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The USSR played the leading role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, which the majority of Europeans recognized in 1945 even if half a century of Hollywood propaganda successfully displaced it in the public imagination in favor of the USA. But what about within the USSR itself?

Back in January 2015, during his brief nationalist phase after the return of Crimea, Putin declared that Russians played the leading role in the defeat of Nazism and paid the highest sacrifices. That seems like a dream today. Official rhetoric proclaims that “we achieved victory together” played over footage of Ramzan Kadyrov and Tajik workers wearing St. George’s ribbons (in the meantime, Tajikistan has banned the Immortal Regiments march on the grounds that it is un-Islamic).

So who’s right: Putin 2015, or Putin 2017?

I compiled the following two graphs based on the results of the Soviet Census of 1939 and Grigory Krivosheev’s statistics on military deaths by ethnicity in WW2 (table 122).


Predictably, Russians bore the highest number of absolute losses – some two thirds of the 8.7 million total.

Together with the Ukrainians and Belorussians that figure rises to 85%.


Moreover, Russians also bore the highest relative military losses as a percentage of their population, together with the Buryats.

The Ukrainians and Belorussians were somewhat lower, though this is explainable on account of them being occupied for part of the war, and incurring a greater share of civilian deaths as a result. There would have been be a similar dynamic with respect to the Jews, a large percentage of whom unfortunately fell within the Nazi zone of occupation.

I recall reading a history paper (can’t find it at the moment) where it was claimed that the USSR would create ethnic minority units from the Finno-Ugric peoples and intentionally send them to the hottest fronts so as to make them incur heavier casualties and shift the demographic balance in favor of Russins. That is obviously nonsense based on these figures, though that said, they did almost do their fair share.

The Central Asians, especially the Uzbeks and Tajiks, are underrepresented – the latter by a factor of almost three. This is perhaps not that bad a thing, since they had a reputation for technical incompetence; even in the late USSR, conscripts from those regions tended to go into “Class C” rear divisions with simple, obsolete equipment.

Of the major ethnicities, the worst group in terms of its lack of contribution were the restive Muslim provinces of the North Caucasus. Dagestan underdid its fair share by a factor of four, while the Chechens and Ingush as is known pretty much defected to the Germans en masse (hence the deportations).

I didn’t include any figures for the Balts and Moldovans. They were annexed by the USSR after the 1939 Census, so their percentages would be meaningless.

For comparison, the Germans lost approximately 6.1% of their population as military losses in WW2, including: Germany proper: 6.4%; Austria: 3.9%; The German diaspora in Eastern Europe: 7.2%, according to Rüdiger Overmans’s calculations.


Nationality Population (1939) WW2 Mil. Deaths % All Mil. Deaths % Deaths Population
Russians 99,591,520 5,756,000 66.40% 5.78%
Ukrainians 28,111,007 1,377,400 15.89% 4.90%
Belorussians 5,275,393 252,900 2.92% 4.79%
Georgians 2,249,636 79,500 0.92% 3.53%
Azeris 2,275,678 58,400 0.67% 2.57%
Armenians 2,152,860 83,700 0.97% 3.89%
Uzbeks 4,845,140 117,900 1.36% 2.43%
Turkmen 812,404 21,300 0.25% 2.62%
Tajiks 1,229,170 22,900 0.26% 1.86%
Kazakhs 3,100,949 125,500 1.45% 4.05%
Kyrgyz 884,615 26,600 0.31% 3.01%
Karelians 252,716 9,500 0.11% 3.76%
Komi 422,317 11,600 0.13% 2.75%
Bashkirs 843,648 31,700 0.37% 3.76%
Udmurts 606,326 23,200 0.27% 3.83%
Tatars 4,313,488 187,700 2.17% 4.35%
Mari 481,587 20,900 0.24% 4.34%
Mordovians 1,456,330 63,300 0.73% 4.35%
Chuvash 1,369,574 63,300 0.73% 4.62%
Kalmyks 134,402 4,000 0.05% 2.98%
Buryats 224,719 13,000 0.15% 5.79%
Jews 3,028,538 142,500 1.64% 4.71%
Kabardians & Balkars 206,870 3,400 0.04% 1.64%
Chechens & Ingush 500,088 2,300 0.03% 0.46%
Ossetians 354,818 10,700 0.12% 3.02%
Dagestanis 857,499 11,100 0.13% 1.29%
Bulgars 113,494 1,100 0.01% 0.97%
Greeks 286,444 2,400 0.03% 0.84%
Chinese 32,023 400 0.00% 1.25%
Poles 630,097 10,100 0.12% 1.60%
Finns 143,437 1,600 0.02% 1.12%
Others 3,770,306 132,500 1.53% 3.51%
TOTAL 170,557,093 8,668,400 100.00% 5.08%
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It is in some ways remarkable that there is still no commonly agreed method on quantifying and ranking national military power.

There is one such for economics, for instance. It is called the GDP. You can make somewhat different arguments on relative economic size or living standards based on various ways of measuring GDP – e.g., the eternal debates over whether nominal or PPP is best – but it does make these discussions factually “grounded” in a way that military discussions (at least as they are carried out in the popular press and comments sections) are not. This may even extend to some extent to the US military itself. For instance, here is a short quote from an article by Adrian Bonenberger, who spent 7 years as an infantry officer in the US Army:

This is the greatest risk we face for World War III. Not that Russia defeats Ukraine and moves toward Poland and Estonia, but that Ukraine wipes out the Russians currently in Ukraine, and Putin is forced to take some drastic action to prevent further losses. After all, why should Ukraine not feel entitled to take some of Russia’s territory in return for their lost Crimea? And who will be there to stop them, save demoralized and confused Russian conscripts?

russia-vs-ukraine-military-power The chances of that happening in the foreseeable future are precisely zero, so awesome is the current size of the military gap between Russia and Ukraine (it approximately doubled from a factor of 4.5 in 1992 at the time of the Soviet collapse, to a peak of 9 by 2013). Even cursory examinations of force structure would confirm it; just the Russian Southern Military District by itself is considerably more powerful than the entire Ukrainian military. Tall tales of Donetsk airport “cyborgs” mowing down thousands of elite Pskov paratroopers to the contrary, on the one occasion in the Donbass War that the Ukrainian military engaged directly with the Russian military resulted in a resounding defeat for the Ukraiians at Ilovaysk – and that despite the Russian military having to maintain plausible deniability and thus forego the use of its fancier toys.

Nor will this situation change cardinally in the future, as the graph to the right shows (which incidentally is based on some very “optimistic” assumptions about Ukraine’s ability to remain solvent and maintain military spending at 5% of GDP). The idea that Ukraine will be able to militarily reconquer the LDNR so long as Russia provides it with support, to say nothing of actually seizing chunks of territory from Russia itself, is too absurd for further commentary.

This is just one limited example of flawed military commentary in the popular press. Literally hundreds of other examples can be thought of, from ‘Murica patriots who literally believe it is 1,000 times stronger than any other “military or combination of militaries,” to the Russia stronk! types and neocons who are in strange agreement that Russia is currently establishing a “hegemony” over the Middle East with its small-scale Syrian air intervention (which if Washington really wanted to could put to a forcible end within 24 hours).

Anyhow, I don’t claim to be any sort of military expert. If you asked me to compare the EW capabilities of the F/A-18A versus the Su-30MKI, I would draw up a total blank. That said, I have read a fair bit about military history and military theory, so I think I can contribute in a small way to uplifting the level of the popular discourse by introducing some rigor to it by way of the Comprehensive Military Power concept, a sort of military analogue of GDP that is both additive (so that alliances can be compared) and consistent across time (so that historical comparisons can be made and even what-if scenarios of the Modern Poland vs. Nazi Germany type).

But first, I would like to criticize or introduce caveats to some other popularly accepted ways of making sweeping large-scale military comparisons.

Existing Attempts to Quantify Military Power

military-budget-2014-sipri Military Budgets

This is by far the most common and intuitive method of making comparisons. It is objective and commonsensical: All other things equal, the more you spend on your military, the better it will be.

As historians like Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers pointed out, in the longterm, it is almost invariably the countries with the biggest economic potential who end coming out ahead in superpower struggles. With a bigger economy, you can have a bigger military budget with less overall strain (since once you go much about 5% of GDP military spending, your overall economy tends to start becoming distorted).

But military effectiveness depends a lot more than just the amount of dollars that are pumped into it. It also depends on domestic price levels (e.g., salaries for equivalent-quality Chinese soldiers will be much less than for American soldiers); the presence or absence of a domestic military-industrial complex (e.g., compare Saudi Arabia buying US equipment at international prices versus the ability of a country like Russia with its own MIC to produce its own advanced equipment at much lower costs); the aggregate of former spending, accounting for things such as what percentage of it “stayed on” in the form of military capital (which itself is continually adjusted for depreciation); and what US military theorist Trevor Dupuy called “combat effectiveness value,” that is, the relative effectiveness with which a military can use its existing manpower and capital stocks to win engagements and wrack up good K/D ratios, and which itself depends on a myriad of factors beyond just money such as generalship, esprit de corps, etc.

As we shall soon see, while consideration of the above factors does not (for now) change the fundamental fact of US military dominance, but it does move the focus away from overly simplistic rhetoric of the type that “the US spends as much on its military as the next 10 countries/20 countries/rest of the world combined” with the unspoken assumption being that actual military power is a mere extension of dollar spending on it.

global-firepower-2015 Global Firepower and other Popular Indices

This is the best known popular online index of military power available. Unfortunately, its methodology is secret so far as I’m aware, and its scaling is strange and obviously non-additive. Nor is it very intuitive. For instance, the gap between the US and Russia seems to be similar to that between the UK and France. This is almost flat out impossible. French and British military power, much like economies and demography, are remarkably similar. There is no way that even the proportional gap between them is as big as that between the US and Russia, which does have a very formidable military but is currently in the midst of rebuilding it from the post-Soviet stagnation.

Likewise for this recent ranking from Credit Suisse.

There is the Composite Index of National Capability, which uses military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population as inputs to develop an index of “national capability.” This was developed in the US during the 1960s, a time when the use of such inputs would have been logical due to memories of the World Wars, which were won by mass conscript armies and steel foundries that produced the means to churn out thousands of guns, tanks, and artillery pieces.


But is it still relevant to today’s world? Suffice to say that it is a pretty sure thing that iron and steel production will not be a limiting factor in any plausible Great Power war either now, nor would it have been even by the 1970s. The fact that China now produces almost ten times as much steel as the US will have vastly less significance than Germany producing 17.6 million tons of steel in 1913 to 4.8 million tons by Russia in 1913. Indeed, the very fact that China overtook the US on the CINC around 2000 discredits it as a viable index of modern military power or even national capability.

The blogger and political scientist Phil Arena has a better version of the CINC which he calls “M” that is a much better proxy of military power. It is still flawed but has the major advantage of being very simple and possessing face validity.

comprehensive-national-power-2015 Chinese geopolitical think tanks have developed the concept of Comprehensive National Power, which attempts to measure all facets of national power (2015 rankings to the right).

The Chinese are obsessed with not repeating what they see as the mistakes of the Soviet Union – e.g., distorting its economy through massive military overspending – so they actually tend to deemphasize the military aspect from such comparisons in favor of financial and soft power influence.

This is, of course, perfectly valid – so long as an American CVBG doesn’t show up on your coast, at any rate – but this is going beyond the scope of what this post is about, i.e. strictly military comparisons.

Technical Discussions

On the Internet, most of the more informed military discussions tend to be about the superiority of one or another weaponsd platform over another. Who would win in a Leopard 2A7 vs. M1A2 Abrams vs. T-14 Armata slugfest? (I have no idea) Does the fact that Indian fighter pilots in Su-30MKI’s beat British Typhoons in a recent exercise mean that Russia is stronk and the RAF sucks? (No, because dogfighting isn’t the same thing as BVR combat) Will the F-35 program reinforce US air dominance or does it constitute the most spectacular military boondoggle thus far? (Somewhere in between most likely)

I don’t put much stock in these discussions. First off, a lot of the real details are classified, so real life performance can often differ from theory (and war games). Argentinian Mirages were supposed to outperform British Harriers in 1982, whereas the final “score” ended up about 10:0. These discussions frequently discount cost considerations. This is the classic Tiger vs. T-34 phenonenon: Crudely speaking, the former might be a match for 5 of the latter, but that isn’t so useful when you can have ten T-34s for the price of one Tiger (which will in any case break down due to its overengineering and have to be abandoned for lack of spare parts). But the crucial question of cost rarely enters these fanboyish arguments. Third, good militaries are supposed to act as tightly coordinated wholes, so the impact of any one platform – be it substantially above or below performance expectations – isn’t that relevant in the overall scheme of things. The French had substantially more and BETTER tanks in 1940, but that didn’t end up doing them much good, because their tanks had far less coordination due to a paucity of radios (which all Panzers were equipped with) and they were spread out all over the place, making it impossible to use them as the armored spearheads they were supposed to be. If you don’t have the appropriate doctrine for them, your fancy toys aren’t very useful.

This can apply even to really old, well-established tech. For instance, Liveleak and YouTube are full of videos in which Syrian Arab Army tanks in dense urban areas trundle about in the open without infantry support, making them easy targets for jihadist RPGs. You would think they’d have learned to stop doing it after four years and counting of defeats, but apparently not. They are lucky in the sense that while their jihadist opponents might be much more enthusiastic, they are also at least just as incompetent. Those videos are likewise full of Allah Akbaring in the middle of firefights and firing without aiming.

Professional Military Ratings

They are hard to dig up, but I have found a few examples of these.

For instance, from Ian Morris’ The Measure of Civilization – companion book to his more famous Why the West Rules – he cites war games designer James Dunnigan, who gave the following scores for land and sea power:


While the naval scores look feasible enough, the land scores are clearly incredible. Suffice to say that if that was true then Russian land power would not only be significantly lower than India’s (which sources a lot of its tech from Russia) and Israel’s (which is a respectable Power but nowhere near the very top leagues), it would also be less as a percentage of US land power than its naval power is as a percentage of US naval power. Considering the US relative focus on sea power, which Russia as a primarily land power does not share, this is just logically impossible.

In 2010, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released the following estimates of military power for 2010. Especially considering that Chinese analysts are not particularly given to nationalistic bombast, this looks to be about credible.


It shows that China and Russia are each at about a third of US military power, while France and the UK in return are a third of that of China and Russia. This tallies well with my CMP estimates.

Finally, it is also worth pointing out that according to one discussion I’ve had with a professional British military analyst – who must for obvious reasons remain anonymous – these figures all substantially understate Russian military power. In particular, he argues that “Russian ground capabilities would be a very close second to US ones,” which if so implies that Russia’s aggregate score – that is, including the naval component – on any such comparison would be closer to half that of the US than a third (although he strongly questions the utility of such quantification in general). He also has a very dim opinion of Chinese military power. I find it difficult to agree with many of his points, especially since even just the US Army is substantially bigger than Russia’s Ground Forces, and surely has a significantly higher combat effectiveness value on average. This would make it hard to square with his (80%-90%?) evaluation of Russia’s ground capabilities relative to the US. But as a professional, this opinion is worth mentioning at least as a FWIW.

A lot of great work has been done on detailed, startlingly accurate modeling of military engagements – starting all the way back from the war games of the Prussian General Staff in the mid-19th century, and culminating in complex computer models that query huge databases of past military engagements to find optimal strategies that are used by modern militaries today.

However, apart from the small detail that they tend to be classified, they are all focused on the tactical or operational level, not the strategic one. I.e., they don’t measure comprehensive military power.

Comprehensive Military Power

To compile my rating, it has to satisfy several prerequisites:

  • It has to make sense at a fundamental level (face validity)
  • It has to be both additive and historically consistent, so that cross-country comparisons across time and space can be made
  • It has to be fairly simple conceptually and use openly available data

Nuclear war power is a totally different kettle of fish and is entirely excluded. This is an index exclusively of conventional military power.

The solution I settled down is a “translation” of the GDP concept from economics into the military sphere.



  • CMP is comprehensive (national) military power;
  • L is “labor” aka military manpower, or Army personnel numbers;
  • K is “capital” aka military capital, aka the stock of equipment a military possesses i.e. tanks, guns, bulletproof vests, fortifications, etc.
  • CE is the “total factor productivity,” or how effectively L and K are used, and is a proxy for combat effectiveness value. This is a multiple of the technology level (T); of Troop Quality (Q); and of a cultural factor (C). Explanations below.
  • alpha is set = 0.5. This implies that a force with twice as many troops should be about equivalent to a force with twice as much military capital, everything else being equal. Is this a good assumption? Perhaps I underestimate labor slightly in terms of ground forces. But it would also massively overestimate labor in terms of its contributions to naval power. Clearly, having twice as many warships is preferable to having twice as many sailors (all else equal). I think 0.5 is a good compromise, but if you have good arguments for other figures, I would be happy to hear them.


armed-forces-personnel-1989-2013 The only comprehensive data I could find that goes back to 1989 is the World Bank’s figures for total armed forces personnel. This includes paramilitary forces, which rarely match up to the quality of the conventional forces, but in the absence of figures just for active duty personnel I had to go with those figures.

I made adjustments only for two countries, India and North Korea. India because it has a huge paramilitary component that virtually trebled the size of its military, so I specifically used the figures for its active duty personnel. North Korea because its paramilitary component is likewise unreasonably huge, plus actual academic demographic estimates of its military size indicate that it is at 700,000 troops and has long ceased to be a million man army.

As we can see on the graph to the right, the number of military personnel in all the Great Powers has been steadily going down since the end of the Cold War. Partly this has been to a general trend of military downsizing – most pronounced in Russia/USSR – but also due to the continuing devaluation of raw manpower in favor of more automated systems.

Military Capital

rand-military-capital-1950-1990 Military capital is the tools – tanks, artillery, airframes, etc. – that militaries use to deal out damage.

I found some historical figures for the 1950-1990 period (the 2000 and 2010 numbers are future projections, and as such useless) from a 1989 RAND report, Long-Term Economic and Military Trends, 1950-2010.

I got additional rough figures for East Germany and the Koreas from other sources. In addition, I recall reading that Israel’s total military capital in the 1980s was approximately equal to that of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which enabled me to make a rough estimate of its military capital stock (unfortunately I can no longer locate this report).

I proxied other countries’ military capital stocks by reference to the averages of the respective groups they belonged to (e.g. Cold War NATO, Eastern European Socialist Bloc, Developing Nations, Asian Boomers, etc). This might seem like a very rough and imprecise way of going about things, but that is not actually the case – at least so far as estimates of military potential by, say, the 2010s, are concerned – because a big chunk of that initial military capital stock in 1990 would have depreciated by then.

This takes us to the precise way in which military capital stock figures were generated for the post-1990s period.

First off, I made the blanket assumption that 25% of military spending everywhere is devoted to procurement. This is pretty weak, but considering that there are major uncertainties over the size of military budgets in countries as big as China – to say nothing of individual components of that budget – trying to individually estimate the share of procurement spending across many countries would have been an extremely time-consuming and utterly pointless endevour. In any case, swings of 5% or even 10% points up or down would not have had absolutely cardinal effects, since the main factor here is total military spending, for which we have relatively reliable figures for the 1988-2014 period from SIPRI. This military spending data was adjusted to take into account yearly international price level differences.

anatoly-karlin-uss-midway Second, military capital depreciates. A tank built in 2005 will be worth considerably less today. Moreover, this depreciation rate varies across both historical time and particular militaries due to their different force structures, maintenance standards, etc. Over the course of twenty years, the majority of the then existing military capital would have depreciated. But some military capital can linger on for a very long time. The Tupolev Tu-95s were first built in the 1950s and continue to serve to this day. Is this because impoverished Russians can’t design or build anything newer and are forced to continue flying obsolete rustbuckets? Field this question to the USAF, which likewise built the first Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses in the 1950s and plans to keep them in service until 2045. The avionics get updated, of course, but an airframe can last a long time.

The picture to the right is of the author at the USS Midway (CV-41) aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1945 and serving the entire length of the Cold War to be decommissioned in 1992 and transformed into a museum.

How fast does military capital depreciate? There is a huge range of estimates, and for the above reasons, no exactitude can be hoped for in any case. Some estimates of yearly military capital depreciation I’ve encountered include: 6.3%; 3.5%-5%; 10%; 8%-10%; 3.5%-6%. I ended up using a simple 5% throughout.

Using 1990 as an anchor, the military capital calculations consisted of an addition of 25% of current military spending (inflation adjusted) and the subtraction of 5% of the existing accumulated military capital stock.

Combat Effectiveness

This crucial factor consists of a multiple of three components: Technology; Troop Quality; and Cultural Modifier.


Military technology is advancing at a continuous pace. Ian Morris in The Measure of Civilization cites an estimate that the weapons systems of 2000 have 50-100x as much mobility, resilience, and destructive potential as those of 1900, whereas those of 1900 are 5x as capable as those of 1800. This is an ongoing process that finds expression today in things such as drones, swarms, cyberwar, and even more exotic possibilities like railguns and DEWs. It will also accelerate or decelerate depending on the underlying rate of overall technological growth and the percentage of R&D that will be devoted to military competition in the years ahead. Furthermore, depending on their nation’s developmental level and international relations, some militaries will be systemically more technologically advanced than others.

annual-military-technological-growth To proxy this, I first compiled an estimate of the rate of technological military progress over the past century (see right). I didn’t try to be particularly detailed, since that is probably a futile endevour. Four broad historical periods can be made out, though:

  1. The 1900-1935 period saw a modest degree of both technological and doctrinal progress. In the former sphere, you had of course the appearance of the first rudimentary armor and air forces. You also had major matching doctrinal developments, such as the Hutier tactics that eventually broke the stalemate on the Western Front in World War 1, and would later wield great influence over the proper employment of armor. Outside Germany, however, these innovations were not readily accepted. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 3%.
  2. The 1935-1975 period saw blisteringly fast progress. To get a sense of the scale of the change, consider that the mid-1930s began with aircraft like the Spitfire and Messerschmitt Bf 109 replacing old wood and fabric models, culminating in the F-15 and Su-27 by the 1970s – both planes that in their modernized versions continue to form the backbones of the US and Russian Air Forces. The later part of this period also saw the development of the Revolution in Military Affairs, spearheaded by Marshall Nikolay Ogarkov in the USSR in the 1970s and most intensively adapted by the US after the 1980s. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 7%.
  3. The 1985-2015 saw a slowing down of military technological growth. To be sure, it still continues, predominantly in the fields of networking and IT, but you no longer have the major leaps every decade that you had in the previous period. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 5% in 1975-1985, and 3% thereafter.
  4. The 2015-2050 period lies in the future, so any propositions are largely guesswork. But assuming no fundamentally new paradigms are developed, no computer superintelligences, no technological singularities, the yearly rate of growth might continue to be around 3%.

Using the year 2000 as an anchor, military technology of previous and future years is adjusted based on the above schema. It is further adjusted based on each individual military’s closeness to the military technology frontier, as represented by leading industrial countries such as the US.

  1. Technological frontier – The US, its closest allies (e.g. Israel and the Five Eyes), and NATO/allied countries that are economically well developed and possess substantial military-industrial complexes of their own (e.g. France, Germany, Japan). This does not necessarily mean that all their weapons systems are top notch. It just means that mere money is the only major obstacle in attaining such a state. If Germany right this moment decided to become stronk! and build itself a fifth generation fighter, and financed that project properly, there’s no real doubt over its theoretical capacity to do so. The extent to which countries do or do not do this is proxied by their accumulation of military capital.
  2. Lag of 5 years – Small NATO countries, close NATO clients, and the USSR and modern Russia as well as Russia’s closest allies and small rich countries like Singapore that devote a lot of attention to their militaries. Assigning a lag of a mere 5 years to Russia might be controversial, considering the poor reputation of Russian technology – largely a result of it being used by incompetent countries like Syria and Iraq against competent countries like Israel and the US – but all in all I do not think it unrealistic. There might indeed be a lag of 5 or even 10 years in individual spheres such as drones or fighter aircraft, but for every one of those there is a sphere where Russia is on the leading edge, such as tanks, anti-aircraft, and diesel subs.
  3. Lag of 10 years – China, India, most middle income countries and buyers of Western and Russian “monkey model” equipment – China is fast closing the gap and will soon reduce its lag to 5 years, but for now this is probably accurate. In particular, it continues to fail at building reliable high performance fighter jet engines that have long been mastered in the West and Russia.
  4. Lag of 15 years – So-called “rogue” regimes that have been heavily sanctioned by the West and are not in a position to innovate most of their own hi-tech equipment, such as Iran, as well as the more impoverished Third World tinpot countries.

Troop Quality

Spending more money per soldier will almost inevitably improve overall quality. Brighter, more motivated people will be incentivized to show up in the first place. More time can be devoted to training, using more bullets and flying time. Full time cooks and cleaners can be hired so that soldiers don’t have to waste time doing things irrelevant to their profession.

I made Troop Quality equal to per soldier spending times 4 in the last year, plus per soldier spending times 2 in the year before that, plus per soldier spending times 1 three years back. This loosely reflects the idea that it is the most recent spending that will have the most effect.

I then took the cube root of this figure to account for diminishing returns. After all, doubling spending on a soldier can hardly be expected to double his combat effectiveness. But a 25% increase is quite reasonable.

Cultural Factors

In both the World Wars, as Trevor Dupuy recounts in his books such as A Genius for War, the Germans consistently had a 25% combat effectiveness advantage over the Allies – the French, the British, and the Americans – and in individual engagements, they inflicted 50% more casualties adjusted for personnel numbers, equipment, local geography, and offensive/defensive status. Over the Russians, their combat effectiveness advantage was more along the lines of 100%+. (Incidentally, this, and not the Hollywood myth of “two soldiers per rifle,” is what accounted for the high Soviet:German casualty ratios. Even a cursory perusal of WW2 war production statistics, in which the USSR outproduced Germany in virtually all weapons categories, would confirm this. The Germans were just a lot better at fighting, while the Soviets were a lot worse – possibly because the 1940s USSR was still in many respects a Third World country).

As such, I gave Germany a 25% across the board advantage in combat effectiveness. (Is this still valid? Dupuy, after all, argues that the key factor that explained German overperformance was the quality of their General Staff, which they no longer really have. However, I don’t fully buy that argument. Many countries as early as the aftermath of the Prussian victories in the 1860s-70s adopted the General Staff structure, but failed to recreate German-style military efficiency. So I suspect this is more of a permanent cultural or even sociobiological factor).

I also gave a 25% across the board advantage to a few other countries that have displayed unusually impressive military “feats” in their history, such as Finland (Winter War), Israel (the Arab Wars), Mongolia (that Ghengis guy), Switzerland (Swiss pikemen), etc.

I took 25% off countries that I deemed to be “Southern” (the Latin, African, Arab, and Indian subcontinent peoples) to account for the traditional stereotype of them being generally inferior soldiers to “northerners.” However, I did not extend this to Turks, Greeks, and Armenians/Israelis, who have somewhat better military reputations. I also took another 25% off from countries that I perceived to have excessive levels of clannishness in their societies, since clannishness is – as I discussed at length previously – antithetical to being a good soldier as part of the army of a nation-state. The net effect of this is to reduce the default combat effectiveness of Arabs to 50%, which is in fact somewhat similar to the ratios they displayed in their wars with Israel. There is no such clannishness “hit” as concerns Arabs who fight for clan (e.g. the Syrian National Defense Forces) or for God (e.g. Al Nusra, Islamic State) but these types of military structures are not any good at conventionally fighting actually competent militaries who know how to wage combined arms warfare.

Putting it All Together

The result is the Comprehensive Military Power index. It is of course a largely theoretical figure, so further specific adjustments will be necessary to take into account aspects like geography, the land/sea division, etc. Nonetheless, at least in the sense that militaries aim to expend their resources in a way that maximizes their power – a sort of military version of the efficient markets hypothesis – Comprehensive Military Power should be at least a useful proxy of their results.

Here are the top 15 militaries of 2015 according to the Comprehensive Military Power index (you may find the full list at the bottom of this post).

In the default CMP, i.e. the second column, the US score in 2000 = 100. In the third column, the US score in 2015 has been normed to 100.

Rank Country CMP 2015 CMP 2015 (US=100)
1 United States 197.35 100.00
2 China, P. R. 83.45 42.28
3 Russia 65.96 33.42
4 India 30.71 15.56
5 Germany 23.87 12.09
6 France 23.31 11.81
7 United Kingdom 19.38 9.82
8 Japan 18.65 9.45
9 Korea, South 16.50 8.36
10 Saudi Arabia 13.68 6.93
11 Turkey 12.44 6.30
12 Italy 11.95 6.06
13 Brazil 11.91 6.04
14 Iran 10.40 5.27
15 Israel 9.65 4.89

A Few Comments on How CMP Will Translate into Real Battle Results

lanchesters-laws Conventional modern combat follows the classic Lanchester model, in which the damage your army inflicts over time is a function of the size of your army (see graphic illustration right, via Wiki). Likewise for the enemy.

As such, assuming equal damage rates (as proxied by combat effectiveness), even a small initial advantage can soon translate into crushing victories and defeats – see the first diagram on the right. It is these considerations that underlie Clausewitzian concepts such as the principles of The Offensive, Maneuver, Mass, and Economy of Forces. These principles were intuited by the Great Captains of yore (Alexander, Napoleon, etc) and have been formalized in Military Theory 101 in modern days.

The method for quick but generally reliable predictions of failure or success in prospective military operations, which can be performed by the layman, is a consideration of the share of the national CMP and the gross size of that CMP that the respective combatants can realistically allocate to the sphere of combat operations.

Let us consider a few examples:

The Gulf War

According to my database, the US had a CMP of 92.2 versus 2.1 for the Iraq of Saddam Hussein in 1990. This includes the standard -50% adjustment for Muslim Arabs, which as per usual was justified for this war.

The US concentrated something like 25% of its global military power to this campaign. In tandem with its coalition allies, that made for a regional CMP concentration of up to 30, that is – for all his tanks – a multiple of almost 15:1 relative to Saddam’s forces.

Saddam wouldn’t have stood a chance, even had he been a talented military leader, which he was not. He failed to do anything to disrupt the US buildup, and exercised a rigid, paranoid style of control that quelled lower-level military initiative.

The Syrian Conflict

The Syrian state and the Islamic State both have around 1.7 points on the CMP. I suspect FSA/Al Nusra is a bit lower, maybe around 1. No wonder it’s been a long stalemate… until, perhaps, the Russian airstrikes.

Timely reminder of what I wrote about them:

This is where the Russian Air Force can hopefully make a big difference. Even the fighters already in place will allow the Syrians to effectively double their number of sorties, and Russian fighter pilots are much more skilled and have more modern armaments than their Syrian counterparts. Effectively, this translates to a tripling or quadrupling of Syrian air power that can be concentrated in support of SAA ground operations. Air power can seriously degrade the combat power of enemy formations that do not have adequate AA counters to it (that describes both the FSA/Al Nusra and ISIS). Whereas a front might have once been in equilibrium, due to roughly matching combat power on either side, a sustained air campaign could begin to systemically swing the advantage over to the SAA and eventually enable the reconquista of Syrian territorities currently under renegade Islamist control.

The War in Donbass

In 2014, the fledgling Novorossiyan state as of the August fighting had a CMP of about 0.9, relative to Ukraine’s 6.9. This is a difference of almost 8:1. Thus, when the Ukrainian Army began to fight seriously – for all its manifold problems logistics, morale, and generalship problems – it made progress and would have almost certainly ended up strangling Novorossiya in its cradle. But thanks to the “Northern Wind” and the limited Russian intervention at Ilovaysk, this was not to be.

Both sides have continued to build up their forces, and as of mid-2015, the CMP of Novorossiya was approximately 2.1 to Ukraine’s 8.1 – now a ratio of less than 4:1. Considering that Ukraine cannot realistically commit a huge percentage of its forces to attacking Novorossiya, a military solution to the conflict is for the time being out of the question, as even Poroshenko has been forced to belatedly acknowledge. While Ukraine might be able to make gains, Russia would be able to bolster Novorossiya just as fast. That said, under current spending plans, Ukraine’s CMP should almost double by 2020 – assuming it doesnt’t go bankrupt and is able to maintain military spending at 5% of GDP – which would give it an almost tenfold advantage if Novorossiya stands still in the meantime. (Which, with Russia apparently losing attention, might well happen).

Finally, it also gives the lie to Ukrainian claims which are uncritically repeated in the Western press that they faced down and defeated the Russian Army inflicting thousands of casualties on the Muscovite aggressor. There was in fact just a single intervention at Ilovaysk; Russian military KIA is almost certainly below a hundred for the entire conflict; and unlike the Ukrainians, they were forced to engage while using only a fraction of their capabilities so as to maintain plausible deniability. In effect, they had to forego their vast military capital advantage, and instead rely on superior combat effectiveness. The fact that that they easily trounced Kiev’s forces regardless is incidental testament to Russia’s complete military superiority over Ukraine.

A Confrontation with NATO in the Baltics

Assume the crazier neocons take over the reins and smash Russia’s Latakia airbase to pieces (there’s nothing Russia will be able to do to stop that).

Now Brzezinski might not formally be a neocon, but frankly neocon ideas so dominate US interventionist discourse that we might as well call them all neocons. Here is what the neocon Brzezinsky had to say on this:

“In these rapidly unfolding circumstances the U.S. has only one real option if it is to protect its wider stakes in the region: to convey to Moscow the demand that it cease and desist from military actions that directly affect American assets,” he said.

“The Russian naval and air presences in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically from their homeland,” Brzezinski noted. “They could be ‘disarmed’ if they persist in provoking the US.”

Here is another, bona fide neocon, Noah Rothman, pretending to be in anguish over the threat of World War 3 while rationalizing and implicitly calling for the US to attack Russian forces in Syria who are there at the request of its legitimate government:

Washington is faced with a terrible choice: Withdraw unceremoniously and invite further Russian aggression or deter Moscow’s military activities abroad through the credible threat of force. The Pentagon is preparing for the latter course.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon was readying a set of options for the president should he choose to protect Washington-supported rebel groups on the ground in Syria from air attack by Russian forces. The details of such a plan remain a secret, but they would necessarily include putting U.S. air assets in close proximity to Russian forces, triggering an international incident with the expectation – or perhaps the hope – that Russia would climb down from the crisis it has ignited. “At worst, if Russia bombs rebels trained by the U.S. and American fighter jets intercede to protect the Syrians, the exchange could trigger an all-out confrontation with Russia — a potential disaster the administration would like to avoid,” Fox News reported.

Both suggestions if carried through would actually be straightforward acts of war.

Assume that Putin doesn’t back down and try to make amends with his “partners,” which is not entirely impossible, but instead decides to up the ante by confronting NATO in the Baltics. What happens?

I would imagine the conventional answer is that Putin gets smashed and the Russian hordes get sent back fleeing to Eurasia.

The CMP concept, however – not to mention Pentagon war games – suggest NATO wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Russia’s CMP is a third of that of the US, and a fifth of NATO’s. However, a great percentage of it is already concentrated at its western borders. The Balts themselves collectively have less than 1 in CMP, compared to Russia’s 66. There is no way that NATO will be able to mass in sufficient force to have any short at defending the Baltics. Should they attempt to do so anyway, they will merely be destroyed piecemeal with minimal damage on Russian forces. The only hope of reversal would be either fullscale mobilization across NATO (not going to happen no matter how shrill the neocons get), or draconian economic sanctions (which is what will happen).

However, I don’t expect any of the neocons to pay any particular attention to such matters, because they have an idee fixe – e.g., American triumphalism, Israel firstism, Russophobia – and have no interest, desire, or incentive to deviate an iota away from it.

The Future Global Military Balance

In tandem with various assumptions about future economic growth and the share of spending that will be devoted to the military, we can make rough projections of future military power.

But first…

Cold War History


In short, a CMP analysis shows:

  • US superiority in the 1950-1975 period, Soviet superiority thereafter until its collapse. (Yes, the US was roughly twice as powerful as the USSR in 1945. However, it went below the Soviet lower following postwar demobilization. During the Korean War it sprang back up again and the permanent military-industrial complex was there to stay).
  • NATO vs. Warsaw Pact approximate parity on land, and continuous NATO dominance on the high seas. Of course the Warsaw Pact did have a preponderate in forces stationed in Europe proper. This was why Cold War military strategy was mainly about keeping the Warsaw Pact at bay long enough for American reinforcements to make their way to West Germany.
  • A clear period of US military supremacy from 1992 until today. But China is gaining fast.

All this has face validity.

Future Superpower CMP

As concerns the Chinese-US military balance, the purely naval component is more important than the aggregate one, since the likeliest clash will be over some Pacific island or other.

Calculating separate CMPS for land and sea is unrealistic. However, one can make reasonable estimates of the share of national CMP that is land based vs naval based. In the US, for instance, I would estimate that the Navy and Marines (sea), and the Army and Air Force (land), each account for about half of its CMP. In the USSR, this split was more like 25%:75%. China during the Cold War was even more exclusively land-based, not possessing a blue water fleet at all. However, this is now changing fast. The Army is getting downsized, while as early as 2020 the PLAN will begin to resemble a smaller version of the USN.

Naval Power

Assuming that:

  • The Chinese naval share of CMP grows steadily from about 30% in 2010 to 50% by 2050.
  • The US naval share of CMP grows from 55% in 2010 and 2020, to 60% by 2020 and thereafter.
  • Chinese military spending increases by 10% during the rest of the 2010s (as before), by 7% in the 2020s, by 5% in the 2030s, and by 3% in the 2040s.
  • US military spending remains constant until 2020, then resumes growing at 3% a year.
  • China will move from a 10 year technological lag in 2010 to a 5 year technological lag by 2020, and remain there until 2050 (i.e. will not become technologically leading edge).

Here is what the US/China naval comparison will look like in the years ahead under these non too demanding assumptions, which involve China continuing to converge rapidly with developed world living standards (like South Korea with a lag period of 20 years) and maintaining military spending at about ~2-2.5% of GDP, while the US grows at around 3% and keeps military spending at around 3% of GDP.


Under these conditions, China will overtake the US in overall military terms in land military power during the early 2020s, in overall military power in the early 2030s, and in naval military power by the early 2040s.

I view that as being historically plausible. Germany committed to major naval buildup at 1888, when its total GDP was still considerably smaller than Britain’s. Twenty five years later, the Imperial German Navy had emerged from obscurity to become half the strength of the Royal Navy. But Germany also had to maintain an Army capable of fighting a two front war, and its GDP never far outpaced Britain’s because their total populations were so close (65 million to 47 million in 1913). In contrast, China has a relatively secure rear with Russia, which it is slowly overshadowing in land military power anyway; its GDP is already bigger than the US in purchasing power parity adjusted terms; and its population is more than four times as large as America’s. Should it merely converge to Korea’s level of GDP per capita relative to the US, its aggregate economic size will be three time greater than America’s.

As such, China’s naval ascendancy by the mid-21st century is entirely plausible.

George Friedman of Stratfor claims that carrier operations are so complex that only Americans can really understand them (I am not even simplying his arguments all that much), but he also claims that China will break apart in the 2020s and Poland and Mexico will be superpowers this century, so take his forecasts with a grain of salt.

Comprehensive Military Power

In global terms, there will be four military powers, with Russia and a rising India coming in behind the American and Chinese behemoths.


The article is becoming too long for stating the assumptions behind Russia’s and India’s trajectory in any great detail; perhaps I will leave that for a later post (more on that below).

There will also continue to be a number of middling powers, such as France, the UK, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, but none of them are likely to go far beyond 10% of the US CMP. This is, of course, all assuming no major wars, mobilizations, unexpectedly sharp increases in military spending, superintelligence takeoffs, etc.

Further Applications of CMP

I spent quite a bit of time developing the CMP and intend to milk it for all it’s worth in future blog posts. So please feel free to suggest:

  • Further “grand strategic” future scenarios with differing assumptions about military spending as share of GDP and GDP growth for different countries and potential alliances.
  • Individual conflict analysis based on the CMP (e.g. India vs. Pakistan, the two Koreas, Azerbaijan vs. Armenia), as well as CMP based analyses of regional military balances e.g. Europe, Middle East, etc.
  • Historical what-if and sci-fi scenarios, such as, Could the Warsaw Pact have conquered Western Europe? Could 1940 Nazi Germany take on 2015 Poland? Would a global UN military of 2015 be able to defeat the Wolfenstein: New World Order of 1960, or would Wilhem Strasse’s Panzerhunds rip us all apart with Teutonic ease??? Feel free to make them as wacky as you like!

Make these suggestions here and/or at my account.

Comprehensive Military Power 2015

In the default CMP, i.e. the second column, the US score in 2000 = 100. In the third column, the US score in 2015 has been normed to 100.

Rank Country CMP 2015 CMP 2015 (US=100)
1 United States 197.35 100.00
2 China, P. R. 83.45 42.28
3 Russia 65.96 33.42
4 India 30.71 15.56
5 Germany 23.87 12.09
6 France 23.31 11.81
7 United Kingdom 19.38 9.82
8 Japan 18.65 9.45
9 Korea, South 16.50 8.36
10 Saudi Arabia 13.68 6.93
11 Turkey 12.44 6.30
12 Italy 11.95 6.06
13 Brazil 11.91 6.04
14 Iran 10.40 5.27
15 Israel 9.65 4.89
16 Ukraine 8.10 4.10
17 Taiwan 7.36 3.73
18 Pakistan 6.76 3.43
19 Australia 6.74 3.42
20 Canada 6.68 3.38
21 Poland 6.37 3.23
22 Colombia 4.86 2.46
23 Spain 4.81 2.44
24 Indonesia 4.69 2.38
25 Singapore 4.41 2.23
26 Vietnam 4.28 2.17
27 Korea, North 4.18 2.12
28 Thailand 3.75 1.90
29 Egypt 3.73 1.89
30 Greece 3.69 1.87
31 Netherlands 3.51 1.78
32 Myanmar 3.16 1.60
33 United Arab Emirates 3.11 1.58
34 Algeria 2.98 1.51
35 Mexico 2.72 1.38
36 Romania 2.45 1.24
37 Azerbaijan 2.42 1.23
38 Malaysia 2.36 1.20
39 Iraq 2.27 1.15
40 South Africa 2.26 1.15
41 Kazakhstan 2.25 1.14
42 Novorossiya 2.08 1.06
43 Belarus 2.05 1.04
44 Oman 2.02 1.02
45 Belgium 2.02 1.02
46 Argentina 1.98 1.00
47 Philippines 1.88 0.95
48 Czech Rep. 1.83 0.93
49 Switzerland 1.78 0.90
50 Portugal 1.74 0.88
51 Sweden 1.72 0.87
52 Chile 1.72 0.87
53 Syria 1.69 0.86
54 Islamic State 1.67 0.84
55 Norway 1.62 0.82
56 Venezuela 1.57 0.79
57 Angola 1.56 0.79
58 Kuwait 1.54 0.78
59 Sri Lanka 1.48 0.75
60 Austria 1.42 0.72
61 Lebanon 1.32 0.67
62 Uzbekistan 1.32 0.67
63 Hungary 1.31 0.66
64 Finland 1.28 0.65
65 Nigeria 1.25 0.64
66 Denmark 1.17 0.59
67 Morocco 1.17 0.59
68 Bulgaria 1.16 0.59
69 Serbia 1.08 0.55
70 Peru 1.03 0.52
71 Bangladesh 1.03 0.52
72 Croatia 0.89 0.45
73 Ecuador 0.86 0.43
74 Armenia 0.81 0.41
75 New Zealand 0.80 0.40
76 Sudan 0.80 0.40
77 Yemen 0.79 0.40
78 Eritrea 0.78 0.39
79 Slovak Rep. 0.71 0.36
80 Georgia 0.64 0.32
81 Jordan 0.56 0.29
82 Afghanistan 0.53 0.27
83 Qatar 0.48 0.24
84 Libya 0.42 0.21
85 Ireland 0.41 0.21
86 Kenya 0.39 0.20
87 Lithuania 0.38 0.19
88 Kyrgyzstan 0.38 0.19
89 Ethiopia 0.36 0.18
90 Turkmenistan 0.36 0.18
91 Nepal 0.35 0.18
92 Bosnia-Herzegovina 0.33 0.16
93 Slovenia 0.31 0.16
94 Tunisia 0.29 0.15
95 Uruguay 0.29 0.14
96 Chad 0.28 0.14
97 Bahrain 0.27 0.14
98 Cyprus 0.27 0.14
99 Bolivia 0.26 0.13
100 Estonia 0.22 0.11
101 Latvia 0.21 0.11
102 Dominican Rep. 0.20 0.10
103 Uganda 0.19 0.10
104 Tanzania 0.19 0.10
105 Cambodia 0.19 0.10
106 Zambia 0.19 0.10
107 Côte d’Ivoire 0.19 0.09
108 Zimbabwe 0.18 0.09
109 Botswana 0.18 0.09
110 Namibia 0.17 0.09
111 Cameroon 0.17 0.09
112 Guatemala 0.17 0.09
113 Paraguay 0.17 0.09
114 El Salvador 0.17 0.09
115 Albania 0.17 0.08
116 Mongolia 0.16 0.08
117 Macedonia, FYR 0.16 0.08
118 Congo, Dem. Rep. 0.16 0.08
119 Congo 0.15 0.08
120 Brunei 0.15 0.08
121 Tajikistan 0.14 0.07
122 Cuba 0.13 0.07
123 Ghana 0.11 0.06
124 Senegal 0.11 0.05
125 Laos 0.10 0.05
126 Honduras 0.10 0.05
127 Moldova 0.09 0.05
128 Gabon 0.09 0.04
129 Rwanda 0.09 0.04
130 Luxembourg 0.08 0.04
131 Montenegro 0.08 0.04
132 Mali 0.08 0.04
133 Guinea 0.08 0.04
134 Somalia 0.08 0.04
135 Madagascar 0.08 0.04
136 Burkina Faso 0.07 0.04
137 Panama 0.07 0.04
138 Burundi 0.07 0.03
139 Mozambique 0.06 0.03
140 Equatorial Guinea 0.06 0.03
141 Nicaragua 0.06 0.03
142 Jamaica 0.05 0.03
143 Trinidad & Tobago 0.05 0.02
144 Benin 0.04 0.02
145 Togo 0.04 0.02
146 Niger 0.04 0.02
147 Swaziland 0.04 0.02
148 Malawi 0.04 0.02
149 Djibouti 0.03 0.01
150 Lesotho 0.03 0.01
151 Malta 0.03 0.01
152 Papua New Guinea 0.03 0.01
153 Fiji 0.02 0.01
154 Sierra Leone 0.02 0.01
155 Central African Rep. 0.02 0.01
156 Guyana 0.01 0.01
157 Guinea-Bissau 0.01 0.01
158 Mauritius 0.01 0.01
159 Liberia 0.01 0.00
160 Gambia 0.01 0.00
161 Iceland 0.01 0.00
162 Belize 0.01 0.00
163 Seychelles 0.01 0.00
164 Cape Verde 0.00 0.00
165 Haiti 0.00 0.00
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Title got your attention? No, it’s not going to be… that. Read on.

While the rest of the world (or a few Europeans, anyway) is obsessed with yet another “Polish death camps” episode, this time on CNN, a somewhat more significant historical scandal brewed between Poland and Russia.

Explaining away Poroshenko’s status as a guest of honor alongside the refusal to invite Putin to mark the 70-year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which takes places today on January 27th, the Polish FM Grzegorz Schetyna said:

The 1st Ukrainian front and Ukrainians liberated [the concentration camp], as on that January day there were Ukrainian soldiers, so they opened the gates of the camp.

Sure, there were Ukrainian soldiers there. But the majority were Russian. And dozens of other nationalities, including Poles. The “Ukrainian Front” was a mere geographical/military marker that had precisely zilch to do with ethnicity.

If one were really into beans-counting, the purely military contribution of Russians substantially outweighed that of Ukrainians – both in terms of their presence in the Red Army, and their military losses (this is, of course, after adjusting for relative population sizes). There is nothing political about this; it was just a logical consequence of Ukraine being occupied for the first half of the war, and being unable to contribute conscripts.

Mr. Schetyna could just have been honest about it. We don’t like you, Vlad, so why don’t you take a hike. Or simply answered without answering. Foreign Ministers are supposed to be good at that.

But no, he had to snub not only Putin, but the entire Russian people.

(Incidentally, what makes this all the more ironic is that Poroshenko, as the President of the Maidan, represents many of the ideological descendents of Ukraine’s collaborationist forces – the same ones who killed and ethnically cleansed the Poles and Jews who had previously constituted a majority in West Ukraine’s cities during the antebellum period. And who are even now, as they have been these past two decades, busy rewriting Ukrainian history textbooks to whitewash the role of the UPA. But today, that is of scant interest to Israel, and none at all to Poland. While that might not be “nice” or “fair” of them, it certainly isn’t illogical either. So far as they’re concerned, even a Ukraine led by zombie Hitler would be preferable to a Ukraine back in Russia’s orbit, even if Russia was to hold elect Khodorkovsky President and celebrate it with a massive gay parade in Moscow this very day. That is because an independent Ukraine can never be a geopolitical threat to Poland, whereas Russia mostly certainly can).

Does it matter?

While in the short-term it might be a faintly ridiculous spat, in the longterm it might well come to be seen as part of a process of alienation that has already been going on for decades.

For all the fuss made about them, nobody is going to start believing in the existence of “Polish death camps” – as in Polish Polish, not Nazi-occupied Polish – anytime soon; it’s not even an intentional mistake, for crying out loud. Nor is general Holocaust denial going to become a thing outside the danker corners of the Internet. That is because both Poles and Jews are now pretty much integral members of the Western community, so it’s hard to imagine their voices and historical memories ever getting drowned out.

This was not the case with the Soviet Union, and it is not the case with modern Russia.

Today’s popular Western conception of the Eastern Front is quite at odds with reality, heavily based as it is on the embellished reminiscences of Wehrmacht generals and ahistorical visual media fluffpieces, fueled by Cold War emotions, and with no popularly accessible Russian side of the story. So today most Westerners believe all manner of myths about the Soviet Union’s role in the war, from the discredited “two men per rifle” trope to it being the Americans who kicked Nazi ass anyway.

The cold statistics of the balance of Axis casualties between the Western and Eastern fronts – around 75%-80% of their manpower and aircraft losses accrued to the Soviets – fundamentally belie this idea of American preeminence. While you could argue legitimately argue that Lend-Lease provided the thin but critical margin in materiel that averted a Soviet collapse in 1942, as Mark Harrison does, or that a Germany that only had to fight on one front could have eked out a stalement in 1943-44, it is completely ludicrous to argue that the Western Allies could have conquered Germany had it been free to concentrate the bulk of its military assets to the west. Despite a successful deception operation and facing undermanned German divisions, D-Day was a closer call than is commonly appreciated. While history often doesn’t have clear answers, this is not one of those cases: The Soviet Union was the only unequivocally indispensable party in the defeat of Nazi Germany (and, incidentally, bringing an end to the Holocaust).

But most Westerners have no idea. To them, the Eastern Front is a place of zerg rushes and Russian rapine, while the real course of the war was decided in North Africa, the Atlantic, and the beaches of Normandy.

Think I’m exaggerating? If so, then it’s probably because unlike 95% of the population, you’ve just read too many actual history books (there are many very good serious English language historians in this area: Glantz, Overy, Bellamy. Not Antony Beevor, who probably sold ten times as many books as the first three combined. Should tell you something). Normal people don’t read those books, not even Beevor; they watch Enemy at the Gates and play Wolfenstein instead.

And this is what they have come to believe:


This is a series of polls that took place in France in 1945, 1994, and 2004, respectively, asking which nation was most responsible for the defeat of Germany. Right after France’s liberation, with American and British soldiers walking the streets, a solid majority of 57% nonetheless believed that it had been the Soviet Union. But by 2004, the situation had cardinally reversed itself, with 58% now crediting the Americans and only 20% – the Soviet Union. This even constituted a decline relative to 1994, despite the intervening decade having been one of the best ever for West-Russia relations. The fact that great bulk of German divisions and airpower were destroyed on the Eastern Front pales into insignificance besides the power of Cold War and just plain anti-Russian propaganda acting on the human biomasses over the course of two generations. (Interestingly, the most “pro-Soviet” group in the 2004 poll was not, as you might expect, supporters of the Communist Party – whose 20% was exactly in line with the national average – but the Front National, with 33%. As sovereigntist successors to De Gaulle, who dreamed of a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok and whose only real issue with Russia was its then Communist ideology, this should not be too surprising).

I haven’t seen any similar polls from the US or Britain, but I very much doubt they would be substantially different.

With the West and Russia once again growing estranged from each other, and the level of propaganda and mutual recriminations returning to Cold War levels, one wonders what Americans and Frenchmen in 2104 might answer when asked who they think liberated Auschwitz.

Will it be the Americans? Or maybe even a German-Ukrainian combined joint task force? The latter, at least, is presumably what the Ukrainian PM Arseny Yatsenyuk wants the world to start to believe.

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Though there are plenty of caveats and exceptions, it is safe to generalize that predictions of what the “next war” was going to be like before 1914 were completely inaccurate. The Great War would not be the quick, clean affair typical of the wars of German unification in the 1860′s-70′s or the sensationalist literature of the antebellum period. The generals were as wrong as the general public and war nerds. France had an irrationally fervent belief in the power of the offensive and dreamed of the Russians steam-rolling over Berlin before winter, while the Germans gambled their victory on the success of the Schlieffen plan. When the war finally came, the linear tactics of previous wars floundered in the machine guns, artillery, mud, and barbed wire of trench warfare. The belligerent societies were placed under so much strain by this first industrial total war that by its end, four great monarchies would vanish off the face of Europe.

Nonetheless, there were three theorists – a Communist, a Warsaw banker, and a Russian conservative minister – who did predict the future with a remarkable, even eerie, prescience. They were Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo.

Friedrich Engels

Way back in 1887, Friedrich Engels, the famous Communist theorist, wrote this remarkably accurate prediction of the next war.

world war of never before seen intensity, if the system of mutual outbidding in armament, carried to the extreme, finally bears its natural fruits… eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Third Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility to foresee how all this will end and who will be victors in that struggle; only one result was absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class.

Engels was completely right on the “total war” aspect. The number of military deaths in the war, 9.7mn, was within his predicted range. And indeed by 1918 there was a severe epidemic, the Spanish flu, and a year later the crowns of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey were all rolling in the gutter. The working class only got their “final victory” in Russia (though they came close in Hungary, Slovakia, and Bavaria).

Ivan Bloch

Ivan Bloch was a Warsaw banker, railway planner, and campaigner against Russian anti-Semitism. In 1899, he wrote a book Is War Now Impossible?, in which he argued that its costs would be such that the inevitable result would be a struggle of attrition and eventual bankruptcy and famine. His hope was that by getting people to comprehend the vast costs and uncertainties of future war, he could forestall it. Though he was unsuccessful in that goal, he did at least get the muted privilege of being almost 100% right about its nature. For instance, see this direct extract from his book.

At first there will be increased slaughter – increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will learn such a lession that they will abandon the attempt forever. Then, instead of war fought out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest, in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which neither army being willing to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening the other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack… That is the future of war – not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organization… Everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to the soldier as his rifle… All wars will of necessity partake of the character of siege operations… soldiers may fight as they please; the ultimate decision is in the hand of famine… Unless you have a supreme navy, it is not worthwhile having one at all, and a navy that is not supreme is only a hostage in the hands of the Power whose fleet is supreme.

This is, of course, a pretty accurate prevision of WW1. It was a stalemate of artillery and entrenchments. The German home front collapsed in late 1918 in large part as a result of dearth resulting from being cut off from global food imports and the requisitioning of the chemical fertilizer industries for munitions production. And the Kaiserliche Marine was indeed bottled up in port for most of the war. To further demonstrate Bloch’s predictive genius, I will quote from Niall Ferguson’s summary of his book in The Pity of War.

In Is War Now Impossible? (1899), the abridged and somewhat mistitled English version of his massive six-volume study, the Warsaw financier Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch argued that, for three reasons, a major European war would be unprecedented in its scale and destructiveness. Firstly, military technology had transformed the nature of warfare in a war that ruled out swift victory for an attacker. “The day of the bayonet [was] over“; cavalry charges were too obsolete. Thanks to the increased rapidity and accuracy of rifle fire, the introduction of smokeless powder, the increased penetration of bullets and the greater range and power of the breech-loading cannon, traditional set-piece would not occur. Instead of hand-to-hand combat, men in the open would “simply fall and die without either seeing or hearing anything“. For this reason, “the next war… [would] be a great war of entrenchments“. According to Bloch’s meticulous calculations, a hundred men in a trench would be able to kill an attacking force up to four times as numerous, as the latter attempted to cross a 300-yard wide “fire zone“. Secondly, the increase in the size of European armies meant that any war would involve as many as ten million men, with fighting “spread over an enormous front”. Thus, although there would be very high rates of mortality (especially among officers), “the next war [would] be a long war“. Thirdly, and consequently, economic factors would be “the dominant and decisive elements in the matter”. War would mean:

entire dislocation of all industry and severing of all the sources of supply… the future of war [is] not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organization.

The disruption of trade would badly affect food supply in those countries reliant on imported grain and other foodstuffs. The machinery of distribution would also be disrupted. There would be colossal financial burdens, labour shortages and, finally, social instability.

He pretty much nails it! Now yes, Bloch wasn’t 100% spot on. He was slightly wrong about alliances. His was wrong in his conjecture that “the city dweller is by no means as capable of lying out at nights in damp and exposed conditions as the peasant”, which coupled with her agricultural self-sufficiency, would give Russia the advantage in a war with “more highly organized” Germany. And most of all, he was wrong in predicting that social instability and revolution would doom all the belligerent states – after all, the key war objective would only be to remain the last man standing.

Pyotr Durnovo

While reading Secular Cycles by Turchin & Nefedov, I came across a reference to a truly, remarkably prophetic document called the Durnovo Memorandum. It was penned by Pyotr Durnovo, a member of the State Council and former Minister of the Interior in Witte’s cabinet, and presented to the Tsar in February 1914. A conservative Russian nationalist, he emphasized that it was not in Russia’s interest to fight a costly and uncertain war with fellow monarchy Germany, a war he saw as only serving to further Albion’s aims. His fears were all astoundingly prescient and eventually, tragically realized. More than anything, this discovery spurred me to write this post.

After digging around I found that Douglas Muir had already written about it in History: The Durnovo Memorandum at A Fistful of Euros. It is an excellent summary and analysis, and I recommend you go over and read it in its entirety. In this section, I will liberally quote and paraphrase Doug’s post.

Under what conditions will this clash occur and what will be its probable consequences? The fundamental groupings in a future war are self-evident: Russia, France, and England, on the one side, with Germany, Austria, and Turkey, on the other.

Italy, if she has any conception of her real interests, will not join the German side. … [Romania] will remain neutral until the scales of fortune favor one or another side. Then, animated by normal political self-interest, she will attach herself to the victors, to be rewarded at the expense of either Russia or Austria. Of the other Balkan States, Serbia and Montenegro will unquestionably join the side opposing Austria, while Bulgaria and Albania (if by that time they have not yet formed at least the embryo of a State) will take their stand against the Serbian side. Greece will in all probability remain neutral…

Both America and Japan–the former fundamentally, and the latter by virtue of her present political orientation–are hostile to Germany, and there is no reason to expect them to act on the German side. … Indeed, it is possible that America or Japan may join the anti-German side…

Right off the bat, in February 1914, Durnovo correctly sketches out the WW1 alliance system, despite that “Italy was still officially allied with Germany and Austria, Ottoman Turkey was firmly neutral, and Romania was ruled by a Hohenzollern”.

Are we prepared for so stubborn a war as the future war of the European nations will undoubtedly become? This question we must answer, without evasion, in the negative… [T]here are substantial shortcomings in the organization of our defenses.

In this regard we must note, first of all, the insufficiency of our war supplies… the supply schedules are still far from being executed, owing to the low productivity of our factories. This insufficiency of munitions is the more significant since, in the embryonic condition of our industries, we shall, during the war, have no opportunity to make up the revealed shortage by our own efforts, and the closing of the Baltic as well as the Black Sea will prevent the importation from abroad of the defense materials which we lack.

Another circumstance unfavorable to our defense is its far too great dependence, generally speaking, upon foreign industry, a fact which, in connection with the above noted interruption of more or less convenient communications with abroad, will create a series of obstacles difficult to overcome. The quantity of our heavy artillery, the importance of which was demonstrated in the Japanese War, is far too inadequate, and there are few machine guns

The network of strategic railways is inadequate. The railways possess a rolling stock sufficient, perhaps, for normal traffic, but not commensurate with the colossal demands which will be made upon them in the event of a European war. Lastly, it should not be forgotten that the impending war will be fought among the most civilized and technically most advanced nations. Every previous war has invariably been followed by something new in the realm of military technique, but the technical backwardness of our industries does not create favorable conditions for our adoption of the new inventions. …

[A] war will necessitate expenditures which are beyond Russia’s limited financial means. We shall have to obtain credit from allied and neutral countries, but this will not be granted gratuitously. As to what will happen if the war should end disastrously for us, I do not wish to discuss now. The financial and economic consequences of defeat can be neither calculated nor foreseen, and will undoubtedly spell the total ruin of our entire national economy.

“Bang, bang, bang: too few heavy guns, not enough munitions production, inadequate rail network and rolling stock, too much reliance on imports, financial weakness. Durnovo doesn’t identify every problem Russia would have, but he’s hit about half of the top ten.” In particular, I was impressed with his negative assessment of Russia’s railways (which would break down later in the war resulting in food riots in the cities) and his gloomy perspective on the productivity and innovation potential of Russia’s military industrial complex. Obviously, he leaves out a set of other crucial factors – the administrative and political failings of the Russian state itself (the corruption and incompetence of many Russian ministers like Sukhomlinov, the personal foibles of the Tsar and the malignant influence of court lackeys, etc). Whether this omission was due to political considerations or Durnovo’s own blind-sidedness as a conservative stalwart is open to interpretation.

If the war ends in victory, the putting down of the Socialist movement will not offer any insurmountable obstacles. There will be agrarian troubles, as a result of agitation for compensating the soldiers with additional land allotments; there will be labor troubles during the transition from the probably increased wages of war time to normal schedules; and this, it is to be hoped, will be all, so long as the wave of the German social revolution has not reached us. But in the event of defeat, the possibility of which in a struggle with a foe like Germany cannot be overlooked, social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable.

As has already been said, the trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen. …

No matter how strange it may appear at first sight, considering the extraordinary poise of the German character, Germany, likewise, is destined to suffer, in case of defeat, no lesser social upheavals. The effect of a disastrous war upon the population will be too severe not to bring to the surface destructive tendencies, now deeply hidden. … there will be a revival of the hitherto concealed separatist tendencies in southern Germany, and the hidden antagonism of Bavaria to domination by Prussia will emerge in all its intensity.

Things went, as they say, to the letter. Not only does Durnovo seriously entertain the prospect of Russia’s defeat, but he spells out its consequences with an almost eerie accuracy. The Empire was indeed wracked by social revolution, as the railway system and food supply system began to disintegrate by late 1916 and popular resentment against the government was inflamed by court scandals. The soldiers in St.-Petersburg in February 1917, many of them recently drafted peasants who did not want to fight for a regime under which they were non-propertied and disenfranchised, would join the workers demonstrating for bread instead of dispersing them. Within another year, Russia was wracked by total anarchy. Likewise, following its defeat, Germany experienced political fissures between the far right and the far left, and even saw the emergence of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. If one were very generous, Durnovo’s mention of “destructive tendencies” could even be said to have hinted at the coming of Nazism.

“Durnovo glosses over a lot, and gets some details wrong. His contempt for intellectuals and the Duma is very clear in the last part of the memo, and it leads him down a couple of dead ends. But he’s so right about so many things that picking out his errors is really quibbling. In the last hundred years of European history, I’m not aware of any document that makes so many predictions, of such importance, so correctly. And I’m astonished that it doesn’t get more attention from western historians.”

The German General Staff

This is not to say that all European armies were infatuated with the offensive and the bayonet. In particular, certain thinkers from the elite German General Staff stand out for their prescience. They feared that rapid Franco-Russian military modernization meant Germany had to plan for a two-front war of attrition instead of a rapid, one-front campaign of annihilation. Thus Moltke the Elder foresaw that the convergence of social and technological trends would make the Prussian tradition of ‘total force applied in limited ways for limited objectives’ obsolete, or in his last Reichstag speech of 1890, that the “age of cabinet war” would have to give way to “people’s war”.

His disciple Colmar von der Goltz had expounded on these views in his influential book Das Volk in Waffen back in 1883, which advocated the mobilization of all human and material resources under firm military rule for the duration of the war. (Although, unlike Bloch or Engels he did not cover the impact on the civilian role in much detail, e.g. how to feed the population or maintain industrial production – on which total war would make unprecedented demands – under harsh conditions of blockade). Köpke , the Quartermaster of the General Staff, wrote in 1895: “Even with the most offensive spirit…nothing more can be achieved than a tedious and bloody crawling forward step by step here and there by way of an ordinary attack in siege style – in order to slowly win some advantages”.

Yet for all the brilliant foresight of a few members of the German General Staff, as a body it institutionalized the military philosophy of the past. The best proof is its fixation on the Schlieffen Plan, described by B.H. Liddell Hart as a “conception of Napoleonic boldness”, which aimed to knock out France early in the war so that Germany would not have to confront the geo-strategic horror of waging a two-front war against the Entente Cordiale. But while it may have worked a decade or two before WW1, by 1914 it suffered from a host of unwarranted assumptions that made its success highly uncertain – e.g., a lack of effective Belgian resistance, a slow Russian mobilization, the ineffectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force, and underestimation of French logistical capacities and overestimation of their own. So even an institution as brilliant as the German General Staff was trapped between the Scylla of past experience and the Charybdis of new technologies; they were just somewhat more aware of this trap than the other European armies.

What’s the point of this post? It is really a confluence of several interests – the history of World War One, history in general, and futurism. It might not challenge any existing “narrative”, but I do think it adds a bit of richness to the subject, and reinforces the theme that sometimes the “conventional wisdom” (among both masses and elites) can be very, very wrong, and only recognized as so by a few pundits coming from surprisingly varied, even opposed, ideological positions.

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In the summer of 1914, the world was integrated as never before. Despite its simmering tensions and conscript armies, the European continent had open borders, a shared respect for private property and rule of law, and dynastic ties that bound its monarchs together – most poignantly represented by the pageantry surrounding the funeral of Edward VII of England in 1910, the world’s largest assemblage of royalty and rank in history. The expansion of world trade, free labor migration and the rise of a cosmopolitan cultural milieu defined this first great globalization.

It was accompanied by democratization, as many nations acquired parliaments and and widened their franchise: by 1900, some 29% of Frechmen, 22% of Germans, 18% of British and 15% of Russians had the vote. In supposedly belligerent Germany, the anti-war Social Democrats won 34.8% of the vote in 1912. Though there were strident militarist and pan-nationalist lobbies, they were partially countered by pacifist movements and moderated by mainstream politicians, who viewed the prospect of a general war with apprehension: even in Germany, with its reputation for bombastic rhetoric, in July 1914 Chancellor Bethman remarked, “a world war with its incalculable consequences would tremendously strengthen the power of Social democracy… and topple many a throne”. Yet glimmers of darkness on the horizon presaged a gathering storm, and “the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again”.

The First World War ended the first golden age of globalization and history returned to Europe with a vengeance. It killed or maimed a generation of European men, destroyed four great empires and spawned the disillusionment that would find its (apparent) resolution in totalitarian ideologies. This “war to end all wars” came to be known as the first “total” or “Blochian” war, and as the “Great War” in the British Isles, replacing the Napoleonic Wars which had hitherto fallen under that designation.

One reason for viewing the First World War as a historical crossroads was the unprecedented “totality” of the conflict. The war was up till then unsurpassed in the blood sacrifice it demanded of its participants, producing around 10mn military dead and twice as many wounded during four years of brutal industrialized warfare. Only fifty parishes in England and Wales, called “thankful villages”, suffered no war dead amongst their menfolk who went off to the trenches. The killed as a percentage of military manpower were far higher in other nations such as Serbia (23%) and France (13%), and far more were wounded. Such concentrated carnage had not been seen in Europe since the Thirty Years War.

This outcome was unanticipated by the conventional wisdom before the war, which assumed that the next war would be characterized by rapid, railway-based mobilization, followed by massed attacks, set-piece battles and glorious, unambiguous victories like Sedan in 1870 – in other words, just like the last war that generals always plan for. The side with the most élan or steadfastness (particularly emphasized in France) would carry the day and the war would be over by Christmas, the final victory usually predicted to go to the commentator’s own country.

This was reflected in the antebellum pulp war fiction, such as L. James’s The Boy Galloper, in which English schoolboys fight off a German invasion (kind of like a precursor to Red Dawn). Other literary masterpieces from this genre carried titles such as The Invasion of 1910, When England Slept and When William Came: A History of London under the Hohenzollerns. The armchair generals and war nerds weren’t all British. A similar genre flourished throughout Europe, for instance Friedrich von Bernhardi with his magnum opus Germany and the Next War (1912), “three of [whose] chapter titles, ‘The Right to Make War’, ‘The Duty to Make War’, and ‘World Power or Downfall’ sum up its thesis”. In short, substantial segments of society in most European nations imagined the next war would be short, clean and glorious.

These attitudes enjoyed general acceptance throughout Europe, which was at the time an excellent crucible for the kind of values needed to fight an industrial Great War. Their conscript armies were integral to imagining communities into nation-states, giving cohorts of men from diverse provinces a common background. This was reinforced by schools, churches and the universities – for instance, at the University of Berlin the political theorist Heinrich von Treitschke gave a series of lectures headlined under: “Without war, there would be no state”.

Despite philosophical objections to its brutality, “in reading German justifications for the war, one is struck by a consistent emphasis on the need for a kind of objectless struggle, a struggle that would have purifying moral effects quite independently of whether Germany gained colonies or won freedom of the seas”. In Britain, the sense of national duty led all but 8 of 539 boys leaving Winchester (a school for the elite) in 1909-1915 to volunteer. In France, “almost in awe, a foreign observer reported the upsurge of “national devotion” joined with an “entire absence of excitement” in a people of whom it had so often been predicted that anarchical influences had undermined their patriotism”. And off to war they went, the sons of workers, doctors, artists and soldiers alike, driven on by an ingrained sense of duty heavier than a mountain.

Many of these delusions about the short war crept over into military thinking, which tended to extrapolate from past conflicts like the Franco-Prussian war. France was afflicted with the dogma of the frontal offensive, with its unflinching belief that cran (“gutsiness”), the bayonet and Plan XVII would lead to victory – no matter the visibility of their soldiers’ pantalons rouges in an era of bolt-action rifles and their relative lack of heavy artillery for reducing well-defended German positions. The Germans held rigidly to the Schlieffen Plan, an ostensibly workable scheme if firmly adhered to, as requested by its designers on his deathbed; yet Moltke the Younger, then Chief of the German General Staff, weakened it over his unfounded fears of the “Russian steamroller” blasting its way into Prussia – in itself an Entente dream that never really materialized.

Similarly, naval planners envisaging a decisive Trafalgar between the Royal Navy and the Reichsmarine were to be disappointed as the sea struggle devolved into a dispiriting game of blockade and counter-blockade.

Some military men did anticipate these trends, such as Moltke the Elder, who foresaw that the convergence of social and technological trends would make the Prussian tradition of ‘total force applied in limited ways for limited objectives’ obsolete, and that the ‘age of cabinet war’ would have to give in to ‘people’s war’. This view was shared by his disciple Colmar von der Goltz, whose influential book Das Volk in Waffen advocated the mobilization of all human and material resources under firm military rule for the duration of the war. This would eventually come to pass in the last year of the First World War, when Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff became virtual dictators of the Reich.

Interestingly enough, the most accurate predictions came from a financier and a Communist. The Warsaw banker Ivan Bloch in Is War Now Impossible? (1899) argued that military developments ended the ‘day of the bayonet’ and that the ‘next war…[would] be a great war of entrenchments’, with ten million men ‘spread over an enormous front’. The final triumph would go to the side with the greatest industrial production, socio-political strength and self-sufficiency. As early as 1887, Friedrich Engels envisaged, “a world war of never before seen extension and intensity…eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other…the devastations of the Thirty Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent; famines, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses…collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up…general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class”.

Far from states collapsing after a few months due to general exhaustion, as posited by the prominent anti-war activist Norman Angell in The Great Illusion (1909), these two prophets of the next war proved remarkably accurate. Contrary to the pre-war emphasis on the charge and the bayonet, the vast majority of casualties accrued to artillery and machine gun fire. Nations suborned their industries into producing war material, strikes were suppressed and wartime social controls like rationing were imposed.

Civilians became increasingly legitimate targets, with primitive air raids and naval blockades explicitly targeting them. The German advance into Belgium was marked by vicious reprisals against Belgian civilians suspected of being franc-tireurs, bringing the first taste of what had previously been confined to their colonial empires, such as the misnamed Congo Free State, to ‘civilized’ Europe. The first (arguably) genocide of the twentieth century was carried out by the waning Ottoman Empire against its Armenian minority. As the circle of hate deepened, things like Christmas truces and football matches ceased between British and German soldiers. According to Niall Ferguson’s counter-intuitive observation in The Pity of War, men would fight and kill with decreasing reluctance and increasing enthusiasm as the war progressed.

After the failure of the Spring Offensive in 1918 and the introduction of fresh, well-equipped American troops, backed by the world’s first industrial power, Germany’s surrender was probably inevitable; by the end of the year, its home front in collapse. The enemy blockade had cut off vital imports such as phosphates for agriculture, fuelled massive inflation (ersatz substitutes could no longer cope) and stirred social discontent. (Yet just a year previously Germany had managed to knock underdeveloped Russia out of the war, whose political cohesiveness and military potential evaporated under the stresses of total war, and imposed the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on it). Nationalists would reinterpret the German request for an armistice in November 1918 as a perfidious “stab in the back” by Jews, socialists and civilian politicians – the so-called “November criminals”, and this myth would later contribute to the rise of Hitler.

This was part of the general post-war disillusionment. Gloomy poems and art; “Dulce et Decorum Est”; war cripples; veterans unable to adjust to civilian life; socialist agitation and right-wing reaction; Spengler’s The Decline of the West; the feeling that it was all for nothing: these are some of the things characterizing the post-war period. In Germany, the once-high fertility rate fell by half within just a decade from 1914 to the 1920′s; until then, a uniquely rapid demographic transition. In his The Realities of War, the former British war correspondent Philip Gibbs presented a picture of the war very different from his wartime propaganda.

Perhaps the most well-known work in this category was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929. It tells in unpretentious prose the rigors, tragedy and banality of military life: the hypocrisy of schoolmasters sending off their pupils to war, the waste of youth to shells, bullets and brothels, etc. Perhaps the most poignant scene is where a truck comes laden with fresh troops and takes away coffins with corpses – a most fitting metaphor. Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that it really was a “great” war for some soldiers – they enjoyed the feelings of camaraderie and shared sacrifice involved in the great battles, and violently recreated them in the Russian Civil War, armed skirmishes throughout Europe’s new borders and within internal paramilitary organizations such as the Freikorps and Blackshirts.

The First World War was in many ways a seminal event of the twentieth century and of military history. First, it was the fulfillment of something long anticipated by and prepared for by many Europeans, including former conscripts, generals, national policy-makers, and philosophers. Second, it was unprecedented in its bloodiness, both in the slaughter of soldiers in the Flemish trenches and the Polish plains, and the atrocities against civilians – especially evident in the Balkans and Turkey, and a dark presage of what would come in the next war. Third, it necessitated a similarly unprecedented degree of national mobilization and government interference in civilian life, which had hitherto run on classical liberal lines – most fully in Britain, but also to an extent in most other European nations. Fourth, it defined the worldviews of the millions of men who served in the trenches, who ushered in a wave of disillusionment with the old order – social life was increasingly polarized between never-again pacifists and embittered militarists. Fifth, it redefined the geopolitics of Europe, bringing down the German, Russian, Austrian and Ottoman Empires, and stoking resentments that would again bubble to the fore and result in a second, even more terrible war.

Above all, the war radically changed the national consciences of all of its participants. Germany went from being a confident, boisterous expansive power, to one embittered by defeat and post-war humiliation by the Treaty of Versailles – yet still possessing the latent industrial and waning demographic strength to avenge itself. France was permanently traumatized, adopting a barrier mentality with the building of the Maginot Line – not surprisingly, because not only were its military losses the most severe in relative terms among the West European belligerents, but they impacted on one of its lowest-fertility populations.

Even today, this epic struggle remains the “Great War” in the United Kingdom because of the unprecedented social changes it unleashed – a certain leveling of classes from rationing, conscription, and government controls on key industries like coal. For a previously insular isle, which before had relied on its navy, professional armies, and mercenaries to fight European wars, this was a major discontinuity. In both Britain and France, the will to fight for the nation was permanently sapped.

Yet the greatest impact of all was incurred by Russia, which was forcibly taken over by a radical anti-capitalist sect, the Bolsheviks, who embarked on their world-historical project to leapfrog into Europe’s future by reinforcing the most extreme elements of traditional Russian absolutism. They were unsuccessful in their endeavor, and Stalin ended up returning Russia to Russia’s future.

The first total war in modern times was Year Zero in the secular decline of Europe – and the genesis of mankind’s reaction against it – and as such, the apotheosis of the West.

Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.