just ten years earlier, and that had featured all the things that would kill all that "offensiveness" deader'n a Japanese rifleman hanging on the wire outside Port Arthur; deep entrenchment and obstacles behind machinegun beaten zones and heavy artillery. 

Pretty much every other European power had observers with the combatants, and it sounds like a ton of them reported all the same problems for the attackers facing these defensive measures, it sounds like none of them - particularly the Russians themselves, if Dowling is correct - learned anything from the lessons of others.

That, in turn, makes me wonder; how often in history have we soldiers (or the civilian leadership that directs us...) done that - learned from the experiences either of our predecessors or others - versus how many times we've failed to learn those lessons? It seems off the top of my head that the failures seem more common than the successes, that it seems more likely that military organizations will fail to recognize critical changes in technical or tactical conditions rather than anticipate or adjust to them.

Is that really the case, though? Or am I just being influenced by a sort of military "recency factor" that occurs because those failures tend to be more spectacular than the less catastrophic effects when an organization does react and adjust appropriately?

And is this something that tends to happen to all large military organizations at some point? Is there an example of an army (or navy, or air force...) tending to be uniformly decent at learning from the lessons around them rather than having to learn the hard way?

Christmas Day 2020


It rained when it should have snowed.
When we went to gather holly

the ditches were swimming, we were wet
to the knees, our hands were all jags

and water ran up our sleeves.
There should have been berries

but the sprigs we brought into the house
gleamed like smashed bottle-glass.

Now here I am, in a room that is decked
with the red-berried, waxy-leafed stuff,

and I almost forgot what it's like
to be wet to the skin or longing for snow.

I reach for a book like a doubter
and want it to flare round my hand,

a black letter bush, a glittering shield-wall,
cutting as holly and ice.

---”Holly”, from "Station Island" by Seamus Heaney.

 (h/t to Lance Mannion, who has been posting these evocative Heaney poems...) 

No matter your place, time, or creed, I hope you are enjoying a time of peace for you and yours. 

 I wish I could have said it as well as Charlie Pierce, but I can't, so I'll just add his Christmas wish to take me out:

 "...may you all have the rest and peace of this mid-winter holiday season. May all your whiskey be mellow and may all your lights shine. And may there always be a candle in the window, calling you home, calling you out of the storm, calling all of us home, together, and home."

Friday, December 18, 2020


 To Infinity...and Beyond!

From the link above:

"Space Force members have an official new name: Guardians, Vice President Mike Pence announced Friday.

"Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Guardians will be defending our nation for generations to come," Pence said during a ceremony to commemorate the Space Force's 1st birthday, coming up on Dec. 20."

 Oh. OH. Now I'm SO sorry I retired before I got to have fun with this. 

It's perfect as it is, but I know I can make it better. I feel the "Acting 1SG Lawes Reads The Morning Formation Announcements" typing itself already.

Update 12/19: And, yep, here it is.