War Porn, Military History, and How the Soviets Defeated the Nazis

the retreat

Daniel N. White

Been buying lots of books recently from Half-Price Books’ dollar bin.  A fair percentage of them are new books that were publisher’s returns at some time in their life, books that were marketed but never sold.  Good percentage of these are books originally from the UK. Books judging from their blurbs that were successes on the other side of the ditch but never made a splash in either the dollar or critical marketplace here.  Hence my buying an unread new copy of The Retreat:  Hitler’s First Defeat, by Michael Jones,  for a dollar last month.

Jones is a professor in the UK, specializing in military studies—hardly any of those over here, nor military studies departments either—and this is his third book, of four, on World War II on the Eastern Front (Nazi Germany versus the Soviet Union).  I’ll be checking his others out sometime after reading this one.

World War II is the most written-about event in human history and it is unlikely that will ever change.   For starters, it is hard to imagine there would ever be enough survivors from a postwar World War III to read any books about it.  It is quite understandable and not anything inherently bad that the biggest war in human history has gotten that most historical attention, or war in general gets so much attention.  On my end of things I’ve always explained my interest in reading and learning about war with the quote from the French film director Godard, who was asked why he made so many crime movies.  Godard explained that he liked dealing with the big emotions in his movies, and crime had them all.

Same is certainly true about war.  No shortage of human drama and folly in any decent account of it.  There is no shortage of real history—factual narrative, political struggles to explain, critical analysis of events and players, technical and sociological explanation—to be written about war, and the big emotions mixed in makes it more interesting reading than most other history.

Which I reckon leads to the curse of war porn, bang-bang shoot-em-up accounts of war.  The US has a great weakness for it, more than any other country I think, ever since WWII, near as I can tell.    War porn is the Rambo version of military history,  shoot-em-stories being passed off as history.  War porn is sanitized tales of shootups and derring-do and tinplate accounts of heroism and valor by plaster soldier-saint characters.  All the ugly human hurt and misbehavior side of war gets left out or swept under the rug.  Like Rambo, there is overt glorification of the war and of the military culture, militarism in general, with no political context to events beyond waving the flag.   The scholarship is second-rate, with all sorts of prior errors repeated and given a new lease on life in the general readerships’ minds.

Reading war porn to get any knowledge of the why and how of war is like trying to learn about war from watching any of Hollywood’s infantile war movies.  The clichés and limitations of both as sources of knowledge are both similar and obvious.  Yet there is no shortage of war movies made, nor war porn books printed and sold.  The sad ugly hell of it is that most military history books in the chain box stores are fundamentally war porn.  Hollywood is most responsible for polluting Americans’ minds with infantile notions about what war is, but the publishing industry has to come in for its fair share of licks too for doing this with all the damned war porn it puts out.

One additional problem of war porn is the US-centric nature of war.  World War II, contrary to widespread belief, was not won by the US.  We were a major player but the biggest player by far was the USSR.  We have always given short shrift to that fact, and we might not be aware of that but the Russians certainly are.  The blame for this is split between the usual US-centric view of our place in the universe and the underlying military glorification of the US in US war porn and the general lack of interest by Americans in the rest of the world.

I’ve maintained for a long time that everyone ought to read at least one book on the Eastern Front to understand 20th Century history.   The facts are that the Soviet army destroyed the Wehrmacht and that was most of World War II.  The statistic that irrefutably explains this are the numbers of division combat-days the Wehrmacht had on each front during the war.  3/4ths of all Wehrmacht division combat-days in the entire war took place on the Eastern Front.  The rest of the European war for all six years of it combined on all fronts was the remaining 1/4th.

Americans have never been wise to this fact and we ought to be.  For starters, it should show us that our contribution to the allied victory wasn’t that big and perhaps our military capabilities were then and remain now overstated.   We the US didn’t win the war, we didn’t save western civilization from the Nazi plague, the Soviets and their army did.  And they paid a terrible price in blood and material destruction in doing so.  We’ve never acknowledged that; the Russians will never forget it.

Jones’ book is my new book of choice for the general reader about WW II on the Eastern Front.  It doesn’t cover the entire war on the Eastern Front, but it does an excellent job, perhaps the best I’ve read, of explaining the most important campaign in it, the German effort and failure to capture Moscow in 1941.  The Germans failed at taking Moscow, and the subsequent Soviet counter-attack was the first major Allied victory over the Wehrmacht in the war.

This in turn was followed by the remarkably successful German Model counter-counter-attack, which resulted/meant that the Germans would not run out of Russia like Napoleon—they could have been had things gone a little bit differently, as badly unprepared as the Wehrmacht was for the Russian campaign and weather.  This meant that the Germans were stuck with a very long and difficult war.  The course of the war all followed from this chain of events in the fall and winter of 1941/2.

All of the rest of the war can be seen in that campaign—diminishing Wehrmacht skill and materiel advantages versus that of the Red Army, horrible cruelties inflicted on the civilian population by both armies in their scorched earth policies, immense loss of life on the vast battlefields, heinous crimes regularly and routinely committed by the Wehrmacht  against Soviet soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians, and lots of hard, hard fighting that because of Soviet manpower and industrial superiority, could only end with an eventual Soviet victory, at a terrible price.

Jones has an excellent grasp of the material.  He has culled lots of revealing first-hand stories from recent German and Russian written accounts, and has himself done some excellent interview work with surviving participants.   Jones keeps the narrative of the battle coherent to the general reader, which is something that much of military writing, with its repetitive and mostly incoherent details of unit X moving to position Y defeating enemy unit Z in the process, fails at.

He rightly emphasizes the vile Nazi crime of their deliberate murder of over 2 million Soviet POWs through starvation and neglect in POW camps, in the first year of the war.  This crime has never gotten the attention it deserves in the West, and the German nation has never acknowledged it as they have with the Holocaust.

Jones steers clear of “what if” history, i.e. whether the Germans could have defeated the Red Army had they done things differently.  That this question is still debated shows the continued failure of Western writers to understand that the German war objective was extermination or enslavement of the USSR’s inhabitants and any question of the Germans doing things differently is an idiotic impossibility.  (Its persistence may also indicate closet Nazi sympathies in more people here than we care to acknowledge.)

The fact is that the German army never was large enough, nor equipped well enough, nor supplied sufficiently, to put enough men and equipment in the battlefields of the Eastern Front to win.*   The German failure in front of Moscow at the end of 1941 was most of all a failure of logistics and overstretched and overworked troops and equipment in a campaign that was far bigger and ran far longer than expected.

The Soviet army never broke, and Stalin and his regime never lost their will.  That part of it was, as Wellington said, a damned close-run thing. But it was the only way the German nation could defeat the USSR, and the German decision to launch a war based on this victory coming from an internal Soviet collapse in the face of a German attack is irrefutable proof of the criminal madness of Hitler, his Nazi apparatchiks, and the German senior general staff.

Jones’ book wound up in the Half-Price slush pile because it wasn’t US-centric, stars and stripes waving war porn enough for the usual book buying US public.  It didn’t get attention out of the academic world because war studies aren’t taken seriously in the US.  Its stories of the war, told by the participants, show too much humanity in the part of the bad guy Germans and their bad-guy cousins the Russians.  Can’t have that.  Easy enough to see why this book fell by the wayside, then.  But it is a book well worth your time.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

*I recall reading that the Wehrmacht general staff, on orders from Hitler, did a staff study about Germany invading the Soviet Union immediately after the France campaign of 1940.  The staff underestimated the size of the Russian army by 50%, a colossal mistake that itself was enough to ensure a German defeat.  But even with that flub, the conclusion the staff reached was that Germany did not have the logistical capability—enough trains, horses, trucks—to supply enough soldiers over the distances required to defeat the Soviet army.  The calculations involved were straightforward enough and irrefutable.

Nevertheless, the senior Wehrmacht generals, when presented with it, ignored it because they read the political winds correctly and saw that Hitler had his heart set on invading Russia and their own desire for fame and glory, combined with their intellectual, professional, and moral cowardice, had them ignore the report and sign off on Barbarossa (the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941).  If there is a more contemptible action ever than this by senior military leaders I don’t know of it.  Except maybe for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff signing off on invading Iraq in 2003.

14 thoughts on “War Porn, Military History, and How the Soviets Defeated the Nazis

  1. Enjoyed reading this. So true that war is not really studied in the US and then only from romantic and US-centric mythology and ideology. Reading this made me think of the way progressives in the 1960-70’s studied revolutionary movements abroad. Again something not taught or thought about in general education or news other than to disparage those movements.

  2. Thank you for bringing this book, with which I wasn’t familiar, to our attention. Of course, I still need to tackle John Keegan’s history of The War To End All Wars, which I bought some time ago. Thank goodness we’re still in the “centennial zone” of marking that epic event. The Soviet Red Army, unfortunately for the youth of Russia, defeated Nazi Germany by attrition, that is to say, by having its own blood and severed limbs splattered over the snow near Moscow, at Stalingrad, etc. But sufficient reserves were conscripted/recruited to maintain the process. Thus, I think we may fairly say that Germany lost by attrition on their side, but the USSR triumphed by attrition. That is the not pretty reality of war. At the World War II Memorial and Museum in Moscow in summer 2013, I witnessed magnificent dioramas depicting anti-tank battles near Stalingrad. The only thing we have had on US soil approaching this kind of carnage, of course, was the Civil War, with the damage inflicted by more primitive weaponry. Thus, Americans have no personal experience or direct ancestral memory link with what it’s like to have your home and land devastated. All the damage and dying takes place “over there,” and nowadays, with remote-control warfare, US casualties are held to a remarkable minimum. With the very rare exception of bona fide terrorist actions here, the citizenry is well isolated from the realities of war.

    Now, allow me a movie recommendation. “The Ascent,” a Russian film from 1977 directed by Larisa Shepitko, depicts very, very grim scenes (in Ukraine, if I recall correctly) of partisans taking on the German occupation forces. But that is a necessity of self-defense. The primary mission of these particular partisans is serving in a “Punishment Unit.” This isn’t expounded upon by the filmmaker, but I believe their assignment was to punish civilians who collaborated with the enemy. Another aspect of war, which is a very serious business indeed, not given much attention in American movies. I recommend this film, which was issued on DVD by Criterion Collection here in “Region 1.”

  3. Then what do we presume were the interests of the US? They weren’t even sure who’s side to be on. But is that a sign their military was bad or of that they had no own place in the war. Every country has its own victories.

    Save the western civilization? I wouldn’t go so far in assumptions on what could have happened without the Soviet Union. Basically they just saved themselves. Perhaps the writer didn’t rightly empathize other things about the characteristics of the Soviet Union. As important as the turning points are there is nothing to be gained in saying that was most of the second world war. Because there was a lot in the second world war. In any case even though there is way more Russians and their tanks than most countries, they weren’t the only ones fighting Nazis. Most were. Including the US.

    For lack of sophisticating information you can blame the film industry. There’s rarely military professors writing those movies.

  4. “Jones’ book wound up in the Half-Price slush pile because it wasn’t US-centric, stars and stripes waving war porn enough for the usual book buying US public.” It is no accident that Hollywood, U.S. politicians and even publishers provide an American-centric view of the world. In doing so they diminish the contributions of other nations always making us the exceptional and essential leader in the world. Sounds good but, let’s face reality, it has no substance behind it, only wishful thinking. But it is done for a reason, to promote our military superpower status at all costs- literally. Also it validates our wayward political parties because they can directly claim credit for our omnipotence which Hollywood, mainstream press-including public airwaves on television news and publishers of books.

    What is most disturbing is our power-brokers lack ethical and historical truth based on facts. Lesson: ethics and power are seldom united because favoritism or profitable agendas supersede all things.

  5. Nice to learn of Half-Price and “The Ascent”. Dan Carlin reads lots of history I will likely never get around to and condenses it into podcasts. His “Blueprint for Armageddon I-IV” is ~ 10 hrs of information well worth the listen, and complements any quality written history I have managed to include in my reading.

  6. What is most disturbing in both our “power brokers” and our citizens is that very few of them have had any “skin in the game” of that pivotal war, WW II.
    If you were in that war and had vulnerable relatives in that world cataclysm, you might look at current events vis a vis Russia and our perpetual wars quite differently.
    Many Americans today are so starved of a sense of both history and current events that they resemble the medieval view that all of the firmament revolved around the earth. Their view is that America is “exceptional” and all people’s should be like us. and that even if they don’t like being like us we’ll change their bad attitude.

    • I recall reading, I think in a Bill Bryson book, how a Swedish exchange student is asked by her American hosts about which country in the world is her favorite. They were genuinely shocked when she answered her home nation of Sweden! They seemed to think that a few weeks or months in America would convince any person that the USA is NUMBER ONE — even if that person came from another Western democracy and was only visiting for a short while.

      Americans are constantly told we are #1, and when most Americans travel, it’s to places like Disney or on cruise ships, i.e. tourism. And when we think of foreign nations, it’s mayhem we envision from what we see on the news. But American ignorance is most definitely not bliss …

  7. As a long time student of the Siege of Stalingrad and the war on the Eastern Front, I appreciate your notice for this book. I will definitely seek it out. My father — “too young for World War II, and too old for Korea” — is an enthusiastic consumer of War Porn.

    You could say that a Professional Military isn’t doing us any favors. The farther someone has been from a front line, the easier it is to see modern warfare as just lines on a map, lists of equipment, names of generals, etc.

    My father’s father, who went over with the AEF in 1917, had no use for any of that stuff. He’d seen all he blood and anguish he needed to see.

  8. I’ve always been amazed by how little the U.S. learned from the Second World War and how many lessons “learned” from it were learned incorrectly. The U.S. with regards to warfare seems to have done its damnedest to emulate the losing powers rather than pursue the successful strategies used by her allies and herself during the actual conflict. The greatest contribution the U.S. made to victory was economic – not to take away from the real accomplishments in battle of the U.S. For decades now the U.S. has been steadily losing that real economic strength in favor of financial chicanery. I also remember reading that a major contributor to the defeat of the Axis was the world of enemies they made with their ideas and the actions that followed from those ideas. Related to this is one of the reasons I’m really concerned with the fate of the U.S.: it seems to have completely lost the ability to offer people ideas they can hold on to, aspire to and use to come together. Think of the tragic way that ISIS has been able to win the minds of a substantial number of people or how the Taliban are once again seen as a preferable alternative to the U.S. military or a puppet government or how you can find normal people in Iraq who consider life since the invasion to be worse than it was under Saddam. You have to be pretty bankrupt of ideas for truly awful regimes like that to be appealing in comparison.

    • Yes. U.S. manufacturing prowess was a lifeline not only to Great Britain, but to the Soviet Union. Hard to image our present wealth-mirage of money manipulation and burger flipping winning anything. Perhaps the greatest consequence of our victory in WWII only now waits in the national wings: collapse of the economic house of cards owning/printing the world’s reserve currency allowed us to build.

  9. Thanks for your post, I will check out Michael Jones.

    I agree that Amercians are generally unaware of the immensity or importance of the eastern front.

    A Few points.

    Without American supplies, particularly some 500k trucks, the Red Army would’ve had a much harder time.

    Ditto if Hitler had allowed his generals to fight as they wished. Time after time, Hitlers commands resulted in disaster.

    Part of what saved Russia was its primitveness – if they had had a modern road system, the Germans would’ve quickly overrun them.

    • The Germans were cocky too after their victories in Poland, France, Greece …

      The Soviet rail system was also a different gauge, which contributed to the logistical difficulties.

      But, perhaps more than anything, the Nazis underestimated their enemy because they considered the Slavs to be racially inferior. At the same time, by waging a war of annihilation, they gave the Red Army and the Soviet people little choice but to fight or die; or fight and die.

      And so the Nazis reaped the whirlwind of their “war of annihilation” when the Red Army came calling in 1945.

  10. Pingback: Real War: The Horror | The Contrary Perspective

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