Reviving Napoleon’s Army, by Fred Reed

Fred Reed hits this one 325 yards straight down the middle of the fairway. From Reed at

It is curious how little military men know about war. You would think they would think about it more. Yet, oddly, they regularly misjudge practically everything concerning the dismal trade. Their errors are not the sort that inevitably must occur in a contest, as when a quarterback doesn’t pick up a blitz. They are fundamental misappreciations of war itself.

The foregoing sounds both arrogant and improbable, like saying that dentists do not understand teeth. Actually it is neither.

The reasons are several. First, the military attracts certain kinds of men – authoritarian, hierarchical, conformist – who are not imaginative and do not think independently. Second, the appeal of the military is visceral, emotional, hormonal. Neither of these things is true of dentists.

This explains why wars monotonously turn out not to resemble expectations. In WWI, the German command expected a lightning victory via the Schlieffen Plan. It failed, but the foolishness does not lie in the failure. Rather it is in the complete incapacity to foresee that the failure would result in four years of inconclusive static war. Trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns took them by surprise. Yet the existence of all of these things was well known.

This sort of blindness is common, almost normal. At First Manassas in the American Civil War, the armies had no faint idea that they might be embarking on four years of horrendous war, or of the kind of war it would be. When America invaded Vietnam, the Pentagon did not foresee ten years of a losing war. Nor did it have any notion of what would happen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Militaries regularly underestimate the enemy and overestimate their own capacities. The reasons I think are several. One is that morale is important in war and a sober estimation of reality often does not conduce to high morale. For example, you do not tell your troops, “You are mediocre infantry and inferior man for man to the enemy but we have better technology and will rely on this.” Thus American troops are always the finest, best trained and best armed the world has ever seen.

To continue reading: Reviving Napoleon’s Army

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