Manpower and the German Fixation

Editors note: We began our first week with Admiral James Stavridis’ book review of The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson.  It seems fitting to end with more thoughts on the same book – the final volume in an epic trilogy on the U.S. Army in World War II.  WOTR Contributor Robert Goldich offers his own views on the book below.


At the outset, I should note that I totally agree with Admiral Stavridis’s favorable review for War on the Rocks.  I just want to add some things that Atkinson’s splendid work makes one think about, things that I didn’t address when I reviewed it for Tom Ricks’s blog, The Best Defense (“Atkinson’s ‘Guns at Last Light’: Even better than you think, for these 5 reasons”).  First, though, let me endorse a point that Admiral Stavridis made about the maps.  The Guns at Last Light has the best maps I’ve ever seen in a non-official work of military history, and the only better ones I know of are those found in the U.S. Army’s and U.S. Marine Corps’ official histories.  All too many operational histories flounder because the publisher won’t support first-rate maps despite the entreaties of authors, and Atkinson’s work is a wonderful exception.

I am not the only one to have talked about the unjustifiable assumption made by British historians about  America’s alleged lack of military capability and skill.  Let’s go to something which happens more often: hysterical and slavish adulation of the German Army in World War II.   Atkinson correctly points out several occasions – the German counterattack at Mortain in early August 1944; the entire Battle of the Bulge; the lesser known January 1945 German offensive in Alsace – where the Germans were outmaneuvered and outfought by Americans from riflemen to army group commanders.  What is interesting is that German operational concepts and attitudes don’t seem to have been very different from ours, and that the key area where the Germans had an advantage over us was very simple – experience.  When troops from platoons to field armies are led by men with extensive combat experience in a current war, they’re generally going to have better leadership than units going into combat for the first time.  American divisions that fought in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy didn’t have this disadvantage, and that comes through quite clearly in The Guns at Last Light.  In fact, what struck me was that the much-vaunted German operational excellence was cancelled out by an astonishingly rapid American learning curve.  All of that military education and doctrinal excellence that was supposedly inculcated in the Reichswehr and the peacetime Wehrmacht in the 1920s and 1930s ended up mattering little once American formations gained a few months of combat experience.  Those historians who have multiple orgasms about Wir fahren gegen der Kesselschlachts Schwerpunkt mit Auftragstaktik und Fingerspitzengefuhl* ought to be looking into this, although I suspect they won’t.

This segues into my next point.  Guns at Last Light propels into view things that Americans did in the largest campaign that the U.S. has ever undertaken, and what worked and what didn’t.  There was a huge amount of historical investigation into the nature of Eastern Front operations and combat by American and British historians during the 1970s and 1980s, building more than anything else on the very worthwhile effort by the U.S. Army to get the experiences of German officers against the Soviets down on paper starting in the late 1940s.  Historians also talked a lot to former German general officers with that experience.  This made a great deal of sense when the most demanding mission the U.S., British, West German, and French armies could have faced was fighting the Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies in Central Europe.  The U.S. and British Armies got a lot out of this, and they deserve a lot of credit for adapting German concepts to their own forces.  But in the United States  (I don’t know about the UK), this had one baleful effect: we generated all too many analysts, and even officers, who knew a lot about the encirclement of the Ukraine in the summer of 1941, or the battle for Byelorussia in mid-1944, but who didn’t know squat about what U.S. forces had done in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Northwest Europe.

You can’t really judge other countries’ institutions if you don’t have a thorough grasp of your own, and you can’t judge what will and won’t be viable.  Well, the Cold War is over, and we won.  Our army (because this is mostly an army story) needs to learn a lot more about what U.S. military history and operations has to teach us, and a great start – from the U.S. Military Academy through the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College – would be parsing and unpacking and thinking about the issues Atkinson raises.  My sense is that this is already happening.  Let’s keep at it.

Eight pages of The Guns at Last Light (19-20, 407-12) are themselves almost worth the price and reading time of the book.  Atkinson describes how we were facing a manpower crisis by mid-1944:

A man could be drafted if he had only one eye, or was completely deaf in one ear [I knew a fellow to whom this applied], or had lost both external ears, or was missing a thumb or three fingers on either hand, including a trigger finger.  Earlier a draftee had to possess at least twelve of his original thirty-two teeth, but now he could be completely toothless…A revision of mental and personality standards was also under way.  In April 1944, the War Department decreed that inductees need only have a “reasonable chance” of adjusting to military life…In addition, the Army began drafting “moderate” obsessive-compulsives, as well as stutterers.  Men with malignant tumors, leprosy, or certifiable psychosis still were deemed “nonaccepable,” but by early 1944, twelve thousand venereal disease patients, most of them syphilitic, were inducted each month and rendered fit for service with a new miracle drug called penicillin.

This shows that manpower quality requirements are almost completely elastic (in the literal, not economic, sense of the word), and can go very, very far down to meet numbers.  If the choice is between having nobody at all and having someone who will fill a slot, even if he does a worse job than a higher-quality person, you take him.  If more suffer or die, so be it.  This was, and may be in the future, what is needed in total mobilization warfare.

Since 1945, we’ve had comparatively easy wars (not for those who fight them, of course, but as a society).  Rick Atkinson snaps us back to what happens, and what is required, for big wars with peer competitors – how hard and ruthless one has to be to win such wars.  And when you’re reading The Guns at Last Light, never, ever forget that we were virtually untouched by war at home compared to our major allies, the British, and infinitely more, the Russians.  We were never occupied.  We were never bombarded (the British lost 60,000 civilians and several hundred thousand were wounded to German bombs).   We never drafted women.  We never had a labor draft.  Our standard of living actually rose during the war.  Even in the harsh, cruel world of The Guns at Last Light, we had it easy.  Always remember that.

* This can be loosely translated as: “We march against the key point of the forces we have encircled and isolated with broad mission-type orders and an instinctive feel for the battlefield.”


Robert L. Goldich retired from a 33-year career in the Congressional Research Service in 2005. He was the senior CRS military manpower analyst when he left. Bob is currently writing a book on conscription in history, from the first human civilizations to the present.

Mozilla/5.0 AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko; compatible; bingbot/2.0; + Chrome/116.0.1938.76 Safari/537.36