Winter counteroffensive + 64
In a fitting coincidence, given the weather we are having, today [December 5] marks the 64th anniversary of the opening of the Soviet counteroffensive that pushed the German Army back from the gates of Moscow in 1941. Not expecting such prolonged resistance by the Red Army, the overconfident Germans did not bring winter uniforms, and did not properly winterize their weapons, tanks, or transport vehicles. Within days the German front line was shattered, and it took a huge amount of effort to stabilize the front after retreating over 100 miles in some sectors. This counteroffensive signaled the end to the Germans' hopes for a quick victory in their quest to dominate Europe. A year later came the Battle of Stalingrad, the decisive turning point that put an end to any German hopes to dominate Europe.
The German invasion of Soviet Russia, code-named "Operation Barbarossa," is a textbook example of imperial overstretch, as historian Paul Kennedy would define it. In strategic terms, it represented a high-stakes gamble -- some would call it reckless -- without adequate logistical preparations. What's more, it was a preemptive attack that may not have been warranted. That is, Hitler calculated that Stalin had a bigger industrial base, with greater raw material resources, so he decided to attack before the military balance shifted in the Soviets' favor. In rational terms, it was a close call that could have gone either way. If Hitler had not diverted the Second Panzer Group to the south in August 1941, thereby giving the Soviets time to prepare the defenses around Moscow, the Germans probably would have won the war. In human psychological terms, the way the German invasion was carried out exemplified hubris, the limitless arrogance of those who are addicted to power and glory, and refuse to listen to counsels of prudence. Of course, it also exemplified barbaric cruelty, for this is where the Holocaust began in earnest.
Military overstretch in Iraq?
That brings us to President Bush and the war in Iraq. The death of ten U.S. Marines in a single bomb attack in Fallujah three days ago reminds us that the Sunni heartland remains defiant and unpacified, and that victory is not "around the corner." One of the most compelling arguments against the war made by critics who share a genuine concern for the U.S. national interest (such as William Odom or Joe Biden) is that our armed forces simply cannot maintain the occupation of Iraq at current troop levels indefinitely. Many of the loudest critics of the war are fond of making comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, and indeed there are some parallels, but I think a strategic-minded person would see greater parallels with the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. in 1941. Both invasions were launched as a "crusade," counting on a quick victory and relying upon subordinate allies who were not deeply committed to the cause. Other than fringe radicals such as Ramsey Clark, no one would make a serious comparison between the liberating U.S. government and the conquering Nazi regime, of course, but the parallels in the strategic decision making and the mental framework of the leaders are rather intriguing.
Having had its "comeuppance" in the failed pacification of Iraq in late 2003, just as the Germans failed with their initial invasion plans, the United States now has a precious second chance to get it right. As the decisive phase of the handover of Iraq to its own people's control proceeds, the margin for error is small; one more Abu Ghraib could ruin it. Will the U.S. counter-insurgency effort in 2006 reflect a prudent balance between means and ends, taking into account possible adverse contingencies, or will it be a vain exertion to win at all costs -- like Stalingrad? Perhaps the biggest difference compared to the Russian front in 1942 is that the United States is on the other side of the planet from the enemy homeland, so we are less vulnerable than the Germans were to being conquered by vengeance-minded hordes. If worse came to worse, we could always withdraw from the Middle East, revert to our old isolationist ways, and get used to the price of gasoline fluctuating unpredictably between $2 and $8 a gallon. That would be the tragic result of American "neo-puritans" refusing to see the obvious harmony between our interests and our values in the present conflict.
* Written December 5, but not posted until next day due to Internet service outage.